By Louise Ure
I’m one of those writers who work best under deadlines. And I do so with the plan of not having to sprint to the finish. No editor is ever going to see the mad woman’s breakfast that is my rough draft, or even my first revision.
So, ideally I build in the time I need and back into a schedule like this:
Revision 3: Three weeks
Revision 2: Five weeks
Revision 1: Six Weeks
Let it sit and simmer One week
First Draft: Twelve weeks
Research/ Four weeks
stewing in my own juices
That would give me a finished book in about eight months, writing 1200 words a day seven days a week, with lots of time built in for revision and rethinking.
(I can hear several Murderati pals laughing right now. Writing-holic J.T. would stop her 1000 words a minute typing to giggle just a little before she returned to the 19th book she was contracted for this year. Simon Wood would pause in the middle of one of the twelve series he’s writing to grin.)
I’ve told you before, I’m not a fast writer. Hell, I’m not even a fast thinker. I get one good idea a year and that’s what I write.
You’d think it would be easy. I’ve even got an extra four months of the year to do things like dental appointments and Christmas shopping.
But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Those 1200-words-a-day don’t always come. Those seven-day-writing-weeks get truncated when the dog needs surgery or you’re on tour for this year’s book. And then, with the insouciance of a tornado – you make a commitment to the Obama campaign, or you get the news of your mother’s accident and death – those lost writing-weeks become whole lost-months.
That’s the bad news.
What’s the good news? I have no deadline.
The book I’m working on now is not under contract (yet) and that means that I’m my own task master. And I’m a lousy boss.
What happens when that Twelve Week First Draft stretches to Seventeen? When that Total Revision #1 becomes “I’ll think about it?” I yawn and reset the calendar.
Dead Lines instead of deadlines.
After wasting two hours checking email and the blogs, I stare at that blank screen and then hie myself off to watch Tyler Florence make fish tacos. Twenty minutes of gazing out the window at the Golden Gate Bridge sends me right back to see if Huffington Post has been updated in the last half hour. Dear God, I’ve actually resorted to organizing the linen closet for the first time in my life.
I’ve always looked forward to writing until now, even with that first book that had no deadline attached to it at all. But not this time. Now I can’t even make myself open the Work-In-Progress document on my desktop.
I can be dispassionate enough about this to recognize some of the causes.
• I’ve been in a non-creative mode with LCC Programming, politics and family stuff for so long that it’s hard to edge back into that space.
• I’m tackling a new book that’s based on a real character and plot and I’m still too wedded to the “facts” to create my own story.
• There’s no jeopardy with a self-imposed deadline, except that you hate yourself morning, noon and night.
But recognizing the cause doesn’t always solve the problem.
I have nothing but Dead Lines.
I came across this quote by Ian McEwan that gave me momentary hope:
Words. He’s only talking about words, Louise. Not pages or chapters or a whole book, for God’s sake. I can do words. Please God, let me fall in love with words again.
I am pea-green with envy of writers with discipline. They commit to 2,000 words a day and live up to it. They write short stories or start a new series in their spare time.
Every time I answer one of those interview questions about my writing day – “I just sit my butt in that chair until my 1,200 words are done” — I lie. I feel like a fraud.
Can I be the only writer lying about “treating writing like a job,” or “just sit down and do it everyday,” or “I know I can fix a bad page but not a blank page?” I'm talking the talk, but that's about all.
I have nothing but Dead Lines.
And then Jude Greber stops by with a present for my chemo-addled pup and reminds me that I say this about every book. She even has my emails full of last year’s angst about Liars Anonymous (due out in two weeks).
So I sit back down again. I’m going to open that document today and try to string seven or eight words together in a way they haven’t been done before.
But oh, God, what I’d give for a deadline.
“But oh, God, what I’d give for a deadline.”
Louise, thank you so much for saying that. Between you and Jeff Shelby’s post yesterday over at First Offenders I feel…well, not better, but a lot less alone.
We’ll all get through this. I keep thinking about Charlaine Harris, who wrote what, two series over 11 years before she hit big with the Sookie Stackhouse books?
