CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner 2014; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Friday, 10 January 2014

Why are we Waiting?

So, it’s that time of year again: where you find yourself taking stock, however reluctantly.  Where everyone is summing up their and others’ years gone and making better resolutions for the new one. And if I had to sum up mine, it would be just that: I have spent most of it waiting.
   That much is probably clear from my very sporadic posts here if nothing else, so, in lieu of any actual updates (of which there are tragically few), a thought of the day - of the year - instead. Why am I waiting?
I don’t usually mind waiting as a rule.  I’m actually very patient - though I’m pretty sure that it’s not the virtue everyone says it is. Sometimes - most often when I’ve had a glass of wine or six - it strikes me that I’ve spent most of my life in patient expectation of something that hasn’t quite yet happened, and even though I’ve never been quite sure what that something is, I’ve always been quite sure that it will.  And been happy to wait.
   A very big part of patience is fear, of course. For me anyway. Fear of failure and fear of discovering that all that waiting was perhaps in vain, or worse, not worth the effort in the first place.  Although I’ve written fiction all of my life, from child to teenager to adult, I never once thought of myself as a writer, I only started submitting my work for publication when I was thirty. Why? Who knows. Probably because I was still quite content to wait.
   When my first short story was accepted for paid publication: elation, attention and even an article in my local paper. And then the realisation that I’d have to do it all over again, and again. That far from ending, the waiting had only condensed, become more recognisable a beast. Sometimes I’d wait months, even years, for a response, and open submission etiquette being as one-sided as it is, I’d rarely be able to send anything to more than one publisher at a time, nor expect to hear back from them if I had.
   And then slowly, slowly other doors started opening for me. I started getting invites and commissions. No more waiting? Not quite. The wheels of the publishing industry grind slow; in the indy presses they grind even slower.  There are very good reasons for that, not least the fact that many of these presses are run for love not profit (something the thirty year old me had never come close to realising), but yes, through necessity, more waiting.  Sometimes for years. Sometimes until you forget about many of the things that you’re still waiting for.
   And then from short stories to novelettes and novellas and even a short story collection.  Not quite novels; I’d written plenty and half written plenty more, but all were crap. The waiting from submission to acceptance/rejection to publication seems to rise exponentially with word count; therefore, you guessed it, more waiting. A better kind of waiting maybe, but waiting nonetheless.
   And then stagnation. Which isn’t so much waiting as giving up without the giving up. I was still getting some invites, but not many; I knew some editors and publishers in the small presses, but not many. I’d gone to some conventions, but not many. Because here’s the other thing that goes almost inevitably hand in hand with waiting, no matter how willing - or happy - you are to do it. You get to know other people in the queue. Writing is, of course, a very solitary occupation. Having a day job makes it only more so: it’s unsurprisingly hard to sustain many friendships when the only time that you can sacrifice are the Friday and Saturday nights you spent in the pub. But the people in the queue are different because they're just like you; they’ve probably had to make the same sacrifices and suffered the same frustrations trying to get to the front. Although when they do, deep down you suspect - entirely irrationally - that they never, ever had to wait any time at all.
   But you are pleased, of course you’re pleased. Their struggles are the same as yours; when one of you succeeds, so it follows that the remainder have a better chance. But...really it’s just the difference between envy and jealousy - between discontent and resentment, and that is fine line to tread. Especially when you’re beginning to get a wee bit hacked off with all that waiting.
   So I gave up on that particular queue and finished my first novel instead. And that was when I understood what proper waiting was. My search for an agent took nearly a year, and most of that was spent, you guessed it, in waiting. Waiting for the many thanks, but no thanks and precious little else. One agent sent back a random page of my pitch with nothing but a thick black Sharpie score across it - one of the many times that I was sorely tempted to stamp my feet and shriek about the length of bloody time I’d been patiently - politely - standing in line before remembering that this was now a new queue.
   And then an amazing thing happened. I reached the front. I got an agent. I became someone who could say, should the need ever arise, “I’ll have my agent get back to you.” It hasn’t yet; perhaps that’s a sub queue, a happier one: waiting in line at a book signing instead of a post office.
   But then my agent wanted me to rewrite the novel, which I duly did, and then we had to edit it, which we did, and although his responses were quick and personal and never ever the equivalent of a black Sharpie scored across my page, this all took nearly eighteen months, and the thing about the short story queue was that while it was long and frustrating and very, very crowded, you occasionally sold something, you had something to show for all that waiting. And you never ever felt like you were putting all your eggs into one basket. One queue.
   But that’s where I am now. In the biggest, scariest, most exciting one of them all. And I still don’t overly mind the waiting, not really. I worry sometimes that part of me might not mind it a little too much: that I’ve become the kind of person for whom anticipation is preferable to realisation, rejection or even participation. Nor am I entirely immune to that struggling writer’s hope/fear: that to achieve one’s dreams is to destroy them. I don’t really believe that. What I do now believe (and it’s taken a very long time) is that the end of one queue invariably leads to the beginning of another and that’s not a bad thing. It’s progress. Because here’s the thing about waiting. It’s not reactive - for a writer, particularly one who hasn’t yet made it, it’s often the most proactive thing that you can do. After all, what’s the alternative?
   A final thought: learn to love it - which, despite everything I've said, is a very hard thing to do. Get to know the other people in the queue because it will help the time pass and you might even make some friends. Don’t let either discontent or resentment distract you. Don’t try to queue jump or worse, have someone else try to keep your place for you. And never ever give up that place because you’re fed up and your feet hurt and you really, really want to go to the pub for a pint.
   And if, when you finally get to the front, it’s a big fat “the computer says no”, then the best thing you can do - the only thing you can do - is join another one. Because patience isn’t so much a virtue as a compulsion, I think. For me at least.

No comments:

Post a Comment