Time is not on our side

Hello, readers –

I’m posting a little bit late today; I’ve been spending the afternoon wrestling with a doozy of an editing problem. Seems one of my clients’ publishers has moved up her revision deadline by a few months. Not weeks, months. As in it’s practically now.

She was informed of it blithely, in the context of an e-mail about something else entirely, as though the news weren’t of completely-rearrange-several-people’s-foreseeable-futures importance. And, like so many writers, the author thought that the fact that she and I were going to have to drop everything and work like demented fiends for the next few weeks changing the book from front to back was HER fault. HER plans were disrupted, and she apologized to ME.

As I’ve said before, writers tend to be very sweet people.

But isn’t it lucky that the publication date on MY book has been pushed back to May? If everything had gone as planned with my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, I would have started a book tour in February. (It most emphatically did NOT go as planned: the acquiring editor was laid off at the end of August; my publisher and I spent months living under threat of a groundless lawsuit – long story, but the short version is that it’s perfectly legal to tell the truth – and the release of the movie version of Philip’s wonderful novel A SCANNER DARKLY was pushed back from winter to summer, throwing off marketing schedules entirely.) The mind boggles at how I would have managed to be promoting one book and crash-editing another simultaneously.

But that’s the reality of the publishing world. The writer is left to wait in nail-gnawing suspense for weeks or months at a time, while decisions are made behind closed doors that are usually, from the point of view of those of us writers who call the PNW home, 3000 miles away. Then, BANG! All of a sudden, the writer is presented with a short deadline, and panic reigns supreme until the need of the moment is met. Then that eerie silence returns, until a few days before the next deadline.

I wish I were making this up. I also wish that more aspiring writers knew just how different the sense of time is in Manhattan-based publishing houses and agencies than it is, well, here. Agents and editors’ attitudes and beliefs necessarily affect writers’ lives profoundly; when a fledgling writer doesn’t know what is common practice in her new-found profession and what is not, it is all too easy for her to blame herself, her book, the market, anything but an alternative sense of time for the fact that she’s either ignored or badgered, with little in between.

The Manhattanites themselves would be the last to explain it to you. It just wouldn’t occur to them. Constant rush, being too busy to attend to anything but the most pressing matters on their desks, and living in constant danger of falling behind schedule are all normal; what calls for elucidation?

So if the hapless West Coast writer asks why, for instance, a revision assignment could not have been given a reasonable amount of time in advance, rather than a week before the book goes to press (yes, it happens; I once had a client whose work was actually yanked out of the print queue at the last moment for because her editor decided that the running order needed to be changed, a snap decision that ended up delaying the release of the book by six full months), agents and editors will just repeat the question, puzzled. “Why don’t we plan things in advance?” they echo. “We don’t have time for that.”

Now, this is frankly foreign to most of us PNW-based writers, isn’t it? 150 years ago, Seattle did not even exist; the pioneer spirit still lingers in the air enough for us to appreciate starting a project from scratch and staying with it for the long haul. After all, you don’t chop down a huge tree with a single stroke of an axe (don’t worry; I’m picturing a farmed one, not old-growth), any more than you write a whole book in a single week. We have long, languid, misty winters: for half the year, staying inside to revise makes a lot of sense. What’s the rush?

Try to explain this to your NYC-based agent or editor, and she’ll instantly picture you laden with love beads, dancing around with a tambourine to some old Cat Stevens tune at a love-in. Or possibly on a beach, playing hackysack or tossing a Frisbee to a golden retriever with a blue bandana tied rakishly around his neck while your friends sing “Sunshine On My Shoulders” from atop their surfboards.

It’s not going to be pretty, that image, and it’s not going to make you look like a professional – which is to say, like a New Yorker.

