I think the one factor which distinguishes the professional writer from the non-professional lies in the concept of deadlines. There are many people who write for their own pleasure, because they enjoy it. I’ve now given up teaching in the university, but for a long time I had an adult literature class which developed a spin-off for those who wanted to write. Every few weeks they would bring along their work and read it out. Some of it was very good indeed. But – apart from one person – they had no interest in a professional writing career. They wrote for themselves or for their families. Several wrote stories based on their childhood, for the benefit of their children or grandchildren. That is how Laura Ingalls Wilder started out, we should remember. So did many other distinguished children’s authors.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of writing. It is as creative as any other, and many people have a creative talent which has no outlet in their jobs or personal lives. It is done for pure pleasure, and the idea that it should meet deadlines seems absurd – and would probably spoil the pleasure.
To be a professional writer is something quite different.
A professional writer has to take the writing seriously. It is a job. A pleasurable one, certainly – most of the time! – but not something you do just when you happen to feel like it. Even for those who have another paid job, which puts the food on the table, the writing is something which takes up a significant part of every day. For those who have gone full-time, it takes up the whole day. And for all of us, it means meeting deadlines.
If you work with a commercial publishing house, they will set the deadlines, usually with your agreement. Most publishers want just one book a year. (There are exceptions.) I have a friend who wanted to write two books a year, in two different series. The only way he was “allowed” to do this was to use a nom de plume for the less well known series.
So when you sign a contract with a publisher, deadlines are set by them for the delivery of the manuscript by you (fixed), and for publication (much vaguer). When they do set a publication date, you may be surprised to find it can be as much as two years after you deliver the manuscript. However, remember that these are large businesses and your book is only one of a great many. It has to fit in with their publishing and marketing schedules. Unless, of course, you have written about some very current political scandal, in which case they will pull out all the stops to publish quickly!
You deliver your manuscript (on time, of course) and wait to hear from your editor. No deadlines for your editor, usually. When you do hear back, you find that he or she (usually she) wants changes, and there are deadlines for these too. You may not like the changes, and need to defend your corner, but others will be useful. You deliver your amended manuscript, and then you wait. And wait. Suddenly you are sent the copy edits (more deadlines), then the proofs (more deadlines), and they are very close. I once received the proofs of one of my books (over 300 pages) when I was on holiday and was expected to return them in a week.
By this point, you are probably well into the next book, particularly if you have signed a two-book contract, which will carry its own set of deadlines. However, the previous book will eventually be published, though you may almost have lost sight of it by then.
All these deadlines are good in many ways. They keep the whole process of writing and publishing on track. It’s professional. This is not simple writing for pleasure, it is a professional career.
Yet there is a downside to these deadlines. They can be very, very stressful, especially for delivering a manuscript, if at some point the words won’t come. I think what is known as “writer’s block” is often sheer panic induced by deadlines. Do those who write purely for themselves, for pleasure, suffer from writer’s block? I doubt it.
That is the scenario for those who work with a commercial publishing house. What about those of us who have decided to go independent? I am familiar with both situations, and I can affirm that deadlines still remain important for the independent author-publisher, at least if you want to be professional.
In most of the books written to guide the new and not-so-new writer, you will find the inflexible rule that you must write every day, otherwise somehow you will cease to be a writer.
I do not write every day.
Some days I do research. In fact, I do a lot of research, since these days I write only historical fiction and I am obsessive about getting the details right. Some days I do editing, an essential part of the writer’s tool kit. Of course, both of these require writing of sorts – note-taking or rewriting previously written work – but that is not the kind of writing meant by the handbooks. Some days I spend a lot of time editing the audio files of my books being recorded by my two narrators. There are even days when, wearing my publisher’s hat, I am entirely taken up by admin. It has to be done, and there is no one else to do it.
What about deadlines? As a publisher, I have to set deadlines for myself as a writer. I first went independent early in 2014. At that point I was able to claim reversion of the rights on my commercially published books. I also had several historical novels already written, so my deadlines in that first year, and overlapping into the second, were simply related to editing and formatting these existing books, buying ISBNs, sorting out cover design, setting up a website and social media links. There was nothing stressful about these deadlines, it was simply a matter of working my way through a very long to-do list.
Once this initial period was over, the situation changed. I was now writing new work and I needed to set deadlines for handing my manuscripts (as writer) to myself (as publisher). There were, of course, no financial penalties, as there might be with a publishing house, but these deadlines could be double-edged. They had their good side. They kept me on track as a professional author-publisher. But, perhaps surprisingly, they could also have their bad side – they could induce stress.
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why should I be stressed by self-imposed deadlines? I don’t know whether other independent writers go through this, but I find my own deadlines feel as rigid as any imposed from outside. Once I was into this new phase of the writing business, I decided I could write four books a year, one every three months. I am now demanding of myself three books a year, one every four months. It is an intense schedule, but I am making up for the time I wasted trying to persuade commercial publishers to take me on as a writer of historical fiction. (My commercially published novels were contemporary.)
However, these deadlines for writing the books also need to allow time for the research, editing, and admin I mentioned above, and also for my part of the work on the audiobooks, which does take a lot of time.
Good or bad, the deadlines I set myself for 2017 meant that I published three new books: The Huntsman’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale, and The Lopez Affair, and eight audio versions of my books: Bartholomew Fair, The Bookseller’s Tale, The Novice’s Tale, Suffer the Little Children, The Huntsman’s Tale, Voyage to Muscovy, The Merchant’s Tale, and This Rough Ocean.
I hadn’t counted them up before – it is a surprising lot!
I had wanted to publish The Troubadour’s Tale before Christmas, as it is set during the Christmas season of 1353, but I ran out of time. It has been published this week. It wasn’t in the original three books a year plan, so I suppose I did meet my deadlines!
Deadlines – good or bad? Love them or loathe them, I think they are essential for any professional writer, otherwise you run the danger of frittering your time away. Without the enforced discipline of a contract with a publisher, I think deadlines are even more essential for the independent author-publisher.
Now, let’s think about the plan for 2018.
Till next time,