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January 19, 2006

A Deadline Mantra

By Nancy

Ten pages a day. That's all I need to do. Ten pages. Every day. It's my new mantra.

I've said it before, and here it comes again: Writing a first draft is pounding a dull chisel into solid rock.  And my deadline is 62 days away.

Corral twenty writers into one room, and you'll hear twenty different ways to meet a deadline. To write a book. One friend still writes her first draft in longhand, then takes a couple of months to "retype it." Emma Thompson reports she also writes in longhand--in the loo--one well-crafted line of dialogue at a time.  A friend in a warm climate writes ten pages a day for thirty days and voila, she's done. Thirty days = perfect manuscript.  Then it's time to go work on her tan.

Mind  you, she's the one who lives alone, has no family, rarely does PR and doesn't travel. Thirty days of writing, and she's smoothing on the suntan lotion.

Me, after all these years, the most I've learned about my writing process is to build in time for the nervous breakdown that hits between the agony of the first draft and the 25th re-write which takes places during a phase we've come to call Deadline Madness around here--a crazed state of no sleep, constant revision, panic attacks, long hours of brain death and bursts of genius which somehow miraculously concludes exactly on my due date.

If I'm lucky.

It makes editors nuts when authors are late. The publication schedule--set in stone sometimes two years in advance--is a house of cards built by a team of people who each have a career stake in its smooth progression. Every month, each house publishes a mixture of "big books" and the rest of us. Mysteries are balanced with romances, thrillers, S/F, non-fic, celebrity "autobiographies" and the latest DaVinci Code clone in a delicate structure of genres, authors and seasons.  (Beach books go in June.  Books with Mother's Day appeal in May. Etc.) Sales catalogs are prepared long before the finished manuscript arrives. PR is arranged. Blurbs are negotiated with Kissinger-like finesse. Booksellers place their orders months in advance. Reviewers receive ARCs in time to coordinate with a much sought after "drop date" that not all authors merit (but covet!) because organizing such an even makes running FEMA look like a cakewalk.

When the author screws up, that house of cards might as well be hit by a bomb.

Because there's fallout.

Once I was a month late finishing a romance novel for Harlequin.  I was afraid to mention it would be late until well after the deadline, not earlier when what turned out to be a scheduling Hiroshima could have been avoided. When I sent the next proposal, my editor said, "I'm sorry, but we're going to need a completed manuscript from you before going to contract this time." Meaning I couldn't be trusted anymore.

Agents go nuts, too.

"Are you sure you want to schedule deadlines so close together?" the Rottweiler demanded after I'd been a teensy bit tardy. "And why are you going to all those conferences?"

Implication: "Why the hell don't you stay home and finish your damn books on time, so I don't have to deal with your bad reputation when I negotiate your next contract?"

Plus my readers--those beloved, but fickle fans who forget about me unless my books regularly appear before them require frequent installments to jar their memories, or the publisher must gear up that expensive publicty machine to re-introduce me.  Or not. Depends on the budget. Does an unreliable author deserve publicity money? Or is that wasting resources?

Or worse yet, if I turn in a late manuscript and they can't fit me into the adjusted schedule for another 8 months, the early books in my series lose their sales momentum and--oh, God, please no!--go out of print.

Sure, I had excuses when I was late. Death in the family. Moving twice in twelve months. Sick kids. Husband's midlife crisis. The dog didn't eat my homework, she died in a slow, messy, heart-breaking way. And did I mention I broke a tooth, had a lump in my breast and developed shingles all in the same month last year?!?

But publishing waits for no woman's mammogram.

The Rottweiler sold a novella of mine to Mystery Guild last week. They publish some original material now, and they liked what I wrote (it's the backstory to one of my series characters) but they want the revisions---uh, today. So that means I need to take a break from the manuscript I'm drafting and immerse myself in the novella again. In other words, I must break my  own momentum.

All my fellow writers are on deadline, too, of course--it's January!--and we feverishly email our progress. On an hourly basis, we re-calculate how many pages we must write every day to finish by the time stipulated by our legal, binding contracts.

This year I swear I'm going to hit my deadline and avoid the nervous breakdown, too. I don't have time for one because my manuscript is due during my March book tour when I must put on real clothes with real shoes and go on the road to be charming. I can't revise while I drive the Silver Bullet, can I?  Hello, officer.  This red pen? I'm just checking for passive voice.

