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The Business of Novelization & Tie-Ins Part Two: Deadlines

A Question-and-Answer session with some of the top authors writing tie-ins and novelisations today. For their bios, please visit the About the Authors page.

QUESTION: Tie-in and Novelization writers often work under very tight deadlines. As little as two weeks for a novelization or eight weeks for a tie-in. How is that possible? Are the deadlines really set in stone?

Max Allan Collins: Tie-in editors really do have production needs and squeezes that other editors don’t face, and a big part of what we offer is our ability to do something wonderful, right away. On time. If we sign up to run a race, we shouldn’t be astonished that speed is expected.

Steve Perry: In tie-ins and novelizations, often the deadline is set-set, and that’s it, end of story. If you take the job, best you meet the date. If you don’t, they tend not to rehire you.

Sometimes, however, the due date is like the word-count, and not like it has to be there for tomorrow’s edition of the paper. More than once, I have had editors come back to me, once the clock started ticking, to say, all of a sudden, that the five months I had has to be hurried up, they need it in half that, and could I please-please- please get it in way early? Being a nice guy, back when I was younger
and less cynical, I tried to do it. But after you hear that they absolutely-positively-gotta-have-it! on June 1st or the industry will implode, and you fry your eyeballs and cook your hands to get it done by then, you expect to hear back from them with, oh, I dunno, at least a “Thank you.” And, when, on July 1st, you call and ask them how they liked the book and they hem and haw and say they haven’t had
a chance to look at it yet, that also makes you want to go find your knife and try a little freehand surgery …

The clock starts running when your phone rings or you get an email. Any time that gets burned in approval of outlines comes out of the writer’s portion. If you need three months to write the novel and ask for that, but somehow a month or six weeks of that evaporates because the licensor or editor or both who were to approve your contract went on vacation? You are still stuck with the delivery
date. Miss it, they get pissed off. Legally, they don’t have to pay you.

If you wait for a contract to arrive, sometimes you will finish the book before that happens. That’s generally a bad idea, you can get stung if you aren’t covered, but I’ve done it, and I suspect others here have, too. It’s pretty much the norm in TV, given the turnaround time — I used to write animation scripts, turn them in, do the
rewrite, and get paid — before the contract ever showed up.

If you need three months to write a book, better you pad that with a safety factor if possible. Even if the outline gets a thumb-up in a few days — I suppose that is possible, too — you can bet that Mr. Murphy is waiting in the wings to offer some variant of his Law to screw you up. Hey, I got three months, and I can do it in two — but you catch the flu, or your dog breaks a leg, or your spouse decides
you need some quality time apart …

When an editor says, I gotta have the book in four months, ask them if that’s the real deadline. Some editors will pad their time, too. If they know you deliver on time and have worked with you, they are less apt to do so, which is good and bad. Good, they trust you. Bad, you have to deliver, you can’t slack off.

If they ask you how long it will take to write it? ask ’em when they absolutely have to have it in hand. Wrangle your time as if you knew you were going to break a finger the day after the contract was signed and have to work around it. Nobody but you knows how much wiggle room you need, and if you cut it too close, you will suffer for it.

This might cost you work. If you need six months and they have four, f you can’t do it, they’ll go elsewhere. My collaborator and I had to turn down a big book in a well-known universe because they had a hole open up and only six weeks to fill it. We both had other books going and simply could not do it in time. We thought it was better for us if we didn’t try and fail.

As a pro, making deadlines is essential. But as a pro, you need to think about the long haul, and give yourself enough time so that you aren’t working fifteen hour days and melting the cartilage in your hands to get a book done. Even burst-writers like Dean allow for recovery. Us slower-steadier types have to figure our pacing out
along with that of the books upon which we are working. It’s possible, if you are like Dean, to crank out a good book in an amazingly short time. I’m no speed demon — I once did a novelization in eighteen days, and routinely did animation scripts in two, a couple of times in one day. Did a theatrical script in six days. But
you have to know your limits.

As a freelancer, you have to take care of yourself, and that includes your health as well as your work.

