Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A matter of life and deadlines (by Nik)

Today is the day that Dan is due to finish writing a book. Yes, it’s deadline day. These crop up at regular intervals, but I don’t have very much to do with many of them. For comic book and short fiction deadlines, there’s really nothing much for me to do, in fact, I’m rarely even aware of them; they simply fit into the normal ebb and flow of office life. Today is different. Today sees the final sentence added to the latest novel, a book that might have been in the system for years, from the first ideas to the title, from the first pitch to the contract being signed, from the delivery of the first chapters to the receipt of the first advance payment.

Day zero, the day a book begins, generally gets lost in the mists of time. Who remembers when that idea first got jotted down in a notebook? Who remembers when it bubbled to the surface as the possible basis of a possible plot for a possible novel that no one had commissioned, yet? Day zero doesn’t go down in the annals of history, not in this house, anyway. Day eleven-hundred-and-forty-seven, (or whatever it is), deadline day: the day on which the last sentence is given its full-stop, and the first draft of the manuscript is delivered up to the publisher is a day that most certainly goes down in the record books.

We are approaching our fortieth deadline day, and we have evolved coping strategies for making sure they pass smoothly... Well, I have, at least.

Dan sleeps less well the last few days before a book is due. He rolls about and snorts and gets up in the night. So, on the eve of deadline day, I try to be totally relaxed, and let him fall asleep next to me while we’re sitting in bed watching some rubbish on DVD. He wouldn’t be terribly good company if he were awake, so why should I stop him sleeping? He wakes up on deadline day early, certainly as early as any other day. I roll over in bed to ask if he’s okay, and then he’s gone.

A couple of hours after Dan gets up, I make a random noise down the stairs to let him know that I’m about. Something along the lines of “Coo-oo”. Then I wait. It’s winter, so I sit in bed with a laptop and go through my in-box, which will invariably contain several e-mails from Dan. Some of them will have little paperclip doohickeys where he’s sent chunks of the work in progress. Others will include instructions, like, “haven’t finished, read don’t edit”, or “read part two first”, or “look out for compound words”, or “can you find out who carried out the first successful blood transfusion”, or whatever it might be.

Then he appears with a cup of tea, Earl Grey, thank you very much. To be fair, Dan brings me a cup of tea every morning, but some mornings, I meet him in the kitchen when I hear him moving about. Not on deadline day. On deadline day, I let him get on with it. I don’t deviate from the routine at all on deadline day. He brings my tea and hands it to me from his side of the bed, and he stands there for a minute. He isn’t really in the mood to talk, so I say thank you and ask how it’s going in an airy sort of way. He mumbles something, and off he goes again.

And that’s it. I stay where I am. I begin to go through the chunks of manuscript he’s sent, doing a simple line edit, and following his basic instructions. There are lots of reasons for staying upstairs. Our bedroom is big with a reading corner and a table and chairs, so there’s plenty of room for me to find somewhere comfortable to work. If I go downstairs, I have to go through the kitchen, and that’s Dan’s space when his head is full. I could go through it into the wendy house where I usually work, but he’d hear me, and I don’t want to disturb him. The stairs to his office are also in the kitchen, (and yes it is a weird house).

Less than an hour passes, and Dan’s back with a cup of coffee. This is very early for him, it’s usually me that makes the second cup some time around ten. I take the cup from him and say thank you. He slopes off again.

He’s not miserable you understand, or difficult, or moody, he’s just in the zone and there isn’t room for two.

The door bell rings, and I realise that’s it’s Tuesday. Groceries get delivered on Tuesdays, and Dan always has a chat with the delivery dude. He’s got his Christmas list handy, as well, so there’ll be no interference from me on that front. I hear happy talking noises, but no actual words, and then the sound of the front door closing, and he’s off again, into the bowels of the house, to get on with things.

For the next little while, I check Twitter and Facebook. Dan has updated his status on FB, but hasn’t done anything on Twitter, so I do something. Something always comes up, and, today, it’s reviews of “Prospero Burns” and “Heroes for Hire”, the two most recent projects to come out of the office. I sort out some links and Twitter some, and send some to Dan via e-mail to enjoy when he gets a chance. I flag a couple of other things for him, and get back to reading the latest bits of manuscript.

