Getting the Dead out of Deadline

by Brad Parks

Today TKZ is thrilled to welcome Brad Parks, reformed sportswriter and award winning author, whose second book EYES OF THE INNOCENT was just released.

I have this weird thing for dates. They stick in my head for no good reason.

Aug. 5, 1998. The day my pet rabbit, Snowflake, died.
Aug. 20, 1994. The day I first kissed the beautiful woman who is now my wife
Nov. 5, 2004. The day I finished my first novel-length manuscript (a book that, incidentally, will likely never be published, unless I pull a Stieg Larsen and become unexpectedly famous after my untimely passing).
Feb. 3, 2011. The day I put the entire Kill Zone audience to sleep with the boring biographica
l details of my tedious life because I didn’t move on with the point of my guest blog post…

… So, right, the point of this post is actually to talk about some of the most significant dates in a writer’s life.

Deadline dates.

Now, that word, “deadline,” can inspire a lot of fear in writers. Its origin – and I swear, I’m not making this up – is actually penal in nature. Once upon a time, a deadline referred to a line in a prison that inmates couldn’t cross, or else they’d be shot dead.

But I’m here to say deadline is actually a wonderful thing for writers, something we should embrace rather than loathe. And I have come to discover there is power and freedom in a deadline, in knowing that you don’t have the luxury to get too picky, in understanding that what you’re aiming for is not “good” but “good enough.”

I first learned this as a journalist. I spent twelve years working for daily newspapers, much of it in the sports department, where the deadlines are unforgiving. I can remember covering Yankees playoff games in 1999, when my editor explained to me they were holding the entire paper for my story – and that each minute the story was late would cost $15,000 as presses and trucks sat idle, racking up gas and overtime.
I didn’t know if he was inventing the number, but I did know I was making about $60,000 a year, so my entire annual salary could slip away in four minutes. And I was guessing it would probably be easier to find another $60,000-a-year sportswriter than paying for the ten minutes it took for me to find that perfect word or phrase for my lede. It tended to have a marvelous, focusing effect on my work, one I carried throughout my journalism career.

But I have also learned to love deadlines as a novelist, and it was because of my latest book, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, which just hit the shelves.

Now, the aforementioned unpublished manuscript took me three years, writing during the off-season of whatever sport I was covering. The next one? I probably turned that around in a year and a half, writing in dribs and drabs when news was slow.

I knew from the start EYES OF THE INNOCENT needed to be a different animal, thanks to deadline. And here, I return to my thing with dates, and some of the ones my brain attached to this book, starting with:

July 8, 2008. The day I learned I would have to write it. I know because that was the wonderful afternoon my agent called to say my manuscript, the book that would later become FACES OF THE GONE, had sold to St. Martin’s Press. She also told me it was a two-book deal, so FACES better have a sequel.
That leads to:

Jan. 27, 2009. The day, according to my contract, that second book would be due.

Now, six months is not an unreasonable length of time in which to write a novel. Heck, there are romance writers out there who can turn one around in six weeks. Except, of course, there were complicating factors.

The first was that we were in the midst of moving three states away, from New Jersey to Virginia. When I got that call from my agent, we were less than two weeks away from the moving vans arriving (July 21, 2008).

The second was that I still had a full-time job as a daily newspaper reporter.

But those were far less important complications than the real deadline then looming in our house around that time:

Dec. 18, 2008. The day my wife was due with our second child.

I knew, from the experience of the first child, that absolutely no meaningful writing would get done for at least six months after the blessed arrival. I also knew, again from Baby No. 1, that my wife would probably go early.

So I had to get to work. I spent a few weeks going over FACES OF THE GONE (it had been roughly two years since I finished it and I needed to re-familiarize myself). Then came:

Aug. 13, 2008. The day I first opened up the file that would become EYES OF THE INNOCENT. Unlike those first two manuscripts, where there were so many stops and starts, I really had to hammer on this one. Deadline and the impending arrival of a baby had given me no choice. And I discovered, much like the days when dilly-dallying cost $15,000 a minute, the pressure had a way of making me concentrate on getting to The End without worrying quite so much about the little stuff along the way. So it was, three months and twenty days later, I got to:

Dec. 3, 2008. The day I turned in a draft to my agent. (And, it turned out, I was just in time – my wife was, once again, about two weeks early).

Is the book any different for having been turned around so quickly? Yeah, it is: It’s better. The pacing, the plotting, it’s all so much tidier. Everyone has their own speed. But I’ve since discovered three months per book is the right one for me. And I have that one tight deadline to thank for the revelation.
What about you guys? Any good deadline stories out there?

Brad Parks’s debut, FACES OF THE GONE, became the first book ever to win the Nero Award and Shamus Award, two of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His second book, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, just released from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “as good if not better (than) his acclaimed debut.” For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Twitter, or became a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook.

16 thoughts on “Getting the Dead out of Deadline

  1. Brad, thanks for this post, which is not only informative but fun to read. As a newly contract author learning to live with deadlines, it came at just the right time. And, wow, does it ever deliver sage counsel.

