5 Things I Learned on Deadline

My debut novel, ALIVE, recently hit shelves and I remember the pressure as my first deadline loomed. A couple years ago I was graduating law school, starting my first “big girl” job and taking work-for-hire gigs. A slew of rejections under my belt had made me slow to dedicate myself to new projects for fear of hastening yet another mudslide of—you guessed it—rejections. But six months after starting my job, something happened. I got a “yes” and that turned into more and before I knew it, my agent had sold five books on proposal, including ALIVE, plus I had a baby on the way. All five books would be due in three years’ time. I’m really bad at math, but I was concerned this wouldn’t add up.

Alive-book-cover Chandler-baker-author-writer

Column by Chandler Baker, author of debut novel, ALIVE (June 2015,
Disney-Hyperion). Her book was praised by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist,
and School Library Journal. Chandler got her start ghostwriting novels for
teens and tweens, including installments in a book series that has sold
more than 1 million copies. Now a lawyer and author, she lives in Austin
with her family. In addition to ALIVE, Chandler is the author of the
HIGH SCHOOL HORROR series.

The good news was that I happened to be a fan of both external and self-imposed deadlines in order to get virtually anything that needed doing done. The bad news? It’s easy to panic on deadline. In fact, panic is the default. Sometimes I think I live in a perpetual state of panic with a little voice in my head screaming in terror. (Side note: this may be why I write scary books.)

As I wrap up the fourth leg of my deadline marathon, here are a five coping strategies I’ve picked up along the way:

1. Word by word, it all adds up

As the panic creeps in, it’s tempting to view every day as a failure. (Why did I delete so much? Why not 2,000 words instead of 500? How will I ever finish at this pace?) All seem like perfectly rational reactions when on deadline. But here’s one thing I know: Books can get written 100 words at a time, 50 words at a time, heck, even 1 word at a time. They cannot get written 0 words at a time. Which is to say, every word counts.

For me, beating myself up is counterproductive and breeds insecurity. There will be times of feast and famine. Accept both and know that every word is one more piece of the puzzle you won’t have to jam come crunch time.

2. Work in the nooks & crannies

Sometimes I find myself waiting for blocks of time that never come. I want perfect writing days—sit down in the morning, cup of tea in hand, and write through until dinner. But things happen. Friends call, groceries must be bought, husbands are not as on board with life as a fulltime hermit as you’d hoped and before you know it, that perfect writing day is gone with very little writing to show for it.

So I’ve found success in the nooks & crannies, which are little pockets of time that if used wisely really add up without forcing me to sacrifice my entire life. Ten to fifteen minutes, that’s my threshold. If I have fifteen minutes and dedicate that to uninterrupted writing, good things happen. Books happen.

3. Be honest.

Oh, the internet, you saucy, saucy minx. It turns out, I am a big, fat liar when it comes to how much time I actually spend writing. I tell myself I’m writing when what I’m actually doing is interneting. World-class, Olympic-level interneting. I’ve tried programs like Freedom that cut off my access to the world wide web, but I find it so daunting to start the program—you mean I have to spend 2 hours sans internet!?—that I spend all the extra time I’m supposed to be gaining by using the program procrastinating before turning it on.

Instead, I’ve found success by starting a stopwatch at the beginning of the day and stopping it every time I do anything that’s not writing. At the end of the day, I assess how much time I actually wrote. If I sat down for 4 hours but squandered 2, I can see it and adjust my behavior accordingly. Forced honesty for the big, fat internet liar.

4. Learn your process.

They say the only book you learn to write is the one you’ve just written. True, but you can learn yourself. For instance, I know that I’m going to have one meltdown per deadline. It’s practically a law of physics. Similarly, I know that when I hit 30,000 words in a manuscript, I’ll believe the whole endeavor is fruitless and try to quit. Recognizing these patterns help turn feelings into speed bumps, not dead ends. Take notes. Pay attention. You’ll get through it.

5. Apply the law of diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns tells us there is a point at which the benefits returned are less than the energy invested. The same applies to writing. Though your deadline looms and appears to gain ground, breaks are still required. It’s a scientific fact* that if you chain yourself to your computer, your brain will turn to mush, your eyeballs will begin to bleed and you will be so burned out that the work you’re producing will be so covered in brain mush and eyeball blood that you’ll have to throw it out. Save time and words by not reaching burn out. Treat your mind like you would your body. There’s such a thing as overtraining.

*Probably not a scientific fact

Take care of yourself, keep going, and write on!

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