My Deadline Survival Kit

By Cornelia Read



My third novel, Invisible Boy, is due in to my intrepid editor and his astonishingly wonderful henchwoman on Monday. That would be this coming Monday. As in, somewhat less than two days from this very moment, as you read these words. (And, hey, isn't this cover awesomely bitchen? Let's hope I don't deface its magnificence with a crappy novel on the inside. {Oy, the pressure…!})


Deadlines may well be the elixir of the scholarly life, and necessary, and goodness knows they light a fire under my sorry butt, but they are still big and scary and have large ugly teeth.



And then, right when you're chugging full-steam toward the finish line, you can get that weird thing where it suddenly seems as if you're typing in Lithuanian, and everything just looks wrong, if you stare at it long enough. Take, for instance the word "moreover." Does that look right to you? Is it a word you should EVER use? Is it even a WORD, or just a random sprinkling of letters?


And what does "threnody" mean? Could I use it to describe someone's sob of grief? Not to mention, come to think of it, that the very phrase "come to think of it" is pretty weird. And maybe a little dirty?

Seriously: Lithuanian. I'm sure it's a lovely country, but I'm supposed to be crafting a narrative set in Queens and Manhattan, circa 1990.


Not one in which this might be the preferred local headgear:


This is not just the third deadline I've faced for a novel, it's the third deadline for THIS novel, which adds an extra element of scary, to me. I think it might actually make sense this time, but who knows?

What I do know is I have picked up a few things that make the last couple of crazed days go down a bit easier, both for myself and for those forced to be in close contact with me in my hours of final deep contemplation and typing.

Moreover, I would like to share these important safety tips with you, to try at home:

1. Treat Yourself to Ridiculously Expensive Junk Food

Are you broke? Fat? Heart condition? Vegan? Forget all that. This is an emergency, and you can go back on that lemon-juice-cayenne-maple-syrup fast the minute you attach your manuscript to a groveling email and hit the "send" button, in about 48 hours.


This is no time for half measures (or, for that matter, herbal laxatives). This is time for junk food of the highest order. But you don't need Snickers bars, you need dark-chocolate-coated caramels dusted with high-end French sea salt crystals that were scraped by hand from the luminous tail feathers of free-trade organic albino baby amphibious peacocks.


And screw Maxwell House, go for the eight-dollar latte. Or better yet, invest in a built-in German espresso maker that you can program to greet you in eight languages, including Portuguese and Dutch:


Don't just give up on cooking and eat Top Ramen straight out of the package (crunchy!)–find the most outrageously over-the-top pizza in your neck of the woods and ask them to lard it with foie gras, then deliver. (If you live in the Hamptons, that is actually possible–though I prefer the lesser escargot-laden pie in that particular vicinity).


In Berkeley, my Deadline Food of Choice is Gioia Pizza, the current menu of which offers the "Broccoli Obama" (broccoli, nicoise olives, capers, red onions, calabrian chilis, garlic and mozzarella cheese) and the "Radicchio" (roasted radicchio, pancetta, gorgonzola, garlic oil, and fresh thyme) during winter months. If your best local pizza place offers anything with goat cheese and a side of pomegranate coulis, embrace the hell out of that sucker.


Make sure that your ridiculously haute cuisine 'za has a New York style crust–thin, chewy, and with a nice "pull" to it. This is not a time for Round Table or Domino's, and it's important that you eschew crappy Bisquick-esque bases, or those crunchy ersatz crusts my ex once refered to as "ketchup on a matzoh," while on a business trip at a paper mill in darkest Newfoundland (also, if memory serves, the home of PFK–Poulez Frites a la Kentucky).

The proprietors of Gioia totally have the crust thing down. This is because they are members of what I call "the Brooklyn pizzafarian diaspora," people one wants to keep serious tabs on, when living west of the Garden State Parkway.


I'm not saying you should eat a ton of food, or anything bigger than your head–you have to stay sharp, not nap away precious writing hours in a pizza-induced coma.


