Time to Write and Other Fictions

by Janis Patterson

I used to have a dream… a dream of a place where I have no responsibilities, no job to go to, no social obligations to fulfill, no time-consuming errands to run, no organizations to which I have made promises… nothing but time and quiet in which to write. The archetypical ivory tower.

Well, I can tell you the archetypical ivory tower is very overrated. Like everyone else, The Husband and I have been pretty much self-quarantined at home for what seems like the last couple of aeons. Oh, we have gone to the grocery about once a week (a giddy exercise in freedom!) and once to the bank (drive-thru only) and occasionally to pick up a take-out meal from Desperados, our very favorite Mexican restaurant (food is good as ever, but just not the same experience), but to a modern couple living in a big city with lots of connections and work and organizations, our recent adventures have been pretty thin.

Which, you would think, would be wonderful for my writing. Aside from fixing dinner most nights and a load or two of laundry each week, I have nothing to do but write.

Except I can’t.

The Husband is very good – most of the time – about not bothering me while I work. It took a couple of years in the early part of our marriage, but he did learn that when my office door is closed no one disturbs me unless there is blood or flame! (I should say we’re an older couple, and it’s just the two of us and one very bossy little dog.) While we’ve been sequestered he’s been working his way through some stuffed old boxes of his stuff that date from the time of our marriage.

Me – “You need to go through those boxes and get rid of a lot of that stuff.”

Him – “I know what’s in every one of those boxes, and it’s all stuff I want to keep.”

Me – “Well, then, go through and pack it carefully in new plastic boxes – those cardboard boxes are yucky.”

Him – “I’ll get around to it.”

Repeat this conversation a time or two a year for almost every year – and there are a number of them – we’ve been married.

Well, the Chinese plague lockdown has taken away all his excuses. He can’t go to work, we have no meetings, and he can watch only so much idiotic TV, so he finally said he’d do one box. Of course, that led to another and another (we’re actually seeing parts of the storage room floor we haven’t seen in a couple of years!) and now it’s a treasure hunt.

Him – “Look at what I found! I’ve been looking for this!” is repeated several times a day. The first few times I was jubilant – and just a little bit self-satisfied – but after a day or two I decided I had to work and went behind the closed doors of my office.

Except I can’t.

I am facing two book deadlines (not counting my recurring blogs) and I need to write. Deadlines have been sacrosanct my entire life and I will do just about anything to meet them. Worse still, I pretty much know what I’m going to write, so it isn’t a real case of writer’s block, it’s just… just… The best description I can come up with is a non-religious accidie… a laziness or indifference to the entire process.

My mind wanders – and not creatively, as it should when you’re writing. I find myself either becoming fascinated with something that has nothing to do with what’s at hand or just shutting off and staring at something, such as the rose bush outside my window or the TV screen, and both are just about as edifying.

Perhaps the dirty little secret of this Chinese plague lockdown is a lack of structure. I’ve worked since I was in school, and most of the time done it well, but there has always been a structure. There have been structure-less days, of course, and on occasion a week or so such as in a vacation or an illness, but I always knew that at the end of  a certain period of time the structure would surround me again and that knowledge kept me going. Or started me up again, to be honest.

Now, with no real end in sight and a tragically changed world waiting outside my (metaphoric) front door, I don’t know what to do. I was always pretty good at living inside a structure, but I suck at creating one. However – I know something has to change, and the only thing I can influence or change for sure is myself, so I have been working at writing out a schedule. Somehow that makes it the more real. It’s about time I learned how to schedule… oh, I’ve always known how. It’s simple. The hard part, the part I must master, is fulfilling it.

Hope all of you are staying safe and well. Please take care of yourselves.

Confessions About the Covid Crazies

by Janis Patterson

How are you surviving the Covid lockdown, which – thankfully – is finally fading away?

While my office is in my home and I don’t go out too much in normal times (which, please Heaven, are finally coming back!) just the idea of not being able to go out or have any place to go to have driven me crazy. Crazier.

For the first time in many years I am not face-up against a deadline, usually multiple deadlines, which come racing at me like an express train. Well, I do have one, but it isn’t until October, and the way this year has been going who of us is positive there is even going to be an October this year?

