Sunday, December 9, 2012

All books are not created equal

By: Joelle Charbonneau

This week, I saw a facebook post that mentioned that there was a difference between writing a book and writing a book that is under contract.  As an unpublished author, I’d heard that writing a book under contract posed different challenges.  But unpublished me didn’t really understand how different those challenges would be.  I mean—the book still has a beginning, middle and end filled with plot and characters.  The mechanics are the same.  Right?


And no.

Now that I have been under contract for a while, I can say that writing a book and writing a book under contract are more different than I ever imagined.  Here are three of the reasons why.

1)      The deadline—As an unpublished author, I approached writing as if it were my job, because that is what I hoped it would one day be.  It wasn’t just a hobby that I tinkered with when I was inspired.  While writing a novel, I wrote ever day until I hit The End.  Then I went back and polished and rewrote the book until it was the best writing I could produce at that time.  By the time I wrote Skating Around the Law, I knew that I could produce a manuscript in about 3-4 months.  Which is probably why it never occurred to me to be concerned with deadlines.  I mean, most established authors I knew publish an average of 1-2 books a year.  With the writing habits I’d established, I figured deadlines would never be an issue. 

HA!  First of all, no matter how quickly you write, a deadline is a source of pride and terror.  Pride that there is a contract proving that an editor wants the book you are writing.  You are getting paid for your writing!  This is now a job.  Terror because you are now getting paid for your writing and it is now a job with an expectation that the book will be done by a specific date.  No matter how disciplined you are at your writing, the first time you have a “must be completed by date” assigned to you stress will descend.  It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve completed or how quickly – THIS book feels different.  You worry that because it feels different to have a deadline, you may not be able to write as quickly as you have in the past.  The writing might suck and your rewrites might take longer.  The feeling that this book might not get done is always there as you sit at the keyboard.   

Deadlines are wonderful because they mark you as a professional writer, but the worry that you might not be professional enough has wrecked havoc with writers through all stages of their career. 

2)      The check—Getting money for a book before the book is written is another wonderful thing.  No matter how small or large the check, receiving the money is tangible proof that someone actually likes your writing.  It’s a huge confidence boost, but cashing the check is also tangible proof of your commitment to approaching your writing as a job.  The knowledge that you have been paid for something someone has never seen can be both wonderful and frightening.  What if they regret sending you that check?  What if they hate the book?  When a completed manuscript sells, the author is confident the editor likes the book.  They wouldn’t have purchased it otherwise.  But writing a book that was put under contract before completion brings with it a whole new host of doubts, which makes sitting at the keyboard and typing with complete abandon trickier than it was before. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but the higher the check amount, the higher my anxiety about the contracted project goes up.  Writing a book valued at an advance of $5,000 feels a whole lot different than one valued higher.  The expectations I have of myself rise as the number of zeros increases.  (Note -I have never been paid 6 figures for 1 book, so I’m not talking J.K. Rowling money here, but still!!!!) 

3)      Readers—now that you are under contract, you are no longer writing for yourself.  While every writer hopes that the mythical creatures known as readers will some day purchase their book from a store or download it onto their E-reader, the audience the unpublished author is primarily writing for is an audience of 1 – themselves.  Writing a book under contract means that this book you are writing will be in bookstores and on e-shelves.  Readers will be able to read it.  Suddenly, each word that you type means more than it once did because it doesn’t just belong to you.  It belongs to them.  And that distinction can make all the difference in the world. 

Once I started down the writing path, being paid to write a book that was already under contract was a dream of mine.  To me, knowing that an editor and publisher believed in me enough to buy work sight unseen was a sign that I had earned the right to think of myself as an author.  (It took several manuscripts for me to even admit to friends that I was a writer, so calling myself an author took a bit more doing.)  This year, I have completed and turned in 3 under contract manuscripts.  The mechanics of writing get easier with practice, but the personal pressures that come with contracted books makes them each a very different challenge.  I’m thrilled I’ve been given the chance to learn what writing under deadline feels like and as I write on my current project, I hope that I meet the expectations that have been set for it by both me, my agent and my editor.  And if I’m lucky, once I turn in the last two projects that my editors have requested, I’ll be allowed to do it all over again.  Because no matter how hard writing the next contracted book might be, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. 


Chris said...


Linda Rodriguez said...

You nailed it, Joelle. I remember the first time I started a book with a publisher's deadline staring me in the face. I panicked and called a much-published friend for reassurance. But she wasn't home so I had to leave a message. I sat down and told myself, "You'll write it the way you've always written--one word, sentence, page ata a time." By the time my friend called back, I was halfway through the first scene. That initial panic was devastating, though.

Mollie Bryan said...

Great post, Joelle. I'm new at writing the series. I'm used to working with deadlines, but the tricky part for me is the writing for "them" part. At what part in your process do you let "them" come into it. First draft? Third draft?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Mollie- I try not to think about writing for "them" because that freaks me out. But I admit that it is hard to get "them" out of my head when I start the first draft of a new, under contract, book. It takes me about 50 pages before I am able to shut "them" out and just focus on the story and not anyone else's expectations.

Mollie Bryan said...

Ah, Joelle, I'm so glad others struggle with that, too. Thanks!