You’re a hell of a writer. Just keep at it.
Thanks J.D. Jeff’s post yesterday was what started me writing this. We have little candor in our industry sometimes … we are here to amuse and entertain.
Hi Louise,Thank you for this post! I can so relate. I work best on deadlines as well. My agent has my manuscript out to publishers and I find it very difficult to work on the next one not knowing if/when I’ll get published. It’s very helpful to know I’m not alone.
Mary-Frances, what would you be writing if you DID know when/if you were going to be published. Write that. As my agent says, “Write what you want to write.” But boy, do I understand that “What if they want book two in the series?” kind of thinking.
Louise, this is why I started lugging my computer over to Sharon’s house every morning. I just suddenly couldn’t count on myself to open the file any more, after I’d started book three. I had forty pages for what felt like YEARS, and no impulse to add another word to them.
When I hit that kind of slump, I have to force myself to write crap for three days, usually. And the first day, maybe I’ll get a paragraph. Sometime between day three and five, I think up a good phrase when I’m in the car, or standing on line in the grocery store, and that opens the floodgates for about another 3-5 days, then I get stuck again.
Of course in the end, there’s absolutely no difference in quality between the days I thought I was refried crap and the days when the pages came twinkling off my fingers. In fact it’s usually the stuff I thought was pure genius at the time that’s most likely to get cut.
But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like a talentless, washed-up fraud when the going is slow, every damn time.
Cornelia it delights me to know that wading through crap one paragraph at a time might still be priming the pump. At the time, it doesn’t always feel that way.
And not being able to tell the difference between the crap and quality pages afterward? Karen Olson says the same thing. That she can’t see the difference in those passages when she’s done.
Louise,I, too, have no deadlines and have just found out that the book I’ve put 160 pages in might not be worth writing. This has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with a publisher’s bad decisions (IMHO) and other publishers’ disinclination to pick up series in the middle of their run.
So today I sit in front of the computer adrift. I’ve got ideas for a few different books — some mystery, some not — and am trying to hear my heart enough to know which one I want to dedicate the time and self-discipline, WITHOUT a deadline, to pursue.
Ah, the quandry, Pari. Are you sure that 160-page effort is not worth pursuing? If it’s the book of your heart, maybe you should continue with it. Or adapt it so that it’s not part of the series.
We (I) talk too much about writer’s block and not enough about industry block sometimes.
Pari: I hear you. So right now, I’m writing the book I’d been putting off, the “Go for broke” redneck noir legal thriller about a lawyer in a small southern town. It’s the one I always said I’d have to leave this burg after I wrote it 🙂 . It may literally be the “go for broke” book, but we’ll see.
JD and Louise,The one I was writing wasn’t of my heart. But I do have another that has been nagging at me for at least a year and I’ve put it off.
Like you, Dusty, I’m going to go for it.
Any writer who haven’t acknowledged having these days, weeks, months is LYING. God, I have them all the time. I don’t giggle at all – I empathize.
But Louise, here’s the thing. When you stop beating yourself up – that’s when it’s time to quit. So long as the passion is there (and it is), so long as you’re worried about it, you’ll be fine. The minute you think about a deadline or lack thereof and say “Who cares,” is the minute you’re done.
Hang in, all of you. And Louise, I think you should step away from the computer entirely for a week. Indulge in staring out the window, reading a book. Get a massage and tell the therapist what you’re about. Let your body help heal your mind.
Then set yourself a deadline and get back to it.
JD, your redneck noir legal thriller sounds like just the book I’ve been looking to read!
And Pari, yes, if you have that book of your heart, go for it.
JT, you’re an inspiration, as always. I’m close to the “Who cares?” stage, but not there yet. And one piece of good news? I always get juiced again by going out on the road and talking about the new book.
I hope you don’t mind advice from an novice. I discovered as with all things, that I need something that will give me accountability. And it just can’t be me telling myself, I will do this by then. Since I’m just starting out, I don’t have any deadlines, except for those I set for myself. I need some accountability in order to get my butt in gear. Even if it is just reporting on my blog, I will accomplish such and such this week. I have a few dedicated readers who are wonderful cheerleaders and hold me accountable.
