Monday, October 26, 2009

Deadlines

Deadlines. Feared by some, loved by others. It’s likely that the minute you became serious about your writing you started setting deadlines for yourself. Maybe it was a weekly deadline for your critique group or a daily deadline for yourself. Whatever deadlines you’ve been working under, however, will change dramatically once they become contracted requirements. Suddenly you aren’t just trying to meet a date set by your writing group or even by yourself, but now this date means something. It’s the difference between getting paid or not getting paid, it’s a legal obligation and it’s a date your editor and agent are counting on.

As contract negotiations commence, inevitably the author and I are going to need to have a conversation about deadlines, and inevitably I’m going to question every single date the author gives me. While I do this more frequently with those experiencing a first sale, I do this with my more experienced clients as well. Why? Because let’s face it, it makes all of our lives easier if the deadlines are reasonable from the beginning. No one likes missing a deadline, and certainly it’s not going to make writing the book easier if you’re worried about hitting that date. When questioning my clients, it’s not that I doubt anyone’s ability to pick dates, it’s that I think in their enthusiasm to have a published book on the market and prove themselves to editors, authors tend to underestimate how much time writing a book actually takes, especially when they have the other obligations of being published to contend with.

When committing to a contracted deadline my first piece of advice is always to buffer it. Sure you finished your last book in six months, but you also had no pressure to do so. Now you are going to feel the pressure of a publisher and readers and it’s going to make things harder on you mentally. Okay, it might not, but it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a month or six weeks leeway just in case, right? The worst that can happen is you deliver early.

The other thing I want authors to consider is that no matter how professional we try to be, life gets in the way. When considering deadlines don’t forget to consider life. Again, you finished your last book in six months, but the kids were in school and by some freak of nature no one got sick. Now your deadline (if you’re choosing six months) falls smack in the middle of summer vacation. Do you really think you’re going to get six hours of writing done each day when the munchkins are around to hound you about things like lunch? Be honest with yourself about what your life might look like during those six months and give yourself time to enjoy it. One of the things I most notice is that when scheduling deadlines authors think of themselves writing 24/7, and trust me, that doesn’t work for anyone. You need to allow yourself time to get sick, take a vacation or just dig in the garden. Remember, a writer’s best friend is the time to create, and sometimes that means time away from the computer.

The last thing I find I need to explain to debut writers is the publishing process. Sure you finished your last book in six months, but you didn’t have another book to think about. Let’s say you get a three-book deal. The first book is finished because that’s what you sold on. Now the only thing you need to do is write the second book, right? Wrong! While you’re writing book number two you’re also getting revisions from your editor on book number one. That’s going to take you away from the book you’re trying to meet the deadline on for maybe a week, maybe two, or maybe a couple of months. There’s no way to tell for sure, but a buffer on the deadline would definitely be helpful in this case. Okay, revisions are done. Now you can simply move on and write and write and write, right? Wrong. Once revisions are done you have copy edits, once again pulling you away from book number two for a few days or maybe a week, and once copy edits are finished and turned in you have page proofs to review.

At the point page proofs come in hopefully you’ve turned in book number two and can start on book number three, but what? You have a pub date now? So now you’re reviewing page proofs for book number one, doing revisions on book number two, trying to start your publicity efforts on book number one and, oh yeah, you’re under deadline for book number three.

Okay, okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds. This is fun and you’re going to make it through and not all of this is going to happen on the same day. My point though is that when choosing deadlines you’ll have a lot more on your plate than just writing a book, and since you can’t guarantee how smoothly those things will go I strongly advise adding a month or even two to your original projected deadline. No one minds a manuscript that’s finished early, and certainly finishing early means a lot less pressure on the author than when you need to ask for an extension.

Jessica

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jessica,

Is there a deadline 'window' that's considered to be acceptable by publishers? If you look at all your first time authors, is there a rough average of how many months they set (or you recommend) their first deadline for? I realize this depends on if they're category vs single and how many books the contract is for. I'm looking for a general time frame of what's typical and acceptable.

