I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. –– Douglas Adams
Sometime last year TKZ’s own John Gilstrap tweeted this: “Staring down the muzzle of a deadline, I’m beginning to panic.”
All of us who write under contract know that feeling. Right now I’m on deadline for two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. Through some inscrutable machination of Murphy’s Law (or as a punishment from God) both manuscripts are due about the same time. Add to that galley proofs that I have to get done by next week, and you have a prescription for rubber room admittance. I find myself walking around the house with my hand in my shirt crying, “Josephine! Josephine!”
My author colleagues know what I’m talking about.
But if you backed us up against the wall at a party, and forced us to elaborate further, we’d probably admit there’s a certain “high” in staring down that muzzle. Our nerve endings are on edge, we know deep inside that’s motivation to get cranking, that we’re on full alert, all our senses at the ready, like a hunter who knows the lion (if I may be Hemingway-esque for a moment) is silently watching from the bush.
Does that make any sense? Or shall we just accept the fact that the writing life is a strange hybrid of joy and misery which, when mixed together, intoxicates with a seductive allure?
For those of you still awaiting publication, this is what you’re in for.
And while you are waiting, may I suggest you train yourselves now and create your own muzzles?
First, finish your book. Finish it! Give yourself a completion date. There are many reasons people have for not completing a book, most of them bad. Fear of failure might be one. Fear of hard work another (it’s fun to keep creating, less so get critiqued and fix things).
But you learn so much from completing a novel it’s best to do it as fast as you comfortably can.
Which brings us to the quota. I know there are some writers who reject the idea of a consistent production of words. But most, I think, see the absolute value of it.
This was one of the earliest pieces of advice I got, and helped me at just the right time in my career. It’s also allowed me to see published 25 books in a little over 15 years. Not a bad output. In fact, I look back with some astonishment at the record, and owe it to the quota.
I know there are other authors much more prolific than I, but I found just the right number to please my desire for production and my standards for the craft. I’m right where I want to be.
My suggestion is that you set a weekly quota. This is so you can break it down into days, and should you miss a day (which you will) you can make it up on the others.
Anthony Trollope was working for the British postal service and trying to become accepted as a novelist, when he began a quota system for is writing. In his autobiography he wrote:
There was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office. I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind it to undertake this second profession I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws. When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if, at any time, I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face and demanding of me increased labor so that the deficiency might be supplied.
You want to make it in this racket, you produce the words. You don’t need the muzzle of a contract deadline to do it. You can set your own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go correct some pages.