Thursday, August 30, 2012

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?

35 comments:

  1. Yes, I've thought about this and it scares the bejeezus out of me. But it's good to read stuff like this and get a feel for what could come. That way I can make plans for how to cope.

    To me, not knowing is worse than knowing and being scared of it. I'd rather be prepared. So thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oh, you'll do great! I know you will.

      Delete
  2. I'm an unpublished author and have thought of these things. I've been told before about deadlines, about the need to get things done on a strict time schedule. I have read countless blogs and tweets from other writers doing the same things.

    And yet, I don't think it's a pressure that one can truly understand until one is in those shoes, staring down the deadline. I used to be a reporter for a newspaper, so I know all about deadlines. Maybe better than novelists. I have had an hour to get something done that needs to be coherent, intriguing, grammatically correct, factual and have no inconsistencies - all knowing that people will be READING it in just a few hours. So I know about deadlines.

    However, being under contract to write something that people enjoy, that they will hopefully fall in love with. Something that will take a lot of time and effort. That is something of which I still don't know the full extent.

    But as an unpublished writer, I would say just about anything is worth getting published - getting that first offer of someone wanting to print your book. It's the goal of every unpublished offer. And yes, there will be consequences after that. Things like deadlines and working under contract and have immensely more pressure than before. But I think writers need to remember they were once unpublished, as I am. That they once would have given an arm and a leg (Well, maybe just a leg? Arms are useful for writing.) to get published. Remember that it's totally worth it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Have I thought about this? Oh, h3lls yeah. That I already have a working (albeit, brief) version of Books 2 and 3 written helps, but I'm still a bit intimidated by the notion that I can't just goof off for days/weeks/months at a time where my writing is concerned.

    Then again, as a former professor of mine once said, "Deadlines can be useful things." I suspect the contractually (i.e. monied) inspired discipline might actually do me and my writing some good.


    -- Tom

    ReplyDelete
  4. As a not-yet-published writer, the only deadlines I have are self-imposed. In a strange way, I'm looking forward to the day when I'll have an excuse to lock myself in a closet with the laptop and just write. I'd love to have the excuse of a deadline to get out of cooking dinner every night! :D

    ReplyDelete
  5. We at Frags and Beer enjoy your blog, so have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. http://fragsandbeer.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/weve-been-nominated-one-lovely-blog-award/

    ReplyDelete
  6. I laughed out loud about pushing a pub date back to 2089. Thank you for this. In my experience, it's absolutely spot on.

    ReplyDelete
  7. As a not-yet-published writer but a marketing manager, I still can't escape many of the things you write about. It's all too easy to imagine a terrible sales meeting years down the road where people talk about how my book won't sell, because I've been at those meetings. And they are awful for everyone.

    (Also: my husband designed your book cover. I can't wait to read it. Hi!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. wow! what?!?!? amazing! I love that cover! (!!!) (!!!)

      I shudder to think of those terrible meetings...*throws salt over shoulder* *touches rabbit foot*

      Delete
  8. I recently signed with my agent and have realized that even doing revisions for my agent, pre-submission, is a lot more intense than revision were before I signed. Now someone besides me and my writers' group is waiting for the result. And there are dollar signs attached.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm an unpublished author, and most of the time, I REFUSE to think about this! I interned with Random House this summer and my supervisor started talking about a few authors he knew who hated the pressure. It was bad enough, they were thinking about giving it up, steering their dreams around the other way.

    I wonder if it's necessary or irresponsible to dismiss such prospects as anxiety about a blessing of a problem.

    ReplyDelete
  10. As a published author... writing under contract is definitely a whole different experience. Not for the faint of heart! But totally do-able if you have an awesome agent in your corner and an editor who wants your book to shine! It means putting your ego in the deep freeze and getting down to business.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Excellent post, though it has made me if anything EVEN MORE NERVOUS. I am a slow writer, and also one of those writers who prefer revising to drafting. The pressures of second-book-under-contract did not help with my difficulty drafting, at all. I've really just had to get into a "today is a good day to die, and to write some words of some kind" place. And that's helping, or I think it's helping. We'll see when I start getting agent and editorial feedback.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks to the strong writing community online, I *have* actually thought about these things, and posts like yours help mentally prepare me. (I imagine that I'll never be as emotionally prepared as I'd like, though. :P)

    Even though it's different and probably intimidating, I'm sure you wouldn't trade it or go back, right? :) And that's life. Each new step is scary until we master it. Then as soon as we do, the next new step comes!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I've been out on sub for a few months and have not...quite..thought about this. It's sort of like the caution about staring at the sun for too long in case it burns out your eyeballs.
    In any case, the pressures you're talking about come w/ any profession. When I student taught, it was a little like babysitting. Now I have my own class, I need to get results from my students in a certain amount of time, despite distractions/vacation/family problems, etc...or else. Sounds like being a professional novelist is similar.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Revising to deadline… .You’re a bona fide professional now, Intern. All grown up, and making lasagna.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Well, thanks for giving me a moment to actually be GLAD that I'm an unpublished author. I just sent a short story out to my crit group and edited it endlessly until it was the deadline to submit to them and that was bad enough. To think of it being actual people who's jobs depend on my book...well, as much as I hope to be there someday, I don't mind NOT being there yet. It's still for fun right now, even though I really hate my day job...

    ReplyDelete
  16. I love posts like this that help prepare those-of-us-who-still-dream-of-having-these-problems. It's like getting a glimpse of the normally-darkened path that's behind the door we're still knocking on.