BookEnds, LLC said...

Anon 8:17

It really depends on a huge number of things. Are you writing a series? Literary fiction, genre fiction? Is your first book complete or are you selling that on proposal too.

What I typically recommend for anyone debuting a series is that if you can write a book in 6-9 months that means your books will be published closer together and hopefully keep your readership. Deadlines correspond directly with publication dates.

But no, any window is really dependent on the subject, the author and the publisher.

--jhf

magolla said...

Love this post, Jessica! It puts it all into perspective. I belong to a weekly goals group, and have for a few years now, but I can modify, or not even meet, my goals depending on life.

It's a goal, not a deadline.

BUT every now and again, a writer needs to challenge themselves with a hard deadline. Right now, I'm looking at RWA's Golden Heart. I have 18K written, but need to write another 60K before I'll feel confident about plunking $50 down on the entry fee.

60K in four weeks?? Yep, it's doable. I did it when I entered the Delacorte Yearling contest,and I'll do it again.

Life does get in the way. A smart writer pushes herself and her abilities prior to signing that first contract to give her an idea of what she can and can't logistically accomplish for a publisher.

Whoops! Time to go--Need to finish writing 3000 words for today . . . and blog hopping doesn't count!

Steph Damore said...

Thanks for all the info. Your post reminds me of just how much work a writing career can be. In the future I'll direct friends and family members to this post. You know, the ones who say, "you're just writing, right?"

Natasha Fondren said...

My relationship with deadlines has changed throughout my career, as has my daily output, and although I'm not very happy at the learning curve, I am pleased that I feel confident with them, now.

At one point they almost exclusively kept me going, and I LOVED them. And I used to write fast, fast, fast. (5-10K a day, it boggles my mind!)

Then there was a massive slow-down, and I not only struggled to readjust my writing expectations, but deadlines became a big stressful, horrible thing, LOL.

In the end, I had to learn that sometimes, you can only write as fast as you can write, and each book can be different. I missed one real ("hard") deadline by months, in the process, but I was REALLY lucky in that case.

Now I set two "soft" deadlines. The first is an ideal pace at a speed of about 5K a day, and I only make that one 30% of the time. Then there is the second soft deadline at 1.5K-3K a day, and I really get mad at myself if I miss that, and I only miss it if life or book problems come up. Then there's a buffer zone for the "hard" deadline, which I really hate using, but it takes a lot of stress out of the process.

Richard Mabry said...

Jessica,
Great advice about building in time when considering deadlines. I'm currently in the pressure cooker you've so realistically described, and it's not a lot of fun sometimes. Thanks for detailing it so well. I'm going to send your post to all my friends who think that being a writer means being on permanent vacation.

This reminds me of the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for." Those of us who wished for a contract for publication of our novel have found, once we embarked on it, that it's a tough road.

JDuncan said...

When I got my deal, I knew I would need a fairly long deadline for book two. I'm still in school and knew the first half of next year would make writing with any real consistency difficult. So, I got a one year deadline, which they also gave me for book three. While a book a year may not be ideal starting out, it's what I needed to make this work. If things work out well, and I can get book three done early, it will give me time to get a good way into book four before book three is even due. I plan to scale my timeline down to gradually get where I'm doing two books a year or there abouts. It's important to make career plans that work within your lifestyle. If you can't write 3-5k a day 5-7 days a week, don't plan that way. It will make life miserable, and potentially cause problems for your career down the road. The last thing you want is to get a rep for being an author who can't make deadlines.

Anonymous said...

"No one minds a manuscript that’s finished early"

Jessica, I think it was Moonrat who said it doesn't look good if you hand in revisions too soon, as if we hadn't given them the necessary thought or work. I work quickly, and handed in my novel revisions to an agent in two weeks. I was surprised at my own speed, but truth is, that's all I did for two weeks. Then I read that post and wondered if it reflected poorly on me, but I really had done what the agent asked for. It took him two months for a response, which was a pass, though he said he liked the changes. What do you think about this?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is fodder for another blog post -- but what about deadlines as they pertain to the publisher.

