Thursday, February 23, 2006


My fourth Jack Daniels book is due March 1st.

I've got about 15k left to write.

It usually takes me about a month to write a book. I began a little earlier than usual for this novel, because February is short a few days, and I had a conference and a few events that took up some of my time.

But I'm still behind schedule. This book required more research than previous books, and for the first time ever I actually got stuck (I needed to figure out how to commit an impossible crime, and then figure out how the police could thwart it.)

I've always been a last minute kind of guy. I'd do my homework on the bus going to school, the day it was due. I was still making edits on my final film project in college ten minutes before the festival ran it. When I give a dinner speech at a conference, I'm usually jotting down what I'll speak about during dessert.

My wife, a fountain of wisdom, patience, and beauty, casually suggested that perhaps I need to begin writing my books sooner than 40 days before they're due. I laughed at her.

"I do my best work at the last minute," I replied.

"You do all your work at the last minute," she countered.

I would have pursued the arguement, but---hey---I need to finish the damn book.

Which I will finish. It will be tight, but I'll burn the midnight oil and get it done. And according to aforementioned wife, who is reading the chapter a day I'm writing, it's my best book yet.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog entry.

How well do you work under pressure?

In the music biz, the second album traditionally sucks. The first was compiled over years of honing, rewriting, and reworking. The second has to be written and recorded in eight months.

Novels are the same. You have years to write your first book. Book #2 needs to be done within a year. And also within that year, you'll be doing a gazillion things for the first book, so you don't actually have an entire year.

The fact is, no matter when you begin your next book, you'll never have enough time, and you'll always feel the heat of the time-crunch. If I'd started six months ago, I can promise I'd still be in the very same situation I am now.

Can you flip your creativity on and off like a switch? Can you force the muse to appear when the pressure is on and the bills need to be paid and the deadline looms ever closer? And can you make sure the book is better than the previous one?

If so, you have a shot at succeeding in this biz.

If not, you may still succeed. But make sure you never sign multi-book contracts, be upfront with your agent and editor about how long it takes you to complete a novel, and don't bite off more than you can chew.

My goal today is 3500 words. That's about 15 pages. I know I can do it, and I will do it.

Can you?


DZ Allen said...

Good luck! Make sure to do plenty of finger stretches before you begin. An untimely finger sprain could ruin you day. :)

I know I work much better with a deadline. If I don’t have one I tend to procrastinate. That’s why I set daily, weekly and monthly goals for my writing. I know that’s nothing like the pressure that you’re feeling right now, but if I take my goals seriously, then that’s enough for me to get the work done.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, it's so good to hear that you're in the same leaky boat as I am, Joe.

My third one, BERMUDA SCHWARTZ, will come out in October. That is, it will come out in October if I finish it by the end of March.

By contract, it was supposed to have been finished last October, but my awesome editor at St. Martin's, Marc Resnick, cuts me major slack because the second one, JAMAICA ME DEAD, went right down to the wire, and I turned in clean copy that needed very little revision (all those years of being an editor, finally paid off...)

In another life, I was a newspaper columnist, so I'm used to churning out stuff on tight deadline. I started BERMUDA SCHWARTZ in mid-January. Another 40k words by the end of March? Piece o' cake...

And that's not really blood popping out on my forehead.

Bernita said...

Heh, heh... thwarted that by working on my third before I start pimping my first of the series.

Bernita said...

And yes, I can produce under pressure.

Christa M. Miller said...

Deadlines for me are not the problem. Like you, Joe, I used to do all my homework at the last minute. In fact, I once experimented by writing a paper "on time." I got a lower grade on it than the ones I left till the last minute. Deadlines make me focus. Last-minute deadlines even more so.

That said, contingency plans are absolutely essential - more so for women, I think, and especially if children are possibly in the future. I am my child's only caregiver because we can't afford outside childcare. I can't count the number of times I've had to take a week off for illness, or even a few days here and there for clinginess.

For an article due in 30 days, those days can really add up. I missed quite a few deadlines before I finally realized I had to stop making assumptions about "the way I work." I got more aggressive pursuing sources, stopped editing longhand, and started writing drafts piecemeal instead of gathering a ton of information and then inputting it all at once.

A novel deadline has even less wiggle room than an article, or so I hear, and I can definitely see a newborn's schedule seriously mucking up publicity efforts. (Heck, I couldn't even make someone else's signing 6 weeks after my son came!) I lucked out with understanding magazine editors (who are all parents) so I can only hope I will land the same in an agent and editor...

Anonymous said...

