Back when I was unpublished, I spent a lot of time on eHarlequin's forums, specifically in the Submission Care thread, where a lot of aspiring (and, eventually, published) writers found kindred souls in the submission process at Harlequin/Silhouette. One of the most frequently-asked questions was "How long do you normally have to wait after submitting your manuscript before you hear back from the editor?" And the answer, naturally, was "Who knows?"
Some of us heard fairly quickly, especially if the answer was a flat, "Thanks but no thanks." Others had submissions that took months, even years, to get an answer. The response time depended on a lot of variables, from how you queried, when you queried, whether you submitted after a contest win and editor request, etc. But I think most of us unpubs figured that once we got published, the waiting game would finally be over.
But that's not necessarily so. My first few books, I'll admit, had pretty good turnaround. My fourth book, in fact, took only a week from my submission to the editor's call. However, as I learned in 2008, that's not always the case, even when you have a few books to your name. I sent my first two-book proposal to my editor in July of 2008. It took several months to hear back from her, and the wait ended up meaning that I went all of 2009 without a book on the shelves. Talk about a career setback!
There are plenty of reasons why it took so long for the editor to get back to me--staff changes and shortages, her large list of authors, the RWA convention--so I can't say I was surprised. She got behind. It happens.
The problem was, I really didn't know what to do with myself during the wait. Since I'd had fits working up the two proposals, which didn't want to cooperate with me at all, I foolishly allowed myself to take a month's break from writing. Which turned into two months. Then three. Then, when I realized I had to get back into the writing game, I wasn't sure what to do next. Work on the proposals I'd sent, not even knowing if the editor would want to buy them? Or should I start something new? And if I started something new, should I write it as part of the series the other proposals were part of, or should I look at something else?
Eventually, I wrote something that was part of the Cooper Family series I'd already proposed, but I wrote it so it could easily stand alone if she didn't like the other books. I managed to get that book proposal to her while she was still considering the other two proposals, and it ended up being one of the two she finally bought.
So here's what I learned from the experience:
1. A short break from writing is fine, but be tough with yourself.
Fix a time to get back to it and stick to the schedule, even if you don't have a book in the pipeline yet. Start working on the next one.
2. Be patient but also check in with your editor if the wait has been long enough.
Editors are busy people, and I think a reminder now and then that you're still waiting to hear from them is appropriate, as long as you don't become a nag. If you've had a full with your editor for three or four months, I don't think it's bad to ask for a status check.
3. Manage your time wisely, and make reasonable judgment calls.
Because my editor expressed approval on the two books she finally pitched to the senior editor, I decided to go ahead with working in the first book of the two in order to get ahead, even though the senior editor hadn't made the final go ahead for the buy. That way, I was close to finished with the book by the time the editor made the official buy.
4. Always be thinking ahead to the next book.
Even if it's nothing more than making notes or keeping a list of research links, always look ahead. For me, it includes setting aside time one day a week, at minimum, to brainstorm and work on the new ideas I have. This way, when my contract books are done, I'll have something else ready to send to my editor to keep things rolling.
Waiting is hard. We all hate it. But we all have to do it. The secret to surviving the long waits to hear from editors is moving forward to the next project. Even if you sell the book under consideration, you need something else to pitch for the next contract.
Having something new in the pipeline at all times makes the most of the downtime spent waiting, and it moves your career forward faster and more effectively than any other strategy.