Have you a deadline?

This question is often put by writers to fellow writers, and my answer is generally ‘yes’. I didn’t have a deadline – or a contract – for my first few novels, and wrote them on spec, but from THE SECRET YEARS on I’ve had both. Which means that I’ve been writing to a deadline for something like twenty-five years. Over that period, I’ve usually been contracted for two or three novels at a time. A multi-book contract gives a writer security – which, in a very insecure profession, is great. But it also means that as soon as you’ve met one deadline, another is looming on the horizon. In the earlier part of my career I was writing a book a year so one deadline followed another with great rapidity. I’ve slowed down since then – but nevertheless I’m always very much aware of the date my publishers are expecting me to deliver the new novel.

When I start a book – contract signed, deadline a pleasingly long way away – I feel optimistic and confident. I appear to have all the time in the world. But then, somehow, the comfortingly long months seem to whizz by. No book is without its problems. I don’t think the writing of any one of my twenty-one novels has been a smooth, uninterrupted process. Sometimes life intervenes – for me, both THE WINTER HOUSE and FOOTPRINTS ON THE SAND are indelibly connected with my mother’s illness and death. I link THE SHADOW CHILD to that time in my life when I was bringing up three teenage boys and all the challenges and joys associated with that. I had a six and a half hour operation on my spine in the middle of writing CATCHING THE TIDE, and I fractured my shoulder when approaching the deadline for ONE LAST DANCE, which meant that I typed some of the last few chapters with my right arm in a sling.

More often the delays are due to problems with the book itself. If I can get the first third of the novel right the rest tends to flow. But all too often that first third is a battle. If one of the storylines isn’t strong enough or if a character isn’t likeable enough or the opening of the novel is insufficiently arresting, then I must pull the text apart and rework it, cut sections out and put new ones in, or even start again from scratch. And all the time the weeks are slipping by and the novel is getting shorter, not longer!

So the deadline’s closely approaching, a few months and then just weeks away. By this time the book’s in my head constantly. I’m thinking of it from the moment I wake up in the morning to last thing at night. I try not to think of it when I wake in the middle of the night, but sometimes I do. There’s the mad, final push to get it finished in time; I press ‘Send’ and off it flies to my agent and editor.

Finished. Done and dusted. Only it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes I end up making changes at a late date. For instance, my agent might identify the problem of the ‘sagging middle’. This refers not to losing your figure but to a dull bit in the middle of a book. So sub-plots have to be rapidly dreamt up and interesting secondary characters introduced. And meanwhile that deadline is racing into view.

The most challenging alteration I’ve ever had to make at a late date was to adjust the entire structure of a book. Big changes at this point always have a knock-on effect, so this felt terrifying. Any late alterations to the dates of events or the ages of characters, or to the dates they marry, give birth, or die, will have ramifications throughout the novel. The text must be very carefully checked for consistency. When this happens, I end up burying myself in my study for many hours at a time and working weekends and often ignoring everyone but my nearest and dearest.

But deadlines have their advantages, too. Without one it would be all too easy to go on endlessly tinkering with the text. You can always find something more to do to a novel, but if you polish it too much there’s a risk it will end up lifeless.

Once the novel is finished and the deadline met, I feel great. There’s the happy sense of a job well done and I’m walking on air.

I’m as free as a bird… until the next time.