It's not about quantity, but truly, my dear ones, you must remember that you are eating to support your brain in full-on Blue Angels throttle mode. Do not skimp on the quality.

2. Suck Down Those Stimulant Drinks, Baby

Don't skimp on the kick-your-ass beverages, either. It is important to have that college-allnighter mini formula-one cars racing through your bloodstream thing. Espresso… Red Bull… Diet Pepsi with Lime… Jolt Cola… Caffeinated Water… Espresso brewed with caffeinated water. (I mean, hey, Lee Child claims to drink 30 cups of coffee a day, and occasionally brews it with caffeinated water. So that MUST be a good idea, right?).


And if caffeine isn't quite enough, or makes you a ravening freakshow, there's also mateine, which is some groovy stuff, let me tell you–like green tea with afterburners (great mental clarity, a lot less jitters).

You can buy Yerba Mate (the South American beverage-substance which one imbibes for a mateine boost) in most decent grocery stores, these days. For a dual power shot, you can get coffee beans with Yerba Mate blended in.


Wheatgrass juice is just fucking lame, though.


Also, it might make you barf. Barfing is not what we're after, here. It takes too much time away from writing (or ruins your keyboard). And besides which, who wants to barf green, even on St. Patrick's Day?

3. Read Only Really Bad Books, if You Have Any Downtime

This is SO not the time to take up reading Nabokov, or Shirley Jackson, or Denise Mina, or William Gibson, or Ken Bruen, or any other consummate stylist. And don't read anybody who's really amazing at plotting, either. When you're finished writing for the day and want to unwind with someone else's book, make sure it's an indelibly awful one.


Don't read anything that will throw a spotlight on your own talent angst. Do not allow the brilliance of others to make you question your own creative validity at this time, or you will crash and burn during the crucial last forty-eight hours.


You need downtime reading that sucks so utterly hugely and voraciously on every level that you will feel like a goddamn genius by comparison.


I'm talking Bulwer-Lytton, or The Book of Mormon, here, folks. Tin-eared early Asimov is good, back issues of the Weekly World News even better.


It's also a good idea to read outside your genre, at this time, (while still sticking to the "sucks utterly" designation.)


I am currently re-reading an astonishingly ill-conceived and worse-rendered '90s historical romance faux-sequel (to an actually good book by a dead author). I've put it down on my bedside table each night this week and gone to sleep convinced I am the most talented writer who ever lived, at least in comparison to this woman's stinking pile of unreadable crap–an essential delusion when I'm closing in on typing that elusive "THE END."


Which sure as hell beats throwing up, or sobbing/shrieking with fear.

And when you're done, reward yourself with a GOOD book:


4. Housekeeping, Schmousekeeping

Are you the person in your household expected to keep the entire domicile lemon-fresh and squeaky clean? Two words: fuck that.


Strike a blow for anarchy in these desperate hours. Throw dirty dishes down the garbage disposal. Throw laundry down the garbage disposal. Then rename your vacuum cleaner "Anna Karenina" and find a handy oncoming express train.

When you've done all that, tell your family they will henceforth be learning the old-school table etiquette of Tamil Nadu:


eating with their hands off banana leaves.


Embrace entropy. Tell your children to hitchhike home from soccer practice, and/or ballet. You are busy crafting the uncreated conscience of your race in the smithy of your soul, after all.


Should they complain, advise them to Google "the second law of thermodynamics," then remind them that childhood is not just a job, it's an adventure


This will not only build character, it will give them something to bitch about at cocktail parties when they grow up. (And they will probably become novelists, too. Or at least pen interesting memoirs.)

5. Dress for Success


Forget Queer Eye, ignore that snippy no-taste What Not To Wear chick, you need serious combat gear: huge ugly ripped sweatshirts, coffee-stained pajama pants, threadbare mismatched socks, paint-spattered frat-humor-slogan t-shirts with big holes under the arms.


