The Business Rusch: Carrots And Sticks
Once upon a time, maybe five years ago, I used to wake up and figure in my head which deadlines I needed to tackle that day. The most critical, the hardest, or the ones with the most cache/money/interest always got put in line first, and then I would build everything else around those.
I had several systems for this, including one on my paper calendar, a different one on my computer calendar, all with reminders and targets and completion dates.
I would divide the project into the amount of work I could do versus the amount of time I had, never pushing too hard, always giving myself time off or down days (necessary, given my chronic health issues). I had a lot of leeway built into the system, but not a lot of time for what the romance writers call “a book of the heart.”
A book of the heart is a book that professional writers write on spec, even if it doesn’t have a market. The book just has to be written. And once upon a time, maybe five years ago, writing such books was dangerous to a writer’s career or at least her livelihood, because there was no guarantee that the book would make it through the gatekeepers.
A book of the heart was a risk in a profession fraught with risk. Once upon a time, maybe five years ago, if a writer didn’t sell a particular book to the traditional publishers, then she didn’t sell that book to readers. Self-publishing was not an option.
Worse, writers were considered as good as their last book. What that means is this: If the last book didn’t sell well—even if it was the publisher’s fault—then the writer often couldn’t sell the next book under the same name. (I dealt with some of this in the blog post on pen names.)
Writers also got paid piecemeal—only a few times per year, and on a rather unpredictable schedule. If the writer sold a book for a five-figure advance, the payout would often be 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on acceptance, and 1/3 on publication. (Six figure advances, depending on size, could be split into four payments or six or eight. The higher the advance, the more payments.)
All of those payments figured into the daily deadline total as well. Dean and I got really good at looking a year out and seeing “holes” in our income—months in which we would have no money at all except our savings which we did not want to touch. (Often we had to touch it, because traditional publishers, while nasty about writers missing their deadlines, are lax about meeting their own payment deadlines. So a payment to us that should have come in, say, August, rarely arrived before the end of September, since folks in NY seem to believe that they live in Europe and deserve the entire month of August off. Yes, this caused us a lot of heartache until we figured it out, and yes, I’m still annoyed by it.)
Every month, every week, sometimes every day, I had to redo the deadline calculation in my head as I woke up every morning. Part of that included a check-in to see how I was feeling and whether or not I could work, part of it was just a review of what I had known when I went to sleep, and all of it had a little tinge of anxiety.
Anyone who has held a job understands that anxiety. Most people have fifty things to do after the alarm goes off and before the commute. The timing from wake-up to transportation to work arrival is a delicate balancing act, all perfectly coordinated to get the maximum effort out of the minimum amount of time.
Once in a while, an employee can arrive late. Arrive late every day for a week, and someone will ask what’s wrong. Arrive late for ten days, and get put on notice. Arrive late for two weeks and before the employee even arrives, the bosses/managers will have had this discussion: Is she worth this chronic lateness? It sends a bad message to everyone else. Can we make her arrive earlier? Or should we just cut her loose?
Everyone who has worked a job knows that calculus. Everyone who has worked a job has also been late for one reason or another—from an accident on the interstate (which, in the days before cell phones, was particularly fraught) to a medical emergency with the five-year-old (can I get the marble out of her nose or do I have to take her to the doctor after all?). Once in a while is fine, but chronic lateness is the sign of a troubled employee.
Same with those writers who miss deadlines. Recently, I talked with several New York Times bestsellers (not together, and for different reasons), and all of them mentioned in passing the pressures of deadlines. Most writers feel pressure, but Times bestsellers, particularly “tent-pole” writers who lead lists and on whose head entire book imprints rest, have to meet their deadlines or everything from the carefully balanced ad campaign to the huge capital outlay that the publishing company will pay to print 500,000 hardcovers at once will be all screwed up.
One of the bestsellers I talked to knew that a deadline would be missed nine months in advance, and still the publisher was angry and put on a great deal of pressure to meet that deadline.
You see these bigger names talk about the pressure in subtle ways. For example, Jeffrey Deaver, who writes extremely complicated novels and has an equally complicated process, challenged himself to write a particularly difficult book (for him—ah, hell. For anyone) and was discussing it in the October issue of RT Book Reviews. In the middle of that discussion, he said this,
I actually don’t [worry that I will run out of ideas]. The problem I have now is the opposite: one of endurance. I’ve got so many ideas for novels, I don’t have the energy to write them as quickly as I used to. This year I did two books and it was exhausting!
