While preparing for the publication of What the Lady Wants and drafting my next novel, I took a moment to contemplate one of those writerly conundrums that gets debated back and forth a lot: is it better to write under contract or not?
My first two novels were written without a contract but with the hope that someone would deem them worthy of publication. The first novel, Every Crooked Pot took 17 years to write. My second novel, Dollface only took ten. I got lucky and both books eventually found wonderful homes but I realized that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I had to change my strategy and step up my pace.
After Dollface was in the works, I was in a position to sell my next book based on nothing more than a synopsis and a vague notion of where the story would go and who the characters were. That book turned out to be What the Lady Wants. I had a year to conduct the research and deliver a 100,000-word manuscript. Given my previous gestation periods, I was terrified.
Fortunately for me, I had a few things in my favor. I’m not a procrastinator. I was that kid in school who had her term papers done ahead of time. I’m also self-disciplined and respond well to deadlines—even self-imposed deadlines. These traits do come in handy when one is facing a deadline. I also come from an advertising background where I was forced to create under the pressure of deadlines all the time. There was no such thing as not having the TV spot or a print campaign ready for the client presentation. Despite all that, I was still scared to death.
Friends can tell you that for a year I was never more than three-feet away from my laptop. I literally brought my novel with me to dinner parties in case I had an idea or there was a bit of downtime while the host was in the kitchen. I was obsessed with hitting my daily word count and had absolutely no balance in my life.
In November of 2013, while in the middle of promoting Dollface, I sheepishly turned in a first draft of What the Lady Wants with a note to my editor saying that the book needed a lot of love. She was kind. She gave me extensive notes and I went back to the drawing board, tore it down and pretty much rewrote the entire book. A few months later, by January 2014 I was able to deliver a rewrite that we were all happy with.
You know that old saw, “work expands to fill the time allotted for it”—well, in my case it’s true. Shortly after we finished up What the Lady Wants, we sold my next book again based on a synopsis. This is an ambitious novel for me, both in scope and in terms of the deadline, but I have to say I’ve been much more relaxed and confident this time. I’ve learned that I can work just about anywhere. I’ve written in busy airports, coffee shops, on friends’ couches. I even wrote on tour bus while I was overseas on a family vacation.
I know a contracted book and deadline would send some writers into a panic and it certainly did that to me in the beginning. But now I like the idea of working closely with my agent and editor on a manuscript. I think I would find it more terrifying to write an entire manuscript only to find that it wasn’t what my publisher wanted. Going out on submission is not a picnic for anyone—truly one of the most stressful things an author can endure. So at this stage in my career, if given the choice of writing on spec or writing under a contract and a deadline, I’ll take the contract every time.
But we’re all different and I’m a firm believer that each writer has to find their own process and figure out what works for them. For the past three years I’ve been on a schedule of a book a year and for me, I like it. I’ve learned to focus in a way I’ve never been able to do before. I have more balance and as a result, I think I’m a better writer. But of course, we’ll let you, the reader, be the judge of that.
RENEE ROSEN is author of three novels.What the Lady Wants, a story of Marshall Field and the gilded age, was released November 7, 2014. Her previous two novels are Dollface and Every Crooked Pot.