Thursday, July 26, 2007

Procrastinating Writers

I recently had conversations with several editors about writers who don't deliver on time (something that every new editor quickly learns is not uncommon). Most writers who deliver late are just plain procrastinators. They put off starting on books for weeks and even months. Some have to be forced into writing by nagging editors and agents, or by the need of money. One such was Harold Robbins, who is described in Another Life by Michael Korda as having to be watched over (on occasion, under literal lock and key) before he would finish a novel.

But what is procrastination? In this case it is a quick catch-all term that covers several reasons for writers being late. (Note: Now and then, writers are kept from writing by circumstances beyond their control, definitely not procrastination. Family problems, health issues, and bizarre things that no one would buy as fiction. I recall being really late with a book after being hit by a divorce and an auto accident within weeks of one another.)

So why do writers (like the aforementioned Harold Robbins) who are given plenty of time to write their books, and don't have any life emergencies between signing the contract and the manuscript delivery date, run late? Some writers get too comfortable; they have money, and there's loads and loads of time before the book is due, so why not take a few days (weeks, or months) off and enjoy it? At some point they realize that the deadline is on the horizon, and panic--which slows down writerly production something fierce. (Just about any emotion can slow production--fear, joy, hate, terror. Everything but love, in my experience. Love has been known to actually speed up writing!)

And then there are writers who are seized by fear as they get into their project--fear of being unable to complete it, fear of rejection, fear of not doing their best. This usually happens to first-time writers, but pros are not immune to the problem. A sudden change in the relationship between the editor or publisher and the author can make for delays--egos and attitudes, that sort of thing. Writers have also been known to slow down or stop working when advance checks don't arrive on schedule. And there's that mysterious malady, Writer's Block.

How to deal with this? Editors cope by harassing the writer--a surprisingly effective tactic. Some beg, some manipulate, and some threaten. (They may threaten to bring in another writer as permitted in the author's contract.) All's fair in the battle to bring in the manuscript on deadline.

And how do writers handle the situation? Many are in denial, so they do nothing but give in to pressure or threats, not a good working situation. Others will come up with all sorts of situations on which to place the blame for their tardiness, and still crank out a good manuscript really quickly.

The minority of writers who admit to themselves that they've been procrastinating just dig in and crank out quality chapters in impossibly short periods of time (I've been known to do that). And some produce really bad prose because they're trying to cram 6 months worth of work into 2 months. (Yet another reason why bad books get into print.) Of course, it's best to avoid the situation entirely.
Copyright 2007, Michael A. Banks


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