I work a little differently. I take my time coming up with the premise, characters and plot for the book (I generally start this while I'm rewriting the book before it) and then set up a schedule of four months or so to write a 100,000+ word thriller. Five days a week, 1000 words a day, works for me. Sometimes I get stopped for a while, but I do something else in the book. Toward the end, I'm writing 3000+ words a day, sometimes every day.

I have written a book in two months, so I know I can do it.

With the last book, THE DEVIL'S HOUR, I got pretty far behind. But the book was also coming together, so I wrote the last half of the book, 45,000+ words, in a month.

I'm not done, though. I need at least a month to rewrite the book--and the rewriting is extensive. I've never blown a deadline yet, but I know I'm going to have to quicken the pace as time goes by and I do more publicity, etc.

The good thing is, I know I can do it if I have to.


Stacie Penney said...

Ever hear of

50K in 30 days.

I get my best first drafts that way.

PJ Parrish said...

Like Bob Morris, I come from a newspaper background, so deadlines don't bug me too much. I spent 18 years as a dance critic (no, I didn't wear a hairnet for THAT job!) and often I found myself scribbling my wonderfully trenchant analysis of the New York City Ballet on the program margins as I raced up the aisle to the lobby telephone. (Pre-cell and lap-tops...yeah, I am THAT old).My husband used to cover the Dolphins so was banging out game stories to make first-edition deadline as he prayed for no OT. We always made our deadlines. There was no choice. It was simply part of our job.

Joe is right. The first book is easy cuz you have forever to perfect it. And it gets harder with each book after that.

If you are the type who sits at the keyboard waiting for the muse, give up now. You must be able to produce on a tight schedule because publishers need your name out their consistently. Authors like James Patterson and Nora Roberts, right or wrong, are setting this bar for having their "product" constantly on the shelves. And publishers are increasing the pressure on genre writers to do a book every 8 months rather than 12 months.

Here's an interesting link to a story about Patterson's "product branding:"

Ellen said...

*It usually takes me about a month to write a novel.*

And I thought I liked you.

Heather Brewer said...

I work best under pressure. I give myself personal deadlines and reach them every time. And now that I have real deadlines...well, I'm all giddy. :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, P.J., I'd read that piece on Patterson when you mentioned it on Cabbages & Kings. Thanks ...

No matter what you think of his work—far be it from me to dis anyone who sells gazillions of books—Patterson is spot on with the whole branding thing. That means mucho output and don't stop dancing.

These days, as far as I can tell, it's all about achieving critical mass. As soon as I get this one done, I'm starting a standalone. I'll move to two books a year. Then, if I've got the wind, three of 'em.

But first I'll have to wean myself from this goddam blogging thing...

William G. said...

Joe, man I feel for ya. My whole life has been spent performing under pressure. Why, I've even had people tell me in my graphic design work, not to start on their project until ten minutes before it's due because I do better work that way. I get a lot of stuff handed to me at the last minute because of that.

And people wonder why I'm so stressed all the time.

Contract deadlines are the one thing that concern me most. I honestly don't know how well I'll do under those circumstances. Though, I can't wait to find out.

Lee Goldberg said...

Contractually, I only had eight weeks to write MR. MONK GOES TO THE FIREHOUSE from the day they offered me the deal to the hard deadline for delivery (that included actually coming up with a story and plotting it out). I figure I actually wrote the book in six-to-seven week.

I now have 90 days contractually to write each book, alternating between DIAGNOSIS MURDER and MONK. I write the books while also writing and producing TV shows...and the scripts always come first. So I end up writing the books in stolen moments and on nights and weekends. For instance, while I've been writing my current MONK novel, I also traveled to NY for a week to work on a MONK script...and then spent another two weeks writing it...while also traveling to Hawaii to speak at seven libraries. My fourth DM novel was written while I was writing & producing MISSING and had two broken arms (I don't recommend that approach)So, if I were to quantify my average book-writing time in a typical 90-day period, it probably comes down to six-to-eight weeks.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know how we handle my sister, who is always late for everything?

We tell her we're meeting for dinner half hour before we actually intend to be there.

That way, we only wait 5-10 minutes.

Get your wife to handle the contracts and she can give you a date 3 months in advance and you'll never know, and you'll still produce your best work because you think your deadline is approaching.

Anonymous said...


I'm sure you have plenty of police contacts and resources, but if you run into a situation where you need some information or want to walk through a scenario, I am a police officer and a writer (though several rungs lower on the ladder at present than you are...). I've been on the job since '93 and have worked in a variety of positions--patrol officer (was a field training officer during that time), corporal, detective. I am now a sergeant, so I also have the more global perspective to draw on. I teach report writing and sexual assault investigation at our Academy. If I can ever help, my contact info is available through my website. That's a standing offer directly to you, but open to anyone reading this.

