I can almost hear ominous music in my head as I type that word. They are a constant fact of life for the professional writer. They are crucial to keep everything running on schedule. And, to tell the truth, they suck.
Writing a book isn’t like the due dates for homework and school projects that we grew up with, or the quick turnarounds for various tasks often required at our jobs. It isn’t a matter of days or weeks (I hope!!) but months or even, in some cases, years. In a way, the task is simple–just get the words on the page–and at the same time, as we all know, it’s a hugely difficult thing to pull off. The closest analogy I can think of is training for a marathon.* You have the Date; you start preparing months beforehand. You can’t do it all at once or your body would break down. So you do a little bit every day, and get closer and closer until you’re finally at your goal.
Yet that analogy doesn’t entirely capture why deadlines are so important. The thing about writing a book is, if you are or aspire to be a traditionally published author, you’re not gonna be the only person working to get your book out into the world. You have a whole team–your agent and editor, publicist and marketer, copyeditor, and so on–who need you to do your job, so they can do theirs. They need a manuscript on which to work their magic: turn it from a Word document floating around in the cloud to a beautiful book sitting pretty in bookstores across the world.
So maybe the right metaphor isn’t a marathon, but a relay race, with the manuscript being the baton. Everyone in publishing has deadlines too in order to get books out the door. When writers are late, the other people in the relay race have to either push back their deadlines to reflect that, or work like crazy once they get the manuscript to hit the original date (possibly pushing other books to the back burner in the process). And that is exhausting, and the whole team is impacted. All this to say: as a writer I know deadlines are terrible, but as a publishing person I know they’re necessary. And surprise, surprise, I am on one now for a first draft of a new book.
So now that I’ve reminded you why deadlines are important, let me share some advice for blazing through them. (Or, as is more often the case for me, limping past the finish line and hitting send at 11:58 the night before. Still counts!)
In order to complete any monumental task, I think you’ve got to know yourself pretty well. Know how your brain works, know your strengths and weaknesses, know what’s been helpful in the past and what hasn’t, and synthesize all that information into a routine that works for you and for this book. For instance, I’ve recently come clean to myself that I’m pretty useless in the evenings after I come home from work. I tried–for hours every night, I’d stare at my WIP, downing tea and junk food to stay awake while eking out maybe a couple hundred uninspired words. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize why it wasn’t working: because at night, my brain was filled up with agenting, emails, meetings, strategy, an endless to-do list; with little room left for creative thinking. But brains are just like muscles; we can’t push them endlessly without rest. Since coming to that realization, I’ve started spending my evenings reading, hanging out with friends or my long-suffering fiance, and sometimes even eating an actual dinner. Then I go to bed early, so I can get up at 5 or 5:30 and write before the rest of the world wakes up.
However, being honest about your shortcomings doesn’t mean you can’t work to develop new skill sets. In addition to being bad at writing in the evening, I’m also historically bad at writing on the road. Something about hotel rooms has always rendered me unable to focus. But in the past year I’ve had the enormous privilege to travel to promote my books, so I really, really truly need to learn to write on the go. I’m working on this now–experimenting, trying different things and making notes on what works. For instance, I’ve found that having a playlist for my WIP really helps; then no matter where I am, I can put on headphones and immediately be in the story world, the right headspace to write.
When you’re building your kick-butt deadline-smashing writing routine, do a little self-examination first. Where you’re falling short of your writing goals, is it because you are a human being who needs rest, or is it because you haven’t formed a writing habit yet? If it’s the former, forgive yourself and revise your routine the same way you’re revising that novel. No one can be productive 100% of the time, and nor should we–life is about living, even on a deadline. This is the time to seek support from your publishing team, friends, and family, and be transparent with them and with yourself about what you need.
If it’s the latter, though, you know the drill: butt in chair, hands on keyboard. I love this Neil Gaiman quote: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
*Take this with a grain of salt, as I have absolutely never trained for a marathon.