The worst mistake you can make
But today -- for the first time in months -- I feel good enough about the new book to leave it alone for a few minutes.
That is why I haven't been here much lately, even though I promised I would. See, the work in progress aka The Wip is due November 1. And this one is a killer. And I don't mean that in any of the normally good ways we crime writers refer to our work.
Kelly and I were on the road so much this year that we got a late start, and the ticking clock has been as loud as Poe's tell-tale heart in our ears all summer.
And the worst thing you can do to screw up your career is turn in your book late.
Being on time is very important. And it gets increasingly important the further into your career you go. Why? Because you can't get a foothold in today's crowded marketplace -- or keep one -- if you can't turn out a book a year on time.
That's the hardest thing a new writer has to grasp, I think. Before you get published, you have the luxury of time. Time for the virgin writer is a lovely, expandable, ever-accommodating thing. Kind of like a big purse. The bigger your purse, the most junk you carry around, right? Same with deadline. The bigger and looser it is, the more you will abuse it. Trust me. I know.
First-time authors spend YEARS making their books as good as they can. You have to in order to get an agent to take you on. Ah, but then what? Then you enter the big machine and you have to produce another. And another. And yet another. And here's the worst part of it: Each book has to be better than the last because publishers' attention spans (dictated by the computers at B&N and Walmart) are increasingly short.
Again, it's the luxury of time. Few writers entering the game today will be given the time to find their legs, their voices, their audiences. The reason is awful but pretty simple: It's all bottom line these days and there are too many young turks waiting to take your place on the publishers list. You have to produce well...and often.
So, what happens if you are late?
You lose your place in line. I learned this in great detail recently at the Killer Nashville conference. On Sunday morning, there was a very instructive panel with an agent, a Barnes & Noble manager, and the main buyer for all of Ingram (whom the other panelists called one of the most powerful women in publishing). It was all great advice, but the best insight came when someone asked what happens if you are late delivering your manuscript. All the experts agreed: You don't want to do this. Ever.
Here's the simple explanation: Your publisher creates its schedule at least a year in advance. And when an editor buys your book, the process begins whereby a bunch of folks decide where that book will be positioned to get maximum attention. Publishers jockey around each others schedules, trying not to have their books competing with similar books -- or with big star authors. Or Harry Potter for that matter.
So you sign your contract. You get your slot. Say you have a July 2008 release with manuscript delivery Nov 1, 2007. Now things get more complicated. To oversimplify things:
The cover design is based on your delivery date. Ditto advance reading copies (which are extremely important in getting bookseller buzz). Sales people start gearing up material for in-house and outside catalog placement. Marketing and publicity set a schedule of their own. And in the end, bookstores buy your book based on YOUR firm delivery date. And remember, this is happening for many other books at the same time -- from your own publisher and everyone else's. Every domino is in place.
Then you miss your delivery deadline. You're two, three, four months late. Life intruded, the kid got sick, you wrote yourself into a corner and had to backtrack, you had writers block, there was that three-week hiking trip in the Cinque Terre you really wanted to go on...blah, blah, blah.
What's the big deal, right?
That silence you hear is dominos NOT falling. You've lost your place in line, Bunky. And guess what? The world -- and the process -- will keep right on turning without you and your masterpiece. You've also been...unprofessional and made yourself a pain in the ass. Not something you want to have a reputation as being. Because publishing? -- it's a small world, after all. Once you've been labeled difficult, a prima donna, or unable to produce, that rep will follow you no matter how many times you switch houses.
I am not telling you this to scare you. Well, maybe I am. Because I got scared myself listening to the experts at Killer Nashville. See, I am not a fast writer. Writing is hard, even at times painful, for me. I try to worry each word into place, torture each paragraph into perfection. And that, my friends, leads me to paralysis.
Sometimes, you just have to sit down and let flow out. As the King says in Alice In Wonderland,
"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
Because, as the Queen tells us,
"In this country, it takes all the running you can do to keep you in the same place."