And that’s why this post is so frightfully late. I forgot until last night, when the lights were out, our goodnights said and The Husband had drifted off to sleep. Suddenly I remembered and sat bolt upright, gasping at my unprofessionalism. Dragged from sleep he wanted to know what was wrong, but when I told him he merely snorted and said to go back to sleep. The sad thing is I did, which is very unlike me. This lockdown has activated my inner sloth – I chose the sloth as my spirit animal a few years ago when a prolonged bed rest was dictated while recuperating from a surgery, and the wee little beastie has played havoc with my work ethic ever since.

One good thing about this lockdown is that The Husband is only working half weeks – 2 ½ days – and this makes a perfect rehearsal for when he retires in the not-too-distant future. One thing I’ve learned – he is ignorant of the writing process, as I do 95% of it when he’s not here. Plus, he’s a science person, not a word person. I’ve been writing in our den for years, and not too long ago made the decision to turn the guest room into my office, a task about which I have been distressingly dilatory. I need to get on it NOW, so when he does retire fully I can retreat in there. I’m working on it every day, and trying to decide whether or not I can install a moat.

Plus, during this time of plague I have been slowly morphing from a writer who works at home into a housewife, a strange and alien creature I have never been before. I’ve been excavating the dining room (verb chosen deliberately) and for the last three days sorting through ancient tax papers that go back to 2007. So far The Husband has taken two enormous tubs of old papers to his office to shred in their commercial shredder.

I won’t bore you with tales of the strange wonders I’ve found during this time of excavation, but I did find my iron which I lost several years ago. It’s a fine example of cleaning making more work for you, because now I’m going to have to go to the trouble of losing it again, and do you know how hard it is to lose an iron?

Well, the clock is ticking (yes, we still have one that ticks, a Seth-Thomas kitchen clock that was a wedding present to my father’s parents in 1899) and I need to get this posted. I hope you all – assuming you have read this far – are safe and well and all in your world is good. Please take care of yourselves and believe we will get through this. At least, I hope so, because housework is making me crazy! Crazier.

Where? When?

by Janis Patterson

It is one of the so-called pieces of wisdom in mystery-land the body should appear as quickly as possible, just as in some parts of romance-land the hero and heroine have sex almost immediately after they meet. I’ve even read some stories where they end up in bed before they’ve been introduced!

Haven’t these writers ever heard the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?

This isn’t a new rant of mine – you’ve probably heard it in one form or another before, but I believe it bears repeating, especially in mystery-land. Murder is a terrible crime. It permanently alters everyone even remotely touched by it. It should not be treated as an hors d’oeuvre.

Back when I was traditionally publishing I allowed the house editor to convince me (convince, as in “We won’t publish your book if you don’t!”) to bring on the body as early as possible in the first chapter. I wanted to be published by this particular house, so always an over-achiever I put the discovery of the body on the second page, and it was a grand disservice both to the poor thing and to the story. The victim had no history, no backstory, no personality, and there was no emotion, no sense of loss in his passing. In other words, he was nothing but a stage prop. (“Hey, Fred, put the body down stage left!”) Even a villain – which he was – deserves a more fitting end than that.

Of course, we had learned something about him by the end of the book because to solve a murder you must know why someone would want to kill him, but it was dry and anticlimactic – nothing but tags that eventually pointed the way to his killer.

I am a whole-story kind of person. I believe that to feel the kind of outrage that murder should engender we have to know the people involved in the tale so that when there is a murder we feel a sense of loss, of outrage (even if the character deserved his ignominious and premature death) and a sense of satisfaction when the murderer is finally run to earth and justice is served.

Not everyone agrees with me. I have been severely dinged and chastised for having the murder occur close to the middle of one of my mysteries. It’s a good story, it has a large cast of characters (three of whom are killed) and it is a complex story, with the solution inextricably interwoven with the dynamics among the characters. But apparently that’s not fast enough to be acceptable for some readers. Neither, I hasten to add, was the setting – a scholarly Egyptological conference without a tea shop, a B&B or knitting store in sight. One correspondent was particularly incensed that the entire conference did not shut down in order to bring the murderer to justice. I don’t understand that; yes, everyone is somehow altered when murder enters their sphere, but unless they are close to the crime or the victim few change their entire focus. Most of us would probably cling desperately to what is normal in an effort to bring stability back – unless, of course, the murder affects them personally, which changes everything.