I meet or beat all of mine -- but the editor consistently fails to meet hers. It is not that the work requires that much revision -- she seems to have other priorities -- her social life etc.

Mira said...

Great advice - Thanks for laying all of this out.

Donna Cummings said...

My favorite part of your post is this: "Remember, a writer’s best friend is the time to create, and sometimes that means time away from the computer."

When deadlines are hovering, it's easy to forget that writers are not machines. It is definitely important to sit at the computer and produce actual word count, but it's also important to nurture the part of the writer's psyche that answers the "What if" questions.

I joke that a lot of my writing is done when it looks like I'm just staring out the window. But that's what makes it possible for my fingers to fly when I open up the Word document on the laptop.

Thanks again for another informative post. Now it's time for me to do some more staring-out-the-window-writing. :)

NatalieCottrell said...

I remember my foundation writing studio professor telling me that a very important step in becoming a successful writer is accepting one's identity as a writer. (She also said to avoid using "one" as a pronoun, but oh well.) It's nice to find an agent who understands these interesting creatures (writers) and helps us stay on track, true to form.

Buffy Andrews said...

Thanks for the valuable insight. As a newspaper editor, I have to meet deadlines every day. The pressure of these daily deadlines help. I try to create this pressure in my writing. But I'm not always successful. As you've said, life happens. Kids get sick. You get sick. And the roller coaster of life delivers some unexpected twists and turns. But if we hang on, it can be quite a ride. Again, thanks for your thoughts.

Sheila Connolly said...

Deadlines can give you structure, and making a commitment to finish something is important. But don't forget to factor in time for promotion--even if you stay electronic, there are your website, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever hot new thing comes along next. Promotion can eat up big chunks of your time, which you don't realize when you write your first book.

Catherine Bybee said...

Great advice. As always...

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

And if you have a demanding day job, be sure to add a few more months. Even if you're ramping up publicity efforts for Book One, revising Book Two, and trying to finish Book Three, you still may not make enough money to quit the other job, and writing careers are known to crash at the most inconvenient times. Do not do anything that will get you fired at your other job, especially if it's a job you happen to like.

Julie Dao said...

Sounds like a writer's work is never done! This is a great post, thanks for the info!

Dara said...

Thanks for this post! I knew there would be deadlines but I never realized all the factors that needed to be considered when setting one.

Kate Douglas said...

Sorry, this might be long...I was the kind of kid who always left the twenty page term paper to the last three days. Later I was a newspaper reporter, used to daily deadlines, so I figured I could work on a tight schedule under pressure, but the first and second years of my first NY contract I had three novels and three novellas to write each year--my first book came out about six months after it was contracted and my editor likes to receive things a year in advance, which meant for the first two years under contract I was writing to catch up to her schedule. When I signed the contracts, I knew it would be nuts, but I have the luxury of writing full time and figured I could do it.

I did, but what I didn't count on was two deaths in the family, the births of two new grandbabies, my husband retiring from his job of thirty years, a large oak tree falling and almost killing me (the kitchen ceiling did come down on me...) and moving. I remember doing copy edits on the way to my mother-in-law's funeral and working on a story in a house filled with boxes that didn't get unpacked for weeks. Would I do it that way again? You bet--it's meant that I've had a new book on the shelves every three months for the past four years. It's built name recognition and increased sales.

I am currently contracted for four novels a year, but I've learned what I'm capable of doing and, while I realize I can't keep this pace up forever (face it, I'm OLD) I'm having the time of my life right now and don't intend to change until I have to. Point being, once you know what you're capable of doing, those deadlines are wonderful motivation to push yourself as a writer. I've discovered I can create under pressure and I think I do my best work that way--I don't have time to agonize over my characters. Instead, I become my characters and let them tell their stories. Deadlines and the pressure they create can free you in a way that can be absolutely amazing--allowing that creative spark the freedom that too much time and second-guessing over your motivation as a writer can often inhibit.

