Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Deadlines

The big news around the writing scene at the moment is that Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote The Time Traveler's Wife, has just sold her second novel for over US$4 million. In these dire economic times, that's big news. And no doubt the kind of news that will make many novelists grind their teeth. But, as some bloggers (such as Kristin Nelson the agent) are pointing out, she sold it on a fully completed manuscript. A great manuscript. Not a chapter and synopsis and a wish and a prayer. She apparently knows that the dreaded second novel can sink you, as can its deadline.

Writing to a deadline can be a great incentive. Or a lead weight around your neck. I know two children's writers who have signed deals for series in the past couple of years, and agreed to insanely tight schedules for Books 2, 3 and 4. Book 1 is already done. Book 2 is half done. How hard is it going to be for Books 3 and 4? Strangely enough, they get harder. They get worse. They start to inhabit your nightmares. The due date for the next one draws closer and closer, then it whizzes past. You struggle. And really, to be honest, the pleasure and enjoyment has gone. The characters you invented are now people you'd like to strangle.

Audrey did incredibly well with her first novel. I have a copy here somewhere but I haven't got around to it yet. I might just dig it out and read it now, and the editor and agent are saying her second one is terrific, better than her first. When was the last time you heard that about a second novel? Usually the knives are out, one way or another, before the second novel hits the printing press. Second novels are always a let-down (that's if you can even finish your second one after the trauma of your first one either hitting the best-seller lists unexpectedly - therefore making you temporarily famous - or sinking without a trace).

But the series deadline? It makes you think twice, once you've heard a few horror stories. You write a novel and think - this could be series! That's what everyone wants. But you have to really believe in your heart that you love your characters enough to write another five or ten. And then you have to resist the super-tight deadline, if you can. Easier said than done, especially in today's climate.

I remember a few years ago that Sue Grafton dug her heels in (after a couple of Kinsey Milhone novels that weren't too good) and said she would write them when she wrote them and not before. She'd either take the time necessary to make them the best possible, or she wouldn't write them at all. She had eight novels behind her already, so it was a lot easier for her to say no. Some people can churn a series out, but most of us can't, because we do want our books to be the best they can possibly be. And that takes time and patience.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Sherryl. This topic has come up a lot on the blogosphere over the last few months. It's something really important for aspiring novelists to think about, because there are so many who fantasize about being published, without preparing themselves for the fact that it actually gets harder, not easier. I know I'm guilty of that! But it's good to have a balanced view, and to be prepared.


Sandy Fussell said...

I don't know anything about getting 4 mill *sigh wish I did* but I can add my series experience. The four Samurai Kids books came/come out in 2008-2009. By the time White Crane was released I had written half of Owl Ninja. I was commissioned to write the next two books in 9 months- which a family health issue cut back to 8 months. I didn't feel pushed – I enjoyed the process - but I suspect that has something to do with my personality, writing habits and the fact that I am a new author so haven't felt the need for a break yet. While I wrote the 4 books over 4 years, I also wrote 2 unrelated books in that same time - Polar Boy released Aug 2008 and Mexica Runner due April 2010. I write every night from 11pm - 1am, when I am not blogging *grin*. It’s therapy for me after a day spent at a mathematical job. Plus I am not a good sleeper. I do feel that each of the four series books is progressively better. Maybe that's because I am new to writing and have a lot of room to grow and learn the craft. But all that said I am enjoying working on something completely different now.

Sherryl said...

Katherine, you're right when you say it gets harder. I know a fantasy author who said she took about ten years to write her first book, and could revise and polish all she wanted. But when it was published, suddenly the second book had to be done in a year, and she really struggled.

Sherryl said...

Sandy - a whole year to write each book would be quite manageable, I'd think. It doesn't sound like you were pressured. But if you'd had to write each of them in 4 months, it would've been different. The extra time you had meant you were able to learn more along the way, as you said. Time is such a bonus these days!