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 Six — mostly 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
- 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:
Writers, how rough are your first drafts? Like, the ones you turn in to your editors? Asking for a friend.
— E.C. Myers (@ecmyers) July 20, 2015
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!
- 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! ↩