Deadlines! Oh, the Horror!

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Nothing in my office happens without a deadline.

Deadlines mean that I get stuff done. On time.

If I don’t have a deadline to meet, I’d rather be digging in the garden, knitting, having lunch with a friend, or outside reading a book. If I don’t have a deadline, then I have time off.

deadline

Whenever anyone asks me to do something, my first question is: What’s my deadline? And if that is reasonable, I put it on my calendar. If it’s an extended project with many steps, I put intermediate deadlines on my calendar to make sure I meet the ultimate deadline.  The last thing I want is to be chained to my desk for three or four days at the end of a long project because I failed to schedule properly and allocate my time wisely.

My calendar is my lifeline to getting things done. Rarely do I miss a deadline. It happens, but it’s rare.

When I sign a contract for a book, I agree to submit the manuscript on a certain date. When the publisher gets that contract, they set all their intermediary deadlines for catalog copy, cover art, interior design, for copy editing, publicity… there are many,  many steps that a book goes through from the time I submit it to the time that it is published. All those intermediary professionals put my book on their calendar and schedule time for it.

calendar

If I miss the deadline (that I agreed to, by the way—if the deadline on the contract is too short or looks like it will pinch, I change it before signing the contract), then all those people miss all their deadlines, all the way down the line. And it isn’t as if the publisher doesn’t have other things to do that they can just accommodate an irresponsible writer. They have long memories for things like this.

So I make my deadlines. Even if it isn’t a book contract, other people depend on me to be on time, see to my commitments, take other peoples’ time and energy seriously.

Imagine, if you will, hiring a contractor to build your new deck. He’s to arrive on Monday morning at 8am, but instead, he waltzes in Friday around 3. You’ve prepared for him, you’ve inconvenienced yourself for him, and he hasn’t taken his business seriously enough to show up on time. Likely to use him again?

Meeting deadlines is a courtesy to everyone involved.

But not only is it a courtesy to other people, it is an act of kindness to myself. I get to have those days of digging in the garden, jumping up and going for a spontaneous bike ride, taking off for a day at the beach with the husband and the dog. My conscience is clear, my calendar allows it, and I am free to have fun.

My calendar is my lifeline to having a peaceful life.

And I have deadlines to thank for it.

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Is Writing Fun?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Is Writing Fun?

Well, yes. And no.

Writing is fun when I’m engaged in a project that I’m excited about, when the words flow, the characters come alive, I have time and solitude in which to immerse, and the muse and I are aligned as one.

Writing is not fun when there are too many distractions, when the plot holes develop, when I’m tired and the words are stuck like molasses in my psyche, when I feel like everything worthwhile has already been written, when I feel like a fraud and/or incompetent, and when I feel all that pressure to compete in the marketplace.

writing2

 

On a panel last April I was asked: “Will you ever retire from writing?” I’m sorry I gave the answer I did. I cited Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame, who said that when he quit the show he was going to move to the south of France and write books nobody would read.  That sounded glorious to me at the time, as I was struggling with editors, publishers, agents, marketing, and trying to write all at the same time. But I didn’t speak very eloquently about why that quote stuck with me.

What I should have said is: Do retired tennis players still play tennis?

Today I have fifteen books in print and am nearing the end of my writing career. I have the luxury of not worrying about much on a professional level. I write what I write. I abandon projects with abandon. I don’t cater to deadlines or others’ expectations. I don’t read my reviews (never have), and I don’t care what other people think of me or my work.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, I struggled in the industry like everybody else.

Today, writing is fun for me. I’m working on a project now that makes me laugh out loud when I write, and at the end of the day I am wrung out and can’t wait to get back to it again tomorrow. There is no bleeding into the keyboard. There is no howling angst. I am not pouring my heart and soul into this work, I am playing, joyfully, with the talent I have been given, and I love it.

Will this project be successful? It already is.

So. What about you? Is writing fun?

The Joy of Deadlines

by Curtis C. Chen

When ShadowSpinners approached me about writing a guest blog post, I readily agreed—then asked for a deadline before I even suggested a topic. Because I love deadlines! No, I’m not crazy. Let me explain… Continue reading

And Now, The Truth: I Don’t Like Starting New Novels

By Lisa Alber

This picture doesn't represent my writing life.

This picture doesn’t represent my writing life.

