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.
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?