The Devil is In Deadlines
And so we come to the end of the thirteen weeks, and I have about a quarter of the book/maybe a half written. The indecision is that I don’t know how much it will change and how much I’ll keep of what I wrote.
Part of this of course is that – as I explained – I started the book before I was quite ready to do it, and part of it is that I seem to have this odd relationship with deadlines, particularly self-imposed ones.
Take National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), for instance. My very first year participating, I completed Darkship Thieves. But any attempt to recapture such success has been mixed at best. What seems to happen is that the moment I commit to NANOWRIMO all heck breaks loose in my personal life.
I’m not particularly inclined to New Age explanations of such things. I can completely understand how reluctance to finish a novel could give me a massive cold/sinus infection – or at least there seem to be indications of psycho-somatic effects of that kind in other contexts. However, I defy anyone short of a committed solipsist to tell me how it is possible for my reluctance to close with a deadline would cause my sons to get sick, appliances to break and/or other emergencies to land in my lap.
And yet they do. I’m not alone in this – I have a friend who refuses to do NANOWRIMO because when he tries it someone close to him dies. I have another friend who says she can’t afford the home-repair bills that NANOWRIMO induces. Having watched her through three bouts, I can say she’s right.
Perhaps there is some field of anxiety that writing generates. Perhaps a century from now someone will say “oh, of course, that was the book Gremlin field. How could they not have known it?”
I’m joking of course, but when I think of this one book I’m supposed to write that every time I start working on causes my basement to flood, the laughter turns a little shrill. That book has been under contract/on the backburner for eight years, but the effect never fails to happen. Perhaps I only work on it when I feel a flood coming at a subconscious level? Maybe I should just buy a sump pump and bite the bullet?
On the serious side – and something I’ve discussed with my publisher – I do have a serious adverse reaction to approaching deadlines. Besides the chaos that periodically engulfs my life, there seems to be a psychological aversion to writing to the deadline. I do regard this as a personality failing, but it seems pretty common to writers.
Part of it is – I think – the result of early training for all of us. We are taught that writing is an art form, and therefore can’t be tamed or it somehow fails to be authentic.
Is this true? I don’t know. As I write this, I can hear my journalist friends laugh at me, which is funny since the nearest one is several hundred miles away.
On the other hand, writing as a journalist and writing as a fiction writer are different. Even writing a fictionalized version of reality is different. I could write Plain Jane, my fictionalized biography of Jane Seymour, in three days because the central facts and dates could not be disputed. Jane could not, in fact, in the middle of the book, decide to run away to sea and become a pirate (something Kathryn Howard, in No Will But His very much tried to convince me was an acceptable ending for her story.) I couldn’t suddenly realize how much the story would be improved if I gave some horses the ability to fly, and then go back and retcon the work so it could have flying horses.
Practically any fiction work, not based on hard and fast facts calls for more invention than that. Even mystery where you can halfway through the book go “What if the dagger belonged to the king? It would be a lovely red herring.” Even romance where you can go “Wait, what if I give the main character a tragic past involving dolphins?”
So having your full faculties about you and being fully in the head space of the work is more necessary to a novelist than to a non-fiction writer. I can, more or less on command, given some time, write a summary of facts, or even an opinion piece. But when I’m frazzled, ill or distraught, I can have the hardest time seeing the “full world” of a novel and the things that can affect my character which are not in the outline.
I know it’s fashionable to say that the quality of books in general went down when publishers put authors on what I’ll call “the treadmill system.” I’m not sure this is true. A lot of the golden age authors (whatever the golden age is considered to be for science fiction, mystery, etc., were on what I’d call a “write by the yard system.”
“We need 36 inches of story by tomorrow, can you deliver?” seems to have shaped a lot of the pulp era writing, and for all that, it is still considered a golden era. To go further back, Dumas, Dickens and a half dozen others turned out copy with such fluency that people suspected them of having helpers chained in the basement, writing things for them.
However, I will admit that reading some of the books from the more rushed part of author’s careers – i.e. when they were turning out the most books per x amount of time – you often get a certain feeling of “thinness.” In textile terms, the fabric is beautiful, the pattern intricate, but you can see through it. You get a feeling the story is sort of a hastily erected Hollywood scenario, with nothing at all going on in the parts where the light doesn’t shine.
Not to detract from the story, as such, and some of them are perfectly enjoyable, but you feel as though the author could/should have taken more time over the books and come up with something deeper. This is not always true. Readers of Georgette Heyer will recognize Black Sheep and Lady of Quality as essentially the same book. They are in fact so similar that when I want to verify some point, I often pick up the wrong one. (And for the gentlemen – and some ladies – who “don’t read romance” let me assure you that Heyer is not what you think of as romance and that it’s likely you’ll enjoy it. My friend Dave Freer recommended I read Heyer for learning better plotting – he was right.)