So I'm on a sanity kick. Write ten pages a day. With a decent outline, that's a do-able quantity. When I hit page ten, I smile, sit back and give myself permission to stop. Sometimes I keep going because a couple of spares feel good. This is different from the years I spent writing as many pages as possible as fast as possible every single day. The stress and never-ending pressure was too much for me and I'd need an occasional week of recovery on the couch staring at General Hospital and America's Funniest Home Videos.

Now, instead, I take a leisurely shower while thinking about what has to go into just ten pages.  I think in plot points and complications of the Key Compelling Question. Advancements on just two or three subplots, not twelve. Is there a balance between action, dialogue and exposition? Does the setting taste, smell, sound, feel and look lush enough? Do I provide sufficient subtext and interior monologue so the protagonist engages the reader? What about sexy stuff so my editor is happy? But not so much that my core readership is turned off? Does the whole story serve my protagonist's inner conflict, the Controlling Idea of the book? Plus other stuff that only makes sense to me but includes a lot of sense memory to get into character--twelve characters, in fact.

Above all: What can I write that will entertain my reader on each of my daily ten pages?

But unlike  my suntanned friend, I can't rush down to my office every morning and--bang!--be creative. I need to get into the mood. And trust me, this mood is a lot harder to get into that The Mood, which is triggered very easily now that I'm approaching Gail Sheedy's stage of life.

Nor can I write ten pages a day nonstop until the whole book is drafted. Every fifty or 100 pages I go back--tweaking, adjusting, subtracting, adding. Strenghtening motivations, planting red herrings, nuancing the theme.

But I can't stop to polish my prose because I'd lose the forward momentum entirely. So the manuscript is just awful. So badly written that I will be humilated in the eternal afterlife if I am hit by a bus before it's finished, because someone will discover how slipshod and pulsatingly purple my prose can truly be. When the whole thing is drafted at last, it'll take a month to clean up the mess. I may have to call a HazMat team.

It'll take two months if I factor in the nervous breakdown.

You'd think after 26 years, I'd have a more efficient process, right? No. But this year, I'm trying my new mantra: Ten pages a day.  Ten pages a day.

Anybody have any better ideas? Because I only have 62 days left.

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Comments

You poor, poor girl. You sound in torment. Take a deep breath, catch a bit of GH = they've got a feminist revolution going on there behind the scenes, really quite interesting = and think of... Nora Roberts.
Just write the best story you can and the rest will fall into place, that's what she says. Have confidence. Embrace joy and know that when it's all said and done, your editor won't get around to reading it for a few weeks.
Then again, considering the editor in question maybe I'm wrong. She's one of the few who jumps right on everything. So, uh, 10 pages a day, 10 pages a day....You'll get there, of course!

Don't believe Sarah's comment about GH; just read Kari Wuhrer's Complaint (who writes those, publicists?). Boys Club. No prego's allowed.

Aside from that, you've been at it for quite a while, you've managed to get this far, so you need to be confident that you can do it--since you've done it before. Just chill, have some wine or dope along with your Special K, and get to the keyboard.

Josh - Kari's right. I mean what Pratt and Guza do to perfectly strong women characters is downright obnoxious. If I could get their address,I'd show up on their doorstep and give them a piece of my mind.
Okay, whew. Sorry about that Nancy. As you were....

Big confession: I gave up on GH when they dumbed-down Alexis. I couldn't bear seeing her hysterical.

I was a huuuuuuge OLTL fan until the Real Todd left. The other day I saw him feebly dying under a blanket on another network. What have they done to my wonderful Todd???

Wasn't Todd the rapist (or one of them) who ended up with his victim? Wow, how realistic is that?

Realistic??? Who cares??? He was suffering! In torment! Guilt-ridden to the max! And it drove him insane! He was nuts! Plus you never knew what he was going to do, which was delicious.

I miss him.

For some reason, when I read the old romance classic, "The Pauper and the Pregnant Princess", I pictured Todd as the Pauper. How strange is that?

Hey - want to motivate yourself - go back and read one of your first romance novel drafts - see how far you've come? You don't even have to write about cleavage any more!

...now when you write about cleavage, it's because you want to!

Kathy, I might pay you to dispose of The Pauper and the Pregnant Princess.

On the other hand, I think it paid somebody's tuition one semester!

Are you kidding? You should take any copies you have left to the RT Convention. You could probably pay for the Tarts' bar tab that way....

Like, WOW, like this is a JOB? You have responsibilities? Jeesh, I thought it was going to bonbons all the time. I might have to reconsider my retirement career.

Thanks for one of the best primers I've read on how to get to the end of the book. May your 10 a day be superb.