But we’re adaptable people, we Pacific Northwesterners – another legacy of the pioneer days – and when in Rome, we keep time as the Romans do. So most of us try very hard to adapt ourselves to NYC-based agents and editors’ hyped-up senses of time. Presented with their expressions of urgency, we overnight manuscripts – then wait, perplexed, while they gather dust in agency mailrooms. We will lose sleep for days on end in order to complete the chapters that editor at a conference asked to see – and then convince ourselves, when the editor doesn’t respond for months, that something about the chapters caused the delay. We will use up all of our sick leave at our day jobs to revise our novels radically in accordance with our new agents’ requests – and then, the following season, talk ourselves out of calling the agency to ask why the revised version has not been submitted to any editors yet. We don’t want to seem pushy.

All of these are real examples, by the way, the actual experiences of good writers I know. And all occurred within the last six months.

I think there’s a translation problem here, frankly. In our neck of the woods, when someone says he needs something now, he generally means NOW. It’s considered a little rude to demand instant responses when there’s no imminent threat. Perhaps this is another pioneer holdover: when confronted by a hungry coyote, for instance, or a surly mountain lion snarling in one’s back forty, one’s sense of urgency in requesting assistance tends to be genuine. Vigilante “justice” tended to be rather prompt, and “Timber!” implied the hope that the hearer would, as the expression went, hightail it out of the path of that tree. Otherwise, our forebears, like us, preferred to take their time.

From the POV of those who inhabit the NYC publishing industry, however, such attitudes imply a certain lack of vim. Laid-back tends to translate, in their eyes, to “I really don’t care about what’s going on.” Because on their own turf, expressions of temporal urgency tend to be indicative of either eagerness or general stress levels, rather than actual imminence of disaster.

In short, “Timber!” there means that a tree might fall eventually.

So that agent who asked you at last year’s conference to overnight your entire manuscript (at a cost that, if it did not make you mortgage your home, at least made you reconsider your children’s college prospects), she actually meant it as a COMPLIMENT. “I am excited about your work,” this request said, “and because I, like my compatriots, believe that anything worth having is the object of fierce competition, I need to impress you with the intensity of my enthusiasm. Thus, while I do not plan to clear my schedule tomorrow – nor, indeed, any time soon – in order to read the work I am asking you to overnight to me, I am conveying that I am serious about wanting to see it.”

This is why I – and my clients, when they listen to me – never, ever overnight anything to NYC agents or editors unless THEY pay for it. There have literally never been any negative ramifications for this stand. Priority Mail always works just fine, at a fraction of the cost. Plus, USPS’ standard small boxes – which the post office will give you for free! – provide lovely protection for tender manuscript pages.

This is not to say that I ignore last-minute editorial deadlines, or advise others to do so – I don’t, and you shouldn’t. I am in fact a regular user of my publishing house’s FedEx account. But I do try to negotiate, to make the deadlines a trifle more reasonable – and whenever I have an opportunity to set my own deadlines, as does happen occasionally, I automatically add anywhere from two days to two weeks to my estimate, just to ward off last-minute nagging while I’m polishing off the piece. (Trust me, no one ever objects to receiving work BEFORE a deadline.)

And I do keep in mind that the sense of urgency I am hearing over the phone or reading via e-mail may or may not have ANYTHING to do with the project at hand. Instead, I try to remember that the “I need it NOW!” being barked at me may well be a function of the stress levels of an underpaid assistant’s being yelled at by an overcommitted boss working in a building of similarly rushed people in an environment where a state of constant deadline panic is considered normal. In a town where being ultra-busy is considered an indicator of success, I tell myself, the people demanding that I drop everything are just paying me the compliment of assuming I have a life successful enough to disrupt.

So I take a deep breath, look out the window, and remind myself that from my studio, I can see more trees than there are in the entirety of Central Park. I center myself, think what a privilege it is to be asked to share my thoughts (or, as today, to midwife my clients’) for publication, and feel grateful that I had the foresight to invest in a good ergonomic set-up.

Then I punch a sofa pillow viciously seventeen times, clear my schedule, and meet the damned deadline.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *