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When You Feel Like You’re Treading Water (in Publishing)

Girl in Water – Jamie Uyeshiro, Pinterest [1]

It’s the dog days of summer, and what a scorcher it has been. With my kids home from school, family vacations and activities have been underway. There’s lots of client work stacking up in my inbox, and other household responsibilities festering. I’m trying to take advantage of the weather and jam in as much exercise as possible, too. In other words, I don’t have a ton of writing time this season. When I manage to snatch some time for myself, I stare at the screen, distracted by all that sunshine and the aforementioned tasks. My energy feels like it’s being funneled into a hundred directions; my focus is disrupted. Then there’s the issue of waiting on feedback for a project I just wrapped, and beginning a new one. It’s got me in this weird between state.

I’m treading water.

This got me thinking about the reasons writers feel like they’re treading water, and how we wade through the murky waters of our challenging, creative pursuit. (Nevermind our wading through the shark-infested waters of our difficult and demanding industry.)

Perhaps we feel:

Frustrated by Writing Gridlock:  For some reason, your story isn’t working and you’re STUCK with a capital “S”. You’ve tried writing prompts and exercises and just about everything you can think of to push forward again, but the ideas aren’t flowing.

Stuck Between Projects:  Maybe you’re waiting on an agent or beta to get back to you with feedback. You can’t really move forward until you have the information you need, but everyone is busy and it takes WEEKS and WEEKS.

Like We’re Sliding backward: We can feel this way more often than not, sadly. Perhaps you’ve parted ways with an agent recently and need to begin the search all over again. Maybe you’ve had a few books published and you’ve worked hard to expand your platform, but nothing is really “happening,” and you wonder if you want to continue with the mountain of work with little pay-off. Maybe you’ve been counseled to use a pen name, after an unremarkable sales record. Then again, it could be that you’ve poured a load of energy into a book that your crit partners, agent, or editor think isn’t working at all. Whatever the case, you feel as if you’ve spent a lot of time going in a direction that isn’t panning out. Now, the thought of moving forward is too exhausting to consider. All you can see is the wasted time and the mountain of work before you.

Obsessed with what will “hit” and why:  You’ve attempted what you thought was a commercially viable topic, but the idea just doesn’t sell during one stage of the publishing process or another. An agent won’t pick it up, or an editor, or worse, a reader. You’re scratching your head. It’s well-written and emotionally gripping. The topic is a popular one, yet all you hear is crickets.

It’s important to remember two things:



The very big books that break out are almost all pushed with thousands and thousands of marketing dollars. They’re the chosen ones, decided in advance of the “on sale” date. It’s not a magical unicorn that pushes its way into the marketplace with a splash. At least very, very rarely. That being said, putting all that money behind a book is still a huge gamble. NO ONE in the business knows what’s a sure thing, even the professionals and gatekeepers. They can make educated guesses, sure, but many can’t know or even understand what will work. In other words, obsessing about what will hit and why won’t serve you well. THAT is a waste of time.

Your job as a writer is to let the future unfold as it may and focus on what’s important—your writing. Become a better writer through learning about your process. There’s likely a natural ebb and flow to your routine at different times of the year. You may not be “stuck”, but in a resting period or just very busy in life at the moment. It’ll pass. Keep feeding your creative well. You’ll be struck by something inspiring to get you moving again. So again, I say, focus on the writing and on growing. Writers write.  All the other is primarily out of our control.



Nothing you’ve written is a waste of time, though it can feel that way. One of the most amazing and exciting things about writing is that once a project is out there, it lasts forever. We have no idea what sort of life it will take on in the future. A book you worked on ten years ago and shelved may end up being a bestseller down the road. A novel published twenty years ago could be picked up for a TV series or film, or randomly become one of many selling in a certain category. You never know.

So all of the treading water? It’s not treading at all, but processing time, unseen opportunities, and sometimes just a resting period.

The moral of the story is to love what you do. If you are more attached to the outcome than the writing process itself, this career isn’t for you. While a certain degree of realism is important, putting limits on what it means to be successful will only set you up for failure in one way or another. It will box you in, and here at WU we are UNBOXED!


When do you feel like you’re treading water?


About Heather Webb [2]

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped many writers sign with agents and go on to sell at market. When not writing, she feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.