If asked, I’d guess that Lady of Quality was the first one, and then Black Sheep the redone, deeper book. I’d have been terribly wrong. Lady of Quality was published in 1972 while Black Sheep was published in 1968.
Something clearly bothered the author about that plot and how she’d worked it out, but it wasn’t lack of time that made it seem a little thin.
I’ve seen the same again and again with friends who get to go back and revisit the books written under pressure (particularly as indie reissue comes on line.) Some are improved, but it’s sideways and backwards and not the result of “more time to work on it.”
So, what to do?
Should you sit around waiting for the muse to show up to make sure your book is the fullest, deepest it can be? I’d say not. While it’s true that some of my ideas I’ve revisited 15 years later and made much better… Do you even know you have fifteen years? Isn’t it better to put the story out there, right now, in the best form you can, and then worry about improving it a few years later, perhaps with different characters and under a different title? Waiting for the fickle muse can mean you never write at all.
On the other hand, what if you’re a professional of some experience, and you’re “this close” to finishing when the deadline hits? Sometimes it’s okay to wait. Just don’t wait forever.
So, my closing advice on this Write a Novel in 13 Weeks Thing, in two parts in the next two pages.
Set it aside for a minimum of a couple of weeks, but set a date to come back and look it over. If you consider it good enough now (it might not be) get someone you trust to look at it. For this purpose, you mom isn’t someone you trust, and your significant other might not be, unless you can trust them to tell you the unvarnished truth but not run you down unnecessarily.
Let them – at least five people – read it and give you written comments. Then go over the comments. If more than two people agree something is a problem, it might be. (Or the problem might be different. For instance “nothing happens” might mean you have too many passive verbs creating that impression.) On the other hand, if only one person has a problem with something, ignore it, unless the something was bothering you or it’s a matter of fact – in A Few Good Men a friend reminded me that cloth rots. Yes, I know. You’d think I’d have known that?
Because sometimes what people think they have a problem with is not actually the problem; read the comments and give it a few days to percolate. Do not immediately sit down and change anything. (Unless it’s a typo.)
Then go over your book and see where you can deepen, and where you need to retcon, and make it the best book you can. Be aware that revising a novel is as difficult as writing it, if not more. Once more I must recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, how to Edit Yourself into Print. It’s one of the few books that won’t drive you insane with nit-picky advice aimed at non-fiction writers. Read it, and re-read your Dwight Swain, digest it, then embark in editing.
After that we must talk about marketing, and given how strange things are right now, this might seem more than a little daunting. Don’t be too afraid. It’s daunting for everyone right now. I’m hoping – I’m still trying to figure out my schedule going forward here at Lifestyle – to do something short on Thursdays about changes in the industry, what they mean for marketing, and what the options are, from going indie to going traditional, to going indie-to-traditional, to going … any other way that offers. I hope to do at least some of that and guide you.
If you didn’t finish your novel in these thirteen weeks:
Hey, neither did I, and I’ve finished books successfully in short times in the past. This time, it just didn’t work.
If you’re inclined to beat yourself – I am! – don’t. It solves absolutely nothing. Instead, analyze what went right and what went wrong. If you’re stopped because you need to figure out your world more, go and do that. If it was just the basement flooding and you can’t do anything better than buy a sump pump… forge forward.
Some suggestions, always keeping in mind I don’t know you or what stopped you, and so your mileage may – and almost surely will – vary.
Don’t give yourself all the time in the world. It’s possible that the muse’s name is Godot. Instead give yourself a deadline extension. This is particularly important if it is a self-imposed deadline. If it’s an external deadline, it might involve negotiations with your publisher.
I have a hard deadline for Through Fire for August first, but I’m only giving myself five weeks, so I can force myself to work ahead of schedule. I’ll keep you informed on how it goes in my next thirteen weeks series (in which I’ll take on various aspects of writing that hopefully will help both those still writing and those revising.)
Take a deep breath and see if there is something wrong with the novel preventing your writing.
Changing your writing place might help – this is particularly important if you don’t have an office with a closing door. Find one if at all possible. (I don’t have one, and finding one would involve moving. That’s a discussion for another day.)
Consider going away for a week – borrow a friend’s place, move to your parents’ spare room, go camping with a place nearby to charge your laptop – and make writing your first priority. Almost every professional novelist I know does this every so often. If nothing else, it re-focuses your commitment to writing.
For both those who finished and those who didn’t: Good luck, and I’ll be catching up with you here at PJ Lifestyle.
Check Out the Previous Installments of Sarah Hoyt's First Novel Writing Series:
Introduction: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program
Week 2: First You Catch Your Idea
Week 3: The Plot Wars
Week 4: How to Find the Time for Writing
Week 12: The Duel
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