Doing the Maths

So, the editors at Black Library have approved the synopsis for Alith Anar, the second installment of the Sundering for the Time of Legends series. I know what needs to be written so now I have to go away and write it.

When writing commissioned work it is important to have a schedule – and keep to it! The most obvious milestone is the deadline for the completed manuscript. Usually advances are broken down into further sub-payments – on commission, at some pre-arranged halfway point and on final delivery (or sometimes paid on publication by try to avoid those as the delays can be terribly long between doing the work and getting the cash). ‘Halfway’ may be calendar-based, word-based or some other measure. Different authors break down this work in ways that best suits their working style. Some treat the halfway stage as half the words written and re-written to the ‘final’ standard. In the past I have completed the first draft at halfway and then spent the remaining time rewriting the complete manuscript. That’s the approach I’ll be taking on Alith Anar. That means ‘halfway’ won’t be halfway at all, but more likely two-third to three-quarters of the project timeline.

So, that’s 100,000 words to write. Looking at the calendar, there are 33 working days until Christmas, which give me roughly 3,000 words per day to write if I want to be done before the holidays, which seems a grand aspiration at this stage. That’s eminently achievable – few hours work each day. If push comes to shove, it is possible to write a lot more in a day and also to work weekends, but now that I’m writing full-time that’s something I want to avoid if possible. I find that 2,000-3,000 words a day is a steady pace that allows me to maintain my flow and concentration. When I push my writing beyond this it leaves me tired – in fact on past books I have pulled week-long intensive stints that have left me feeling utterly shattered.

However, you don’t want your writing to descend into a simple number-crunching, quantity-surveying exercise. You have to learn to go with what feels right. That means on some days the part of the book I’m working on will be trickier and maybe I’ll only get a couple of thousand words written. That’s fine, because I also know there will be days when the writing just comes naturally and quickly and I’ll have banged out 5,000 or more in the afternoon, or will feel able to work into the evening. This means that the schedule is not a micro-management of every hour of every day, but rather a means to ensure that overall you are keeping on track. In this case, that means making sure I’ve written about 15,000 words per week.

It’s always a good idea to get ahead of schedule. Unforeseen events – a bout of a winter cold as I’ve just had, for instance – can easily take a writer out of action for two or three days. As with other project management you need to be able to create flexibility ahead of such inevitable delays and also have a contingency if you fall behind. The most important thing is not to panic. Sometimes writers get blocks simply because of the pressure they have heaped on themselves. This often becomes a vicious circle, with the writer putting in more and more hours without making significant progress.

I can’t remember on which novel this happened to me, but it did. After returning from a convention visit to San Francisco, I was tired and jet-lagged but was up against the deadline for the book. A combination of being awake at 2am and having a novel to write were a deadly combination, considering I was also going in to do my games developer job during the day… The novel did get finished just after deadline, but I was a wreck, having not allowed myself to readjust after the jet-lag and frequently surviving on three hours of sleep a night. The impact lasted for several months and I was forced to take a break from the freelance writing while I got myself back on track.

If you feel that the deadline is looming and that you are behind schedule there’s some simple things you can do:

1. Talk to your editor. I can’t stress this enough. Editors don’t like writers who deliver late, but they like it even less if the writer doesn’t warn them. Discuss point 2 with them.

2. Come up with a new plan. Work out how short you are on your deadline and revise the delivery with your editor if possible. This may be as simple as going back to the original plan of X,000 words a day for longer rather than trying to add an extra 1,000 or 2,000 words into the schedule.

3. Take a break. This can be the most difficult thing to do, because it feels that every moment needs to be spent writing. Believe me, even if you just take one day off to go shopping, visit a relative or even just sit around in your pants to play computer games, it can recharge the brain and make you ready for the final push. Even better, plan another day off in the next week or fortnight to ensure you don’t get sucked into the misery of endless writing under pressure. On this day off, enjoy yourself. Know that you have a plan in place and you’re allowed to spend the day doing something else. Make it fun, don’t use the day off to catch up on the housework or do something else worthwhile. The same is true if you are feeling under the weather. Sometimes you can take a couple of paracetamol and get on with it, at other times it really is a good idea to get some bed or sofa rest. Better to be out of action 100% of one day than be at 50% for ten days…

4. Feel the love. Let your friends and family know that you have to concentrate on your writing and may be neglecting them for a short while. They’ll understand if you are honest about the situation, while relationships can become frayed when you send yet another ‘Sorry, not tonight’ text message without explanation. If you’re having difficulties, talk them over with your best pal and often you’ll be able to realise the solution to the problems you are facing. Too often a writer will turn in on himself or herself, feeling like they aren’t a ‘proper’ writer because they are struggling and imagining how easily and naturally it comes to all of those writers on their bookshelf. Truth is, most of those writers struggled too at one time or another and had friends, agents, editors and others to help them through. Why do you think so many folks get name-dropped in ‘Thanks to’ and dedications?

Big Picture

As well as the project management aspects of each novel, I am also now hurtling towards sorting out a much broader schedule. It’s important as a commissioned writer to get a steady flow of work. This means having several irons in the fire at any given stage. Some novels are ideas, others are at synopsis while one will be being written. Where possible you want to be able to move from one project to the next with the minumum of delay. Sure, plan in some celebratory time off when the mss is delivered, but make sure that the next project is ready to be commissioned and start rolling as soon as possible.

This means that I’m going to sit down and look at overall work load. How many novels a year am I going to write? Who for? How do the needs of the different editors/ publishers tessellate into a schedule that I can keep and is useful for them? How am I going to continue to produce work year-on-year? That means not only a conveyor belt of projects but also time for preparatory work, brainstorming, navel-gazing and walks in the park with the iPod to get the juices flowing. The cutting edge of being a writer is sat at a keyboard, pounding out the words. The joy of being a writer is the flights of fancy, the dreaming of characters, stories and situations. If you are going to be a career writer (and are realistic enough to admit that it is going to take many novels to earn a decent income) that means sustainability. Year after year that means generating ideas for novels and writing them.

Sometimes that seems daunting – how many years, how many novels do I have in me? Other times one can sit back and take the longer view and I think ‘Wow, how many cool things am I going to get to write in my lifetime?’

Published in: on November 6, 2008 at 1:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] I covered some aspects of this last year in this post. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Doing the Maths[Interview] Magdalena Ball, author […]

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