As I’ve said before, murder is an horrific crime. Both it and its victim need to be treated with a certain respect and dignity. To cheapen death is to cheapen life.

We Are The Other?

Janis Patterson

In these tiresome days of Political Correctness and ‘woke-dom’ there is a small battle raging about using italics for non-English words in book manuscripts. “It is divisive,” shriek the PC crowd. “It fosters other-ness and is not inclusive.”

Well, duh!

When speaking of a book written in English for the use of an English-speaking audience, of course the writer should use italics for foreign words and phrases. The words are foreign words, not English words – they are ‘other.’ Italics show that. It’s not divisiveness, it’s clarity, showing the reader that this is a different language. Some words in other languages are spelled the same but have wildly different meanings. (For example : douche (French) and douche (English) while having the same familial root are totally different things.) Without italics to differentiate what is English and what is another language, the reader can be confused and pulled out of the story to puzzle it through, and no writer wants that. Of course, that homophonic mayhem happens in all-English books, too – if I read one more story that mixes up ‘grizzly’ and ‘grisly’ that book, like a number of others, will end up smashing against the wall. Words are the tools of the writer, and one should learn to use one’s tools properly. To do less is to disrespect both the art of writing and the intelligence of the reader.

To make things even more confusing, the PC crowd applauds the use of a bunch of weird self-chosen pronouns that a small portion of the population uses to describe themselves which, while doubtless emotionally satisfying to them, are linguistically and societally bizarre. How can there be anything else but a deliberate ‘other-ness’ when an individual refers to him/her/itself as ‘they’? Talk about mixed signals!

Of course an individual has the right to call themselves anything they like; that is freedom of speech in its purest form and is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Those who want to use the ‘new’ pronouns are most definitely free to do so, but no one has the right to demand that everyone else use them, most especially in a written format. The result is a linguistic minefield.

The essence of language is communication. Language is nothing but a collection of sounds and syllables to convey ideas, but it only works if everyone understands what those sounds and syllables mean. This is especially true for writers, for they must communicate by written symbols only, without the supporting means of vocal intonation and facial expressions.

Can you imagine the delicious confusion (or might it be deliberate obfuscation?) in a mystery when a single individual obviously speaking in the first person refers to himself as ‘they’ or ‘we’? How does the poor confounded detective/sleuth react, especially if he is not up to speed on this linguistic trend? That could almost be a subplot in itself.

Conversely, the essence of communication – especially for writers and the written word – is language. We need the same reference points, the same starting points for efficient interaction. Standard linguistics offer this universal base. If a non-English word in an English language book is italicized, everyone knows it is not English, even if it is identical in spelling to an English word with a totally different meaning. If a writer uses the ‘new’ pronoun structure, he’d better have a really good reason that forwards the story or risk confusing and perhaps even alienating his readers.

Years ago someone coined the phrase K I S S – Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Silly, depending on to whom you’re talking). It’s still good advice. Good communication is simple, and the foremost tool in the writer’s toolkit.

 

Personal Note – if you have been a reader of this blog for a while doubtless you have been accustomed to seeing my picture with blonde hair. It’s red now, both in the picture and on my head. I finally decided that it would be a charitable act to give the general populace a warning label.

Clothes Make The… Really, Clothes Make Me Crazy

SAD NEWS

Well, I had been afraid of this… the American Research Center in Egypt has just announced that because of the Coronavirus situation the 2020 Conference has been cancelled. That’s all the official email said. I’m going to have to reach out to my team at National headquarters to find out how/if/when/whatever this affects the auction. I am heartbroken, but cannot see any other resolution to this situation. I’ll keep everyone appraised of what transpires. Sigh.

 

by Janis Patterson

I like a pretty outfit, sure, but I’m not one of these obsessive types who reads fashion magazines and watches all the TV shows about what’s new.