I think we writers need to help each other out as much as possible. This blog is an example of what I mean.


P.S. My wife, traditionally a romance reader, is now a mystery reader. I weaned her away on 'Whiskey Sour.'

James Goodman said...

I love the pressure and I hope to experience it in a multi-book deal. My one and only publication credit, I wrote in under two weeks (and that includes the re-writes/polishing).

Unknown said...

I'm no delayer. For instance, I have a short story due for an anthology in June... and I'm halfway done the first draft last night.

I like to hit the ground running, get the shit draft out in a week (or, if a novel, 1 month or so) and then leave the leftover time for the no doubt flurry of edits I will partake in.

Anonymous said...


Do you write more than one book a year? If you mind if I ask why not? Especially since you write them so quickly. Couldn't you double or even triple your income if you wrote one or two more a year? Maybe do a whole other series, kind of like Parker and his 3 series, each of which takes exactly 6 weeks to write he says.


Rob Gregory Browne said...

My contract gives me until December to finish book 2. I plan to have it finished by the middle of the year (don't tell anyone).

When I was in the animation ghetto, I was able to write an episode of Spider-Man in a day or two -- although this was, admittedly, considerably less difficult than the first novel.

I work well under pressure, but don't see any reason to put myself in that position.

Stacey Cochran said...

I heard someone say recently that selling your second book is actually harder than your first - to readers, that is.

She said this is so because the first book tends to be collectible, whereas the second book is just a book.

You folks who have actually published a couple of novels - did you find this to be the case?


Jude Hardin said...

Thanks to Frank Zafiro for the generous offer to help regarding matters pertaining to police procedure. I'll extend the same offer to any of you who might have questions about hospital care (for your fiction, that is. Please don't email me with personal health questions).

On topic: Like Joe, my son is one of those last minute guys, and it drives me nuts. He had a history paper due Tuesday, so guess when he decided to start on it? Right. Monday night. And guess who ended up typing it for him. Right. Me. He had a science project due Wednesday that he's known about for several weeks. As of Tuesday at 6PM he still didn't know what he was going to make. I drove him to Home Depot, disgusted, and set him off on his own to come up with an idea. He found his materials, made the project, and handed it in on time. I've fussed and fussed about his procrastinating, but I guess that's just how he works. Maybe, like Joe, he does better at the last minute. He was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society a couple weeks ago, so I can't complain.

Me, I'm sort of compulsive about being on time with everything, and plan for contingencies, so I'm usually way early. It probably goes back to my military days, where being on time was pounded into my brain with fear tactics. I don't think I'll have a problem meeting writing deadlines. Now if someone would only give me one!

Jude Hardin said...


Even with your busy schedule and a deadline looming, you find time to help those of us in need of guidance.

You're the best!

HawkOwl said...

If I knew I was gonna get paid for it, I could write 3,500 words right now. Otherwise, no, I doubt I'll get 3,500 words written today.

Question: if multi-book deals are such a hassle, why do people sign them? Why not just call up your agent when you get your next book done?

Jude Hardin said...

Good point, hawkowl. The thing is, it's so hard to get published, new authors usually jump at the opportunity for a multi-book deal. On the surface, a six-figure deal for three books in a series is very attractive. But you have to break it down, do the math. Say Publisher X offers you $100,000 for three books over three years. If you don't sell through, earn out your advance and collect some royalties on top, you're making roughly 33K a year. Could I afford to quit my job and live on 33K? Nope. I make about twice that as an RN. 33K wouldn't pay my bills. But, I could afford to go part time as an RN, and spend more time on my writing and promotion. As long as I meet the deadlines, which seem fairly reasonable from what I've read, I could do everything possible to make sure I sell through and get another three book deal with a better advance. Eventually, I would be able to retire completely from nursing and write full time, which is my goal. Let's face it, the publishers hold all the cards. For a new author, you either play by their rules or you don't play. Once you become a bestseller, then you can start to think about writing your own ticket. Until then, you better take what you can get, or get out. It's a business, my friend. Just like trucking.

Jude Hardin said...

Just curious, Joe. Did you make it to 3500 words today? That seems like such a monster to me.

Anonymous said...

I work in advertising so I'm on a mobius strip of perpetual deadlines every day anyway. (Yesterday I worked 14 hours on a campaign). Before that I was in the newspaper biz so I’m kind of battle hardened and numb to deadlines.

