You’ve finished your book and braved the querying trenches. You’ve signed with your dream agent, who has begun the process of submitting your novel to publishing houses. It can take months for responses to start coming in from editors, with no guarantee that there will be a publication contract at the end of it.
So what do you do in this time of limbo and uncertainty, the waiting time?
All the writing advice I’ve heard says keep writing. There are practical reasons for this. It’s a big investment for a traditional publisher to launch a debut author, and they want to know they’re developing a career, not just one book. It can also be helpful for an agent to be able to say that an author has another book in the works.
Starting that next project is also a great way to create a sense of agency at a time when so much is outside an author’s control, and everything it’s taken to get to this point hangs in the balance. The stakes can feel awfully high. I find myself teetering into the what if’s, convinced that years, a lifetime of work, could end in failure. Yup. Writers are good at spinning stories;-)
The truth is maybe harder. Unknowing is unknowing. It’s living suspended in expectation with not much solid ground to stand on. And yet I’ve been surprised to discover that this period of limbo can be fun. It’s taken on a quality of alchemy. Every day that I sit down to write I play in possibility, the power to create, drawing in enigma, exhaling words. A world unfolds. My characters reveal what they desperately want, what they’re afraid of, what gives them joy. I build Pinterest boards of their kitchens and play house, moving them around as I make them do things, as they surprise me again and again.
This is no different from what I’ve always done, but what has changed is the context. There’s now another book out there in the hands of editors who will read my completed novel and like it or not, want to publish it, or not. This is nerve-wracking, but it’s also energizing. As long as I don’t know, there’s the hope of an exciting outcome. I realize I like this expansive potential. Sure, it might all come crashing down, but in this oasis of time there’s a potent sense of becoming that fuels my new book, barely formed.
Maybe because I’ve been writing for a long time, and have my own war stories from the publishing trenches, I’ve already learned that I write not because I have to, and not because it’s some mythic gift or necessity, but simply because it’s what I do. I’ve written through pregnancies and moves overseas, snow days and sick days and days when I’ve been so tired I’ve felt as though my eyelids are propped open with toothpicks. There’s nothing glamorous or heroic about this. Frankly, it’s kind of stupid. If I’d spent a fraction of the time I’ve spent writing on almost anything else I’d have amassed a decent chunk of change. But still, I write. So I’ve come to accept this in the same way I accept my long stride or the laugh lines around my eyes. It’s just who I am.
As I’ve settled in to the familiar pattern of writing another day, I’ve discovered that the limbo can create an airy space of exploration. For a little while yet, a few months, maybe more, my publishing fate exists as pure potential. Nothing has been decided. There are no reviews on Goodreads, no sales figures, no advance. No one cares, and there’s something wonderfully free about writing in this space, knowing it might soon end.
A debut novel comes with few expectations. But this freedom lasts only as long as the first sales figures roll in and a book is assessed on how much money it’s made. Publishing is a business, and books are the product it sells. If sales are good, there’s pressure to meet or exceed those sales with a second book. If sales are low, it can be difficult to place a second book at all. This is not something a first time author has to worry about.
A debut novel is created in a private space far from prying eyes, scrutiny, even, God forbid, a bad review. A second book does not have this luxury. It’s been daunting to appreciate all the ways authors market their own books, a necessity for both traditionally and self published novels. I realize I need to revamp my website/blog, build engagement on Twitter, figure out what the heck to do with Instagram. But please don’t tell me I need to re-activate my neglected FB page. And if I do all this, I’ll have no time to write! These are questions I didn’t have to think about while writing my first book, but which I avoid at my own peril as my debut makes its way into the world. I tell myself it’s a learning curve. And maybe kind-of fun?
But for a little while still, I’ve been given the gift of inhabiting the space between here and there. And in this time of waiting, there’s a third place between the private and public, and this is the world of the story I’m currently writing. It exists within its own reality, a protected sphere accessed through my imagination, in the precious space carved from the demands of daily life. It’s a practice, like breathing, like walking, like shaping letters on the page that become words that become people who are as real as I’m able to make them.
There will always be a waiting time. There will always be uncertainty. And there will always be writing, the story waiting to be told.