Writing as project management. You’re kidding, right?

‘You know,’ my publisher’s commissioning editor said to me a few weeks back,  ‘publishers like using authors like you and [a mutual friend] because you deliver to spec, and on time.’

The hard fact is that publishing is a business like any other. It has costs and cost structures. Publishers usually project schedules a year or more in advance – teeing up  typesetters, printers, marketing and pre-promotions. If a book’s late or over-length, it affects costs and margins – which are usually tight.

Too often a writer will fiddle around, amending here, tinkering there – maybe not stop even after the MS has gone in to the editor.  Books drift. Some writers wait until the muse strikes. Others keep adding, waddling in to the publishers’ office with an over-length and late manuscript that blows the cost structures and may be unpublishable.  Most publisher contracts have an out-clause associated with MS quality and delivery timing..Most contracts include a limiter clause on post-fact changes too. After about ten percent, the cost of re-typesetting lands on the author.

The rules I follow are these:

1. Deliver to specified length, OR re-negotiate if it doesn’t pan out, but do that early. Most contracts have a time-renegotiate clause for that reason.

2. Deliver on that agreed time – and figure out how to do that early on in the writing process.

3. Make sure the book is edited, clean and FINISHED on delivery, apart from any minor fixes that kick up in the publisher editorial process. Don’t re-cast afterwards.

4. Don’t compromise quality.Anywhere.

But wait – I can hear it now. Writing is creative. It demands that sparkle – innovation, spontaneity. Waiting for the muse. Something that hasn’t been churned out as product and then had the life beaten out of it by time-and-cost pressures. You can’t crush that.

Indeed. So what’s the answer?

First thing to remember is that anybody working in a creative art with a commercial end to it strikes the issue – from car designers to architects to movie-makers to photographers. Cost, time and process all intrude. Yet whatever comes out has to be able to provoke that emotional response on which all the creative arts hang.

The second thing is that writing is process-driven in many ways. Look at the structure. If you look at any successful book – fiction or non-fiction – and break down how it’s done, it will follow the same rules of structure every time. Look at Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (“the the Vinci code”, sheesh). To me that was a brilliant demonstration of structure and hook-writing for tension – so much so that character, dialogue, accurate setting, POV consistency, the ‘show not tell’ rule and even grammar appeared to fall off the radar. Yet it worked! More on that in another blog, but you get the point. And anything with structure is amenable to process.

Adding process to writing doesn’t necessarily mean getting down and dirty with Gant charts. But it does mean thinking about what that writing process is, and ways of getting to the end point. Editing is process too, particularly when it comes to finding literals. It’s possible to calculate the time required to do that (proof-readers, who charge on a per-word basis, have to work that to time). The issue is finding a balance. Creativity must not be squashed.

Everybody has to find their own way – what works for you. Me? I’ll devise structure and time-plan – usually part of a proposal anyway - then innovate something. Splurge a ‘bad first draft’, edit – edit some more. Check to make sure that sparkle hasn’t been crushed. If that first draft doesn’t come together properly, I’ll re-negotiate delivery time.  That means creativity isn’t compromised – but I can still meet the business criteria. Then I’ll get on to editing and making sure it’s on spec. At the end, I’ll check again. Does it still sparkle? And sometimes, writing means not waiting for the muse.

So – what do people think? Own experiences? Ideas? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

2 comments on “Writing as project management. You’re kidding, right?

  1. I do hope you’ll do that follow up post on The The Vinci Code. Would be interested in reading that!

  2. Thank you – and yes, that one is absolutely coming. I try to get a longer post up every week or so, and I’ve been hanging out to get that one written ever since I forced myself to finish the book – and then figure out why I got captured despite the awfulness. Time is the enemy just now, but it’s on its way! And thanks for dropping by my blog.

    Matthew

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