One rule of freelance writing is that you never miss a deadline. Never. I’ll confess that there have been a couple of instances where I’ve asked an editor for the weekend to put the finishing touches on a feature they’d expected on the Friday. If they were to have said no, I would have delivered on time. But they said yes, so they got a more polished product sitting in their inbox on Monday morning.

In my contract with Profile Books, I am supposed to have delivered the complete manuscript of The Way of the Panda by the end of January. This date was set because I wrote in my proposal, which went out to publishers last summer, that I’d need six months to finish the book. But, of course, it took a while for the signatures to appear on the contract so that I didn’t really get writing until September. Profile clearly appreciated this as they agreed to a 90-day grace period being added to the notional end-of-January deadline, so if I deliver by 1 May I will have met my contractural obligations. I am still fairly confident I can do it, though as the deadline approaches it’s becoming increasingly clear how tight things are going to be.

I haven’t posted for the last couple of weeks because I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches to three chapters, the central ones in the book that cover all panda-related shenanignas from 1950 to 1980. I have had these in an almost-finished state for a while, but the final step of making the writing slick is pretty time consuming. This is because they juggle lots of ideas

In one, I tell the story of efforts to get Chi-Chi and An-An to mate, an early effort to breed pandas in captivity that resulted in an absolutely extraordinary level of media attention. This, I argue, had a profound effect on the way the world sees pandas and on panda conservation. In addition, I have woven in asides about global nuclear test ban treaty negotiations, early examples of captive breeding, the birth of the first panda in captivity (Ming-Ming in Beijing in 1963), Anglo-Soviet relations during in the 1960s, espionage, clinical trials of human fertility drugs, the summer of love, the Prague Spring, Konrad Lorenz and second-wave feminism. It is not difficult to write a few hundred words on each of these. The challenge is to find a way to work them seamlessly into the chapter, choosing the moment to break from the central Chi-Chi/An-An plot, deliver the aside and then return to the story. I haven’t found a way to speed up this process of integration. I have to have to be up to speed with all the ideas and have them knocking around in my mind for a week or more before they gradually begin to settle into place.

Anyway, I now have three more chapters to send to my editor at Profile. When they reach him, I will have delivered 7/12 chapters. I still have a lot of work to do, two chapters that cover 1900 to 1949 and two chapters that cover 1995 to the present. Then a prologue and an epilogue. I think I can still do all this by the end of April but know already that it’s going to be tight.

Deadline stress