There’s an old axiom in Hollywood: actors aren’t paid to act; they’re paid to promote the movie. The calculus is obviously different for writers, because — let’s face it — we’re about as powerful a promotional tool as this guy. But if you broke down the money we’re paid based on the time that we actually invest in each stage of the creative process, it’d look like this:
In other words, writers aren’t paid to write; we’re paid¹ to wait. And if you have two ears and a heart, you already know that the waiting is the hardest part. Hit it, Tommy!
So, yeah, waiting sucks — we know this. But it’s also an unavoidable reality, because guess what? That agent / manager / executive / actress / director / producer / publisher / editor that you’re waiting to hear back from? They’ve got a shit-ton of other scripts/manuscripts that they have to read in addition to yours. And, I mean, come on, just think back to college for a second: was there anything you hated doing more than required reading?
But enough sympathy for the reader(s) in this equation; this is a writing blog, after all: we care about writers. So, let’s talk about what we can do to make this “unavoidable reality” a little less awful.
To start with, we need to take a minute and think about why waiting to hear back about your work can be so soul-crushing. I suspect that if you’re anything like me, the thing that really agitates you is the not knowing. And if we drill down a little deeper, just beneath the surface of that “not knowing” is something even more unsettling: a loss of control.
When people² ask me what the hardest part of being a writer is³, my go-to response always includes the central irony of being a writer:
When you’re writing, you have God-like control over every detail of your story. But the moment you’re finished, and you put the story out into the world, you relinquish all control.
And when you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that the waiting drives us so crazy. Our stories are our (word) babies, and the moment we birth them into the world, we have to cope with the fact that we can’t protect them any longer. In other words, we’re basically this guy:
(As a side note: I guess I can understand why my mom is still calling to “check in on me” despite the fact that I turned 36 last month. Babies – both figurative and literal – are hard to let go of…)
So, given this unsettling and deep-rooted psychology, what’s a writer to do? Well, for me, it starts with communication. (Hi, Mom!)
If you’re fortunate enough to have representation, it’s very likely that any response you get to your material will come through them. This can often be problematic, however, as the only thing agents and managers hate more than required reading is breaking bad news to their clients. I know this because my manager and I had a conversation about this very subject just a few months ago. It went something like this:
What’s the worst part of your job?
Having to call clients with bad news.
Yeah, that would suck… But hey, at least you’re not the one being rejected, right? I mean, when you write something, it’s hard not to take a “no” personally since you’ve poured so much of yourself into it.
Sure, but when you’re with the writer every step of the way, you become really invested in them. Plus, I have lots of clients, so I’m hearing “no” all day long.
MPM and his MANAGER both nod solemnly, feeling each other’s pain.
The thing I failed to mention at the time, however, is that there is something worse than hearing “no”: hearing nothing at all. It may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you subscribe to the old adage that “no news is good news.” But if we walk the “stories are our (word) babies” metaphor out to its logical end, writers are like the parents of a missing child when our work goes out into the big, bad world. Every second that passes without an update is another chance for us to assume the worst.
We writers are an anxious, insecure lot (who also happen to have incredibly active imaginations). Envisioning a doomsday scenario isn’t just easy for us, it’s practically a default setting. So, trust me, there isn’t a “no” on the planet that can make us feel worse than the cocktail of shame and self-loathing that we’ll surely pour ourselves if left to our own devices.
Look, I don’t care who you are (writer, actor, agent, manager, circus clown), hearing “no” is never easy. But you know what? At least a “no” provides a sense of closure and the ability to move on to the next step in the process. And at the end of the day, until we get that call that changes everything, we’ll settle for feeling like we’re (still) engaged in the—
Hold on, my phone’s ringing…
…Yeah, I should probably take this.