Deadline Hell

By John Gilstrap

I’ve never understood very much about my own creative process (God, I hate that phrase), and because of that, I try not to think about it very much.  Where do ideas come from?  I have no idea.  They just arrive, and always just in time.  I talk to writers whose minds are filled with stories demanding to be told, and I admire them.  My ideas stumble into my head one, maybe two at a time, and they just sit at the bar and stare.  “Go ahead, Writer-man,” they say.  “Do your job and make us pretty.”

One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book.  I plan my entire year around that deadline.  A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15.  That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that.  But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline.  (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)

On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere.  This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12.  That shortened my deadline by three whole days!  That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two.  It was either submit two days early or four weeks late.  In my world, we call that “motivation.”

Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works.  If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1.  Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable.  Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write.  I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.

This year, reality bitch-slapped me.  ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana.  When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.

And September 12 still sat there, immovable.

I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event.  Math was beginning to work against me.  I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions.  Sounds horrible, but doable.

Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone.  And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend.  The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals.  Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.

Tick and Tock were both laughing at me.  In fact, they were mocking me.

Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words.  Perish the thought.  The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.

Never in my life have I written so much in so little time.  That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days).  If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me.  The last two writing days were each 6K-plus.  It was exhausting.

As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary.  And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for.  Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.”  Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation.  No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.

When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing.  For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter.  No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one.  Just spelling and continuity.

So . . . what the f-bomb?  How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe?  I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.

Here’s what’s off the table: I’m not going to try to recreate the magic of 6,000-word writing sessions.  I like being able to feel my legs and stand up straight.  I like a focal length longer than twenty-four inches. And that much coffee can’t possibly be good for me.

Next deadline: First two chapters of the next Grave book by November 1.  Piece of cake.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

16 thoughts on “Deadline Hell

  1. Glad you got to C3. (Yes, it was a blast.) This piece of yours, this one right here, this topic, is what scares the bejebus out of me wanting to land writing contracts with major pubbers, yet still we aspire to them. Deadlines = nightmare material. So many of you are real supermen/women, cranking out freakishly good work in such short periods of time. Hats off, stay the course, and hope you continue to suffer through these deadlines in the future, because your pain is your readership’s gain. Nicely done, sir.

  2. Back when I was writing columns my best-received ones were always the ones I wrote on a very tight deadline.

    I think sometimes we can revise the life out of things if we have enough time.

  3. I’ve seen writers who swear by this method. Chris Fox has a series on Youtube where he wrote a book in a month. His theory is that if you’ve done all the outlining, worldbuilding, prewriting, etc., then the actual product you produce will be good, no matter how fast you wrote it. His books are consistent bestsellers, so I think he’s onto something. I don’t know if I could make it work (I just don’t have the slabs of time necessary), but I’ve watched other writers do it. So this is definitely a thing.

  4. Oh God…10K in one week…didn’t need to read that first thing in the morning. Made my blood go cold. But been there, had to do it. I had a year like that once (thank God, only once) where the deadline was coming at me fast and so was life. I remember going to bed and waking up in a cold sweat (but unable to get up and write in the wee hours of the moring…never could do that). I wrote on airplanes, during a brief vacation, after Thanksgiving dinner (so much for naps). Just made the deadline.

    Also pushed it hard on the previous book (with a new publisher yet) and we JUST nipped in at deadline. But then I went back and re-read the last three chapters and knew it wasn’t right. So I worked up courage and emailed new editor, who was very cool about giving us an extra two weeks.

    I’ve always said one of the worst mistakes a writer can make is missing a deadline. Glad you made it.

      • Take it and run! I mentioned it in passing in a previous post, but never got into the whole thing about what happens when you “lose your place in line” with a publisher.

    • Sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy. I have some very successful author-friends whose completed novels run 80,000 words or less. Maybe I need to discover a way to tell shorter stories.

  5. Congrats on working through the crunch and getting the green light on edits. That tight turnaround makes me freak out just thinking about it but that’s not the first time I’ve hard people comment on turning out good product under such strict deadlines. Kudos!

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