So why am I sitting here wishing for my very own personal wardrobe coordinator?

Because I NEED one, and right now.

It’s all ARCE’s fault. The Husband and I are preparing to go North (Toronto is a long way North from Texas) to attend the American Research Center in Egypt International Conference. Originally we had planned not to go, as Toronto isn’t very high on our ‘must see’ list, but once my book contract with ARCE was agreed upon, finalized and signed (nine months in the making) we simply have to go.

This is a first for both ARCE and me – they have never worked with an author on fiction before, nor auctioned off character naming rights in a novel, and I have never written a book where three people have bid (hopefully a lot of money!) to have their name put in the book as a secondary/tertiary character. It’s going to be interesting!

However – writing the book is something I can do. I’ve done it many times before, and if I have three characters whom I did not create to do honor to, so be it. This is my gift to a scholarly organization with which I have worked happily for almost 30 years.

So what is the problem?

Basically I am a simple person. Like a lot of writers I spend my days alone in my office surrounded by all my invisible friends, usually wearing comfy sweats or t-shirts and shorts, depending on the season, or occasionally my nightgown. Obviously I don’t get dressed up very often.

The Toronto conference is going to be different, though. Part of my job is to talk up the book project and convince the attendees to bid, bid often and bid high. I’m officially the Glamorous Author, which means I have to dress the part. During the day I have to appear glamorous but businesslike, so there will be lots of blazers, slacks and boots. (I don’t do pantyhose. Ever!)

There are going to be parties every night, which means at least four evening outfits. Luckily I saved all my ‘sequiny’ party clothes from the time I was a SAG/AFTRA talent agent, and they’re all old enough to be back in style, so it’s just a matter of figuring out which jewelry goes with what. You all know I’m a hopeless jewelry junkie, so accessorizing is a real consideration; black evening sandals, a plain black faille evening clutch – easy peasy. Jewelry… now jewelry is important! Do I wear the rubies with the red and black sequin jacket, or the fluffy black silk dress, or the spangled red lace blouse? The gold bracelet or the rutilated chunky quartz? Jet drop earrings or simple studs?

See why I need a wardrobe coordinator? There are so many things I could be worrying about instead of what necklace goes with what dress. However – I don’t have a wardrobe coordinator, so I’ll just have to do the best I can. That’s why I spent most of this afternoon with a pen and small notebook putting one entire outfit – earrings to shoes – to a page. Every outfit sounds good on paper; it’ll be interesting to see if my notes translate to reality.

I’d rather write a book any day. It’s easier.

If you’re curious about how these outfits end up, I’ll be posting photographs of most of them on my website in the second week of April, a couple of days after the conference ends.

Confession Of A Pixelated Writer

by Janis Patterson

When I first started writing computers were the stuff of science fiction and cheesy space opera movies. If you wanted to write a book, you either wrote in painful longhand, talked into a recorder for someone else to transcribe or typed it yourself on a typewriter. Just to set the record straight I learned to type on a Smith Corona manual portable the summer before I entered the fourth grade and have regarded any kind of handwriting more than a simple signature as cruel and unusual punishment ever since!

Now, of course, like most everyone else I use a computer. It’s faster, it’s easier to edit (I remember in the old days when ‘cut and paste’ meant exactly that!), there’s no need for multiple filing cabinets to hold different versions of different manuscripts, you don’t have to go scrabbling for cheap or even pre-used paper to use for rough drafts, there’s no need to do a complete retype in order to have a clean copy… all in all better. A single thumb drive or dvd can hold every version and every note or bit of research on several novels. Several filing cabinets’ worth of data can be held in a small box on your desk.

So why isn’t my house neater?

