Tuesday, December 12, 2006

KH: Writing to a Deadline

As I write this, I have but two more passes through a single scene to be finished with my fifth book, Return of the Guardian King, the fourth and final book in a series I began writing nearly 30 years ago. I contemplate that fact with a bit of bemusement. It’s amazing and I should feel amazed. To some degree, I do. But mostly I’m so drained, emotionally, mentally and creatively it's hard to feel much of anything beyond cautious relief. Coming to the end of a book is always a humbling experience for me. I think part of it is the intensity – you have to keep working, you can’t get away from the work and, as I’ve said in other places, you seem to see all of the flaws and none of the good parts. Worse, they're flaws you know you aren't going to be able to do a thing about because your time is up. (And with this book, my time is WAY more than up!)

So I just thought I'd take this opportunity to say, if you’re writing your book without a deadline or a contract right now, be thankful for the freedom that gives you. I'm not in any way complaining about being published — far from it! I am still struggling, after six years, to believe it's all true, and deeply grateful for the opportunity the Lord has given me. But I remember how it was before, when I'd longed to have what I have now and failed to appreciate and enjoy what I had then: the freedom to put the work down and do something else for awhile when it wasn't going well; the freedom to pick it up again when I was re-inspired and things in my life had presented me with the means to solve the problems I had been wrestling with; the time to make the notebooks and collect all the data about my created world, to work out all the characters and themes and plotlines just so. I have hardly even looked at any of that since I started writing with a deadline. It's always something I'll do later. Only later never comes.

I don't think it's just me. I read a poll of published Christian writers asking how many of them felt that they had brought their books to a point of being "finished" by the time their deadlines arrived. The overwhelming majority said they never felt their books were really finished when they turned them in.

When I signed the contract for Legends of the Guardian King, I had, over the years, rewritten The Light of Eidon three times from start to finish. After the third rewrite I know I took at least a year off to work on the final draft of Arena. It took me about five years to write the first draft of Arena. Suddenly, I was being asked to write the sequels to Eidon in six months. I laughed. "How about 9 months?" they asked. Ha! "A year?" I said it would take me two years at best. They said everyone would forget about my books in that time and the series would tank. I asked for 18 months. Nope. Too long. Especially for Fantasy, which was a hard sell. So I agreed to 12 months.

Afterward I added up all the days I had spent writing Arena and the final version of The Light of Eidon, minus the days or weeks in between that I took off to make home schooling plans, or go on field trips or clean the house, or do Christmas or Thanksgiving or take vacations, or just because I was sick to death of working on it and needed a break... if I added all those days up, they totaled, in both cases, 14 months.

Because my son was going off to college, I thought maybe I really would be able to work faster. And I think I have a little. But my first guess of when I could turn the books in was right: When I tally up the time consumed, including first draft and second, I find it took me 18 months to write each of them. And the last two have been finished very close to the time they needed to go to print. So I've had no time to dally.What I’ve learned is that the time breaks I was given in the years before publication were actually helpful. Instead of being frantic and resenting them, I wish now I had embraced and enjoyed them. If you're meant to write, you will. If you're not, it's just as well if the details of life can pull you permanently away from it. Because then you'll know.

While a contract may provide some with more confidence in their writing, there's a price to be paid: Now you HAVE to write in a way that's probably different from the way you wrote before. Some people find this stimulating. Others find it too stimulating! Especially when you find out there are a bunch of other things you have to do that you never considered when you said that maybe, at the outer realm of possibility you could write a book in 12 months. Stuff like the rewrites of the book that came before it, like the galleys which take two to three weeks, like trips here and there to promote your book — and the time it takes to get your mind back into the book after such trips. When I said 12 months, I meant 12 months of solid — every day or almost that — working on the book in progress. Not 10 months in a 12 month period.

It takes adjusting to, and I'm still adjusting. I'm not sure how good it all is for the quality of the fiction produced, but I'm also learning more and more to make a lesser deal of that than I did when I was still trying to break into publication. From the beginning of writing my books, I've prayed that The Lord would make them what He wants them to be, that He would guide me in doing that and I believe He's done so. But He's also taught me that if He can use flawed and fallen man to bring glory to Himself, He can also use fallen man's flawed and imperfect works to do so. And that's an important thing to remember when you get to the end of this process, to the place where you finally have to stop, ready or not, and turn the whole thing in, knowing the next time you see it, it'll be in galley form, all but ready to walk out the door and meet its public.
Karen Hancock


At 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember it well, Karen. There's just something about that first book--the freedom of winging it without a deadline hanging over every page--that you never quite recapture. Each way has its advantages, but that early time before the contracts and deadlines start coming is more of a gift than we realize...until it's gone.

Excellent post. It's so nice to see you as a part of Charis Connection. Thanks.



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