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.

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Here be Sharks…

Please join me in Welcoming guest blogger, BRAD PARKS, to the Killzone…though be warned, treacherous waters lie ahead…

Editor’s note: In this guest blog post, the author has indicated he will be employing an extended metaphor to explain how he writes. Metaphors are highly complex literary devices and should only be attempted with great care. Ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough to use metaphors. Do not use metaphors if you take nitrates for chest pain. If your metaphor lasts more than four hours, consult an editor immediately, as this could be a sign of rare but serious case of over-writing.

There are a lot of different writing methods out there, and – like a lot of you, I’m sure – I experimented with a number of them through the years. I tried outlining, but found it stifled my spontaneity. I tried starting with the end in mind, but found it made the end too predictable. I tried sketching out key scenes before I began, but found myself too impatient trying to get from once scene to the next. Finally, I found the method that works best for me. I call it, “Writing like an open-water distance swimmer.”

Editor’s note: Wait a tick, isn’t that actually a simile? You used “like” or “as.” That makes it a simile. You must be one of those kids who daydreamed through the section of eighth grade English where you were supposed to learn the difference.

I got into swimming a few years back when my surgically repaired knee kept making it difficult to continue jogging as much as I wanted. I enjoyed swimming, except for one thing: Pools are boring. You swim to the wall. You do a flip turn. You swim back. It’s the equivalent of writing by formula – it’s exercise, sure, but there’s not enough to keep it interesting.Then my wife and I moved to the tidewater part of Virginia, to a small cottage on a wide section of the Rappahannock River, not far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The climate is fairly mild here, so I’m able to start swimming in April each year and, with the help of a wetsuit, can keep it up until the end of October.

Editor’s note: Yeah, yeah. You’re a freakin’ iron man. Get on with it, will you?

And here’s where, for me, writing is like open water distance swimming: Each day, I know where I’m starting (on the beach just down from our house). And I know I need to get back to dry land eventually. But I don’t know exactly what I’m going to encounter on the way. All I can do is plunge into the water and start stroking. Certainly, there are dangers involved in open water distance swimming. You can get swept away by strong currents. You can suffer a cramp. You can get attacked by a great white shark.

Editor’s Note: Hold on. A great white shark? C’mon. You already said you swim in a tributary of the Chesapeake Freakin’ Bay. Everyone knows great white sharks are ocean-going creatures. More importantly, Wikipedia knows it. Shape up, buster.

You can get stung by a jellyfish.
Editor’s Note: Better.

Yet that sense of danger is what keeps it fun and interesting. Between the tide, the wind and the waves, the river is never quite the same place from one swim to the next. I’ve found writing this way keeps things fresh – every day is a new adventure.

Plus, as a writer, you get the chance to edit what you’ve done and correct your mistakes. It’s the equivalent of going back over your swimming route in a row boat, being able to say, “Oh, that’s where the current got a little strong for me, I should have swum over here instead. That’s where I got attacked by that great white shark…”

Editor’s Note: You’re just testing me now.

“… that’s where I got stung by that jellyfish.”

Editor’s Note: Better. Hey, did you hear about the giant jellyfish that sunk a 10-ton Japanese fishing boat (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/6483758/Japanese-fishing-trawler-sunk-by-giant-jellyfish.html)? Honestly, how embarrassed were those guys when they went back to the dock and had to tell their fishing buddies, “Yeah, the Mary Jane gave it her all, but the jelly was just too much for her!”

And then you go back and fix it. But – and here’s perhaps the most important part of the metaphor – there’s really only one way to get from one side of the river to the other. You have to keep swimming.Unlike jogging, or working out on an elliptical machine or lifting weights, you can’t just stop when you get tired. Once you’ve thrown yourself out there in the river, in water over your head, you’ll drown if you let yourself stop. And maybe there are times when the shore looks like it’s an impossible distance away or you think you won’t be able to make it. The only way to get through it is to keep going, one stroke at a time. And you know from your previous swims – or your previous writing sessions – that if you just keep doing that, you’ll eventually get back to shore, with soft sand under your feet.Do you have a good metaphor for your writing? I’d love to hear it.

Editor’s Note: Just, please, no sharks.

BRAD PARKS is an escaped journalist, having done time at The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger as a sportswriter and news feature writer. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he is a washed-up jock, a veteran of community theater and a terrible golfer. He lives in Virginia with an understanding wife and two adorable young children. To learn more about Brad or FACES OF THE GONE, visit http://www.bradparksbooks.com/. You can also sign up for his newsletter (http://www.bradparksbooks.com/fan-club.php), become a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Brad-Parks-Books/137190195628#) or follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/Brad_Parks).
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