When you write a book like The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, give convention seminars on the subject, write a blog like this, and so on, one of the questions that keeps popping up is some variation on: What’s the hardest part?

What’s the hardest part of breaking into the publishing business?

What’s the hardest part of writing a novel?

What’s the hardest part of managing a career as a writer?

I’ve answered those questions in different ways over the years. I’ve talked about handling rejection, having realistic expectations about money, dealing with negative reviews, and other things. And those are hard, not to mention how hard it is to sit down and actually write a full-length novel from beginning to end in the first place.

But honestly, I think the hardest part of all, regardless of where you are in your career, is learning patience.

I bring this up in particular not because I have achieved some sort of Zenlike state of Enlightened Patience, but because the opposite is true. It’s the thing I struggle with most.

I have a fairly clear sense of what I’m going to get paid. And Baldur’s Gate taught me right away that putting yourself out there with a published novel will inspire perfect strangers to threaten you with bodily harm on the internet. Rejection? Bring ’em on. Like anyone who’s been doing it for more than a few months, had I bothered to save them all, I could wallpaper the entire interior of my house with form rejection letters. I’ve come to expect to hear some variation of “no.”

But patience . . . man, that’s hard to come by.

Sometimes you wait and wait and wait only to get one of those impersonal form letters. Sometimes everybody loves you, loves your story, promises to publish it, then you wait for more than a year to see it actually in print, then they make you wait month after month after that before bothering to pay you. There is no part of the publishing business that doesn’t force you to wait, and to wait way beyond whatever the limits of your patience may be.

If you’re the slightest bit paranoid, you may want to avoid writing as a profession. You’ll very quickly convince yourself that everybody out there is trying to drive you crazy by making you wait at least twice as long as whatever period of time you’ve managed to get used to waiting.

I try to tell myself certain things while I sit around waiting for an agent or editor to tell me anything, or for any part of the publishing business to move at anything like what I would personally consider a reasonable pace. I tell myself that, when I worked for Wizards of the Coast, I was forced to make people wait—even when I really didn’t want to, and really didn’t agree with the reasons I was forced to make them wait. Sometimes it was my fault someone had to wait and wait and wait.

I try to tell myself that I am not the only person in the world, and my needs and desires are not necessarily going to rise to the top of someone else’s to do list, when that someone else is trying his or her level best to meet the professional needs of dozens, even hundreds of people at any given time, in one capacity or another.

Marty Durham, an assistant brand manager I worked with at Wizards of the Coast once sent an email reply to a particularly impatient coworker (not me, by the way, but I was copied on the email, being a part of the cross-functional team). His reply was this: “Chill. This is not the only brand I’m working on.”

I loved that, and for a few months made it the signature on all my emails.

At the time, what drew me to that sentiment was that I was the source of frustration for people who were waiting for something from me, but recently I’ve started thinking about that again, from the opposite direction.

It was blunt, terse, maybe a little bitchy, but he’s got a point there. When are you really ever the only thing someone’s working on?

Pretty much never.

I think most reasonable people will realize that if they send in a short story or other manuscript as an unsolicited submission to a magazine or book publisher, that it’s going into a very large stack. Y’all may not realize how big that stack actually is, but then even once you’ve made your way out of that stack, you are simply not going to be the only person everyone in the chain of custody of your book will be working with at any given time. Agents need more than one client if they want to make a living as an agent. Editors need to be working on multiple books, at various stages in their life cycles, or they better get that resume out. The publisher’s royalty department and other accounts payable people are not hired on a one-clerk, one-client basis—trust me on that one.

At the very height of the Harry Potter madness, J.K. Rowling may have had a team assigned to her, and her alone. Maybe.

No one else does.

And she doesn’t anymore, either.

So what does that mean? Does that mean you have to learn to be entirely passive, sitting in complete silence, legs in the Lotus Position, chakras aligned with whatever they line up with, and otherwise calm and cool and collected on into eternity?

If you can do that, I’d recommend it, but for the mortal humans among us, the great unenlightened masses, you’re going to have to figure out the balance largely on your own. That’s what makes this the Hardest Part.

I honestly can’t give you any timetables. How long do you wait to hear back on an unsolicited short story submission to a magazine, or a novel pitch to an agent? The only answer is: As long as you can, or as long as it takes. Some people will give you some indication of something like a timetable. When they do this, believe it.

So if a magazine says they generally respond to submissions within six months, don’t start sending them queries until the entire six months have passed. That’s a long time to wait. If you can’t wait that long, don’t send your stuff to that magazine.

If you have a contract that says when you should be paid, though, you are absolutely entitled to hold your publisher to that contract. If you were supposed to get a check in sixty days, and it’s been sixty-one days, send an email. Don’t be a dick about it or anything, but sometimes people actually do need a nudge.

This is really what agents are for, by the way. They get to be the person who nudges payments out of the system for you, so you can keep it all positive and creative with your editor. If you have an agent, believe him or her when he or she tells you it’s too early to panic, even if you feel as though you’ve been consigned to outer darkness. Your agent has other people to nudge, for other clients who have been waiting longer.

All this will eventually feel very unfair. Why are you made to wait seemingly forever when the rest of the world is entitled to set do-or-die deadlines on you? It’s taken me months to get money out of a publisher, but damn it, the bank that holds my mortgage wants that money on the first of every month, and they can be like Paulie in Goodfellas if they don’t get it. They have computers to make sure I’m on time, and automatically threaten me when I’m not. That’s how they get past that “I’m not the only brand they’re working on,” hurdle.

I don’t suggest you invest in that kind of accounts receivable infrastructure. I know I haven’t. We’re just going to have to learn a little patience.

Then a little more.

And a little more, until we either achieve that fully aligned Zen state, or we freakin’ crack.

I’m still managing to hover somewhere in-between.

Good luck.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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