Averting Disaster

by John Gilstrap

Okay, Damage Control (July, 2012) is finished and submitted and the publisher is happy.  Now I can come clean:

By way of background, my Jonathan Grave books are slated as the lead titles for July in their respective years of publication.  The first week of July, to be specific, chosen to coincide with ThrillerFest.  Being lead title is a big deal because of the horsepower that get focused behind the book.  Recognizing that there’s only one (maybe a couple) lead title per genre per publisher per month, and given that there are only 12 months in a year, it’s a position worth earning, and once earned, it’s definitely worth defending.

In order to make that July 1 slot, I have to submit my manuscripts by September 15.  That might seem like a lot of lead time, but it’s really not, given all that goes into the production and marketing of a book.  If you miss the deadline, you imperil your spot on the list.

Okay, now for the living nightmare.

In mid-July (the week after I returned from ThrillerFest), I realized that I had painted myself into a corner with Damage Control.  I had too many characters, the story was rambling.  I’d lost control of the damn thing.  I’d written a little over 300 pages that just weren’t going to work, and I faced the reality that is no less daunting for a writer than it must be for a surgeon: If the patient (book) was going to live, it would need serious surgery.  Thus, on or about July 20, with less than two months to go before my deadline, I amputated over 200 pages.  I essentially took myself back to the end of the opening sequence, and rebuilt.  Understand that my manuscripts run 400-430 pages.

I told my editor that I was going to blow my deadline, but “not by that much.”  I didn’t have any idea how I could make even an extended deadline, but there was no way I was going to lose my spot in the catalog.  Too many people work too hard on my behalf to let them down that way.  I’m a professional, and professionals plow through to the end.

When failure is not an option, success is guaranteed.

Meanwhile, my Big Boy job had me on the road nonstop, and Joy’s dad’s health started declining rapidly.  When it rains, it pours, right?  Work days grew to be eighteen hours long and weekends disappeared entirely.  If I wasn’t busting my ass for my day job, I was busting my ass for the night job.  Sleep was a five- to six-hour per night luxury.

I’ve never written so hard in my life–or under such pressure.  But you know what?  I got it done.  And, if you ask me, it’s really, really good.  From mid-late July till October 17 when I submitted the manuscript, I wrote, rewrote and polished 315 manuscript pages.  I don’t know how I did it, and I pray that I’ll never have to do it again.

If there’s a lesson here beyond the old standby of don’t-let-this-happen-to-you, it’s that any obstacle can be overcome if you want it badly enough.  When you’re caught in a crack, the last thing to let go of is your professionalism.  Friends will wait for you, family will understand.  Employers are paying for an honest day’s labor, and you owe them that and more.  With what’s left, you turn to the next obligation in line.

On a personal level, I learned an invaluable lesson that is reflected in one other accomplishment: Here it is mid-November, facing another September 15 deadline in 2012, and I’ve already started the second chapter of the next book.  My goal (and it’s a soft goal, not a sword worth falling onto), is to have this one finished by June 15.  I think I’d like to try to enjoy a season of book conferences without staring down the maw of a deadline.

We’ll see . . .


11 thoughts on “Averting Disaster

  1. Well said. When I teach newbies I tell them up front to start acting professionally, if they want to get to the place where they actually are.

    Also, this scenario is what “seat of the pants” writers often face, so it’s best to know that up front and plan for it. I’ll pass along this first hand account!

  2. Thanks, BK.

    Joe, now that you’ve said it’s embarrassing, you might as well share, right? Can’t be as embarrassing as what the theater of my mind can conjure. 🙂

    Jim, here’s the thing: I’m not a “pantser.” I’m an outliner. It turned out to be a flawed outline. As for the 300-page marathon? Well, that was all pants.


  3. John, correction noted. This becomes a good caution for outliners, too. Isn’t it odd that the more we do this writing thing, the harder it sometimes seems? I think it’s because we know more and set our standards higher each time.

  4. John, I can so identify with your situation. Thanks, not only for sharing, but for letting me know I’m not the only writer in the world this has happened to.

  5. I know what you mean by deadlines. While not having had to suffer it for my own books (yet) other than in the self-imposed manner, I get those things on a monthly basis for narrations.

    The email comes in like the orders for the old Mission Impossible.

    “Should you choose to accept this assignment you have 30 days to complete it. If you fail, we will deny all knowledge of you. … this message will self destruct in ten seconds. Have a nice da … crackle…pop….ferschizzzzz

    sigh….2:30 am comes awfully fast when you gotta go to the day job at 7.


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