    One sentence in particular was just what this recovering perfectionist needed to hear: “And I have come to discover there is power and freedom in a deadline, in knowing that you don’t have the luxury to get too picky, in understanding that what you’re aiming for is not ‘good’ but ‘good enough.'”

    Congratulations on the awards your debut novel received and the great reviews of your second that are pouring in.

  2. Well done, Brad. I’ve long advocated the writing of “fast” first drafts (one way to keep the inner editor quiet and discover nuggets beneath the story surface). And after NaNoWriMo, I’m more in favor of that than ever. A three month window is about right for me, too, exclusive of editing.

  3. Keli — Glad it helped. And congratulations on the contract! Who’s the publisher and can you share your elevator pitch?

    James — I think in terms of momentum, and I don’t know about you, but I find that if I allow myself to lose momentum, the novel suffers. Three months is, for me anyway, the perfect balance between taking enough time and not losing momentum.

  4. And, and lest I appear like an ungracious guest: Thanks for having me on Michelle! It’s an honor to be among such fine craftspeople. (Well, other than Gilstrap, of course).

  5. Hi Brad-

    Thanks for this post, I love the bit about the origins of the word deadline!

    Speaking of which…the contract negotiations for my first two books dragged on interminably. They were finalized the week before I gave birth–and my deadline was set for four months later. I’d been hoping that my editor would only ask for light edits–a few commas here, maybe a couple of revised paragraphs. Instead I was forced to overhaul a significant portion of the book. Which I accomplished, sleep-deprived and drained.
    I agree, deadlines can be a real motivator (a truism that was really brought home for me with my latest novel, where I didn’t really have one).

    However, here’s one thing to bear in mind: in my experience, once you’ve handed a book to your publisher after a mere four months, that becomes the new standard, and that’s all the time they’re likely to give you for the next one. So always try to set a deadline that provides more time if possible. Because year in and year out, that kind of schedule can quickly become a grind. And after all, every book can be improved by sitting in a drawer for a few days or weeks. So consider setting a tight deadline for yourself, but ask for a more forgiving one from your publisher.

  6. Great information. Thanks for letting us in your to head to see how you view your writing life.

    Any suggestions on how to setup a self-imposed deadline? What works for the other killzoners? I’d love to know.

  7. Brad, thanks for the congrats. I’d share my book’s blurb as you invited me to do, but something tells me those who visit The Kill Zone wouldn’t be all that interested in my inspirational historical romance–even though there are scenes involving guns and shooting. =)

    The publisher is Barbour. The (tentative) title is A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, due out in 2012.

  8. wow, great post and very inspiring! Can you describe how you fit in the time for writing? Did you write after the kids went to bed? During your lunch break at work?

    I’m totally inspired and would love to hear the nitty gritty details about how you got the job done. (total sleep deprivation? children forgetting who you are? etc, etc) 🙂

  9. Daniel- Sadly the self-imposed deadlines never seem to be as strict as the real ones (at least for me), but here’s what I do: I set a daily one of writing 2000 words, 5 days/week–and then a three-four month deadline for the rough draft (because invariably, life gets in the way and I fall short some weeks).

    Of course, the ones imposed by editors are much more ironclad.

  10. I think I really need to impose stronger deadlines on myself. Having plunged into the indie-realm via ebooks I have found a desire to make myself do things faster and more accurately. The more quality books one can have out there, the more likely to rise to the top of the slush pile. Biggest problem I have though is making time in the midst of day job, narration jobs, kids stuff and everything else. Thus far, most of my self-imposed deadlines tend to find themselves stretched a bit. Sometimes I really do wish I had a time machine.

    curse you cousin Leonard!

  11. Michelle — Doing major overhaul in the first four months after childbirth? Okay, you officially with the Toughest Writer I Know contest.

  12. Daniel — For self-imposed deadlines (or, really, any kind of deadline), I think nothing beats a daily word count. I do a minimum 1,000 words a day. That’s really not too much, but you’d be surprised how fast it gets a book done.

  13. Anonymous — I’ve done this various ways. The big picture is: Make the sacrifices necessary in your life so that you can carve out a piece of time EVERY DAY to write. For a while, that was waking up at 5 AM (I didn’t have to be at work until 10). Before I had kids, I forced myself to go to Barnes & Noble at night after work and work in the cafe there. These days, I’m lucky enough to either have childcare or times during the day when my wife watches the kids. Mornings work best for me.

  14. Nice post, Brad. Thanks for dropping by TKZ and sharing your thoughts. The luxury of time only comes with that first book. After that, we’re all thrown into the room with the ticking of the deadline clock and no way out until we type “the end”. It comes with the territory. The alternative of no deadline usually means no contract. That makes the dreaded deadline look pretty good. Hope to see you in July at ThrillerFest.

  15. It’s amazing how much you can write in just 15 minutes. I take my laptop to work and during my two 15-minute breaks, I can usually get between 600-700 words down (I’m talking rough first draft, not edit-as-you-go).

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