Time Is On My Side. Yes, It Is.

Jeffrey Cohen

The editor working on my next book (I don’t like saying, “my editor,” as I believe owning another person was outlawed in this country a while back; on the other hand, I don’t say, “the woman who chose to marry me,” so maybe I’m a hypocrite about that–I’m sorry, what were we talking about?) made an interesting request this week. In an email right before she left for another continent, she asked if I would mind if the deadlines–and therefore the publication dates–of the second and third books in the series that hasn’t started yet were moved up, a month in one case, two months in another. I’d been working pretty rapidly at the revisions on the first book; she assumed I’d be able to work with the same type of speed on the others.

The reasons for doing so were all good–it’s easier for a publisher to generate excitement about a series if the books are coming at a (slightly) faster clip; it helps build momentum and keeps people from forgetting that I write book they might have enjoyed in the past. But it was an unexpected request.

I had to think about it, hard. After all, I’ve never written fiction on a deadline before.

Let me repeat that: I’ve never written fiction on a deadline before.

It’s a daunting proposition. Even the years I was busying myself with setting the Guiness World Record (and since when does a beer company get to determine what’s a world record?) for Most Unproduced Screenplays, I never had to worry about when the work would be finished. I’m a pretty fast writer, once I’m ready to write, but I’ve never had to consider the idea of a deadline before.

Later, when the Unproduced Screenplays became Published Mystery Novels, I was still operating pretty much on my own schedule. The first book was written “on spec,” as we Hollywood wannabees like to say, so it could take as long as it wanted (which turned out to be less than two months of actual writing time), and the second and third in the Aaron Tucker series were written with the understanding that the publisher would accept them whenever they were ready, which was usually pretty soon–again, no deadline, so no pressure.

The book currently being edited in preparation for publication in (get ready) October, 2007 was also written without a publisher attached; that is, I wrote it as a way to find a new publisher, assuming that the search would be futile. When I was recommended to a wonderful agent, who found a home for the Comedy Tonight series in less than a month, boy, was there egg on my face! Well, no. There really wasn’t egg on my face. I don’t eat eggs much. Cholesterol, you know. Not to mention, eggs aren’t really anything special, in my view. But I was sure surprised, I’ll tell ya.

My writing pattern is usually something like this: I get the idea for the basic plot, and after letting it cook in my head for a while (which can be anywhere from 10 minutes to five years), decide it’s time to write. I start off like a house afire (although I refuse to believe that a house on fire has ever written a decent novel), strong in my belief that this book will be done in roughly a week and a half.

Then, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, I stop writing. I never know when it’s going to happen. I finish writing for a particular day, knowing full well what’s going to be written tomorrow, and then the next day, I don’t write anything. In some cases, I don’t write another word for months on end. In others, it’s been weeks. But there’s always this huge break in the middle. So when I say that my first novel took less than two months to write, that’s accurate: the time I was actually sitting and writing was no doubt two months or less. But it was probably closer to six calendar months before I got to type “The End” at the bottom of a screen.

In other cases, the break has been shorter, and sometimes, about the same. I don’t believe in writer’s block–I always know what the next sentence will be, but somehow, I put off typing it–but it’s undeniable, and now it’s gotten to be A Thing.

So given the question, I have to wonder: can I write fiction on time? Or will the very fact that there is a deadline intimidate me to distraction? Is it possible for me to have a draft done when my contract says I must? To be fair, even if The Break were to last as long as it’s ever lasted, there would still be plenty of time before my deadline hit. Assuming I was starting today.

And I do have about two pages of material written. I expect I’ll write more next week.

Probably.

4 thoughts on “Time Is On My Side. Yes, It Is.

  1. Mark Terry

    Ya know? I understand. My novels (I was going for the Corona World’s Record for Unpublished Novel Manuscripts for some time, then when that didn’t work, I went for the Cerveza World’s Record for Small Presses Going Bankrupt Before Actual Publication Date) tended to be written on my own schedule. Even my first two-book contract with Midnight Ink, the 2nd book in the contract was done when I signed the contract. It’s the contract for books #3 and #4 that have thrown a bit of a kink in the ol’ hose, so to speak, because it occurred to me finally that I signed a contract for a 4th book based entirely on a title (THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, due out sometime in 2008) and a one paragraph description.

    A one-paragraph description that, to my mind now, seems entirely inadequate, or rather, it creates quite a few technical problems that I hadn’t considered when I, er, sold the book based on it.

    When asked at book talks, “How long does it take to write a novel?” My answer tends to be, “7 months if everything goes right and 14 it if doesn’t.” That’s what I used to say, although really, two months now if I just sit down and do the damned thing, or four months, or, really, never, if I keep screwing around.

    I’ve had books–Dirty Deeds was the most memorable–that I quit on around 100 pages or so, thinking they weren’t salable, then 3 or 4 or 6 months later stewing about what to write, then picking up the manuscript and reading it and thinking, “Hey, this is pretty good. Why’d I quit?” And finishing it. And selling it.

    I’m sure you can do it, Jeff. Just have your wife nag you. And if you don’t want her to, e-mail me with your phone number and I’ll call you up regularly and nag you. I’d be happy to.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.mark-terry.com

    Reply
  2. B.G. Ritts

    Ah, yes — that good ol’ procrastination. I took a doctorate in it but never got around to the dissertation. While not an author, my cure for it has always been a deadline — YMMV.

    Reply
  3. Beatrice Brooks

    When people ask me how long it takes to write a book, I usually respond: “Six months to write it, nine months to edit it.” I lied. Well, I didn’t really lie. That was in the past, BEFORE selling on proposal. Chain a Lamb Chop to the Bed was contracted on a proposal. And a partial. And I only sent in 3 chapters out of 8. Piece of cake, I thought. Except I’m a plunger, not a planner, which means I don’t outline. Plus, I’ve become “known” for twist endings. To make a long story short (hee!), I had “planned” to write 75,000 words – the length of my other two books in the series – but I finally wrote my “The End” at approx 95,000 words.

    Can you say sweated it out?

    Fortunately, I’m married to an author, so all I had to do was explain to my dog why I was cutting her walks down to one a day.

    Hugs,Deni Dietz

    Reply
  4. Beatrice Brooks

    When people ask me how long it takes to write a book, I usually respond: “Six months to write it, nine months to edit it.” I lied. Well, I didn’t really lie. That was in the past, BEFORE selling on proposal. Chain a Lamb Chop to the Bed was contracted on a proposal. And a partial. And I only sent in 3 chapters out of 8. Piece of cake, I thought. Except I’m a plunger, not a planner, which means I don’t outline. Plus, I’ve become “known” for twist endings. To make a long story short (hee!), I had “planned” to write 75,000 words – the length of my other two books in the series – but I finally wrote my “The End” at approx 95,000 words.

    Can you say sweated it out?

    Fortunately, I’m married to an author, so all I had to do was explain to my dog why I was cutting her walks down to one a day.

    Hugs,Deni Dietz

    Reply

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