I digress…

Since I still tend to mistrust technology, I not only keep dvds of my projects in my desk and in the safety deposit box, I also have them in cloud storage and… wait for it… in a paper copy. Yes, I know what I just said about paper, but this is different. I print out a copy of the final manuscript using both sides of the paper, the narrowest margins I can manage, single-spaced and in a tiny type – 8 or 9 point – not so large as to be bulky, but still able to be retyped if the unthinkable happens. This can reduce the biggest book to a manageable size. Then I drill the manuscript and put it in a 3 ring binder, along with a dvd (yes, that’s 3 copies per book on dvds), a photocopy of my contract (the original is in the safety deposit box as well as scanned to my computer), and any other ancillary things specific to the book. Usually I can get 3-4 novels or 6-8 novellas in a ring binder. It’s a lot smaller than a couple of file cabinets!

I have been writing for a long time, which means I have a lot of partials, multiple copies and extras of all kinds of manuscripts. My husband and I are living in the house where I grew up, and boxes of old manuscripts are still turning up in the garage and attic. I think they’re breeding.

Still, I hate to lose any of my work, even if it’s juvenile or unfinished or just plain unworkable, so I scan what I don’t already have copies of. Then, once assured that I do have a record or that the manuscript I just found is one of many duplicates, I split the pages in half and stack them up for notepaper.

For someone who hates to handwrite, I use a lot of notepaper. Have a quick idea for a cute or a scary scene? A great idea of a different way to do murder? A reminder of an appointment? An appealing name that may fit a character in a future project? Whatever? I scribble it down and affix it to a huge corkboard against the wall. When it starts to resemble some weird sort of scaled creature I do have to go through that board and pare it down. The paper recyclers just love it when that happens…

So, even though I am an admitted techno-naif with only the sketchiest kind of détente with technology, I have to admit that the computer has made this writer’s life much more simple. I have no choice but to do so. I sold all my filing cabinets.

If Seinfeld Can, Why Can’t I?

by Janis Patterson

While The Husband loved the TV show Seinfeld and still occasionally watches DVDs of it, I found it stultifyingly boring and even more uninteresting. It was heralded as a show about nothing, and as far as I am concerned it definitely succeeded. However, it was undeniably popular. (Does that say something about me, or about everyone else?) I much prefer shows in which the actors are attractive, shows in which there is something going on – explosions, genuine humor, dead bodies, passionate kisses on a sunset beach… something!

Still, I have to admit that the show did something right to be so popular and on the air for so long, so I’ve decided to explore its particular trope and find out what made it so successful. Except I can’t find what it is. All I can find is that it is regarded as a show about nothing. (Perhaps a metaphor for the supposed emptiness of modern urban life?)

Okay, I can run with that. Most of our lives are filled with nothing. Oh, we’re busy all the time, usually with things that seem important at the time but have little cosmic impact. Things like deciding what to serve for dinner tonight. (Always a biggie for me, as The Husband is a very picky eater and I am a rather indifferent cook.) Shopping for same. Making lunches in the morning. Laundry – what gets tumble dried and what gets line dried and if any of it gets bleach. Deciding if I really want that cute pair of shoes we saw at the mall. Trying to switch the appointment for a much-needed oil change because that’s the only day I can take an elderly neighbor to a much-more needed dental appointment.

See? All important at that minute, all demanding your immediate attention, but in the grand scheme of things generally dismissed as the minutiae of life. Six months – heck, six weeks – afterward, are you going to remember if you had that oil change on Wednesday or Friday, or if those shoes were the red ones or the blue ones?

So what does this digression have to do with murder? Because everything in a murder is important. How many times does the detective (professional or amateur) bring the miscreant to justice by reason of a single fact uttered some time before? Jessica Fletcher was a master of this – a throwaway line uttered perhaps days ago in the storyline, perhaps at the very beginning of the show, and she remembers it. Worse, I can’t remember it at all. Of course, now that I write mysteries my ‘sleuth’ instinct is honed to dangerous acuity, watching every line and usually being able to figure out what is a clue. That, however, is a reader/viewer trick, trained by far too many hours spent absorbing other people’s stories.

Real detectives, however, don’t have that luxury. They can’t automatically know that the fact so-and-so wore red shoes on Tuesday is important. They have to give every bit of information weight. They don’t have editors and beta readers and directors and cinematographers giving focus to every necessary nuance. I think that’s the main reason most real-life cases are not wound up in 20 chapters or 47 minutes. There is too much everything to deal with and that unfortunately translates to nothing to deal with.

