One Writer’s Journey: Waiting

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Location: Books & Such main office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the publishing life is all the waiting around you have to do. Over on my personal blog, I recently wrote about the positives of waiting: Hurry up and Wait!

The day after writing my proposal for The Dogtrot Christmas, I returned to my computer to write more on a novel that was a finalist in the ACFW Genesis contest.

But the story of a young woman moving to Texas with her widowed brother and infant nephew kept tugging at my heart, and I wanted to work on the Barbour novella. What was the situation between Mexicans and Americans in 1836 Texas anyway? I was eager to dig deeper into my research.

No, I had to finish my novel. I steeled myself from the siren call of stirring imagination, back to my novel’s setting, present day Santa Monica. But then I had to go downstairs for something, and that’s where we keep all my genealogy notebooks. Since I wasn’t in a real hurry, I rechecked the family story. No surprises, I had all the facts correct.

When I visited the library several days later, I figured I might as well do a little background work, just in case. I looked at James Michener’s Texas, the Time-Life series about frontier life, and even the prequels to the Little House on the Prairie books for insights into Scottish Christmas traditions.

My husband and I watched a couple of movies that were in my novella’s time period, I spent time cruising the Internet for details on how to make log cabins, and tried not to let the story overwhelm my imagination. At one point I told Janet the story was haunting me–particularly the rich early chapters where tragedy struck in my initial proposal. She told me not to worry about it. If the novella didn’t work, I certainly had plenty to write a novel.

She was right. And I had plenty of other things to work on.

This is one of the keys to the writing life. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket; you have to be continually looking ahead to the next project, the next idea, and moving forward. I asked writer Lauraine Snelling once about the writing life, and she told me you needed to have seven projects in various contracting stages before you could count on making a living as a writer. Seven? The number seemed enormous, and yet a professional doesn’t stay in one place; she keeps moving forward.

Another key: Just because a project doesn’t sell to one publisher doesn’t mean it won’t sell somewhere else. Or, if it doesn’t work in one setting, you can recast it for another. You’re the writer, you have the imagination, let it rip!

So what do you do while you’re waiting? How can you profitably fill the time between sending out queries and getting answers? Got any tricks for focusing your mind and getting to work when another story is calling your name?

Tomorrow: Cake and champagne.

19 Responses

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  1. I’m a fulltime freelance writer and editor for magazines, newspapers, websites, and corporate clients, so it seems like I’m always working on one thing while waiting for a response on another. I think my trick can work for fiction writing just as well. What I find works is using a reward system. I set goals for each day on the projects with deadlines. If I reach those goals early (without being sloppy), I reward myself with extra time on the projects I can’t stop thinking about. It helps me make my deadlines without depriving myself of the joy of working on another project during the “infatuation” stage.

    As for needing seven books before you’re able to make a fulltime living, I actually find that encouraging. Seven is a concrete number to aim for. Some people claim you can never make a living writing fiction.

    Thanks again for more great insights and tips.

  2. I often have several writing projects going on at the same time that require significant juggling to meet deadlines. However, there’s always a story calling me.
    I tend to approach this like I do eating food I don’t like – I reward myself with the favourite foods by eating the food I dislike first. Juvenile? Maybe, but otherwise I leave what I don’t like to the end (or last minute) and then it’s onerous and leaves a bad taste.

    What I really need is a clone so I can always be working on the project that’s nagging me. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. All writers know our minds are never really at rest. (At least mine isn’t. Ha!) I carry around pens and a little notebook (the old fashioned kind) to jot down ideas for the series I’m creating whenever and wherever inspiration strikes. That frees up my mind to concentrate on what I’m currently working on, knowing I can come back to the kernels of inspiration I had earlier.

    Other tricks to help me focus: Chocolate (a piece or a bar, doesn’t matter!), a spoonful of peanut butter, walking a few laps around our local indoor rec center, and carrying a New Testament in my pocket from time to time (just caressing God’s word with my fingertips when I’m feelig antsy gives me peace!)

    Can’t wait to read about cake and champagne tomorrow, Michelle!

  4. Michelle Ule says:

    Minds never at rest is right! As a musician, I’ve also got music running through my brain all the time. I’ve always loved the scene in Amadeus where he’s composing this enormous piece with horns and everything wildly playing in his mind when his wife steps in and shouts, “Wolfie!”

    The music goes silent and in a blur he looks up at her shaking his head. She tells him something, he nods, she closes the door and he picks up the pen again. Music fills the room as if she’d never been there.

