Writing on a Deadline

Whenever someone asks me what keeps me motivated to write, I only half-jokingly reply, “Deadlines.”

Over the years, I’ve become fairly disciplined about my writing; I may not write fiction every day, but I do tend to prioritize it over other things I could be doing, such as reading other books, playing video games, blogging, watching TV, or sleeping. That’s most of what it takes to be productive, assuming you don’t have other things eating up your time, like a demanding job or taking care of a new baby. But I can still procrastinate, like writers do — though that usually means I make up for that misspent time later, because no matter what else is going on, having a contractual obligation to turn in a manuscript by a specific date goes a long way toward making me productive.

One thing I’ve learned since my first novel was published is there’s a world of difference between writing and writing under contract. Before you have sold your book, or even signed with an agent, writing can take as long as it takes to make the book “perfect.” Years, even! But once you have that book deal and publishers are filling their catalogs and marketing plans are being developed, you have to not only write a good book, but you have to do it on a schedule — perhaps only a matter of months. (This is perhaps one reason why second books sometimes aren’t as well reviewed as debuts, even if the author theoretically should improve with each subsequent novel.) Sure, sometimes writers miss their deadlines and the world doesn’t end, but in general, I like to follow through on my commitments, and I want to be viewed as a professional so people will want to keep working with me.

Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This rings true for me when I’m on deadline because no matter how pleased I am with the “final” product, I always feel like it could be better if I only had a little more time. Most recently, at the end of July I turned in my first draft of Against All Silence, the sequel to The Silence of Sixmostly on time! Although I had a reasonable deadline, when I was supposed to be working on it I was also:

  • Taking care of a baby
  • Doing freelance writing to pay bills
  • Packing an apartment
  • Moving to a new city
  • Unpacking
  • Stripping wallpaper and painting our new home

With time running out, I made up for months of low productivity by writing every day in a library — averaging 5,000 words a day. (On a good day, I can write about 1,000 words an hour. Drafty words!) Nothing focuses me like a looming deadline! Fortunately, I had a detailed outline that only derailed towards the end (which I was anticipating), my previous day job had a heavy workload that forced me to write as fast as a journalist, and I had a new writing process, as I mentioned back in January.

My usual approach to drafting is to keep moving forward until the end, because the momentum keeps me going and I don’t want to waste time revising earlier scenes or chapters that I might change repeatedly or ultimately cut. This time I tried something new: I wrote on my Alphasmart Neo, a standalone word processor with just a keyboard and a small screen that displays only four lines of text, transferring completed chapters into Scrivener. And rather than stopping to research every little thing as I wrote — a time waster! — I left placeholders: “TK” wherever I needed to look something up or fill in missing text. (There were a lot of those, from looking up street names to particular models of cars.)

I never could have met my deadline without these time-saving tactics1, although the end result feels like a rougher draft than I usually like to share with anyone. I often refer to my first drafts as the “zero” or “vomit” drafts, but my tight schedule meant I couldn’t clean it up much or research everything before hitting Send; yes, I had to abandon my unfinished work to meet my deadline. Which led to me Tweeting:

Of course, because all writers are different, this prompted a range of responses — from very polished first drafts to drafts about as rough as mine, which someone pointed out leaves room for editors to help guide the revision. I like that. It was important to remind myself that this is still only the first draft, and I will have time to make the book better in subsequent drafts and editing passes. It’s not like we’re publishing Go Set a Watchman here. But yeah, I’m still nervous about the edit letter that’s sure to arrive any day now…

So now I put the question to you: How rough are your first drafts? When do you feel ready to share your manuscript with your critique partners, writing groups, agent, or editor? Also, do you have any tips and tricks for meeting deadlines and/or writing quickly? Please share in the comments below!

  1. On the flip side, it took a long time to format the novel in Scrivener and Word because the Alphasmart Neo only spits out plain text. Bah!

5 Responses to Writing on a Deadline

  1. Rowenna Aug 12 2015 at 9:32 am #

    I like to “practice” at deadlines even though I don’t have many “real” ones yet–giving myself a set amount of time helps me focus and, I hope, will make the shock of transitioning to real deadlines less terrifying!

    But I can’t write shitty first drafts. Not only do I not prefer it, writing junk creates rather than releases writer’s block for me. I would much rather write 2000 words a day that need (obviously!) some revision but not total overhaul than 5000 words a day that will require a bulldozer. This is probably partially due to the fact that I’m much better at drafting than revision–I get lost a little in the revision weeds but I can crank out decent-sounding prose and a plot that mostly hangs together without much hassle on a slower first go. So I play to my strengths with stronger, if slower, first drafts. With that, I usually feel ready for an initial share with CPs or even my agent after draft one coupled with a review and clean-up and patch-up period.

  2. Elizabeth Torphy Aug 12 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    As unpublished writers our time seems endless. It seems we will never get an agent…and being published seems waaaaaay out there in the future. But there is a subconscious side of me that is aware that this is business and I will have demands placed on me to complete my writing. I have two beta readers that have demanded my second novel as soon as they put down my first. I promised them they would have it by Fall…and I think I will be able to deliver. Having someone demand of you is always a motivator…and I knew it was good for me to be able to work under pressure, even if self-induced. I read from another blogger that we should “enjoy” the early days of not being published. I am trying to do that….knowing it will change when an agent picks me up, and subsequently I get published. (Like that?..not “if” but “when”) My closest deadline came from an agent asking for a revision of my manuscript. She didn’t give me a deadline, but I wanted to show her that I would work quickly and follow through. I worked as fast as I could. But it was daunting to realize how long it takes to revise. I had it back to her in six weeks…working long days and nights. It made me realize that this writing gig isn’t a piece of cake! Made me appreciate my commitment and work, for sure. Now it is in her hands….and I continue to keep writing. Thanks for the article today!

  3. Caroline Starr Rose Aug 12 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    I sent a verrrrry rough draft in last time around…and ended up asking for an extension to get all the necessary work in. Glad I’m not the only one!

  4. Bobsandiego Aug 13 2015 at 1:38 am #

    I have two types of first draft. The failed one lead to no furthers drafts, though it may lead to whole new works. These have some terrible flaw that makes them unsalvageable. The last time this happened my beta readers were in agreement that the story needs two books not one. So that draft is dead, but I wrote a new book from plotline 1.
    The second and success first drafts are usually fairly close to what the finished book looks like. Follow up drafts are usually plugging minor holes or making things clear that muddled a majority of my betas.
    For productivity? I try to set rewards and rewards levels. No videogames or late night TV unless I’ve hit my goal. (Currently 1000 words, but I’ll be raising it soon.) I know if I make it a work/reward cycle it becomes a habit with me and then I can turn out a book in 3-4 months.
    What I’m learning to deal with now is pressure. I signed with an agent recently and it’s quite a bit of pressure knowing the current WIP will be read by a professional and not just my betas. I actually cause me to lock up and avoid getting started for a couple of weeks until I forced myself to do the work.

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