I can tell you part of that exhaustion comes from stress and pressure, the knowledge that you’re balancing on a high wire, and even though you like to think you’re in control of what you write, you’re really not. If Deaver’s experimental novel, The October List, hadn’t worked in draft form, he either would have had to push his deadline back or write a different book.
As cautious as he sounds from this interview, he probably built failure into the equation. He probably had the book done much earlier than usual, just in case it didn’t work.
One of the tent-pole writers I spoke to a few years ago told me a hair-raising story of missed deadlines, editorial threats, and an unwillingness (on his part) to turn in a bad book. The publisher, who had a million or two tied up in this novel, wanted something, anything, to fill that slot, and the writer wanted to have a book that worked. It caused quite a serious problem, one that took a long time to sort out. It also created hard feelings, and the tent-pole writer left that publisher soon after.
I was a radio journalist for nearly a decade, and for half of that, I was in charge of a nightly newscast (and occasionally the early morning newscast as well). If no one wrote anything for the broadcast, if we had no original journalism at all, we still had a half an hour of airtime to fill. I had three back-ups: the reporters I could call who would be able to get okay stories for the slots in less than an hour, my own skill at writing twenty minutes of copy in less than three hours, and if I had no other choice, short squibs ripped from the wire services. I never had to resort to point three, although some nights it came close.
At the same time, I wrote nonfiction business articles, several per week, also under deadline. I wrote fiction on Saturdays, struggling to finish my story in a 10-to-12 hour day because if I didn’t, I might not remember what the hell I was doing a week later.
In those years, I trained myself to use that anxiety as a fuel. If I didn’t do x, then y would not happen, and z (usually a disaster) would result.
My editing career worked on the same principle. If I didn’t have 60,000 words of fiction compiled by a certain date, then there would be no magazine, and that simply was not an option. So hell, high water, sickness, personal crisis—none of that mattered. Only the deadline.
By the time I moved to full-time fiction writing, I had incorporated that low-level anxiety into everything I did. It worked well. I had several novel deadlines per year, and if I worked around them right, I could also finish several short stories (anywhere from six to twelve). Most of my wake-up anxiety focused on word count (if I finished 3,000 words that day, then I’d be on track to finishing the novel on time), but underneath that word-count anxiety were two different ones: first, if I didn’t finish on time, I wouldn’t get paid on time, and the whole house-of-money-cards would tumble; and second, if I didn’t finish on time, I might get branded a troublesome writer and never work in that town again. (You think editors don’t gossip? Oh, they do. Believe me, they do, especially about writers who are difficult.)
So that performance-job security fear was underneath everything, just like it had been at any day job I’d ever held.
Fast forward to spring of 2013. I finished my final traditional publishing book deadline for New York. I vowed not to have another. I told the kind folks at WMG Publishing that I would not work with deadlines. I would submit a book when it was finished and not before.
It’s a great way to work, honestly, because it gives me the freedom to fail on difficult projects, and to spread my wings on old favorites. Just this summer, a book I thought was going to be one volume has mushroomed into at least three (the first of which is done), and as irritated as I am about the length, I’m also happier than I would have been in traditional publishing
I’ve been through this route before traditionally. Once, when a novel blossomed into three, I called my editor, and she immediately issued a contract for the next two books. (Boy, I miss her; she left the business twenty years ago now.) Another time this same thing occurred, I called my editor (a different woman), who panicked and said she wasn’t even sure she could publish the book I was working on, let alone two more. I crammed everything into that final book, and now wish I hadn’t. It’s not as good as it could be.
In a couple of other cases, I just set the projects aside: their lengths made them untenable.
So this new way of working suits my style of writing. I still have deadlines. This blog is one of them, not because I’m afraid you’ll all hate me if I put out a Gone Fishin’ sign, but because it’s important to all of us—and I’ve had a streak going since the first week of April 2009. That streak thing, it works for me. I don’t want to break it.
I also still take short stories on deadline, not because of the deadlines, but to test my own writing abilities. Most of those stories are for anthologies that make me think about topics I wouldn’t normally think about. That stretches me as a writer.
And of course, I now have editing deadlines as well. Fiction River has its own set of deadlines that need to be met, and I work ahead as much as the system WMG Publishing has set up allows me to.
But on novels, which is the bulk of what I write? No deadline. None. I can fart around for days if I want to; I can write 10,000 words every day until I fall down if I want to. No juggling, no math in the morning, no searches for holes in the finances.
It’s all rather perfect.
So…that’s why I found it strange that my anxiety levels rose over the summer, rather than decreased. I kept trying to see if it was the really big project (no), if it was stuff in my personal life (no), if it was something in the system that I wasn’t seeing (no).
