When writers don’t deliver

(This blog post first appeared at Crime Fiction Collective. Here it is again for those who may have missed it.)

It’s every aspiring author’s dream. A publisher offers you a big contract for your next book, the deal gets announced to the press, and you receive a check as an advance payment. Now all you have to do is finish writing the manuscript, send it to your editor, and presto! You’re a published author.

Or not. Because a lot can go wrong between signing the contract and your book’s appearance in stores. I was reminded of just how often things do go wrong when I recently came across this article :

A New York publisher this week filed lawsuits against several prominent writers who failed to deliver books for which they received hefty contractual advances, records show.

The Penguin Group’s New York State Supreme Court breach of contract/unjust enrichment complaints include copies of book contracts signed by the respective defendants.

Among the five authors mentioned in the article are Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who signed a $100,000 deal in 2003 to write “a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression,” and blogger Ana Marie Cox, who signed a $325,000 contract in 2006 for a humorous book about political activists.

I don’t know the particular circumstances of these authors. Perhaps personal issues — a divorce, a severe illness, or unremitting depression — kept them from delivering the promised manuscripts. Perhaps they did in fact deliver the manuscripts, which were deemed unsatisfactory by the publisher and rejected.

Or perhaps they suffered from an all-too common writer’s malady: crisis of confidence. I know all about it, because twenty-five years ago, it almost derailed my budding writing career.

I had just sold my first romantic thriller, Call After Midnight, to Harlequin Intrigue. The book sold well and was nominated for a Rita award. Although I didn’t sign a contract for the next book, my editor anxiously waited for my second novel. And she waited. And waited.

Two years later, all I had to show her were partials of various abandoned novels, stories that started off well enough, but within fifty pages had run out of steam. I just couldn’t finish that second book. The months went by and my panic grew. This wasn’t just writer’s block; this was a full-stop career block. I was doomed to join the crowded ranks of one-book wonders.

I don’t remember how I got past those dark months. What I do remember were the calls from the editor, the sound of disappointment in her voice when I told her I still didn’t have anything. Eventually the calls between us stopped, leaving editorial silence, a sign that my publisher had at last given up on me. But I hadn’t given up on myself, so I kept writing.

What saved me in the end was this: I finally gave myself permission to write badly. I decided it didn’t matter if what I wrote was unpublishable, as long as I just kept writing. Up till then, I had abandoned at least three different story ideas within the first hundred pages, because all I could see were the flaws, and I got discouraged. Then I’d get seduced by a different story idea, a brighter, shinier premise on the other side of the fence. And I’d go chasing after that new premise until it too started to show its flaws. I couldn’t finish a single book because I wanted it to be absolutely perfect, from beginning to end. From the very first draft. Which is like expecting your child to speak four foreign languages and play Bach on the piano at age five.

Children don’t start off perfect, and neither do manuscripts.

At last I pulled out one of my earlier attempts, a story about a woman doctor being sued for a case of malpractice that is, in truth, a murder. The hero is the plaintiff’s attorney, whose goal is to destroy her career. It had been months since I’d looked at the story, and suddenly I saw new possibilities. I resumed writing it. This time, I didn’t stop to edit, I didn’t stop to think: “oh, this part sucks.” I stuck to my mantra: Just keep writing. And I did, all the way to the end.

The result was a first draft that was full of inconsistencies and mid-story plot shifts and characters who kept changing. But at least I had a first draft. I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had something to fix, and I did. In 1990, Under The Knife was finally published — three years after my first novel.

In the past twenty-five years, I’ve written twenty-four novels. I’ve never forgotten those depressing, desperate months when I couldn’t finish a book. Over the years, the writing hasn’t gotten any easier; it’s hard work, and it always will be. I’ve learned that I simply have to forge ahead, no matter how awful my writing seems, or how outlandish my plot. Because here’s my second mantra: I can fix this. I might need five or even ten re-writes, but eventually I’ll make that story work and I’ll turn in that manuscript as promised.

Publishers want writers they can count on, writers who are both reliable and consistent. They’ll usually give the author a certain amount of leeway if unavoidable crises pop up, such as serious illness or a death in the family, but eventually the contract has to be honored… or else.

And that’s what separates the professionals from the amateurs. The professional always delivers.

3 replies
  1. JennaBee
    JennaBee says:

    I absolutely believe that ‘writer’s block’ is a genuine medical condition. Tess, being a former physician (back me up here), should know this. The affects of which may be

    Writer’s Block Type1 –
    Patient shows signs of:
    a) self doubt
    b) constant rereading and editing
    c) pondering the result rather than the purpose
    d) fear of criticism

    Writer’s Block Type 2-
    Patient shows sign of:
    a) all of the above
    b) desperation, exhibited by ideas which start, but don’t seem to speak for more than 10 pages

    Writer’s Block Type 3-
    Patient shows sign of:
    a) all of the above
    b) complete and utter creative incapacitation

    I’ve always said I’d rather lose an arm than my ability to write. That being said, Type 3, to a writer goes beyond amputation of a limb. It’s a terrible thing to experience, and it is very real. Given that writers are, I think, slightly quirky and solitudistic (that a word? Well it is now) to suffer type 3 is akin to ‘cut off the machine’. It’s death to a writer. It is their greatest fear. The fear is being disabled from doing the one thing which enables you to feel at peace with the world and with yourself. There is nothing more sinister or threatening to a writer than the stare a blank page can give you in your time of need.

    On the bright side –
    Writers have an amazing advantage over those in other careers in that, we don’t have a shelf life. An athlete does. A model does. You must get in there and take it while you can because you know your opportunities to succeed are so very limited by time. Leave it three years and someone faster, stronger, prettier, YOUNGER, will outrun you.
    Take the time to think of yourself as fine wine. Every year of your life you will experience something more. Every moment of your life is something you can draw upon. If you ever get scared, just think of how much a bottle of vintage red sells for. Because the one thing we have that others don’t, is time. You’ll know when you’re ready, and it WILL come to you as freely as a conversation with yourself.

    (P.S – to myself – read this over and over and over until you believe it 🙂 )

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