Thinking Ahead

Unfortunately, being an author isn’t just about swaggering around conventions and having glitzy signing tours. Sometimes you have to write books! Writing a book takes time – perhaps one of the reasons writers’ blogs can be a little slow on the updates, there just isn’t that much to say on a day-to-day basis. As a writer there are two things that you must develop. The first is your craft, the ability to spin a good yarn and write it in an involving fashion. The second, and equally important to publishers, is doing this on time.

If a writer can build a reputation for delivering manuscripts to schedule, it makes the whole process a lot smoother. Manuscripts are a publisher’s stock, and any good business depends on having  a pretty quick turnaround from receiving stock to being able to sell it. A publisher that pays larges numbers of advances a long time before it sees any returns is risking some serious cash flow problems. On the flipside, nobody wants to rush the editorial process so it is important that writers deliver their manuscript on time to the editors to allow them to do their jobs properly.

This means that one of the most important lessons of experience is learning one’s writing practices and speed. For some writers this won’t be an issue – they may have a completed manuscript to sell to a publisher and all they have to worry about is any possible rewrites. For most, what they will have on offer is a synoposis and possibly the first few chapters of the book. Knowing how long it will take to finish that book is vital to keeping your editor happy and your mind in one piece!

What is true for a single book also applies to the longer term. Unless one already has the luxury of an established catalogue or an indepedent source of income, a full-time writer needs to be working all of the time. Not always every hour of every day of every week, but a steady flow of jobs to keep the bank manager happy and to generate a presence on the shelves. For most of us it is the breadth and depth of the catalogue – the royalties coming in year after year – that will keep the wolves from the door. This means multiple books in a year, which need to be coordinated in your schedule.

Unless something shocking happens – a meteorite strike or invasion of frogs – I will hopefully be signing a new book deal in the next few weeks (an announcement to come when this actually happens). Added to commitments already agreed with the Black Library, this will means that I have eight novels to write over the next twenty-four to thirty months! This is a good thing, but in order to pull it off I need some fairly thorough planning in place.

It is not just a question of how fast I can type, there are other considerations. There are several stages that each novel goes through – conceptualisation, synopsis, writing, editing and rewriting. In order to get the work done, there needs to be an overlap between these projects. It simply is not practical to work on one thing at a time. Insert your own analogy about irons in fires or juggling here. At the moment I am currently writing a novel, have a finished synopsis for the next one, a commissioned short story and some broad proposals for the other six novels. When Novel A is finished, I’ll begin writing Novel B. Around the same time I need to work up the synoposis for Novel C. If the timing is right, Novel B will be finished, or at least well underway, when the rewrites for Novel A come back. While rewriting Novel A I’ll send the synopsis for Novel C to the editors for their consideration so that when Novel B is finished, I have an approved commission for Novel C and can begin writing. At some point I need to flesh out my ideas and spend some time thinking about Novel D…  And so on over the months and years! And here and there one finds time for a short story proposal, or perhaps a weblog entry. All well and good so far, but once we get to Novel’s D and E, we have to start thinking about Novels I, J and K. What are they? Who are they for? A continuation of existing series, one-off books, or a new series? With Black Library that is more of an ongoing process, as one book hits the shelves another one or two are usually added to the end of the queue. With the other stuff, we’ll wait and see how things turn out.

Each of these different stages requires a different thought process, and sometimes even a different environment. Conceptualisation, for me, is usually done out of the office, either in my lounge with a flip chart, or driving, or walking through the park. It acts as a nice break from the more grindstone-like work of putting words on a page. Likewise, while a book is being edited, it’s not wise to simply sit around twiddling one’s thumbs waiting for the feedback. When the schedule is working well, several projects move forward on their own streams, complementing each other rather than competing.

Fortunately my background as a games developer has given me a good grounding in the sort of project management needed for this sort of thing. This past year of full-time writing has now also provided me with more accurate data to input into that process – how long each particular stage of the book creation will likely take. From this, I can sit down with my publishers and arrange delivery dates that enable me to meet my commitments.

The truest thing that I have learnt is not to skimp on the front end of the process. The less preparation I have done, the longer the writing takes, disproportionately since I am having to break from ‘writing mode’ to ‘thinking mode’ at inopportune points in the writing process. This means that my schedule includes plenty of time that isn’t directly allocated to a particular book, but is creative free time, either to come up with proposals for future books, to sort out niggling issues with a synopsis that hasn’t been finalised, or, if things are going well, to goof off for a few days and recharge my batteries.

And to go back to the first sentence, never underestimate the amount of time and effort needed to market a book. Double-check your dates to make sure that a release period isn’t slap-bang in the middle of a highly productive period in the writing process. Writing can often be about momentum, peaks and troughs of productivity that can all too easily be put off-kilter by having to go and do something else. Having to stop and start, particularly at the beginning or end of a novel, is a surefire way to get disjointed and out of sorts, requiring more time to regather the momentum lost.

This may sound terribly dull and detailed for a creative, but it doesn’t have to be. My schedules are pretty rough and ready – and they have to be, you never know when things might change. I allocate chunks of time – three months here, a week there – rather than worry about any particular daily plan. If I need to write 15,000 words in a particular week and I happen to do it by Thursday afternoon, all the good, I’m ahead of schedule. If I don’t finish it by Friday night then I make sure I start bright and early on Monday (I almost never work weekends on principle, and often I won’t even turn on my PC so as to avoid any temptation).

A good, flexible plan keeps me sane! In order that I can let my mind wander free in these fantastical realms , there needs to be a foundation of order to build on. Not all writers are the same, but I bet the ones with a dozen novels on the shelf of your local bookstore had a plan.

Addendum: I covered some aspects of this last year in this post.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Always interesting to hear about the more mundane yet vital aspects of your craft, I was very interested in the synopsis examples you gave too.

    Looking forward to reading more of your books… especially if some of these then will be set in worlds of your own creation.


  2. The points you make about interruptions screwing with momentum are equally applicable to graphic design, to any creative process. I spoke to a business professor at NUB a while ago and we agreed that there is a ‘sinking to depth’ period, similar to a submarine changing pressure as it dives, during the creative process. If you are forced to come back to the surface then you have to spend the time again to get to the correct ‘depth’ to continue your work. If I’m in ‘coding’ mode for a web design project and then have to stop and do a rapid turn around series of amends on a print project I find I take a while to get back to the right place for the web project.


  3. See….these are exactly all the reasons why I’m not a writer….or anything else that has to be done to a certain standard by a certain time for other people.

    I’m just to lazy and unimaginative.


  4. Hear, hear Xhalax.

    I can’t understand why someone would do that to themselves. But apparently them writy types think it’s worth it.

    And the rest of us just appreciate it 🙂

    A good post as usual.


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