One thing that has helped me stay on schedule is to always set my own deadlines at least two weeks ahead of the one my contract calls for. That gives me time to send my completed ms. to my beta readers who can then help me find errors, plot holes, etc. in time to repair them BEFORE the manuscript goes to my publisher. It's cut down on any revisions that might have otherwise been required, and a clean manuscript means copy edits are generally easier and take less time.

Deadlines are wonderful things--they mean I'm still employed all the way into 2011...

Anonymous said...

Since it seems most (accepted for pub) genre novels get 2-3-book deals, doesn't it make sense to start on Book #2 in the series while you query Book #1? If the first doesn't sell, then the 2nd book could be the debut book (w/ revisions).
That way you're more organized and practical, but it contradicts what you always say: Never to start a second series book before the first is sold. To me it means more time to write while your ideas are still fresh, plus you get a jump-start in the series. What's wrong w/ positive thinking? Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Since it seems most (accepted for pub) genre novels get 2-3-book deals, doesn't it make sense to start on Book #2 in the series while you query Book #1? If the first doesn't sell, then the 2nd book could be the debut book (w/ revisions).

In my case, I found an agent with Book #1 (first in a series), and got cracking on #2. The rejections started rolling in and I found it difficult to focus on #2. In fact, I cried every time I opened the Word doc.

In the end, Book #1 didn't sell. Based on editor comments, I knew Book #2 was dead, as well. (The hook either wasn't hooky enough, or too similar to other series already on the shelves.)

I regret having invested so much time in #2 (especially because I'm a slow writer). But I try to tell myself no writing is ever wasted. And I do know writers who got deals with the second in their series.

Calla said...

Great post.

I think there’s sometimes a feeling as an unpublished author that a publishing contract will imbue you with superhuman writing abilities. But my guess is that for writers with contracts, just as much as those without, sometimes you get stuck on a certain chapter, or a revision ends up takes longer than it seemed like it would, or the roof gets a leak or life just gets in the way.

Anonymous said...

"I think there’s sometimes a feeling as an unpublished author that a publishing contract will imbue you with superhuman writing abilities."

Speaking as someone who is a week away from finishing my first contracted book (knock wood), the answer is it depends.

Sometimes, it's knowing that two total strangers not only bet their reputation on me, but several thousand dollars of a company's money. That helps boost faith in my work, but also makes me not want to disappoing them.

As a copy editor, all I need to do is look at the latest (declining) circulation figures among newspapers, and realize that it's sink-or-swim time. If I lose my job, I'd better have good work lined up elsewhere.

Even so, I know myself. My official deadline is Nov. 15. My unofficial deadline was Oct. 1 and I based my writing goals on that. Now, it's slipped to Oct. 31, so that still gives me time for final edits, incorporating my editor's suggestions, and printing out two fresh clean copies and a computer file for transmission on Friday the 13th (because the 15th, of course, is on a Sunday).

And so, back to work.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. Now I don't feel so bad about slipping the deadline I'd set myself.

ryan field said...

If you always remember to have fun it's easier to keep from freaking out.

Jill James said...

Great info about the life of a published author. It is all about juggling the balls and keeping them all in the air at the same time.

Kristin Laughtin said...

You need to allow yourself time to get sick, take a vacation or just dig in the garden. Remember, a writer’s best friend is the time to create, and sometimes that means time away from the computer.


Bless you for saying this and also providing a realistic examination of all the factors that go into deciding this.