    I'll be terribly disappointed when no one wants me on any talk shows, though.... :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'm a yet to be published author but I'm meeting with an agent next month to discuss changes to the book I've been shopping around for the past few months. I think the thing that worries me most is the impending solitude. I like office life and the people I work with and though lots more time to write would be great the idea of having no one to chat too is a bit scary.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I've had a great experience since signing my contract. Yeah, I've had to face my weaknesses as a writer and accept that there are some things I just don't have the skill to attempt yet. But I've learned to focus on my strengths and improve my writing as a result.

    I talked on my own blog yesterday about how I dropped from planning a 6-book series to planning a trilogy. That was a big move, and not one I could have made even a couple of months ago. But it felt right at the time. I only have the deal for my first novel. Everything else I still have to query to my publisher like anybody else, but I'm trying to work as though they're expecting the rest of the series from me, to keep my mind focused on getting the job done.

    ReplyDelete
  19. That, of course, is the think you DON'T get as a self-pubber - you have to be your own worst critic. Although from some of the traditionally published novels I've read recently the editing process isn't being applied with nearly enough rigor, so thank your lucky stars that you still have an editor...

    ReplyDelete
  20. Yes, yes, and triple YES. I signed a two book contract and I'm now having a series case of 2nd book heebie jeebies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. heh, we should start a club—the second novel club or something like that—and drink to excess and assuage one another's neuroses...

      Delete
    2. Hey, sounds like a good plan to me! I have a feeling I'm going to need lots and lots of drinks before I finish this book.

      Hah, just noticed the typo in my earlier comment. I meant "serious case" not "series case". Still, it's kinda fitting.

      Delete
    3. I'm in. I have Second Novel Syndrome (it also affects self-pubbers, but we have no reassuring agent to talk us down from the ceiling and remind us we can write).

      Delete
  21. I currently fall in the not-a-published-author category, and I have recently been giving a great deal of thought to how my life might change when I do get a book contract for that first novel. A lot of bloggers I follow have of late become debut authors themselves and all their posts are suddenly about how they're really excited to be at this stage in their life and everything is glowing and lovely, but they miss having time to write. They are constantly on the road touring, going to convention panels to speak, or spending so much time plugging away at self-promotion for the current book--holding giveaways, tweeting, responding to fan mail--that they're a little sad they no longer have time to write the next book. Or, even worse, they have to dedicate all this time to self-promotion PLUS write the next book in the series or whatever that they've already been contracted to do, which is extra stressful. Not enough time to write something good, they fear.

    It's made me think that maybe I want to have two manuscripts ready to go before I really start querying that first book. I already have two WIPs, but instead of polishing one up first and going through the whole query process and saving the other for another time, I might polish them both up concurrently. That way, I'll have the time to really enjoy the debut of my first novel and not stress about needing to write The Book next. I already have one that I love that is finished and maybe just needs a little tinkering. And I don't have to worry about cramming a novel into the crevices of my life, at that point, putting too much stress on myself. I think it would help me avoid that feeling of "being behind schedule."

    (Of course, this is all based upon the assumption that an agent loves my book as will a publisher and that I'll finish the books to my own satisfaction first, meaning this entire thought process is based in a far-off dream land, but bear with me.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think what it boils down to is that every writer is different. I wish I could have finished a second manuscript before the first was sold, but even though I tried, I found I couldn't devote myself to two novels at once. maybe that will change with experience. if you *can* do that, it sounds like a great idea!

      Delete
  22. I'm thankful you posted this because, as a writer who is still working on manuscripts but who has been actively publishing in small presses and blogs, I came to the conclusion a few weeks ago that I could get these manuscripts completed, perfected, if I only had an agent, a book contract. I believed that having these on-hand champions would affirm me in my work. They would usher me toward victory.

    It's the greener grass syndrome. It seems true, but only from all the way over here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. well, it's complicated! having an editor is an AMAZING advantage and motivator. a lot of this depends on your personality. different people thrive under different conditions. I do wish the publishing industry was less one-size-fits-all, because writers are definitely not one-size-fits-all :)

      Delete
  23. Having a deadline just means acting like a professional. It's no different than getting a term paper submitted on time. And I've worked with editors before in magazine journalism, so I'm not scared of that. I'm quite looking forward to it.

    But I do find that the second novel is a lot harder to write than the first. There is some truth to The Infamous Curse of the Second Novel. I had a couple of false starts. I'm still pre-published, so it will be a relief to finish it and go on to the third!

    ReplyDelete
  24. I also just got a two book contract and am awaiting edits. I am very worried about balancing family and deadlines, and producing book 2 (it's not a series - so, where do I even start?!).

    Your post made me feel equal parts horrified and soothed. It's nice to read blogs that have well-rounded posts rather than just the happy, happy dance. I needed to hear all this :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. nice to meet you, Tracy! there are many dances in publishing, and the happy-happy dance is only one of them...(although with any luck it's one you'll be doing more often than others!) good luck!

      Delete
  25. Wow, this post was very thought-provoking. I must say I appreciate blogs which promote a realistic view of publishing.

    It seems like it would be an interesting (if painful) process to have a professional finally look at a novel; I hope I finally get there some day. I'd like to know what a truly disinterested person thought of my writing. Also, don't you think you could avoid the disappointment of losing the infinite possibilities after publishing by focusing on the next work? It seems like that would be the most effective way of keeping yourself from obsessing over the performance of a published novel.

    ReplyDelete
  26. As a writer who has never been published I can say right now, I don't think I could handle being under contract. I'm way too disorganized for that and I may have the idea settled for book two before I've finished book one but there are two many outside variables like school and job and family. Unless I suddenly developed the skill to write full time I don't think I could do it. But that's just me.

    ReplyDelete