Monday, October 1, 2012

When Writers Don't Deliver

A guest post by Tess Gerritsen.

It's every aspiring author's dream. A publisher offers you a big contract for your next book, the deal gets announced to the press, and you receive a check as an advance payment. Now all you have to do is finish writing the manuscript, send it to your editor, and presto! You're a published author.

Or not. Because a lot can go wrong between signing the contract and your book's appearance in stores. I was reminded of just how often things do go wrong when I recently came across this article:

A New York publisher this week filed lawsuits against several prominent writers who failed to deliver books for which they received hefty contractual advances, records show.
The Penguin Group's New York State Supreme Court breach of contract/unjust enrichment complaints include copies of book contracts signed by the respective defendants.

Among the five authors mentioned in the article are Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who signed a $100,000 deal in 2003 to write "a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression," and blogger Ana Marie Cox, who signed a $325,000 contract in 2006 for a humorous book about political activists.

I don't know the particular circumstances of these authors. Perhaps personal issues -- a divorce, a severe illness, or unremitting depression -- kept them from delivering the promised manuscripts. Perhaps they did in fact deliver the manuscripts, which was deemed unsatisfactory by the publisher and rejected.

Or perhaps they suffered from an all-too common writer's malady: crisis of confidence. I know all about it, because twenty-five years ago, it almost derailed my budding writing career.

I had just sold my first romantic thriller, Call After Midnight, to Harlequin Intrigue. The book sold well and was nominated for a Rita award. Although I didn't sign a contract for the next book, my editor anxiously waited for my second novel. And she waited. And waited.

Two years later, all I had to show her were partials of various abandoned novels, stories that started off well enough, but within fifty pages had run out of steam. I just couldn't finish that second book. The months went by and my panic grew. This wasn't just writer's block; this was a full-stop career block. I was doomed to join the crowded ranks of one-book wonders.

I don't remember how I got past those dark months. What I do remember were the calls from the editor, the sound of disappointment in her voice when I told her I still didn't have anything. Eventually the calls between us stopped, leaving editorial silence, a sign that my publisher had at last given up on me. But I hadn't given up on myself, so I kept writing.

What saved me in the end was this: I finally gave myself permission to write badly. I decided it didn't matter if what I wrote was unpublishable, as long as I just kept writing. Up till then, I had abandoned at least three different story ideas within the first hundred pages, because all I could see were the flaws, and I got discouraged. Then I'd get seduced by a different story idea, a brighter, shinier premise on the other side of the fence. And I'd go chasing after that new premise until it too started to show its flaws. I couldn't finish a single book because I wanted it to be absolutely perfect, from beginning to end. From the very first draft. Which is like expecting your child to speak four foreign languages and play Bach on the piano at age five.

Children don't start off perfect, and neither do manuscripts.

At last I pulled out one of my earlier attempts, a story about a woman doctor being sued for a case of malpractice that is, in truth, a murder. The hero is the plaintiff's attorney, whose goal is to destroy her career. It had been months since I'd looked at the story, and suddenly I saw new possibilities. I resumed writing it. This time, I didn't stop to edit, I didn't stop to think: "oh, this part sucks." I stuck to my mantra: Just keep writing. And I did, all the way to the end.

The result was a first draft that was full of inconsistencies and mid-story plot shifts and characters who kept changing. But at least I had a first draft. I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had something to fix, and I did. In 1990, Under The Knife was finally published -- three years after my first novel.

In the past twenty-five years, I've written twenty-four novels. I've never forgotten those depressing, desperate months when I couldn't finish a book. Over the years, the writing hasn't gotten any easier; it's hard work, and it always will be. I've learned that I simply have to forge ahead, no matter how awful my writing seems, or how outlandish my plot. Because here's my second mantra: I can fix this. I might need five or even ten re-writes, but eventually I'll make that story work and I'll turn in that manuscript as promised.

Publishers want writers they can count on, writers who are both reliable and consistent. They'll usually give the author a certain amount of leeway if unavoidable crises pop up, such as serious illness or a death in the family, but eventually the contract has to be honored... or else.

And that's what separates the professionals from the amateurs. The professional always delivers.

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine.

Ms. Gerritsen's most recent thriller, Last to Die is reviewed today on Stuff and Nonsense


  1. Tess, A++++++ post! I couldn't agree more & right now am preparing a blog post "Hold Your Nose And Type." Getting something—anything—down is what separates the pros from the amateurs. Even if what you write is so vile it threatens the integrity of the time-space continuum, you can go back & fix it later.

  2. Welcome to Crime Fiction Collective, Tess! It's exciting to have you here, and thanks for sharing your experiences with our readers.

    Your initial frustration and discouragement at trying to finish a novel and your perseverance and ultimate success as a bestselling novelist are an inspiration to those thousands of writers who've started a book (or 3 or 4) and then fizzled out.

    As a freelance editor, I often have to encourage and reassure my writer clients. I'll be sending them here today to read your words of wisdom!

  3. Excellent post, Tess. Thanks for sharing it with us. I spent the weekend in a seminar unrelated to writing, but one of the main things they taught was that "done is always better than perfect." Words to live by.

  4. Excellent post! This advice is consistent with the wise words I read from other successfully-published authors. As an unpublished writer, I appreciate the wisdom, and the reminder to just keep writing.

    Thank you, Tess, for sharing your story, and thank you ladies for posting the message for people like me.

  5. Thank you so much for visiting Crime Fiction Collective, Tess!

  6. Very pleased to be here. Thanks for inviting me!

  7. I love it when a well-known author gives us permission to just write and worry about perfection later. When I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and she had a chapter on "Shitty First Drafts" I realized that we should just keep going with the initial creative flow, then go back and rewrite, edit, and rewrite again. It is in those second and third passes where we can look for perfection.

  8. Welcome to Crime Fiction Collective, Tess!

    Thanks for the reminder about just getting those words down. It's something I know intellectually, but man… it gets lost when my Internal Editor begins to grimace.

    (Great author photo, by the way.)

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  10. Tess, thanks for sharing. Your experience mirrors my own in so many ways. If writers in the audience aren't familiar with Anne Lamott's concept of the (crappy) first draft, they should learn. The hallmark of the professional, as you point out, is the stick-to-it-iveness to turn out a polished product.
    Appreciate your post.

  11. Wow, I never would have imagined you went through that at the beginning of your career. Thanks so much for sharing. I've had to really learn to turn off the internal editor and just write. And it's definitely not easy. Thanks again!

  12. Inspiring attitude of stick-to-it-iveness on Tess Gerritsen's part, which is what every writer needs, at some stage or another. (I hope I didn't use up all of mine during the 11 years it took me to sell my debut novel!)

  13. Great advice, Tess, and thanks for joining us. An incomplete manuscript is indeed far worse than one that's flawed. Every statue begins with a lump of clay (in that medium, at least). You can't sculpt it from nothing. Get the lump up there, and then work it into something magnificent.

  14. I'm always happy to read whatever you write, Tess. You are one of my favorite authors (and I'm pretty picky). This was particularly encouraging.

  15. Great post. Pressure is a funny thing - it either makes us deliver or paralyzes us. I can relate to the permission to write badly - first drafts of my manuscripts still make me cringe. Thank goodness for editing and editors.

  16. I would only take issue with a couple of things here. I was fortunate to work with Tess at one time. #1 she never delivered her work late that I experienced. #2 no matter what permission she may have given herself I don't recall an occasion when she wrote badly. In fact for an agent she was a dream client. Thank you Tess.

  17. Who would have thought that you ever encountered writer's block? This words coming from you will encourage many writers to hit those keys. Thanks, Tess.


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