3500 words a day is cake.

Jude Hardin said...

Stephen King, one of the most prolific novelists of our time, states that his goal for words/day is 2000. Sorry. 3500 is not "cake" for anybody.

Appreciate 3500 for what it is: Pretty fucking impressive.

Allison Brennan said...

I write better with deadlines. I procrastinate. But the adrendlin flows and I write faster and better as the deadline nears. But I'm also a binge writer. I can write 30 pages in a day (about 4 hours) or nothing.

When I was in school, I always waited until the night before to write the big comprehensive essay, or read the book for the big test, whatever. I always got A's. Certainly didn't teach me to plan ahead. In my former career, all I cared about was when the project was due, and it would be done by then. I absolutely HATED when someone would nag me. For example, Let's say on Monday I was given a project that was due by 5 on Friday. I figured it would take me 5 hours, take or leave. Well, some people expect that I should be 20% done with the project on Monday, 40% done on Tuesday, etc.

No, I would start it at noon on Friday and turn it in at 5.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

When I wrote my nine part short story for a local magazine, I inevitably wrote the next installment the day before it was due. It would have made more sense to write the story completely out and then split it up. Of course I didn't do what made sense. The deadline would be looming and I'd be panicked over what came next. I'd go reread what I wrote up to that point and then write the next installment. Needless to say, when they asked me to do it again this year, I declined. :)

I always wrote papers at the last minute. Hell, I'm writing a master's thesis at the last minute. I operate very well with deadlines, though it's stressful too. When it's over, I swear I'll plan better next time. I never do.

Jeri said...

In HS and undergrad I left things until the last minute. Often they were late and/or subpar, but I always had the excuse that "if I'd had more time" I could've done better. Procrastinating was my way of dealing with the fear of "What if I try my best and it's still not very good?" I got a B average--some A's, some C's, even an F here and there.

Grad school changed all that. Deadlines were non-negotiable. I had to make work schedules, set up daily, weekly, monthly goals in order to do well (and if I didn't do well, I'd lose my fellowship). I got straight A's.

I apply those same strategies to my writing. Sure, I fall behind schedule, but I don't panic, because there always comes that rush at the end where 15 pages a day (for a very limited time) is easy.

But I couldn't write a 100K book in a month, or even two months. An average of 8 pp/day (roughly 1700 words) is my limit for now. Any more and the quality suffers.

Then again, a year ago I thought 5 pp/day was a lot. Now that would be a vacation.

Anonymous said...

Writing a novel in a month is not something I think one should advertise. Just saying. Critics can hoist you on that one. So can readers who don't love the books.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks Frank, and to all who chimed in.

Do you write more than one book a year? If you mind if I ask why not?

I could comfortably do about four a year. But my publisher only wants (and lets) me do one. That means I'd have to do the others under pseudonyms---which is like starting a new career from scratch.
I'm trying--we'll see what happens.

Writing a novel in a month is not something I think one should advertise.

This blog is about my reality and my experience. I hope that one of the things that makes it so popular is that I'm not afraid to be unpopular.

I have many unpopular stances:

Art is a product.

Don't include SASEs.

Give all agents who ask for an exclusive an exclusive.

Internet publication doesn't count as first rights.

And so on.

I stand by my work, whether it took ten minutes or ten years to write. If critics or fans want to point fingers, they're welcome to.

I know hundreds of writers, and more than 75% of them could write a book within two months if push came to shove. Many of them already do.

And no, I missed my goal yesterday, and stopped at 3300 words. But I also polished the first 180 pages of the book, which took a few hours.

Jude Hardin said...

I couldn't write a salable novel in a month, but Joe does somehow. I guess it helps knowing the characters already and having an outline to work from, but it's still pretty amazing.

I don't think critics and fans are concerned with how long it took to write. It's the end product that counts.

Anonymous said...

Can I?

Hell yes.

My second book is better than my first and I wrote it while going through extreme family upheaval as well as the thrill ride of first publication. Wrote the third during a medical scare, crushing poverty, and a friend's death, among other things.

I can write a book in about 6 weeks if I have to. I prefer to plan ahead and deliver early - to my agent about a month before it's due to my editor - but that's just me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Stacey said: "I heard someone say recently that selling your second book is actually harder than your first - to readers, that is.

She said this is so because the first book tends to be collectible, whereas the second book is just a book."

God, right now, I'd be happy with that!

Next year I'll be worried though.

Anonymous said...