Dean Wesley Smith: Don’t take the job if you can’t hit the deadline. But one extra and very important aspect of deadlines: If something does go wrong, never, ever go “dark” (meaning silent and unresponsive) on an editor. In fact, if you are going to be even slightly late, be even more in contact with the editor. Yes, I know you are upset about being late and busy writing. Just keep the editor completely informed at all times.

Matt Forbeck: Agreed. I used to treat deadlines with the reverence of a priest at mass, but they started slipping on me just over three years ago–when my wife became pregnant with quadruplets. (They’re doing fine now, after a harrowing first year or two, thanks.) I’m finally catching up with things, and my editors know about my family life going into it. I update them regularly with even potential delays, and so far no one’s cried foul. The key thing is they’re happy with the work in the end.

The worst thing a writer can do is duck and cover when things get bad. Editors are human too (honest!), and they understand that life sometimes kicks you around. The smart ones pad in lots of extra time to give them (and you) breathing room around Murphy’s Law, but if you don’t tell them there’s a problem they can’t help you work around it.

Linda Stewart: Another writer had apparently been hired to do a movie novelization with a luxurious–3 month–deadline but more than halfway thru the time had screwed up and bugged out. I got a frantic call from an editor I’d never met before to come in to a meeting, where I was asked if I could do it from scratch in 3 weeks. I appraised the project and said I’d need a month. And noted that the editor seemed disappointed and gave me a rather tepid “um, we’ll let you know.”

I thought about that at home and immediately phoned her back, telling her I’d never missed a deadline in my life (which was true) and that when _I_ said a month, I really MEANT..a month. I also added “And look at it this way; the other guy told you he could do it in 3 months, and didn’t do it at all.” She hired me over the phone.

I suppose one point is, there’s so much bull—- going around, that either no one– or else the wrong guys– get trusted.

Bobbi JG Weiss: David and I once had to write a 33,000 word SABRINA young adult novel in 2 weeks. And we made it! And it was good, one of our best out of 9 total.

Keith R. A. DeCandido: I love the looks on people’s faces when I tell them that I’ve written a novel in three weeks plenty of times. It’s been ages since I took longer than two months to write one…

James Reasoner: Same here. I’d rather write lots of different books. It never gets boring that way. I know a guy who worked on the same novel for eight years so that he could “make it as good as I possibly can”. Thing is, he never finished it.

Karen Traviss: When I talk to people, I’m very cautious about even hinting that there’s a time in which you “should” be able to write a book, because none of us should be making that kind of judgement. It doesn’t matter if you take twenty years or twenty days (unless you like eating and paying your bills, of course…) because the time never appears to have any bearing on the quality. It’s a very personal thing, output.

I wrote CITY OF PEARL (150K words) in 12 weeks while I was doing a 60-hour week in another job, and while it was bloody tiring, it wasn’t impossible.

I’ve got my regular commissioned short work on top of that as well, and it’s still comfortable. We all write at the pace we write at, and that happens to fit mine just fine. I’m doing one 150K novel in a month, but even then that’s only 5K words a day. Again, really not that much if you’re used to just getting on with it – as most everyone on this list is, I’m damned sure.

I find it’s only the litsnobs (“It can’t be any good if you write that fast, Karen…” that’s a real comment!) and non-writers who find that schedule astonishing. No journo would so much as even blink at it.

Lee Goldberg: Typically, I write my DIAGNOSIS MURDER books in three months (dividing my time between my books and TV work). The way things worked out, I had to write my first MONK novel in eight weeks. Period. It was a set-in-stone deadline. In a way, I was looking forward to the challenge just to see if I could pull it off…when I wasn’t panicking. But I finished the book on time (luckily, I could devote myself 100% to it – I wasn’t writing/producing a TV show at the time, which I usually am). I wouldn’t say it was easy, but afterwards I was very proud of myself. It’s nice to know that, if I have to, I can write a book in eight weeks and be happy with the result. I think the book turned out every bit as good as it would have if I’d had as much time as I wanted to do it.

Dean Wesley Smith: I have a Travis McGee work ethic. I work hard and fast when I need to, then go back into retirement as soon as possible. The writers I admire the most are the steady ones, producing pages every day. I’m a sprint writer. I write fast, then take a month off.

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