    I get caught up in writing and the poor kids would have to shake me to find out what was for dinner. And a walk down the street always had commentary going along–just like in Stranger than Fiction.

    My husband used to always complain that I worried about things and had too many fears. The other day I realized as a novelist, that’s what my job is–to consider other points of view, twist the story up an emotional notch and then figure out how to solve it!

    If my brain is constantly engaged like that, why wouldn’t I look at real life with some trepidation? 🙂

    Or at least that’s what I told him! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. I try to balance out my fiction work w/ guest blog posts, articles, my author e-newsletter, and my own blog posts for the group blog I belong to. It helps me stay creative and fresh when I get to write in different avenues.
    That said, there is nothing quite like writing fiction.
    Michelle, I constantly find myself taking a snippet from the news or newspaper and running w/ it. Glad I’m not alone in this.

  6. Kate Barker says:

    I visited your personal blog and read the “Hurry up and Wait!” post. I liked the marching band analogy. Learning to “rejoice” while waiting takes practice and is a learned skill. I’m still
    an apprentice.

    I identify with the “mind never at rest.” Sometimes it feels like my mind is stuck in “brainstorm” mode. I have scared myself with my imagination…and the what if’s…there’s always a story brewing in my head. I can’t even play golf with my Sweet Husband without creating a scenario….especially when I was first learning to play and scared to death I was going to whack someone in the head with a misdirected ball. Those stories were frightening!

    I tend to do a lot of self-talk…helps me to focus. I have several voices. The Encourager…”it’s Ok…just keep going.” The Parent…”You have exactly one hour to get this finished.” The Goal Setter…”make a list, prioritize…ready, set, go.”

    Reading and research are two of my favorite waiting activities.

    Thanks for sharing your journey. Looking forward to Cake and Champagne.

  7. Olivia Newport says:

    I had two complete manuscripts that didn’t seem right for the market at the time. But I also had an agent who believed it was just a matter of finding the right project. When something grabbed me, I wrote three books of a series before the proposal sold. Some would say I should have stopped after the first and moved on to something else while trying to sell that series. But I was so wrapped up in the world I I couldn’t stop writing it. So while I waited, I wrote. Happily it did sell and will begin releasing next year. As we considered what was next, I discovered a family connection to Amish history and got sucked into unpacking that as a story sprang to life i my mind. This time the series sold on proposal. So now I’m juggling two different worlds as I get ready to submit 6 manuscripts. Going back and forth can be a challenge, but it forces me to stand outside my own story and look at it more objectively as I do revisions.

  8. Michelle Ule says:

    I love these comments–I should label those people chattering at me in my head, it might help!

    I like what you said, Olivia, about writing what grabbed you. We get asked all the time at Books & Such about what is selling and what people should write about for the market. Since it’s constantly in flux, there’s no good answer to that question–though Amish seems to be holding strong.

    We tell people to write the story that’s on their heart–because that’s where they are emotionally and intellectually engaged. Pray, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and dive in. I don’t know what publishers will be looking for a couple years from now and so if I write from my heart, I at least will feel good about my project, I’ll enjoy myself and I’ll have manuscripts “in reserve,” for when the first sale comes through.

    You never has as much time to write as you do your first manuscript. You can polish, reconfigure, examine, kill the dead wood, get rid of the darlings and produce an excellent project the first time because nothing else is nipping at your writing heels. Most people don’t have that luxury later.

    We often ask people who send us proposals what else they have. More often than not, another project is more salable than the first one that caught our eye. And how many of us have our first novels hidden in drawers never to see the light of day? Think of them as prototypes and learn from them how to write clearer, tighter, and with more sensory details.

    It can be a great life–and it doesn’t need to stop as long as you can type!

  9. Sarah Thomas says:

    There’s always something else to write while i wait–whether a devotional, an article, a poem or a book. The trick is to, like Cynthia, carry that notebook around and WRITE IDEAS DOWN. How many times have I had such a fabulous idea that I couldn’t possibly forget it? Well, I can’t remember–but let’s just say lots!

    It’s like my black raspberry canes. I didn’t plant them for a long time because it takes three years for them to produce. Seemed too long to wait. But hello, if you don’t plant them it’ll take longer than three years!

    The trick to waiting is to keep writing and praying because you never know who God will use what you’re doing today tomorrow.