Dan appears about an hour after the last time with the central heating thermostat in his hand. He gives it to me, without a word, and reaches for the cardigan he keeps draped over the footrail at the end of the bed. I’m not sure why he doesn’t know how to work the thermostat, but it doesn’t matter. I adjust it and give it back to him, and he puts it on top of the wardrobe nearest the window, the coolest part of the room. Clearly he’s cold. He asks if I want a cup of tea; it’ll be my third and it’s barely ten in the morning, but that’s what happens with displacement activity. I tell him to put the kettle on and I’ll see to it. He goes away. A few minutes later he’s back with a cup of tea for me.

“I was there,” he says, handing it over.

The kettle is a ‘thing’ in our house. Due to a condition that is too boring to talk about, albeit it’s rare, and a bit weird, my hearing is now pretty crap. There’s nothing wrong with my ears, per se, it’s just that other things prevent them from functioning. That doesn’t sound like it has anything at all to do with our choice of kettle, but you’d be wrong. We have an old-fashioned kettle that stands on the gas ring, back right, of our cooker. It has a flip down lid in the spout that whistles. It has a glorious sound, one that I can actually hear. I use it! I can be on the other side of the kitchen with the kettle boiling like buggery and not hear it if the whistle isn’t in the correct position.

The whistle is shrill, which is why I can hear it. It is also why no one else uses the whistle. They can all hear the kettle boiling without it, and, to a man, and woman, they find the noise the whistle makes excruciatingly unpleasant.

Clearly, this morning, Dan really didn’t want to listen to that whistle. I’m glad that I made the decision to stay upstairs, it was clearly the wisest course of action. Again, let me reiterate that Dan is not fussy or moody or difficult in these situations, he’s just... Well, he’s just Dan, only to a greater degree than normal: Dan squared if you will, or Dan to the power of deadline.

I hear a very satisfactory thud as the mail hits the bare boards downstairs. If I can hear it, it’s got to be heavy, so, probably that book I ordered for a friend’s birthday. I stay where I am. Dan appears a few minutes later with a cardboard parcel from Amazon, which he drops on the bed.

“It’s for thingy?’ he asks. “E-mail me a note for her and I’ll print it off and find an envelope.”
“Her address is in the rolodex,” I say, without thinking, and then cover, quickly, “so don’t bring it back up. I’ll sort it out later.” This is not the time to go thrashing about in Dan’s office, or on Dan’s desk, where the rolodex lives; there could be anything on there: scads of strategically positioned post-it notes, books cracked open at very important places, a carefully positioned action figure or two. In fact, the rolodex might be doubling as a piece of heavy artillery or a small vehicle, or the entrance to a bunker, or something.

Dan’s back a few minutes later. Clearly, he’s looking for displacement activity. The note is printed, folded and inserted into the book, which is in a manila envelope, addressed with the correct information to get to my friend. What’s more, the book is a second hand copy of “Fell Cargo” that I’ve tracked down, and he’s signed it and put a nice message in it. He doesn’t say “Ta-dah!” but I know he’s thinking it.

Eventually we sit down to lunch. I don’t eat much in the middle of the day, so it’s mostly about Dan eating and us catching up. He’s very quiet, so I pick up my laptop and continue with the line-edit. It’s deadline day, and I hate to get behind, so I do what arrives in my in-tray as soon as I possibly can.

“That’s an odd choice,” he says, reading my tracked changes to his manuscript over my shoulder. I explain why I made the choice, but it’s deadline day, and he’s not sure. I remind him that’s why I track changes and make suggestions, to give him the thinking room to make final choices. The truth is, when push comes to shove, he invariably goes with my suggestions, but that doesn’t make me right; it only makes me very used to his ways and his work, and useful to him as a first reader and editor... some of the time.

I follow him downstairs after lunch and there is the evidence, if ever I needed it, that this isn’t just deadline day, it’s ‘crunch day’. Dan has left the door to the dishwasher open.

It’s not much, is it, an open dishwasher door? Dan is master of the dishwasher. I didn’t want it, and I’ve never learned to stack it properly. I’d rather wash-up in the sink, and on the rare occasions when I do need to use it, I can’t get nearly as much in it as I’d like. Dan has taken to the bloody thing with gusto, it’s as if it belongs to him, somehow. I leave it to him. It seems fair enough. Today, Dan has left the dishwasher door open. The dishwasher has clean dishes in it. Dan has loaded and run the dishwasher. Dan doesn’t usually do this during the day. This is his evening job.

