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Racing the Clock: The Pros and Cons of Deadlines

I’ve been a journalist for the past twenty-three years. For the first six of those years, I worked for two monthly magazines, where I had fourteen days to write one twelve-page report. Two whole weeks! I almost had more free time than work.

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Column by Nina George, bestselling author of THE LITTLE PARIS
(June 2015, Crown Publishing). She has published over

100 short stories and more than 600 columns. In 2011, Nina George
established the YES on Author’s Rights initiative. She sits on the board
of the Three Seas Writers’ and Translaters’ Council (TSWTC), of PEN
Germany (Advisor for Authors’ Right) and on the adminstrative board of
VG Wort. Follow her on Twitter

Then I took a job with an evening daily paper that was notorious for driving its staff to their limits. The reporters raced the clock, cobbling together their stories in the “dead zone,” right up to the deadline. Adrenaline drove them through the final two hours of frantic typing just before the day’s edition went to press. By the end of my first week, my editor-in-chief was handing me assignments on topics I knew nothing about. He’d assign a story at eleven in the morning and tell me to deliver printable copy by five p.m. I’m certain he took pleasure in his sadism. On second thought, I know he did. As do all editors and managers who believe that their staff work best under pressure. Nevertheless, he showed me the way to most auspicious experience of my professional life, if not the most existential one.

With no money or time to spare, stressed out and running on pure adrenaline, I broke through the intense fear of failure that always clung to me like a sticky cloud and dictated how I wrote. This fear of failure was a kind of dense fog that held me back. It suffocated me to the point that most of the time I wrote bland, unobjectionable stories, rock-solid and yet completely interchangeable. I lacked a strong, unique voice of my own.

The impenetrable fog dissolved under pressure. I had no time for doubt. No time for holding back or excessive wordiness. No time to worry about whose toes I was stepping on or what my boss would think of me. No time to write “pretty words” (i.e., superficial babble). Unfiltered, the stories poured out of my very essence: from what I am, how I am and who I am. Underneath all the fear, I found my voice as a writer, as an artist. Deadlines became my lifeline.

Pressure makes writing better. 

When you sense the deadly sharp edge of a deadline looming just ahead, when you feel like you’re racing madly toward an abyss filled with upright boning knives, when you stitch together the wings (i.e., a story) that will fly you to safety on the other side—this is when you deliver a better, tighter, more powerful piece of writing. Why is this? See above. Your "wings" have a noticeably finer texture when woven under the extreme pressure of time and emotions than in a state of complete relaxation.

(When can you refer to yourself as "a writer"? The answer is NOW, and here's why.)

As we write, our stories absorb our state of mind like a paper towel. Trouble in our relationships, a case of the sniffles, fear, boredom—and a mindset that is low in tension because it’s a tad too relaxed—weakens the whole story. While high tension—alert, vital and vibrating—imprints itself on the text. Even today, I write my best short stories when the deadline is only three days away.

Better yet, when it’s the very same day.

If the story is less than 2,500 words, I write it the day it’s due. Otherwise, I’m likely to beat around the bush.

This, however, is equally true: Writing to beat the clock doesn’t always mean writing better. Especially when it comes to novels. You can, of course, dash them off quickly. Yet it is not a good idea to push yourself to “get it finished” in a jiffy and hope that the pressure alone will make it better. This is an illusion under which many authors of commercial fiction labor, and they end up being rushed into signing contracts that demand two or three books a year.

People, that is not going to end well.

Holding your creativity under the gun will only kill it. 

Pressure is a sculptor. It can carve a voice out of an author who would otherwise remain forever trapped in the granite prison of fear, laziness and vanity. Indeed, deadlines liven things up. And now for the flip side: Pressure is also destructive.

If you continuously hold a gun to your head, it will take an average of two years before you can no longer produce creative and complex work. You will lack the time, energy and facility to come up with the multidimensional emotions you need to flesh out characters, build more intricate plots or dig deeper into your material and push past the most superficial ideas. Instead, you will keep reusing and renaming the same cast of characters. Keep coming up with similar plot twists, the same conflicts. Take a look at the books written by those authors who’ve had to churn out a new novel every nine months or so over the past six years. These stories resemble each other more and more. They run out of steam.

That’s exactly what happened to me. For ten years, I pounded out stories day after day, just like the adrenaline junkies from my newspaper days. At some point, the engine between my ears began to run on empty. It had burned out. I could no longer come up with a single “great” idea. Nor did I publish any novels during this period. Only after leaving the adrenaline-packed dead zone did I come to life again.

In 2013, I fell victim to the temptation of the rush job once more. After the stounding success of The Little Paris BookshopI was supposed to simply do it all over again. Relentlessly, I tried to comply—and I failed miserably. The pressure to churn out words quickly, and yet brilliantly turned me into a dried-up shell, like the last lemon hanging on the tree. I soldiered on for eight months. Finally, I gave up and set aside the announced follow-up novel after 250 pages because it was lifeless, limp, and uncreative. Only then did my joy, energy, and complex ideas return. One thing was clear: Better to write a good book than a fast one. My creative cycle turns differently than the ever faster-spinning carousel of literature. I cannot produce exceptional work every year. I have to live, mull things over, feel deeply.

(When can you finally call yourself a writer?)

Researchers at Harvard and Yale found that the positive effects of pressure do indeed reverse themselves after reaching a certain limit. Namely, when a person can no longer perform the same tasks in a normal five-day cycle. When we slog on for ten or twelve hours, seven days a week, all that we gain are exhaustion, frustration—and self-delusion. Although the creativity of the subjects in one study was shown to decrease fifty percent the longer they remained under pressure, nearly all of them believed themselves to be much more effective and imaginative than when relaxed.

In short, they were afraid they would lose their abilities when the pressure let up.

My fellow writers: Good writing is a bit like having sex. The more relaxed you are, the easier and more exciting the experience.


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