Kim Harrison was supposed to be here today, and she may make it to tomorrow, but deadlines (not hers, but her publisher’s) have pushed it back. Hence my subject matter today—deadlines—and the impact they play on writer’s *real* life, writing life, and daily, weekly, monthly schedule.
Deadlines are part of a writer’s life. We sign for them in contracts, agree to them ethically, and a publisher works us into a publishing list (schedule) based on our promise to provide a publishable manuscript, fitting the contract guidelines, on the date due. But sometimes life gets in the way of meeting that deadline, or other problems crop up, and when that happens, a writer needs to know how to deal with the problem. It is called the fine art of negotiation, which I learned at my daddy’s knee for four years, between the ages of 12 and 16, after dinner, when he forced me to debate him. At the time I hated it, though I loved the attention. The lessons learned have helped me often in my life and my *other* career, but mostly have helped me to negotiate with my editor in a variety of realms—mostly when life gets in the way of deadlines.
The first time I used it was on my first book. When I got back the rewrites, with a three week turnaround deadline, the editor, Charlie, had changed the murder weapon from a scalpel to a switchblade. Without asking me. He had incorporated the changes into the manuscript. *Without asking me!!!* The entire plot was wrapped around tracking down the killer based on the forensics. The type of damage a scalpel makes on the human body is very different from the damage made by a switchblade. One cannot simply strike through the word scalpel and inset switchblade. Nothing made sense!
I called my agent and asked what to do. He said to talk to Charlie.
Daddy’s lessons got their first workout. Knees knocking, stomach nauseated, I called Charlie. And *very* sweetly, asked whey he changed the murder weapon. His answer? Because he thought switchblades were sexier. Yeah. Sexier. Go figure.
I said (veeery sweetly) something like, “Yeah, I can see that. I understand. And I can definitely accept and make the changes. But I’ll need an extra three weeks, for a total of six weeks, to incorporate the changes throughout the manuscript. I’ll need to schedule a conference with my pathologist pals to learn how to make the forensics work, and then insert the changes, and I am guessing that will require me to retype the entire manuscript.” And then I stopped. And waited. A long silence, while *very* difficult to do—especially for me because I am chatty when nervous—is often exceedingly effective in negotiations.
Charlie, a young editor on his first job, eventually answered, literally growling at me, “Well I can’t give you three extra weeks!”
I replied, “Okay. Shall I make the changes back to a scalpel?”
I said thank you, and hung up. And that was the end of my first negotiation. I won. That conversation became the foundation for all my negotiations with every editor since. Be sweet, so Southern sweet sugar won’t melt in my mouth. State the problem. Wait. If he asks for further clarification, give it. Stop. Wait. The waiting is what seems to do the trick for me.
Up until now, I have written 2 books a year for the last 5 years, while working full time, trying to keep house, and have a life. The two-book-a-year contract was a challenge I set for myself when I had too much empty time on my hands writing one book a year, and I’m glad I did it—it was very good for my career—but the deadlines have been atrocious.
For a while, I had a housekeeper and that helped, but the hubby didn’t like the distraction (he works 12 to 14 hours a day too) and so that got canned. Family is not like a pet that can be locked in a cage or given a chew-toy when it becomes disruptive to my writing. Family has rights and needs and health issues that have to come first. Even before my writing. And that has often meant my writing suffered, or I did.
To mitigate the stress of life and writing, I have negotiated with my editor for time when I needed it. I needed it on this book. My *planned* schedule for writing this book was:
1.) Finish rough draft by Dec. 31.
2.) Finish rewrite by Jan. 31.
3.) Turn in finished mscpt by Feb. 1.
It was the second week in December when I realized that a plot hole, big enough to drive a semi-truck through, existed in my manuscript. I tried to write around it for two weeks. It wasn’t going to work. All forward progression stopped. For weeks, when I should have been finishing my manuscript, I worked on plot. I realized by mid January that I would not finish on time. I emailed my editor with the following letter, which is simple and to the point. BTW, short and simple works best. Just ask for what you need.
Hope your New Year is going well. I am already ignoring my resolutions in favor of more important things! Like Mercy Blade. I have discovered a plot problem that needs to be resolved and is taking more time than expected. May I have a two week extension, to Feb. 15th?
Please let me know.
No reply. I emailed her again. No reply. I called her and left messages. I learned she was out of town which was a relief. (I *know* she is too professional to pitch a hissy at a delay, but still, it is always a worry, picking at the back of my mind.) She called me back and I negotiated for an extra 15 days. Then, on the 13th, for an extra two days, to the 17th. As it turns out, I only needed one day. At 7:39 last night, I finished the book and sent Mercy Blade to my editor. The relief of that was enormous, especially so because it was technically past the due date.
The reality is that, had I gotten my manuscript in on the due date, the editor would not have touched it for weeks. Perhaps not for months. Why? Because her schedule is dependant on other writers, new jobs given to her when a coworker becomes ill and is out of work for a while, problems with a book printer, changes in the industry, etc.. Oh—and she deserves a life too. When she can get it worked into her schedule, she will send me a rewrite letter with a fast turn around time for getting the changes done and back to her. I’ll try to meet that too. Hurry up and wait. It is just a part of a writer’s life.
I am happy that I am done with the part of my life that requires a book every six months. From now on, I’ll be writing a book every nine months, and hopefully that will give me the time I need to have real life without the pressure. My editor and agent didn’t want me to take nine months. They both wanted two books a year. Yes, it would have been great for my career. But it would have been bad for me. I held firm. And I got the time I needed.