I couldn’t find it, and the anxiety grew so bad that I started having nightmares. The only equivalent nightmare I can relay to you is that one that all of us have had where we dream that the alarm has gone off and we’ve slept through it or we’re late for work, when really only an hour or two of sleep time has gone by. I had my writing equivalent of that kind of nightmare, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Until Dean and I started talking about this. We talked it to death, and then kicked it a few times, and then talked about it some more.
And I finally said that I was feeling “untethered.” Not trapped, not overwhelmed, “untethered.” Floating free. Which was what I had designed.
However, for thirty years as a deadline-driven writer, I’d had a tether. And I had built my days around that tether.
I finally figured out that without the deadlines, I was like a new writer who had just quit her day job. I had no idea how to organize myself.
I groped around for a new tether. I couldn’t tie myself to online sales because that gave control to other people. Besides, if I wrote a complicated book, a “book of the heart,” and the readers hated it, I would be devastated.
Using sales was a set-up for failure.
Just like setting new deadlines with WMG would be. Or asking Dean to track my progress daily. (He’s going to shudder when he reads that suggestion.) Dean’s blogging his daily progress, but for me that’s a set-up for failure as well, because I do have chronic health issues. So I would have great days, great weeks, and then nothing, and I would feel bad about the nothing, which would lead to a death spiral.
Besides, I really don’t like to be accountable to anyone, not even through a blog.
I went through idea after idea after idea, and they were all what I call “outer-directed.” In other words, the definition of success came from outside of me, which gave the control of my success over to other people.
I knew from personal experience that outer-directed goals were a bad thing for me. My anxiety levels rise just thinking about them.
So a few more weeks of thought later, I finally figured out how to solve the problem. And ironically, it was the solution I had used before my radio work, before the massive nonfiction deadlines, before the novels.
Back when I was training myself to sit down and finish something, I learned the hard way that my greatest distraction was not other people or my computer or games or the phone or the television. My greatest distraction was other novels.
If I started reading a novel at lunch, I would finish at dinner. And then I’d deem it too late to write. So I had to make reading my carrot. I didn’t allow myself to read until I was done writing.
I’ve mentioned that a lot before, because the stupid compulsion remains. I cannot read fiction before I’m done writing my own fiction or I won’t get anything done.
But there was another component to my writing back then, one I dropped as the deadlines, publication dates, and payments took over. I wouldn’t let myself read anything if I hadn’t written that day.
In other words, reading was my reward. If I finished 3,000 words, I could read a book. If I didn’t, I couldn’t read until I did.
Carrot, meet stick. Stick, meet carrot. I had forgotten you guys.
For so many years, I had used that workplace anxiety/stress/deadline pressure as my stick, and the completion of the book and ultimate payment as the carrot, that I had forgotten how to use anything else.
The moment I remembered the old carrot and stick from the days when I didn’t have a prayer of selling anything, my nightmares went away and so did the anxiety. And, weirdly, I started working harder. Or maybe not weirdly.
Because I had become tethered again, this time to something I enjoyed.
I’m having a lot more fun now, and I’m coming up with variations on that old carrot and stick, including (after particularly difficult projects) a one week vacation composed entirely of reading . Yeah, to some people that would be a nightmare in and of itself, but for me, that’s just plain heaven.
That’s what we all have to do. We have to define our own carrot-and-stick for the writing. And I would suggest that the inner-directed short-term goals are better than outer-directed ones. I think it’s bad for writers and creativity to seed our feelings of success to forces we can’t control.
My own anxiety levels are pretty much gone. Sometimes I wake up and feel around for them. It’s almost like I had a broken tooth that I worried every morning, promising myself I’d do something about it. The tooth is fixed, and I still search for it before I remember that it’s been repaired.
It’s not quite the happily-ever-after you usually get for a story that begins with “once upon a time,” but it’s close—at least for me.
Have I mentioned lately how much I love this new world of publishing? It gives me the freedom to write anything—and the ability to read anything.
And boy, oh, boy, is that fun.
Knowing that you folks show up every week is a huge carrot for me. I get the blog done even when I’d rather be reading. In fact, I’m storing up a few blogs since I’ll be teaching next week and working on a big project the week after. I try to get ahead just a little in case something gets in the way.
But never fear: if something big happens in publishing, I’ll write about it. I’ll just put off one of the other blogs until a later date.
Thanks, everyone, for coming on a weekly basis. I appreciate the comments, the links, the e-mails, and the support. I also appreciate the donations, which fund this blog.
“The Business Rusch: Carrots And Sticks” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.