lasagna for fifty: why writing with a book deal is a whole different game
One thing I did not expect when WILD AWAKE sold is that writing when you have a book deal is very different from just writing. It’s the difference between cooking a meal for yourself at home and cooking for a restaurant full of people: sure, it’s still lasagna, but there are all sorts of new demands and constraints and variables and pressures for you to deal with in your shiny new professional kitchen.
Suddenly, the lasagna needs to be ready at a certain time, and the seasoning needs to please dozens of people, and it can’t be burnt on the outside but frozen on the inside, the way you sometimes eat it at home.
“Why am I so stressed out all of a sudden?” you wonder. “I friggin’ love making lasagna!”
Here, dear writer, is why.
Deadlines are real.
When you have a novel under contract, there are going to be times when you get your manuscript back from your editor with a note like this:
Hey author! Not to freak you out, but if you don’t have this revision back to me in two weeks, we’ll have to push the pub date for this book to the year 2089.
And you’re like: “OMG! LOL! SNAFU! SOS!”
Deadlines aren’t always that brittle—there is usually some amount of wiggle room built into the schedule, although how much depends on the publisher you’re working with, the genre of book you’re writing, whether or not it’s a series, and how much cred you have as an author (are you a well established literary genius who always blows her deadlines but produces masterpieces every time? or are you an unproven debut author whose novel may or may not be a masterpiece worth waiting for?)
Before the book deal, you could write when you felt like it, let the manuscript languish in a drawer for three months in the winter when you got depressed, or decide lasagna is a pain in the ass and go out for Chinese food instead. When you sign a book contract, you might have the most flexible and understanding editor in the world—but you’re still “on the line” to produce an amazing piece of writing in a certain timeframe, and that can be more daunting than you might expect.
You’re not allowed to leave the kitchen until the counters are clean.
One of the great things about working with a publisher is having a bunch of really smart people read your book before it comes out. One of the annoying thing about having really smart people read your book is they spot all the teensy inconsistencies you would otherwise have been too lazy to iron out—for example, they check to make sure that the scene in which a certain character refers to it being Monday actually takes place on a Monday (cue a trip down the insane rabbit hole that is trying to fix your novel’s timeline).
But they also hold you to a higher standard on the bigger picture aspects of your book, and if you’re not used to being sent back to the drawing board for a stronger ending, a clearer character arc, or a more convincing solution to a plot problem, you might not be prepared for how exhausting it can be. Even if you’ve had beta readers and critique partners, it’s not the same as having an editor, agent, and publishing team whose own careers depend (to a greater or smaller extent) on the quality of the book you ultimately produce.
In short: if there are crumbs and splatters on your countertop, you’re going to have to stay and clean them until that kitchen is sparkling. Your “good enough” may not be the same as your editor’s “good enough” (and thank god for that!) The truth is, your first published novel may well be the first time you have ever been forced to truly confront your own weaknesses as a writer—not skim over them, not move on to another project before they are addressed. There’s a lot of pressure there. It’s a great and necessary pressure, and one that should leave you a better writer, but it should not be underestimated going in.
Rumplestiltskin wants your baby.
If you signed a multi-book deal without having written the second and third books already, you have made a promise to deliver something enormous—something that will consume years of your life and reams of emotional energy. Knowing that your unwritten novel has already sold can be a wonderful feeling—you have security, you have an editor you know and trust, you know what you’re doing for the next two years. But writing a second novel someone has paid you for and is counting on you to produce is very different from writing a first novel whose publication is only a lovely dream.
Unless you are an exceptionally chill and clear-headed person, you will probably feel some amount of anxiety about this sold-but-unwritten book. When you sit down at the computer, you are not just writing—you are writing The Book. Asking a particular story to be The Book is a lot of pressure to put on a fledgling idea. Instead of exploring it with an open mind and letting yourself make mistakes as you did with your first novel, you burden it with demands and expectations: it needs to be perfect, it needs to come out a certain way, it needs to work OR ELSE.
No matter how flexible and understanding your editor may be in reality, you may nevertheless be paralyzed by the idea that, whereas you were free to tinker and meander as long as you liked for Book 1 and could have chosen not to finish it at all, you are now beholden to Deliver a Novel, and there isn’t time for failed experiments of the kind you were content to dabble with before.
You’re about to find out what’s behind Door #3.
Before your novel is published, everything is still possible. You might shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. You might get a blurb from the Pope. Your novel might be chosen as an Oprah’s book club selection, or win a big award, or be integrated into highschool English curriculums nationwide. All these mights are very exciting. It’s like being a contestant on The Price is Right—will there be a shiny convertible behind that door? A yacht? A new house?
As long as the prize remains obscured, the possibilities are boundless. But when your novel comes out, those infinite possibilities solidify into a single reality. And even if that reality is amazing—glowing reviews, brisk sales—there can be a strange and guilty sort of disappointment mixed in with the joy. After all, what real-life outcome could possibility compete with infinite possibilities? Publishing a novel means finding out what’s behind the Door #3 of your imaginings, and that is a more dangerous endeavor than you may realize.
There are, of course, many wonderful things about writing when your novel is under contract—encouragement, validation, access to talented people, a feeling of momentum and purpose and definite goals. If I have focused here on the more dire/existential crisis-y parts of writing under contract, it’s because I myself was unprepared for them and startled to learn of their existence. You can adapt to the pressures of writing under contract and learn to thrive in those conditions as with anything else. But it will never be the same as making lasagna at home.
I would like to know: If you are not-yet-published, have you given any thought to how things might change for you as a writer and artist once your novel is under contract? If you have published a book or are under contract, what do you have to say about that experience?