The last hours of the final draft are an inward journey. Dress yourself as though you never expect to be seen outside your own house again, even by the visually impaired. This will also help keep you inside your house, working your ass off (bonus!).


Forget Tom Wolfe. The look we're going for here is pure Slapshot Hansons: "bloodied but unbowed."


And with that I wish all deadlining writers the world over a hearty "Sėkmės! Geros kloties!" (which is apparently "good luck" in Lithuanian)

How about you 'Ratis? Any tips for living through deadline world? Any favorite expensive junk food? Please share…

[And now for a bit of blatant self-and-others promotion: My writing partner Sharon Johnson and I are putting on the Berkeley Mystery Writing Intensive, a full-day conference for aspiring crime fiction writers, on Saturday, April 18th.

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, or planning to visit, we'd love to see you there. Faculty will include David Corbett, Tim Maleeny, Sophie Littlefield, Tony Broadbent, and Juliet Blackwell/Hailey Lind, with literary agent Amy Rennert–as well as a veritable plethora of hardboiled law enforcement professionals.

Registration is $140, which includes catered breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks, parking validation, and a no-host cocktail reception/book signing at the end of the day. The event will be held at the historic Berkeley City Club:


designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan


Please see my website for more details, and a downloadable PDF registration form)

29 thoughts on “My Deadline Survival Kit

  1. kit

    It’s a little past 5am here in Bugtussle, and as I’m reading this …a little insistant voice in my head keeps saying..”LISTEN UP, Kit…this is some damn good advice.”

  2. Debby Johnson

    Miss C,One of the best pieces of advice I ever got concerning housekeeping, or that lack there of, came from a woman sitting next to me in the “mother’s waiting area” of my daughter’s dance class. I’d been whining about my mom and dad’s upcoming visit. They lived across country and made the trek to see us once a year, so I always felt as though I needed to steam clean the entire house to show my gratitude. The woman listened patiently then turned to me and said, “Honey, do what I do. If they don’t like it, tell ’em they can always plow it and plant it.” Worked for me.

  3. Judy Wirzberger

    Dear CorneliaYour advice to read simple books is good.You forgot to tell me if I want to feel real smart not to read blogs.Some blogs are okay.Your blog is not okay for me.I feel stoopid when I reed you’re blog.I feel as creative as a mound of hog shit.But then I remember that chickens love to follow hogs and chickens produce magnificent eggs that are used for marvelous culinary creations and I rejoice for the moment in the excitement of knowing that I, too, am a writer. And I may even be published some day if I keep learning from Murderati blogs.

    And send one of those pizza’s to the artist who conceived that cover.

  4. Tom

    Hot damn, lady, you are two days from delivering brilliance on a platter. O Muses, let the recipients be worthy of her!

    A friend once nibbled the neck of snippy Stacy (‘What Not To Wear’) London. He reported, as do you, “No taste.” How did you know?

    Yerba maté is great stuff, but your brilliance is not solely the product of overstim overdrive.

    For the print document deadlines at my day job, the keys are not so much food as a couple thermos bottles of coffee from home, Trader Joe’s lime sparkling water, easy access to the whizzicle (one row down and five steps around the corner) and a huge music list on my iPod. Choral/orchestral stuff like “The Sea Symphony” and “Carmina Burana” helps the most.

    Now the important question: does Gioia Pizza deliver to Long Beach? Or would they like to open a branch?

  5. Denese

    This was hilarious. You really lighted my mood, sort of. I still live in Louisiana and can’t go to your workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area. But, you’re a hell of a lot of fun.


  6. Pepper Smith

    LOL! I thought I was the only one who thought words got incredibly weird sometimes. You can lose a lot of time just contemplating whether or not various words are real and if they mean what you seem to remember they do.

  7. B.G. Ritts

    I sure hope that escargot pizza has, at least, triple garlic — triple triple may be even better… On second thought, I think I’ll starve for that meal.