  10. Larry Carney says:

    I find reading to be helpful during the query process. Staying current among what your fellow writers are publishing is key to seeing what trends may be coming, and may help inform your own writing with knowledge or inspire you to write something new. This might be more helpful for those who write short fiction, or for magazines or trade journals, but as has already been mentioned for writers today, either you are a busy writer or not a writer at all!

  11. Jill Kemerer says:

    Great advice, here, Michelle. I work on one project at a time, but I always let my brain play around with scenarios for my next project. Usually, I have a firm grip on the characters, setting, and major plot details by the time I’m finished.

    I also keep an idea journal, write articles for my website, and read tons of books. The writing life took over my life–and I couldn’t be happier!

  12. I happen to know Lauraine has an assistant. How many books do we need to have in the publishing cycle to be able to make a living AND have an assistant? Just for our research purposes–because writing making me hungry–what if we were to throw in a part-time chef? How many books would that require? We need some more answers from Ms. Snelling.

  13. Another great post, Michelle; though I think I’m in trouble because I’m determined not to start another thing until I finish the project I am working on.

    I have 30 picture book ideas waiting in the wings once I’m done with this MG chapter book I’m working on. Does that count? 🙂

  14. Lenore Buth says:

    James Michener had the best “assistant” I’ve heard of. One bio I read years ago said when he wrote a novel set in a particular place he and his wife would move there and rent an apartment or house for a year or two, so as to absorb the atmosphere and culture of the place. She would do much of the background research at local libraries, recording the facts and details that would render authenticity. I think she also catalogued everything so that he had the information at his fingertips when he needed it.

    Meanwhile, he would spend time out and about, listening to speech patterns and local slang. Alone or together they visited museums, attended concerts and ball games, etc. Always, he kept his ear tuned to how the various residents viewed each other and interacted. He filled notebooks with his findings–and so did she.

    So she was his “assistant” and his support system. I believe she also proofread his manuscript, etc. In my book she was his writing partner, but as I remember, never wanted to be identified as such.

  15. I agree with Sarah’s comment about the rasberry canes. We have two old apple trees and three blueberry bushes that were planted by the former owners. I always feel a little guilty when we enjoy the bountiful harvest each year, since we didn’t do any of the work of planting and tending. I think we have to remember that with writing, we’re in it for the long haul instead of for instant gratification. (For me, the instant gratification comes from blogging.) Writing a novel is like planting an orchard, tending it and waiting for it to produce fruit.

  16. Lance Albury says:

    Like Jill, I like to work on one thing at a time and see it through completion. To make the waiting more tolerable, I focus on personal deadlines and dates I look forward to; that seems to help.

  17. Caroline says:

    I identify with so many of the tactics and characteristics shared here. My mind is very, very rarely at rest (and when it is, I’m pretty sure it’s in unconscious sleep!). Sometimes so many ideas or projects are running through my head that they cause an overwhelming traffic jam! At those points, I have to just pick one (usually whatever article or blog post has the closest deadline) and force myself to focus on it.

    Like others here, I continually work on other articles while waiting to hear back on queries (for big or small projects). Though, I do have to admit that I check email obssessively during those waiting periods. 🙂

    I feel like we’re fostering such a supportive community here, relating with each other about waiting!

  18. Such an interesting post and discussion, Michelle. It hits home, of course, since we all share this time in the waiting room.

    I think the best advice I ever received on the subject was from author, Cindy Martinusen Coloma. She once told me that publication isn’t what you think. It’s GOOD, no doubt about that. But it brings other concerns, things one doesn’t think about while tapping one’s foot impatiently, hoping for those words, “We have a sale!”

    After publication, one needs to worry about sales numbers, or unfavorable reviews, or writing a book folks will enjoy as much as the first. And the nagging inner question, “Can I really write another book?”

    But BEFORE publication, there is the gift of anticipation. Ah! Lovely. All the dreams and the excitement and the expectation. I learned to bathe in this time, to fully enjoy my stay in the waiting room. Once published, my experience would be different. Good…even great…but not without care and frustration.

    So savor that time of waiting. It’s delicious!

  19. I chuckled about the seven projects in various contract stages because I’m closing in on that number. Am starting book number seven all right; however, all of them are in various stages of editing.

    Each time I enter a contest or get feedback in other ways, those poor books get makeovers. Maybe one day they’ll get picked up by a publisher and we’ll be off and running. But, in the meantime, I write and edit, write and edit.