I hereby declare that I don’t like starting new novels. What? you might be thinking. How can that be? Are you not a novelist creature? A person who loves the process, whose nature it is to gush via the written word?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here’s a corollary truth: Within any process there’s always that one task you can’t stand but have to do anyhow. For some novelists it might be copyediting, for others, research. For me, it’s getting into the danged first draft. I dislike it even more than the dreaded muddle in the middle.

You’d think I’d be in the infatuation period with my story right now. Everything about it ought to be bright and shiny and new and on its way to happily ever after, like, for sure.

I wish.

It’s more like I’m dangling over a precipice without a net. The other day, I realized that knowing my characters, their arcs, and the overall plot isn’t enough. There’s some indefinable something missing. I barely know what I mean by that either. It’s just a feeling that’s not in my body. A feeling of rightness even though I’ve had inklings and a-ha moments during the pre-writing development stage.

Right now my writing feels flat, uninspired. And I wonder, is that because for the first time in my life I’m writing under a strict publishing deadline?

It's more like this.

It’s more like this.

Publishing deadlines being what they are, this novel isn’t due until a year from now. Believe me, I’ll need the whole year. I can’t procrastinate. And, more importantly, I can’t wait for the “rightness” to sail me out off the precipice on its gossamer wings.

I’m getting words down on virtual paper every day and trying to maintain faith that at some point (please, let it be within 50 pages!), I’ll feel a surge as I realize what the heart and soul of the story really is. In other words, I’m faking it a little bit right now–at least that’s what it feels like.

So what do I mean by “heart and soul of the story” anyhow? I mean the hook. Not the hook for the reader. MY hook as the writer. No one ever talks about that, but for me it’s uber-important to feel an “in” with the story, as if it’s an organic being and I need to find my way into a relationship with it. This might come about when I finally see the shape of the story in my head. Or when I understand the story’s essential truth in five words or less. Or maybe it’s about the theme. Or maybe it’s about discovering the voice for the first-person protagonist. It’s different for different writers, different stories.

There is no answer here. I’m where I am in a process, and I’ve been here before (though not exactly like this). I’ve set a rule for myself, which is 1,000 words per day. Some days it’s like climbing up prickly branches (see picture). Other days, it’s just a job; get ‘er done. Other days, it’s sheer joy.

I can bitch with the best of them, but in the end, I’ll finish my novel by the deadline.

What part of the writing process (or any process in your life) do you not like? How do you work through it?

Lying Fallow

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Creativity is an interesting thing.

I’ve long maintained that language is so pitifully inadequate to describe the human experience that we are forced to engage creativity so that we can communicate with one another on a significant level. There is a compulsion for us—more for some, less for others—to do that thing which humans do best: socialize. And in that socialization, we must share our experience of this human condition, to put together words and phrases that we at times desperately need to be as accurate as possible in order to describe what Facebook calls “It’s complicated”.

This is no easy task.

We see cheating husbands in the movies say to their wives all the time: “It just happened.” They don’t take the time to articulate the complex sets of emotional events that led up to their extramarital romp between the sheets, and perhaps that’s best, as the wife would likely understand it all too well. But we viewers saw it, understood it, and empathized with it. And truly, we empathized with his taking the easier way out instead of explaining.

But this relentless search for the perfect word, the singing phrase, the golden drop of eloquent honey that puts everything into perspective and describes exactly the indescribable, is exhausting work. This is why people talk about bleeding onto their keyboards. It’s not only emotionally depleting, but we use up our language, rehashing old phrases instead of freshly searching for new ways to connect.

Farmers let their fields lie fallow for a season. This lets the earth rest, instead of constantly churning, depleting, adding chemicals and hoping for the best. If there is no period of rest, the crops become stunted. The chemicals may make a plant, but the plants have no nutritional value.

And so it is with writing. We are told over and over again to hit deadlines and word counts and page counts. This book and then the next book and then the next and the next. Don’t stop, write every day. Writers write. Just do it. Get on with it. What’s your page count today?

Does this help?

A long time ago I read an essay about writing (Lawrence Block? Stephen King?) that said writing is like being adrift in the North Sea. You keep hacking pieces off your boat to burn to keep warm, but sooner or later…

Sooner or later, writers need to replenish. They need to experience anew. They need to let the creativity lie fallow, let the words rest. Let the creative compost work its magic. Let the stories marinate. Let the pressure ease.

Writers write. Of course, writers write. But sometimes we need to give ourselves a break to refresh, renew, rekindle. But even that needs a deadline, lest it slides into endless “creative procrastination.”