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 . . .

The Muzzle of a Deadline

James Scott Bell

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. –– Douglas Adams
Sometime last year TKZ’s own John Gilstrap tweeted this: “Staring down the muzzle of a deadline, I’m beginning to panic.”
All of us who write under contract know that feeling. Right now I’m on deadline for two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. Through some inscrutable machination of Murphy’s Law (or as a punishment from God) both manuscripts are due about the same time. Add to that galley proofs that I have to get done by next week, and you have a prescription for rubber room admittance. I find myself walking around the house with my hand in my shirt crying, “Josephine! Josephine!”
My author colleagues know what I’m talking about.
But if you backed us up against the wall at a party, and forced us to elaborate further, we’d probably admit there’s a certain “high” in staring down that muzzle. Our nerve endings are on edge, we know deep inside that’s motivation to get cranking, that we’re on full alert, all our senses at the ready, like a hunter who knows the lion (if I may be Hemingway-esque for a moment) is silently watching from the bush.
Does that make any sense? Or shall we just accept the fact that the writing life is a  strange hybrid of joy and misery which, when mixed together, intoxicates with a seductive allure?
For those of you still awaiting publication, this is what you’re in for.
And while you are waiting, may I suggest you train yourselves now and create your own muzzles?
First, finish your book. Finish it! Give yourself a completion date. There are many reasons people have for not completing a book, most of them bad. Fear of failure might be one. Fear of hard work another (it’s fun to keep creating, less so get critiqued and fix things).
But you learn so much from completing a novel it’s best to do it as fast as you comfortably can.
Which brings us to the quota. I know there are some writers who reject the idea of a consistent production of words. But most, I think, see the absolute value of it.
This was one of the earliest pieces of advice I got, and helped me at just the right time in my career. It’s also allowed me to see published 25 books in a little over 15 years. Not a bad output. In fact, I look back with some astonishment at the record, and owe it to the quota.
I know there are other authors much more prolific than I, but I found just the right number to please my desire for production and my standards for the craft. I’m right where I want to be.
My suggestion is that you set a weekly quota. This is so you can break it down into days, and should you miss a day (which you will) you can make it up on the others.
Anthony Trollope was working for the British postal service and trying to become accepted as a novelist, when he began a quota system for is writing. In his autobiography he wrote:
There was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office.  I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind it to undertake this second profession I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws. When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if, at any time, I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face and demanding of me increased labor so that the deficiency might be supplied.
You want to make it in this racket, you produce the words. You don’t need the muzzle of a contract deadline to do it. You can set your own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go correct some pages. 


Playing Jenga with my book

By Joe Moore

There’s a great game called Jenga. It’s comprised of lots of wooden blocks from which you build a tower. Each player in turn removes one wooden block from anywhere within the tower. The object of the game is to game1not be the one to remove the block that tumbles the tower into a heap of rubble. After all, each block is connected, touches, or relies on the others. The tower must remain structurally stable and strong to keep from falling and breaking. It’s fun to play, but you know that if you pull the wrong block, you can cause a chain reaction that brings the tower down. Once it falls, the game is over.

This week, I’m deep into the editing of the galley proof for my upcoming thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (June 8). It’s one of, if not the most critical stage of the novel writing process. Up until now, it’s been all fun and games: playing “what if”, outlining, researching, writing, discussing the plot with my agent/editor, sending out portions of the manuscript to my beta readers, rewriting, changing and shifting plot and characters, panicking that I won’t meet the deadline, turning in the manuscript on the deadline day, waiting for the initial feedback from my editor, strategizing with the publisher’s publicity department, seeing the cover art for the first time, worrying, and waiting. A treat arrives in the mail in the form of an ARC (advance reader copy) that my editor snagged for me. I get to see the mockup of the book and cover, and hold it in my hands, and show family and friends that there really will be another book, and I really am a writer, and the first four books weren’t just flukes. So up until now, it’s been tons of fun.

Suddenly, I get an email from the copy editor. The galley proof (the entire text printed as it will appear in the final version) will arrive on such and such a date, and she needs my corrections back on such and such a date to meet the “to-press” date. And she includes the statement that causes all warmth to drain from my body to be replaced with bone-crunching Arctic fear: this will be my final opportunity to make changes.