So – I am getting too close to saying something instead of sticking with my intended policy of blogging today on nothing. That’s perhaps fortunate, as I have nothing else to say on nothing.

Stay warm this during this cold winter, write well, read widely and don’t get overwhelmed by nothing.

Law or Justice? What Do They Mean to Mystery Writers?

by Janis Patterson

One of the reason mysteries are so popular, according to some, is that they give the reader satisfaction by putting the world in order, rectifying chaos and ensuring law and justice prevail. That may be partially true. Why partially?

Because law and justice do not mean the same thing. In theory they should, but because laws are controlled by humans and justice is a cosmic concept, their applications and results often vary widely. For example, take the case of a sadistic mass murderer who tortured several people to a prolonged and agonizing death. He is caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced, either to death or to life in prison. The law has been satisfied, but it hardly seems justice that a man who gleefully and deliberately caused such unspeakable fear, pain and death to many should either die on a clean operating table with an injection that puts him peacefully to sleep or lives an admittedly restricted life in prison, but one with food, shelter, TV, books, schooling, visits from friends and loved ones… Justice? Would it not be truer to the principle of justice for him to undergo what he made others suffer?

Now I am not debating the pros/cons/desirability/arguments for or against capital punishment. That is just an extreme example of the difference between what some people see as the rule of law and what others perceive as justice. The same principles could be applied to the theft of an apple pie.

So how what can mystery writers take from this? In the classic A. Conan Doyle series about Sherlock Holmes I seem to remember several instances where Sherlock bent or even ignored the letter of the law in the interests of justice. So, if memory serves, did Ellery Queen. Such an attitude can also be found in writers of every era, though I will admit they are rare.

There are those who say that justice is an unattainable goal, and that what the law metes out is right and proper and makes us human instead of beasts. There are some who say making the punishment fit the crime is justice. Personally, I lean a little bit both ways – and that’s not easy! – but my personal feelings aren’t the subject of this blog.

There was a time when a hungry person stole a loaf of bread they were hung or transported to the Antipodes. Now a vicious mass murderer can be incarcerated and well taken care of for life. Two extremes, admittedly, but on often our civilization and our perception of right and wrong are defined by extremes.

It is said that it is neither politicians nor historians who create history – it is the balladeers, the poets, the tellers of stories. As writers we are in control of every story we write. Each story is a world we create and good, bad or indifferent we decide what happens. That is an awesome responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly.

I can’t tell you what is right or dictate what you write, but when your sleuth/policeman/protagonist decides to follow the letter of the law with no regard for heinousness of the crime, or said sleuth decides to ignore the law and proceed with his understanding of justice, be careful. What you write may someday influence our guideline for society.

The Case for Standardization

by Janis Patterson

As a raging individualist I stand up for self-expression. That said, I also stand up for ‘normal’ punctuation and formatting. I do not see that as a behavioral oxymoron.

As writers we want our stories to be read, and in these days of literary bounty that’s getting harder and harder. It should be obvious that one way of achieving this end is to make the reading experience pleasant and easy, right? Well, there are those who apparently didn’t get the memo. Several times in the last few months I have read stories with ghastly formatting – I’m talking about deliberate formatting choices, not the weird kinks all electronic platforms toss at us occasionally. And I’m not going to mention the misspellings, the homophonic mayhem and just general wrong-ness, either. My blood pressure won’t take it.

Why on earth do people make deliberate formatting choices that make their books difficult to read? My guess is that it’s the same reason teens (as well as some older people) dye their hair kelly green and burgundy and other unnatural colors. They want to stand out, to shout ‘I’m different.’ Unfortunately, all too often in books the message comes through loud and clear – and what could be a good story is lost in an impenetrable sea of ‘individuality.’

When I worked in a literary agent’s office several decades ago (back in the bad old days of trad/paper pubbing only) we got an over-the-transom submission of what – from the blurb – sounded like a decent story. Except – the manuscript was a mess. He used standard quote marks, but every first line of each paragraph was flush with the left margin, while the rest of the paragraph was indented half an inch. Reading that was work, but even though I stopped after about ten or twelve pages I could see that it could be a good story with a little work – and proper formatting.