When I start a new project, I always try to set a mental deadline so I can start getting used to the idea, and make note of anything that gets in the way and affects my writing output, be it work, sickness, relationships, etc. I wrote and polished my last book in ten months, and gave myself a year for this one. I'm currently running about a month over, but this project ended up being bigger than I anticipated and has basically become two books. Obviously, if I were already at the point where I had an agent and/or a sale, I would have started talking to my agent a long time ago about either revising my initial outline to shorten this down to one book, or seeing if I could revise my contract into a two-book deal (which would probably be more feasible if I were already published and had decent sales). So even though I've gone over my self-imposed deadline, I think it's a good practice for any aspiring writer. Of course, it's hard to gauge if my current schedule will be applicable when I actually do seek publication, because who knows if I'll be married or have a more demanding job or what then.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

A very informative post with very logical advice. Far better to deliver a manuscript early than to insist on an unrealistic deadline! Thank you.

Elspeth

Juliana Stone said...

personally I love deadlines. I'm the type of writer who NEEDS them. Kate is right as well, I dont' think you can appreciate what you can actually accomplish until you're in the position of being contracted and getting it done! Life does have a way of throwing crap your way, but I figure the only thing I can control is what I write and when, and how much! I'm blessed and proud to be a contracted author with Avon and will do whatever it takes to keep this dream alive!

Anonymous said...

OT, but going off of what magolla @ 8:49 AM, October 26, 2009 said, are there other legiimate contests OTHER than RWA's Golden Heart and Delacourt yearling contest? My manuscript's fantasy and so doesn't qualify for the latter and for various reasons, doesn't qualify for the former.

Surely there are other legitimate writing contests for novel manuscripts out there...?

If anyone can point me towards some links, that would be great!

Mariana said...

Hello Jessica,

this information is most sensible, thank you! And it made me wonder about other information frequently found on other on line sources, which is that when signing a contract the negotiation on deadlines is not that simple as it feels from reading this post.

Many times I've read that the editor tends to pressure towards shorter and shorter deadlines, sometimes nearly impossible to comply with, and the writer risks compromising with something that is not capable of delivering.

Of course one of the roles of the agent is to mediate this and assist the writer in defining a feasible deadline, as you put so well in this post, but from your post I got a slight impression that everyone is always so reasonable that this problem doesn’t really exist…

So here’s one question I’d like to ask, if that’s ok: what would you suggest a writer do if an editor demands an impossible deadline for book 2, for instance deliver the final manuscript in three months, have all revisions made in another two months, and set a publication date for, say six or seven months from the signing? (this feels unrealistic, to me at least that contrary to many authors dread deadlines)

Allison Brennan said...

Like Kate, I'm deadline driven. I've met all my deadlines until book #9. I've said that my life is family and writing and nothing else, and that's pretty much true. It's when something unexpected comes up that you can't juggle everything and there were days that I would write and rewrite the same scene because my muse was off being practical about this other major problem. I had to ultimately give myself permission to take a week off to deal with the problems and when I got back to the book, I was able to focus. The important thing is to talk to your editor (and agent) and be honest and 90% of the time a couple weeks is going to be okay--as long as they know and you keep them in the loop as to progress.

And sometimes, you're not technically late, but your pub date gets moved and so you have less time on copyedits and page proofs.

When I was writing back-to-back trilogies, there would be a point when I was in the middle of book three and the page proofs came for book one; then a week after I turned those in and was back in the middle of writing book three, I'd get the copyedits for book two. Needless to say, such a schedule is not for those who panic under pressure. I much prefer my schedule now, but even so I was in the middle of writing my July book when my copyedits for my February book came in--at the same time my editor asked for my one-page synopsis of my October book for the sales sheet.

I understand that writing is creative, but few professional authors have the luxury of writing only when the muse strikes them. You write because that's ultimately your job. Just because most of us love our job and would rather get a root canal than do anything else doesn't mean it isn't a job with deadlines and responsibilities.

Nichole Giles said...

Thank you so much for these thoughts. These are good points I plan to keep in mind as I negotiate for a future contract.

I don't often comment, but I truly appreciate all your posts. Thanks.

Nichole

Jemi Fraser said...

What an interesting post! I hadn't really thought all of that through before - thank you once again for your insights :)