Five Deadline Things

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. There are giveaways and contests this week–check us out!

Today’s cool links:

* Denise Little on sell-throughs, in which she explains some of the Byzantine math publishers and writers have to deal with.
* Dame Jenna on countering the counter drive, the contradictory urge not to write.
* Dame Rinda’s path to publication.
* Dame Toni on dating for novelists. I should add that Toni is braver than I’ll ever be–I’ve permanently given up on dating.
* Victoria Strauss, on why getting published is not a crapshoot. (I have such a girl crush on this lady right now. It’s embarrassing.)

Last Friday I wrote about the cost of writing, and Reader Jessa S. had a great question:

Usually I lurk, but I had to respond. I’m writing my latest story on the tightest deadline I’ve ever had. The energy is coming (8 lb bucket o’ cookie dough instead of choco espresso beans) but I’m nervously watching the gauge, wondering how much of that energy is left (a mere 7 1/4 lbs, I’m guessing).

Maybe you could write another of your infinitely practical posts about where/how to siphon fresh energy? I’m down to the bone here (other than that 7 1/4 lbs) and it feels like there’s no place else to draw from. What do you do you’re trapped in a closed system of you and the story and the deadline?

This is a great question, not only because the questioner has realized that energy isn’t free. It’s got to come from somewhere, and when a deadline is putting you in thumbscrews, you have got to find a way to get it done. Preferably without totally burning yourself out, because you will lose a lot of time recovering from burnout afterward–time that could be better spent working on a new story.

Unfortunately, I have very little to say about siphoning fresh energy, mostly because I am a single mother and fresh energy ain’t happenin’, sugar. Instead, I focus on budgeting the energy I have pretty tightly, and that’s what I’m going to write about today. The good news is that the system isn’t quite as closed as you think. It’s not just you, the story and the deadline; it’s you, the story, the deadline, the minutiae of daily life, the timesuck, and the priorities.

Methods for dealing with this deadline situation are extraordinarily individual (just like writers) and I’m going to warn you: the advice I am about to give may not work for you. As usual, take it with a grain of salt and keep firmly in mind that you may need something different.

That being said, I’m going to go ahead and give you the five things that help me when I’m under deadline and I suspect I may not have the energy to reach the finish line. (Yes, this happens. It happens a lot.)

1. Pad your timeframes. The preparation for a deadline starts before the actual contract is signed. Don’t agree to turning a book in in under nine months if you know it usually takes you 11-14 to write it. I like to recommend at least a month’s worth of wiggle room when telling your agent/editor when you can reasonably turn the book in. Use this padding with care and caution. You do not have to go overboard and ask for five years to turn in your next novel/story/whatever; but that extra month can give the work time to lie fallow and get an extra polish before you send it in–or it can save your ass when Life Happens and you’re scrambling to get done in time.

2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Okay, so you’re in a crunch. Your month-or-so of padding is rapidly disappearing. This is when it’s time to get ruthless. Do what you have to do to cut timesinks out of your life. Turn off your router if you’re an aimless Internet surfer when under pressure. (I’m a big fan of Freedom, actually.) Tell your social engagements “No, I can’t,” and stick to it. Be honest with yourself about where your timesucks are and nip them in the bud. Get out your trusty kitchen timer and work in 15-minute increments all day. Let the laundry take care of itself for a couple days, if possible–and that goes for other kinds of housework, too. You don’t have to live in a sty, but you also don’t have to use the housework as avoidance. (GUILTY. I will just say right now, I’m guilty as hell of this one.) Write down a list of your timesucks and cut them temporarily out of your life. If writing is not a priority, the chances of your deadline (whether self-imposed or not) go down exponentially.

Plus, if you cut out the timesucks, that leaves the energy you would be spending on them–ta-da!–for writing.

3. Practice self-care. If I cut out exercise while I’m under deadline, I get cranky and even less inclined to work. Also, if I don’t plan my days pretty carefully, I can end up with anxiety-based insomnia, which just adds to the pressure. Part of prioritizing is knowing what you have to do to keep your body and mind in fighting–AKA, writing–shape. I am so not a health nut, but I’ve found out that if I don’t sleep, exercise, or pay attention to what I’m eating while under deadline, the results can be catastrophic. Which just stresses me out more and makes for an even more miserable time trying to meet the deadline.

4. Stop and dream. Okay, this is going to sound counter-intuitive, especially with #2 above. Bear with me.

Part of prioritizing is understanding that writing takes emotional and creative energy, and that well of energy needs to be refilled, or more accurately, dredged. One of the ways I do that is by setting a timer and laying down on the couch or the floor, and engaging in ten-fifteen blessed minutes of high idle. I either let the book play out inside my head like a movie, sinking into it as if I’m watching it, or I don’t think about the blasted book at all and engage in high-octane daydreaming, sometimes fueled by music. This not only relieves a great deal of mental and emotional pressure, but it clears out my pipes, so to speak. When the timer rings, I’m ready for Round Two with the book, and usually a knotty plot problem or two has been resolved. I’ll realize the resolution as soon as I sit down and put my hands to the keyboard. I don’t know why this works (I have a couple guesses, but nothing concrete) but it seems to be an integral part of my process, and it makes everything move much more quickly. The drawback is the seduction to just dream and not write–hence the kitchen timer, and my iron-clad limit of two of these sessions per day, maximum.

If you have a comparable strategy, good. Do what you gotta. For me, those ten-fifteen minutes where I don’t have to do anything but daydream are a crucial steam-valve, and they let me work much more efficiently. And those sessions are far better for me than comparable time wasted surfing the internet or doing avoidance housework. Sometimes a writer is working hardest when they’re laying on the floor and staring.

But only sometimes. Heh.

5. Keep your agent and editor in the loop. If you’re having trouble or Life Trauma, tell them as soon as possible. Do not withdraw into a hole because you’re embarrassed. Being upfront about difficulty is professional. Retreating into the hole is being a prima donna, just like overplaying whatever difficulty you’re having. This is a delicate balance to strike, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be called professionalism, now would it?

Most editors are fine with things not quite turning out as planned. They’re human beings. They understand. You make their job easier by letting them know what to expect from you and how things are going. You also make their job easier by padding your timeframes up front and taking care of yourself so you’re not a hysterical mess when you turn the damn book in. You also make your own job easier when you’ve talked to the editor and s/he reassures you that the world will not end and you’ve got a little more time.

I realize a lot of this falls under preventative care rather than finding fresh energy, but as I’ve said before, fresh energy just doesn’t happen for me. I set out each day with a limited amount of hours, and I can’t cram any more in. Do I fall from grace and spend time surfing when I should be working? Yes. I’m human too. Discipline doesn’t rest in performing perfectly or being a machine. It rests in the continuous effort to get back up on the horse when you fall off. The more you practice self-care and timesuck avoidance as a matter of course, the more it will become a habit when you get down to the crunch, and the easier it will be to actually turn the damn internet connection off (or the television, or *insert your favorite timesuck here*) and get that work done.

Of course, a little cookie dough now and again never hurt anyone, either.

Thanks for the question, Jessa–and good luck!

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