I envy your ability to write thrillers. I write women's lit and love that, but I'm always picking up one thriller or another. I could never sift through all the technical crime stuff as you described here. Anyway, thank Goodness people like you are out there for people like me! I'm to the book store today, I will pick up yours next.

Anonymous said...

"But I also polished the first 180 pages of the book, which took a few hours."

That sort of answered my question about whether you submit your first draft or not. If I didn't have a day job, I could probably polish off a first draft in a month or two (with the day job I wrote one book in four months), but how much do you revise and rewrite? Have your editors ever come back to you and said you have to rewrite or revise a portion of the book?

HawkOwl said...

You didn't answer my question. :( Oh well. Thanks Jude for your comments... I guess for me, since I wouldn't want writing to be my main source of income, I could afford to tell a publisher where to put their multi-book deal. But then again I don't think a publisher would offer me a multi-book deal, because I don't write anything that works in a series. If I look at any of my projects, none of them leave any room for re-using the characters, the theme, the setting, anything. So the next book wouldn't be remotely like the first.

Anonymous said...


3500 is not a realistic pace to sustain over 30 straight days. But for one day, to meet a deadline? Not a problem. And I you could do it too. Don't sell yourself short.

Anonymous said...

Nice post on your art/entertainment argument.

Jeri said...

Joe, why not sell another series to a different publisher?

Anonymous said...

I've written to a deadline, but that was technical writing, pretty cut and dried. In that line of work a deadline was a good thing, because it provided a timetable I could use to get others to provide me the information I needed.

I was a procrastinator in school, finishing things the night before they were due, but I learned as a technical writer to pace myself and do a portion each day, with an organized approach. I try to write that way now, but I'm lazy.

With fiction, so far I'm more of a binge writer, and I've been known to produce 3,500 words or more in a day, when I'm in a flow, but overall I'm a slow writer, and did I mention lazy? One book every two years would be more my speed.

If there were money and a deadline, though, I'm sure I could do it. It's just that until you have a contract, when you're writing with no idea of whether anyone will want it, the only motivator is the story and your desire to write. Sometimes I'm not too sure about the story. Other times I question my sanity wanting to write.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

"I stand by my work, whether it took ten minutes or ten years to write. If critics or fans want to point fingers, they're welcome to."

This reminds me of a time when I was in college -- which wasn't for long. I had a class for which we were required to do an essay every other day. I would usually do my essay, hand written, ten minutes before class and I always got A's and B's.

Then one day the professor saw me scribbling before class and asked me what I was working on. "Today's essay," I told her. "Same as always."

It came back with D.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks, Kathie!

how much do you revise and rewrite? Have your editors ever come back to you and said you have to rewrite or revise a portion of the book?

The editor always has suggestions, which I always follow. But each book as had less and less editorial input.

I usually work the book through three drafts--I'm constantly revising as I'm writing.

Hawk-Owl: Multi-book deals are great. They insure a commitment from the publsiher, even if your numbers aren't very good. It's hard to make a deadline, but it's harder wondering if your next book will sell or not. You should always take a multi book deal if you can get it.

Joe, why not sell another series to a different publisher?

Because I'm new, and not a name brand, my publisher has a clause in my contract saying I can't sell any other compteing titles using the name "JA Konrath." This is standard.

I'm tryign to sell a book under a different name, but so far, no takers.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Ouch, Rob. I guess she thought she was encouraging you to put more time into it, but whoa, too unfair. So, the lesson is that some people equate time spent to quality. Something to remember when talking to an editor/agent, maybe....

JA Konrath said...

Nice post on your art/entertainment argument.

It's an empassioned post, but her conclusion basically still states that art is subjective, and the best art is judged by popularity---though she says the judging is more selective than just what the unwashed masses deem good.

Yet the unwashed masses still vote with their dollars, and they choose McDonalds.

Also, I bet a lot more people would choose McD's as their favorite burger than the author might guess.

Jude Hardin said...


If you wanted to finish a 100K word novel in 30 days, you would have to write almost 3500 words/day. I guess I could do it, maybe if I locked myself in a motel room and completely ignored the outside world and my other responsibilities for a month.

Hmm. That doesn't sound too bad, actually. Maybe I'll give it a shot some time.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I did NaNoWriMo this year for the first time...50k words in 30 days...and it's actually coherent! So I know I could do it if I had to...Now to just get to the place where...I have to!

DZ...finger strain is never a problem...I have voice recognition if I sprain my tongue that's another matter!

I agree with Christine...deadlines make me focus!

Boy, Joe...your cup runneth over...Would your publisher accept you under another name? Your a proven commodity with them.

HawkOwl said...

Thanks for answering my question.