I take my cue, and I unload the dishwasher.

That sounds like it’s passive aggressive on his part. It isn’t. It’s just deadline day.


Dan Abnett said...


I can't believe I get to do that:)

Lovely post, babe.

Soapy said...

That there was some good writing. Ta-Dah made me chuckle.

I will now remain quiet so as not to disturb deadline day further.

Marco @ Angry Robot said...

Superb piece of writing, Nik. Thank you for sharing it all. -- Marco

Mr Doomsday said...

Fantastic read! A good look at the day in the life of Mr Abnett on a very important day.

Thank you for sharing it.


Jonathan D. Beer said...

That is a wonderful post :) It is nice to know that even the pros look for displacement activity. Thanks for sharing a glimpse into your lives - it sounds very happy :)


Civilian Reader said...

This is a great post. It seems like the two of you have a great working rhythm. It must be nice. :)

Anonymous said...

He's a moody bugger ;P

Thanks Nik. Glad to know I'm not the only one with a routine, and an understanding wife who just lets me deal.

Medals all around. After tea. Get the kettle on, Clonemaster.

Will Wright said...

Congrats on finishing the book,you should treat yourself to a steak(insert favorite meal here).
Do you get a tiny bit sad when finished?
I always get the slightest bit sad when a good book is finished,I always want them to go on and on.
I need the NeverEnding Story,where is Atrayel and that Dragon Terrier when you need them:)

Robin Snelson said...

This must rank in amongst my top 5 best blog posts...

A house and people in perfect rhythm understanding on all levels

Dan your a very lucky man...Nik thanks very much for sharing


davetaylor said...

Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post. It's the subtleties in a relationship that make us treasure them all the more.


Andrew said...

Great post, Nik!!

3 cups of tea and a cup of coffee all before noon? He gets up very early, doesn't he? I especially got giggly over the Rolodex bunker bit.

Thanks for showing us that side of the Clonemaster General! Any hubbub from the Hussar on deadline days? Or does he know its just too busy an event for him?

Rob Ashley White said...

What an entertaining read!

But it begs the question...
at what point during all this, were you able to inform him that you'd hijacked his blog?


All the best


Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks Nik! Read with a smile on my face for the whole thing, and a few guilty glances at the book I should be working on...

Swede said...

I have identified a bunch of spelling mistakes in the Eisenhorn omnibus and I'm holding them hostage. Working on a screenplay of said 3 works and was looking for a .pdf or .doc file so I can copy paste more easily. Trade? No-one gets hurt. I've already bought the books at least twice.

frieslander said...

A brilliant read, very insightfull in to the mind of a man who's work all love, and a pleasent reminder that you are as gooder writere in your own right. Sort of reminds me of an Allen Bennet monaloge :)

McKennsy said...

Quality, one of the best posts ever.

But it begs the question........what book is it? Give us a hint at least.

Shane said...

I read this post straight through, from start to finish.

I should perhaps have prefaced that by saying that I generally have four or five tabs open that I'm either reading or writing or working in, and switch back and forth between them every minute or so almost compulsively.

So it really does mean something when I say I read it straight through - thank you for posting it. I appreciate the small insight into the life of one of my favorite authors and his beloved wife.

Xhalax said...

I've been trying to come up with something different to say about this post past the obvious 'WOW' and even then....everyone else above me as done it with much more eloquence than I can manage.

That only leaves talking about using dishwashers correctly...which is hardly the most thrilling topic of conversation either.

So.....WOW! and I doubt I'll ever manage to work in the literary business in any capacity after reading about all the hard work that goes into it.

Duke_Leto said...

Thanks Nik - dare we ask what book this latest deadline was for?

Anonymous said...

Nik as a long time Fan of Dan (and a little fame blinded by his 'down to earthness') this made a great read into the life of my favourite author.

Its amazing to think that my favourite author is still alive and we get to learn about his little penchants.

Unknown said...

Awesome read. I think that a day like that would definitely raise your blood pressure or something!
Ta Dah.