Six impossible things


So MaKayla asked about deadlines, specifically whether they’re good or bad, interfere with the process or enrich it, etc.

The answer is “It depends on the writer.” I know writers who freeze up at the mere thought of a deadline, and writers who can’t seem to write anything without one.

It also depends on what else is going on in the writer’s life at the time. A writer who is under a lot of pressure in other areas of her life (unexpected illness, serious financial problems, a death in the family, etc.) may suddenly find that having a deadline is one thing too many to handle, even though it’s never been a problem in the past. I’ve also known writers for whom the existence of a deadline was the only thing that kept them going during times of illness, financial crisis, etc. Mileage varies.

So first comes the old “know thyself” part. Which sort of writer are you?

If you can’t write (or can’t write much or steadily) without a deadline, and you don’t yet have one, you’ll have to figure out some way to persuade your backbrain that you have to get Chapter Three finished by next Saturday. Some folks take writing classes because it gives them a time and place at which they have to have some amount written. Others join writing groups for the same reason (though for this to work, the writer has to really take it seriously, and I’ve seen too many crit groups where 80 to 90% of the participants just didn’t have anything at all for any given session, which makes it hard to take it seriously as a deadline). Still others make a solemn promise to someone that they’ll see pages every Sunday, with the recipient given the right to impose penalties. (I know one writer who missed this sort of deadline and was forced to buy the recipient a hot fudge sundae…and watch her eat it.)

The more common problem, though, seems to be people who freeze in the face of a deadline.

If you’re this kind of person, the first thing I recommend is that you stop for a few minutes and think about why this happens to you. And be brutally honest. At least half the people I meet who have this “problem” only have it with their writing…they don’t freeze up when faced with a deadline at the office, and when they had papers due in college, they just buckled down and did them (OK, sometimes at 4 a.m. the day they were due, but still).

For folks like this, the problem is not so much the deadline as it is the fact that it’s a fiction writing deadline, which says to me that a good part of the difficulty is in the way they think about writing fiction – as something scary and special and not subject to the normal rules of work. Fixing this is a matter of attitude adjustment, which is never easy and which may involve lots of poking around in your childhood and your backbrain in order to figure out what you really think, why you have these reactions, and how to change them to something more productive.

But that still leaves the other half of people who have problems meeting deadlines. There’s still a lot of variation in this group: some people are convinced that no one can be creative writing to deadline (this is not true; many people can. The question is whether this particular writer is one of them or not); some chronically underestimate how long it’s going to take them to write ten pages (or how many pages it will take to cover X amount of material); some simply have bad time management skills; some procrastinate out of habit; and some go into such a panic at the thought of missing a deadline that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – their brains start running around in circles and screaming about the deadline instead of making up the stuff that will allow them to actually meet the deadline.

Again, diagnosis is key. If you’re having trouble meeting the deadline because it is One Thing Too Many on top of your child’s cancer, dealing with your soon-to-be-ex-husband’s lawyer, taking care of your elderly parent, and worrying about layoffs at your job, what you do will be very different from what you’d choose if the problem is habitual procrastination or underestimating how long it’ll take to get ten pages done.

Once you know why you’re having problems meeting deadlines, most of the solutions are common sense. There are a gazillion books on time management and beating procrastination out there; if one of those is your problem, it’s fairly easy to figure out what to do. (Actually doing it is another story, but no one can really help you with that part.) If it’s lack of discipline (or butt-in-chair time), the solution is likewise both obvious and not something anyone else can help with.

If you’re one of the folks who panics and/or freezes…well, if your brain and/or your backbrain is busy worrying or panicking about when something is due, it doesn’t have a lot of room left for actual work. Basically, you have to find some way to take the pressure off. In extreme cases, this may mean writing everything on spec (you aren’t required to sell on portion-and-outline after you’ve started publishing professionally, and of course if you haven’t sold anything yet, you pretty much have to work this way, as I don’t know any publishers who buy uncompleted first novels).

In less extreme cases, negotiating a deadline that’s much longer than you need can help; so can an understanding editor, agent, and/or spouse/partner. The main thing that seems to work, though, is forgetting about the deadline and refocusing on getting the writing done. For some, this means putting the deadline out of their minds and logging lots of concentrated time writing on a regular basis. Having a writing buddy to check in with (or to go for a “writing date” with – one of my friends and I have taken to hauling our laptops to a café once a week to spend an hour or two working) can help. If you’re of a more methodical/analytical mind, figuring out how many words-per-day you have to write to meet deadline and then making sure you meet that minimum every single day can work, as long as you only think about today’s word count and not that looming, panic-inducing deadline.

And of course, asking other writers for their methods of beating deadline-anxiety can be useful, as long as you don’t take any of them for the One True Method. Every writer develops his/her own tricks as they need them. These are some of mine; do, please, contribute your own in the comments, if you like.

  1. I think for me, deadlines are a good thing. When I did NaNoWriMo, I “won” three years in a row. I’ve been trying to write this other story now for almost a year …

  2. Thanks! This helped me a lot. I think I am the kind of person who panics at the prospect of a deadline, and only for my writing.
    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one though, and that there are ways to get over it. :)Thanks again.

  3. My previous trick for overcoming procrastination was to focus on the deadline and nothing else. Worked ok for college papers but… then I got anxiety attacks for ‘fun’ writing. Worked on relaxing next and now I’m chill with writing in general but…. back to procrastination!
    Still looking for a new trick somewhere between the two.

  4. Personally, I find the fear of blowing an impeding deadline rather energizing — especially if it’s an outside-imposed deadline, so other people will know if I blow it. I’ve only put this to the test for short fiction so far, however; I suspect it works better for cranking out 1000 words the night before than for 30,000+ the month before. We’ll see if NaNoWriMo this year changes my opinion!

    On the topic of motivation… any tips for getting oneself moving on submitting? I’ve got my Secretary Hat ready to hand, but I’m having tremendous difficulty cramming it onto my head.

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