What’s the writer’s equivalent of a theater understudy? It’s the project waiting in the wings in case the lead project is unable to perform or is temporarily sidelined.
One of my clients had a former life on Broadway. As an understudy. She faithfully memorized lines and dance steps and positions on stage. Her efforts in all likelihood would never be put to use, and she knew it. But she prepared anyway. She showed up for rehearsals, perfected her skills, and waited.
Then the lead actress was sidelined by a medical need. The understudy quickly got into costume and stepped on stage.
Because she was ready, well-rehearsed, and had worked on her craft, she danced her way into the hearts of the audience and the director.
The understudy eventually won the lead and toured with a major Broadway hit.
Some writers have no understudy project. They have one query, proposal, or book, work on it feverishly for years, cling to it as their only possibility, pitch it to every agent and editor, discover it doesn’t fit with any of them, but the author still hangs on to a fragile hope that if they keep tweaking and keep pounding the pavement on its behalf, it will be published.
The risk is great. With no writer’s understudy, they may find all their efforts and passions leave them with no options if that book “takes ill.” Nothing else is waiting in the wings. So the show can’t go on. It closes.
Understudy Waiting Game
A theatrical understudy or a backup quarterback or a substitute teacher can save the day. In the writing world, it often happens that the first book published is not the author’s first completed novel or nonfiction. Yes, there are exceptions. But many novelists have two or three or seven complete novels written before one of them is called to the stage.
A nonfiction writer’s first idea–or ideas one through four–may fall flat in the eyes of agents and editors. But that fifth idea is unique enough, compelling enough, and written from a place of experience. The author has gained connections and found a comfortable writing rhythm and voice. All that rehearsal and all that preparation may one day pay off with a writing contract.
But that can’t happen if writers assume their pet project–their lead–is their key to publishing success and spend no time training an understudy. The writer’s understudy may just become the audience’s favorite.
Something to think about.
Do you have more than one understudy project waiting in the wings in case the one you’re working on now trips on its way to the stage?
DAMON J GRAY
This is a great metaphor.
Years ago, I drove to Seattle to see a live performance of The Phantom of the Opera. Just as the lights dimmed, a gentleman announced to the audience that the part of Christine would be played by the understudy. At the close of the performance, she received an eardrum-piercing ovation. She was absolutely amazing! Our understudy work needs to be equally amazing – not simply a “this’ll do” piece of writing.
Yes, I have one manuscript being shopped to publishers, another collecting dust on my hard-drive, and a third one in work as we speak. In addition, I keep a list of about 15 concepts in a folder until one of them rises to the top, having piqued my interest.
Like you, Damon, my second manuscript is now playing as my premier proposal, with my first one stashed away on my hard drive. The set for third one is framed out, with no script as yet. Other ideas jostle for position in the line-up in my head. The line is long, and few will be called for an actual audition.
Ooh, the audition line metaphor is a good one, Shirlee.
Great thoughts, Damon. I wonder what the stats are for backup quarterbacks who sat on the bench for years and then got called to the starring role? Or how many bestselling books were NOT the first book an author tackled. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know?
Damon J. Gray
I’m betting very few first runs were bestsellers.
Great advice. It also helps you wait for responses. After you focus on something else you can return to the original work with fresh eyes.
Kim, this is so true. If I send out a proposal and do nothing while I wait to hear back, I may have wasted a dozen even better ideas that flitted in and out as I waited for the one I thought would work.
Oh how nice. I’m on my third novel, simply because I enjoy writing and can’t imagine my life without it. Now I have a great new name for those earlier novels: understudies.
I’ve done something right. Almost like the person who discovered she was writing prose all along. Thanks for putting a smile on my face. 🙂
And you put a smile on mine. 🙂
What a perfect message for hopeful writers. I have been blessed to have ridden the roller coaster of querying, manuscript requests that end in a no, and despite my sensitivity to rejection, feel excited about my 3rd manuscript. I can see the improvement in my work over time and trust that I will be called to the stage someday. Either way I am enjoying blogging, learning the craft, and stretching my writing into new territories. I am a faithful follower of your blog.
Thank you for such valuable words of wisdom.
Sharon, I love your words, “I can see the improvement in my work over time.” That’s a huge benefit and an encouragement to others.
Love the comparison Cynthia! It took me a while before I settled on which story because I had started several and stopped when doubts showed up. Finally prayed about it. I’m dedicated to current project but look forward to breathing life into the other novel ideas sitting on my bookshelf. Thank you for your wisdom.
Daphne, you are in good company if you started but stopped when doubts showed up. And then those four words: “Finally prayed about it.” Great to hear you’re making progress.
My writing has no understudy,
no Plan B lurks in the wings;
if the days turn dark and bloody
I will move on to other things…
well, in this case something higher,
something that in patience waits;
no, friend, I will not retire,
I’m headed for the Pearly Gates,
and thus I have to bet it all,
right here, right now, this very day
to leave something that will recall
that long ago, I came this way
and lived a life, however flawed,
t’was dedicated, still, to God.
Lovely expression of a tough topic, Andrew.
What a great perspective. Yes, I am working on number two and number three in my trilogy is my favorite so I expect it to write itself!
Good work, Virginia! If number three is your favorite…consider this. Often a trilogy will show strong sales for book one, medium to good sales for book two, and weaker sales for book three. So your excitement for book three is wonderful…but will readers have given up before they read book three if it’s heads above the other two? Rather, work toward making all three equally exciting and intriguing. For what it’s worth.
Thank you for calling me higher! Never thought of this concept, but it will help me organize my thoughts and projects and not put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak.
All eggs in one basket! It’s as dangerous in financial planning as it is in writing. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
Such a great way to explain this, Cynthia! It took me a long time to understand my need for an understudy project. I worked on my first novel for years and years, not even looking away long enough to write short fiction or articles. Finally, after having done all the revisions I could possibly imagine, I wrote some short fiction and non-fiction and was published. Then I moved on to another project and another. I now realize that I need to write something fresh and new every year to work my writer muscles or they will atrophy will all of my endless revisions. After doing this for a number of years, I have many understudy projects and much stronger creative muscles too!
Kristen, what a wonderful testimonial! Thanks for sharing it.
This is great advice, and makes a lot of sense. I’ve heard authors talk about pitching at a conference and an agent or editor will say they like their writing, but not the particular project. Do they have anything else? I’d hate to the be one that says, “no, I don’t.”
Should a writer have more than one understudy?
Should a writer have more than one understudy? It can’t hurt, but it should be intentional–for a reason. Not just to have a back-up, but a strong back-up. Not just a singer (in Broadway terms), but an excellent singer.
Thanks for your wise advice, Cynthia. I’m too new to the querying and proposal aspect of my journey to give up on book one yet but I’ll definitely keep this in mind as I move forward. I have a second manuscript finished and will begin work on the third while I’m polishing and pitching the first. 🙂
Certainly don’t give up on the first yet. But since you have a second manuscript finished, you might consider polishing and pitching it, too. Which one resonates with editors and agents? Which one has the most unique angle?
Thanks for a very fantastic article. Check us out sometime, and I’m sure you’ll love our barbershop!