Holly

Does this mean I need to become a slave driver for two of you? :)

Harley and Sarah aren't on deadline as well, are they?

Mark

Well, yes. As my agent will tell you (and she's calculated it down to the hour) I do have a deadline, but it's not till August. Unlike the other Tarts, I just don't have the confidence yet to write 7 books a year. I'm such a slug.
I'm also only writing 5 pages a day, and it's very nearly driving me to drink.

Only five pages a day?

Of course, we won't go into how many pages a day I write. I can't really critize.

And August is months away. I'm sure you'll make it just fine.

Mark

Yeah, but Harley, what do you think of Kari Wuhrer's complaint--assuming you Never Want To Work In Soaps Again.

Well, I guess I'm lucky. My deadline for book two isn't until December and I'm almost a quarter of the way through.

Nancy, my heart goes out to you -- but you WILL make it. And I'm sure it'll be damn good.

GL is my soap of choice. I most envy--and giggle at--the character (Christina) Blake (Thorpe) Bauer Spaulding Marler Whatever.

She's such a gadabout. But as the resident Published Author of Springfield, whenever she decides it's time to crank out another bestselling steamy novel, she writes it in about a week. No midnight oil appears to be burned, either. Hey, presto, it's published the following month (give or take). Without any revisions or editing, so far as I can ascertain.

I don't know what her page-per-day count is, but it bears no resemblance to reality. (A rare commodity on soaps--I know, I know, that's why they're so damn fun.)

Good luck with those 10 pages!

My favorite soap author was Felicia Gallant on Another World. She'd hole up in her glamorous apartment, stock up on chocolate, sling a boa around her neck and bang away at her manual typewriter until Cass came over with booze.

Now that's the way to write a book.

THAT was a great blog entry. Thanks.

New mantra: Ten pages a day. With a feather boa.

Black and gold, of course.

And don't forget the booze.

Or Wally, the midget friend.

Sorry, Daisy, nothing beats this site:

http://www.catholicshopper.com/products/inspirational_sport_statues.html

My son likes the football one. I mean, how can you tackle Jesus?

Hey! Jesus won't let those kids have their basketball back. Jesus is such a jerk.

Oh, I'm so lost.
First, who's Kari Wuhrer?
Secondly, am I to understand that Blake on GL is no longer with Ross? Jeeze, I can't even keep up with my own (old. old. 25 years ago) soap. And, may I point out that not only does Blake crank out the bestsellers, she has multiple small children, who never cry, and only appear every month or so. And her hair is always red. No roots showing.

Harley, Sarah can probably explain this better than I can, since she watches GH and actually knows the names of the producers or writers or whoever they are.

Kari Wuhrer is a long-time B-movie actress who got a nice gig on GH some time last year. (I saw a quote of a "critic" on the Internet who said that if Kari Wuhrer is in a movie, there must be a topless scene.) She was matched up with the male lead for a while. I understand that her acting ability was at least as good as most of the rest of the cast. She got pregnant, and then they killed her off, not in a memorable way, like having a letter fall off a hotel onto her head, but sort of off camera. She threatened to sue, according to us lawyers' reading between the lines of the denials in Soap Opera Digest ("Is the rumor true that she is suing?" "We have not seen any Complaint.")

She sued last week, and her complaint was posted somewhere on the internet, and I read the intro portion, which read like fiction--that would not be allowed in Delaware where I practiced, or I think, under the rules in most places. I assume that Sarah saw it, too, although she may have just been agreeing with my statement.

Here's a link, which might take a while to load: http://cdn.digitalcity.com/tmz_documents/0612_kari_wuhrer.pdf

I think the critic probably meant to say, "If Kari Wurher is in a movie, there SHOULD be a topless scene."

For Wurher to be fired because she isn't "sexy" enough is just downright ridiculous.

Didn't Hunter Tylo from The Bold and the Beautiful win this lawsuit several years ago?

Not sure if she sued B&B, or another show which had cast her, then fired her when she got pregnant.

Josh - you're right. Don't try filing that kind of crap in PA either.

Hunter Tylo sued Aaron Spelling for casting her on Melrose Place and casting her off when she got pregnant.

She won quite a bit, but I'm not sure if it was enough for all the plastic surgery (boobs, lips, many etc.). She was very pretty, and now she looks like a clown. No wonder her husband left her, and now she is favor of divorce for herself, although against it generally, since she is a "Christian." Funny how personal experience changes one's perspective on one's punitive positions on social issues.

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