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On Selling a Book in Partial Manuscript Form - Part Two, AKA, The Scary Deadline Edition

In my previous blog post I told the story of how I decided to go ahead and sell my second book before it was done, also known in publishing as selling “on a partial.”  It’s not terribly uncommon; generally speaking, book contracts come with a built-in option clause on a writer’s “next full-length work of fiction.”  The expectation is, you and your editor now have established a working history… you probably know if you want to go on working together.  And I did.  I loved my editor.  So, I sold her my second book before it was done, and was quite happy about my choice to do so.  However, this doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous about selling something I hadn’t finished writing yet.  How do you know for sure you can be creative on the clock? 

We struck a deal right around the same time Penguin made headlines by suing a handful of authors who never turned in the books they’d promised to writeThat had certainly never happened before, at least, not that I’d ever heard.  There was speculation that Penguin’s decision to sue these authors was an indirect result of Amazon, Apple, and other new-ish publishing forces taking a big bite out of traditional publishing.  The big six just couldn’t afford to hemorrhage money like that anymore.  It was only speculation.  Who knows? 

It's not that I oppose Penguin’s decision to exercise their right to sue. In all of the cases, the writers basically didn’t turn in their books (in one case, the writer fabricated his biography, so he couldn’t legitimately publish his memoir).  Back when I used to work for a literary agency, it had always been my experience that publishers were fairly flexible about a writer taking a little longer than the contractual delivery date to finish his/her respective book, but when the years start flying by and an editor has yet to see some pages, well… understandably, people start getting a little uneasy.  In the case of the Penguin lawsuits, the authors were all nonfiction writers whose topics were very timely, so perhaps, in some ways, their books lost value with every passing day they went unwritten.

But getting sued for not turning in your manuscript sounds like every writer’s nightmare.  Or, at least, the plot of a movie starring Bradley Cooper.  Besides those non-fiction writers who were sued, I also knew of a fiction writer, who, after spending years revising her manuscript, had her contract cancelled.  In the course of several sizable rewrites, the book had wandered too far away from the version she had sold to the publishing house, and the editor no longer felt it was publishable.  The writer was asked to return the advance.  I can’t imagine how terrible it felt to get that letter in the mail, and I don’t want to.  It’s the kind of thought that can keep you up at night. 

When I signed a contract promising to deliver my second novel by a set date, it marked my first deep experiment with creativity and deadlines.  Deadlines, I discovered, really crystalize the polarity of art and business.

When it comes to writing, here is the argument art makes:

A novel is the kind of thing you don’t want to rush.  You want to work on it intensely, sure, but you don’t want to hurry it into production.  When you write a novel, it’s an act of sustained OCD.  You basically write the same story, from start to finish, no less than five or six times (note to aspiring writers: you gotta really love that story to get through those final rounds, just FYI, so pick a good one).  If you were to skip one of those rounds because you’re feeling the heat of a deadline (or angst, or jealousy at the bookstore, or whatever else it is that makes writers rush to crank a novel out), your book will suffer. 

And here is the argument business makes:

Time is money.  You could spend an eternity making editorial improvements on a manuscript, but if you NEVER punch the clock and say, “Here you go!  Here’s what I’ve got,” what do you have to show for your work?  It’s reasonable to strike an agreement whereby a worker agrees to deliver X amount of work by date Y. 

Most professionals in the business world are comfortable describing their work in terms of “results” and “products.”  But I’m pretty sure if you described Jonathan Franzen’s book to him as a “product” (an Oprah-branded product, no less!), he would take umbrage (I also feel like “taking umbrage” is something Franzen has made into a minor media sport).  Agreeing to a deadline is a reminder that time is money, and that you’ve promised to deliver a product. 

So what did I learn from my Great Deadline Experiment? 

I think deadlines are good – mostly  if you let them into your head just the right amount.  Obviously, thinking about those worst case scenarios, sued authors and such, won’t do you any good.  But neither will pretending the clock doesn’t exist, or buying into the notion that you are somehow a great artist who is above time and money.  A deadline gives you a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, and more importantly, to get to work. 

For me personally, I’d get lost in my work and forget about my deadline for a spell.  I’d try out a new scene or chapter, consider writing in a different tense or POV.  Then I’d pick my head up and remember my deadline, and I found it helpful.  Why helpful?  Well, when you write, you are constantly making choices.  Make this character tall or short?  Write in a wildly experimental second person voice, or a traditional third person past tense?  A deadline can push you to pick a choice and stick with it.  “If you’re going to make this choice,” the deadline says, “you’d better go all in and make it work!”  

All this is to say, deadlines do change the feeling of writing a novel.  Instead of merely wanting to write, you find yourself needing to write; you are obligated to write to fulfill a professional commitment.  As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  One of the ideas I’ve been really advocating in this blog is that writing is a job, not a hobby.  While writing a novel is certainly a joy and a passion, it can also be difficult and arduous, and a deadline can help you push through the part that is work, allowing you to accept it as just that – “work.”  Work that can and should have an output, work that will help you keep a roof over your head, work that can’t be confused with “a hobby.” 

Of course, there are lots of different personalities in the writing business.  TV writers, for instance, have to be very comfortable with the idea of writing on a deadline.  Novelists, I feel, can really go either way on this.  My best advice is to know yourself, know how you work best, and if you do agree to produce a novel on a deadline, take care to close your ears to all the noise that might mess with your head.