Being of a helpful nature, I sent the manuscript back with a note, explaining what I thought the ms needed, including standard formatting. I got back an excoriating letter, calling me a frustrated writer (I had sold half a dozen books by then, though none through the agency where I worked), accusing me of being hidebound and unwilling to accept new things, even of trying to stifle his creative genius and hide it under a blanket of conformity.

He, he said, knew better than I because he was a teacher of language and literature. (At one of our local junior – excuse me, community – colleges, I learned.) He also said he would take his book to those with the intelligence to appreciate it.

I never heard of him again.

I still believe that non-standard punctuation, misspellings, and incorrect word choices can kill a story, no matter how good it is, especially in today’s book-glutted world. Reading should not be work.

The Tyranny of Deadlines

by Janis Patterson

If you’re a writer, you have felt the heavy hand of a deadline. Whether dictated by a publisher or self-inflicted, they are always there, overshadowing your life, waiting for you like Nemesis. And, sadly, it seems like the more productive you are, the closer they come together, squeezing more and more words out of you. It’s a vicious circle.

That said, I pride myself on never missing a deadline… at least, not by more than 18 hours for a book – with one exception. I had been in a car accident close to deadline and pretty much slept through it. Since I had been very reliable up until then the publisher (I was publishing exclusively traditional then) was very understanding and we worked things out. During my recent hospitalization I was on deadline (several months away) but knew there was no way I’d be able to make it, so I contacted the publisher (a different one) and ended up buying back my contract. They understood and have offered me a new contract since then, so everything turned out all right.

There are horror tales about deadlines, though; the worst one I have personal knowledge of was years ago, during the print-only era. I had been contracted for a book and, as I had a lot of things on my plate, had finished it early. (My habit is to finish a book, then let it go cold for at least a week or two to cleanse my mind before going through the first self-edit.) My editor called me one day, quite distraught and almost crying.

Publishing schedules then were pretty much immutable things, set up months if not years in advance. She had long before contracted a book from an author with whom she had never worked before. That day was the author’s deadline. The author had called the editor, saying she had had a lot going on and hadn’t finished the book, but she would be sure to send the manuscript along as soon as she did. She was, she announced proudly, almost half through with it! The editor told her not to bother and I never heard of that writer again.

Knowing that I usually wrote ahead of time, my editor called me and begged to know if I had a finished book. She was, I realized, crying so of course I told her that the rough draft was finished, but it needed work. She told me about the publishing schedule and the perfidious writer and that the book needed to enter the system that day. Well, I’m good, but I’m not magic, so I told her I needed at least two days to get it into a publishable form and ready to mail to her. (No email in those primitive days!) She agreed, so I cancelled everything I had on deck, made a pot of coffee and sat down to work. Twenty-four sleepless hours later, exhausted, I sent the manuscript off by the fastest mail possible (horribly expensive, but she personally reimbursed me for that.)

In a way, though, I’m sorry I did it. There was a lot more that could have been done with that book; I could have done a better job. Even though it was a good story at heart it’s not one of my better efforts, and I feel that. On the other hand, that editor was able to salvage her publishing schedule with just a little juggling, which saved her reputation and maybe her job. And after that incident that editor thought I walked on water. Every book I submitted was an automatic buy – and at a larger advance. The only bad thing was that just two years after this she retired and went off into another field. After a while we lost contact. And I never was able to sell another book to that publisher, why I don’t know.

Good or bad, deadlines are a reality in this business. They can either be lures to entice you into finishing the project, or a threat of something dire rushing toward you like an oncoming freight train. Or both. Whatever it is, you have to learn to use it, because a deadline is an inescapable part of this business.

I was fortunate. I grew up in my parents’ ad agency, writing copy and doing layouts since the age of 12, and therefore learned early. Deadlines were a part of daily life, sometimes coming two or three a day, depending on the project and what state it was in. Anyone who is going to be a professional writer – books, articles, pamphlets, whatever – is going to have to learn to use and respect deadlines. Even if we don’t like them!