  8. Cornelia Read

    Kit–I want to use “It was 5 a.m. in Bugtussle” to open a short story some day.

    Tess–thank you. And I’ve only eaten escargot pizza once. They didn’t have shells on it, which made it a lot more palatable.

    Debby–I wish I could go back in a time machine and hug that woman at your daughter’s dance class. That’s BRILLIANT!

    iasa–I am totally digging that Satan Is a Lesbian cover, too.

    Liane–that *thud* is the sound I hope this book does NOT make.

    Dusty–arugula on the *side*, babe. You don’t want it to wilt.

    Judy–I hart ewe.

    Tom–I love it that Stacy’s neck had no flavor. And I will mention Long Beach to my Gioia peeps. I love them… whenever I give my name for the order, over the phone, the guy goes “Hey, haven’t seen you in a while. How’s the deadline?”

    Denese–I actually really like “lighted my mood.” Has a nice ring to it. Sort of luminous, you know?

    Pepper–YES! I get totally fixated on specific words sometimes. Complete waste of time as they always look fine the next morning.

  9. Cornelia Read

    BG– IIRC, the escargot pizza had so much garlic on it we had to keep the windows of the rental car rolled down on the way home because our eyes kept tearing up and we couldn’t see the road otherwise. AWESOME.

  10. Karen C

    that book cover is awesome! I’m so excited to see it and the novel inside is more then worthy.

    can’t wait for the writing intensive, it will be great!

    Karen C

  11. Brett N

    I have a Viking helmet.

    When I get to the ‘Heartbreak Hill” final push of a lit deadline, I like to don yon helm, crank Branagh shouting about St. Crispen’s Day, and such down double strength java-juice til my fillings start to vibrate.

    Then let slip the corndogs of war.

    It matters not how we do the deed — only that the deed get done.


  12. Chester Campbell

    That is the most awesome blog-de-force I have encountered. It would take me 48 hours just to ferret out all those illustrations. My only deadline is to come up with sufficient scintillating subjects to power a two-week blog tour. I think I’ll pass on the escargot, but that Satan cover has possibilities. By the way, I was on a panel once with an author who resembled Bigfoot. Can’t recall his name.

  13. Denese

    Ack. I should not have corrected it. Then you would have thought me clever instead of just sloppy.

    Oh– my husband LOVED your book– The Crazy School– and he is a major mystery reader.

    Now that he’s done with it I get to read it too.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love the bookcover, and baby, even in whatever godawful thing you happen to be wearing, you eat WAY more elegantly than I do on deadline, when I will gladly eat coffee grounds or suck sugar out of those individually sized packets for whatever miserable jolt it can give me,

    You didn’t go into electric appliances but we can catch up about that facet over a drink sometime.

    And HOW could you have a Berkeley writing intensive without me? Oh right, because I’ll be within a week of my DEADLINE that weekend…

  15. pari

    Cornelia,Brilliant post. Where the hell were you last week when I was finishing up?

    Frozen whipped cream with chocolate sauce works nicely . . .

  16. Cornelia Read

    Pizza with espresso grounds… imagine the possibilities.

    Just peeking in for a moment between finishing the scene with my mom in the bathroom of ’21’ and starting the one where I blow up a car, right before the end.

    Gentlemen, start your corndogs!

  17. Sarah Edmunds Goodwin

    But seriously, the cover is terrific and as one of your oldest fans, I can’t wait to read the book! What is the publishing date? In the New Economy, your will be on the top of my list of books to buy and not stare at at bitterly and wish I could just move my bed into the store.There are certain writers that I just won’t wait for paperback and you are one of them! I keep wishing I had just discovered PD James, the Baroness of Holland Park, so I could spend my dotage leafing through 50 cent used paperbacks, but no… I have entire shelves devoted to $25.00 Brit Lit mysteries. Have you read Peter Robinson yet? I am now completely into Swedish Murder – always dished up with hot coffee.Much love to you,S


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