I’m about to play Jenga with my book.

OK, I can handle it. After all, everyone who read the manuscript loved it. Sure, there’s going to be a few typos that even the editor and proof reader missed. Hey, we’re all human, right? I’ll just whip through this baby, catch a few minor flaws, and get it back ahead of time.

Note: one big advantage here; I have a co-writer, and she’s got her own copy of the galley proof, and she’s going through the same exercise I am. So we figure it’ll be a quick read-through and we’re done. Then we can get back to the fun stuff, right?

So far, I have 5 pages of changes, mostly small items, but a couple of plot issues that need a great deal of thought before we commit to a change. The reason is, one small change, even a word, can break stuff all over the place. Pull the wrong block and the book comes tumbling down.

“This will be your final opportunity to make changes.”

Most of the changes going back to the copy editor are small stuff. But if I stumble across something that needs to be clarified and that clarification causes something else to be changed, and that change causes a major . . .

You get the idea. Editing the galley proof is like pulling blocks in the Jenga tower without it crumbling down around me. It’s not fun, and you don’t get a second chance. Who said writing a novel wasn’t dangerous?

How does this stage of the process go for the rest of the writers out there? Do you love it or hate it? Do you play Jenga with your book?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
”Leaves the reader breathless and wanting more.”
– James Rollins

My Favorite Part

by Michelle Gagnongirl on bike

It’s done.

Four months of writing, four weeks of editing, 100,000 words total  (after approximately 10,000 words were trimmed). Three working titles (and roughly a hundred others considered and discarded), three major characters whose names changed from one draft to the next, and two alternate endings.

And finally last night, just a few hours past my deadline, I sent the completed manuscript off to my editor. Mind you, there are a few things left to do (for example, I have to go through the copy- and line-edited drafts in a few weeks). But by and large, the nitty-gritty work of writing THE GATEKEEPER is complete.

This is, hands down, my favorite part of the writing process. I dread staring at the blank page, and getting mired in what Louise Ure calls the "saggy middle," when it feels like you’re never going to actually finish the darn book. And even after the rough draft is finished and polished into something that’s largely presentable, there’s still self-doubt to wrestle with. After hitting "send" I invariably spend weeks on pins and needles waiting for my editor to respond, convinced I’ll receive an email deploring the story and the writing, insisting that I scrap it and start over (this hasn’t happened yet, but you never know).

But today, ah today- the first day after handing it in, when the editor has given the all-clear and the residual stress of meeting the deadline has dissipated and I find myself facing an entire afternoon with nothing to do (well, nothing besides writing this post, cleaning my house, and paying bills, that is). This is when it finally sinks in. I’ve finished my fifth book (for those of you keeping track at home, yes, I did say five: it will only be my third in print, since two others never made the cut). Ahead of me lies months of marketing and everything that entails (designing bookmarks, calling/emailing bookstores, self-flagellation, etc etc etc).

Today I can just sit back and enjoy the fact that for the first time in six months, I don’t have a book hanging over my head. To clarify: yes, I know I’m extraordinarily lucky to  have a contract and deadlines- and I’m eternally grateful for that, every day I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Still, that does mean I have to produce a book on a regular basis. And as I can attest from my journalism days, even if you love the assignment, having to write it in a specific time frame makes it an obligation. Some days it’s fun, others it’s work: every stage of the process has its benefits and drawbacks. But for nearly six months, I’ve tended to little else, as the stacks of paper and other detritus scattered around my house can attest.

It’s comparable to the first day of summer vacation. You know September is just around the corner, but for the moment, you can just get on your bike and go anywhere. Down the line there will be plenty of other homework assignments (new deadlines), grades (reviews, both good and bad), and field trips (tour stops). But today, you’re free. And you know what? I think my house is going to stay dirty and the bills will be unpaid for just one more day. It’s too rainy for a bicycle ride, but it feels like the perfect day for a matinee, and I haven’t been to see a film in forever. So today’s discussion question is: what should I see?