Deadlines and Negotiation


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.

Dear Jessica,
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.

The fine art of negotiation is a handy skill!


13 comments to Deadlines and Negotiation

  • Great post, Faith. But I had to laugh at the “Southern sweet” thing. I don’t do “Southern sweet.” I *can’t* do “Southern sweet.” It comes off as false and weird and just *wrong.* So I do pushy New York Jew, instead. And believe it or not, it works. Because the rules are the same. Be unfailingly polite; apologize, say please and thank you, express some understanding of your editor’s needs and time constraints s/he faces, keep the tone of the voice even and the volume low. But also be firm. State your needs, your reasons, and give a realistic assessment of when you *can* finish. And, of course, don’t make a habit of it. I make almost all my deadlines. So when I miss one, it’s so unusual that my editor accepts without question my reasons for being late.

  • I just want to re-emphasize your point about waiting in silence. This is crucial to any negotiation about anything. State your case, be polite, then wait. Most people hate silence. By politely waiting, you put enormous pressure on the other party. Also, if you do start talking, you’re likely to say something that gives the other party an out. It’s best just to close your mouth and wait.

    Congrats on finishing Mercy Blade!

  • 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.

    Oddly enough, I’ve perfected the waiting trick working with students in the library.

    Me: “You have a book overdue.” *wait*
    Student: “I never checked that book out.”
    Me: *waiting*
    Student: “Maybe it’s in my locker.”

    Works every time.

    David said, I *can’t* do “Southern sweet.” It comes off as false and weird and just *wrong.* So I do pushy New York Jew, instead.

    Oh sugar, that’s actually exotic to us Southern girls. *laughs*

  • Misty said, “….that’s actually exotic to us Southern girls.”

    Yeah, turns out it works on Idaho farm girls, too….

  • Faith,

    This is interesting food for thought. Being unpublished as of yet, it is something I try to work into thinking about the “what if it really happens” category. You’re advice will surely be on my list from now on. Thank-you! And congratulations on finishing your story!

    Happy writing

  • Wolf Lahti

    I think I was born without the internal chronometer that most people seem to have. I am utterly miserable at dates–years, that is. I fortunately remember the day of the month that birthdays and anniversaries fall on, but I could not tell you without looking it up how many years I’ve been married.

    I also have never been able to estimate how long a writing task is going to take me. As I am a technical writer and editor, time-to-task estimation is something people expect me to do as naturally as breathing. But if a project manager says he needs forty pages added to a manual and asks “When can you get it done?”, the best I can manage is a semi-coherent mumbling. Then I ask, “When do you need it?”, and I deliver it before the deadline. Always. That’s never been a problem, because I’m quick, I guess.

    But if I had a plot hole to fix and needed to specifically ask for extra time, I wouldn’t have a clue. Because of NaNoWriMo, I know I can write a 50,000-word story in thirty days, but ironing that same story into something an editor would want to buy has been an off-an-on process covering years now. How long would it take me if I sat down and simply worked on it till it was done?

    My best estimate is somewhere between ‘a few days’ and ‘a few months’.

  • David, I thought you said you are a MacCohen? And live in Tennessee? And I have *never* heard you be pushy. Not once. And besides it’s the polite part that works. That and the waiting. So maybe you are a Southern Jew at heart? What do you think Misty? Is that possible?

    Thank you Stuart. It is such a relief! And yes, keeping my mouth shut is very hard. But silence is a powerful tool.

    Hi Hinny. I used to plan out *exactly* what I was going to say to an editor when I called. A few times I even wrote down *Stop! Wait! Keep Silent!* so I’d actually have that to keep me from rambling. My friend Tamar Myers used to have a half glass of wine before any calls so she would be calm. Then the other half was for after to get over the shakes!

    Hi Wolf. I totaly get not knowing how long something will take. It is very difficult to figure that out, especially when it involves fixing a problem. But your process is great! I think asking *When do you need it back?* is perfect. If they say tomorrow, you *know* that is impossible. If they say 2 weeks and it looks like a probability, then I always say *I think I need three.* Just in case!.

  • A quick note — I am sorry I didn’t reply until now. I had lunch with a screenplay writer pal and we came up with this *great* idea for a screenplay and time got away from us. And we liked the idea so much that we imposed a deadline…
    So much for time off! lol

  • I used to be in sales. We called the waiting thing – “He who talks first loses”, very important in closing sales.

  • Great post, Faith. I will endeavor to master silence. Not my strong suit…

  • Thanks,s April. I like that!

    AJ, silence is not my strong point either. Very hard for me.

  • Thanks for this, Faith, particularly the paragraph about even if you made the deadline, you’d have to wait for the editor to get to it. I submitted the second book of my trilogy on deadline (was very proud of myself, first time I’d done that since book one was already written when sold) and now I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for the response. So now I’ll take a deep breath, understand that just because I had a deadline of x date doesn’t mean that she’s sitting there waiting for the manuscript to show up but that stuff’s been happening at her end too and recognise I’ll get the re-write notes as soon as she can get them to me.

  • @Nicole – fun pic! My wife and I do SPFX makeup when I’m not writing. 🙂