Another blogger, who is an up and coming writer, started a weekly report on what you have accomplished with your current WIP called Work In Progress Wednesday.
Kate originally caught my attention with this post:
So, she came up with WIP Wednesday and and I joined in and found it gave me the added boost to set weekly goals and move forward with writing.
So the point of all this, if you don’t have a set contracted deadline, blog it. Start your own WIP Wednesday or Friday or whatever and decide each week what you want to accomplish. Your cheerleading readers will be more than happy to help you meet your own personal deadline.
My humble 2 cents.
A-fucking-men to all of the above.
LU, you deserve a huge break. I’m not going to lie, if it were me, I wouldn’t take one, but YOU SHOULD, just like I SHOULD and WE ALL SHOULD.
I am at the phase of having to trick myself into writing. That’s my Saturday column, actually.
Robin, the Work in Progress Wednesdays or a blogged promise are brilliant ideas! They have the same motivating power as recognizing that you owe pages (or something) to a critique group, which is hughely more important than a self-imposed deadline.
Thank you for that. Now, let’s see if I’m brave enough to put it in practice.
Alex, you’re recommending a break but you wouldn’t take one? You’re the best example of that dogged discipline that I so admire.
Can’t wait to read the Saturday blog post. Tricking yourself into writing? I’m going to need it every day.
We all have downhill-screaming kind of days that can easily turn into downhill-screaming kind of weeks or even months.
It’s been my experience that you often have to go all the way down and bump along the bottom for a time before you can come back up.
A while ago, I half-made the decision that was it. I’d had enough and I wasn’t going to write any more. Sometimes this business just damn well HURTS too much. Maybe it’s something to do with ripping out little bits of yourself and plastering them to each page for people to dismiss, or sneer at, or ignore.
But that decision very quickly made me realise something. Writing is all I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. I’ve never seriously wanted to do anything else.
So, then I made another decision. To stick with it. I’d bumped along the bottom for the requisite period, and now I was on the way back up again.
Yes, creating something is often a painful process, but the alternative – not creating anything – is infinitely worse.
Zoë, it would break my heart if you stopped writing. I’m glad you made the decision you did. But this bottom-dwelling life is no fun either. Hope this phase passes quickly, without too many scars.
I agree with all the comments above, but I also want to just tell you, Louise, that I hope you will nourish yourself with a little self-care, and don’t be so hard on yourself. Life has served several low blows to you in the last couple of months, and you need to give yourself time to grieve, time to love yourself, and time to paint your toenails…or whatever it is that can give you a little joy. I always find facing a blank page is easier when I can look down at metallic purple polish at the front end of my feet.
Oh Christine, you’ve found the way to my heart! Metallic purple it shall be.
Words. He’s only talking about words, Louise. Not pages or chapters or a whole book, for God’s sake. I can do words. Please God, let me fall in love with words again.
I need to remember this myself.
It’s so refreshing to hear you say you only get one idea a year. So far I’ve had two ideas for novels and I’ve written those two (well, one’s still halfway there). My writing friends talk about having so many ideas they can’t focus on one, while I’m terrified I’ll never get another idea. Thank you for sharing this.
Good luck getting through your heartache. Your words will come.
Whenever I feel like this, which is pretty often, I imagine myself being denied the right to write. Imagine the pure freedom of it taken away, brutally, permanently. Imagine having to do anything else (and I have a list of “personal hells”)… and somehow, I find myself opening that file, trying for a few more words. It doesn’t matter if they’re good words. It just matters that they’re mine.
Ms. Ure,I don’t know if this will help, but for me sometimes it helps to force myself into a different emotion. I do it with music. I have trouble making myself rewrite something I know isn’t going to be good enough, and not nearly as good as the next thing I write, and telling myself that I still have to do it and send it out to collect my rejections just for the experience wasn’t working.
So I changed my emotional state whenever I opened it. For me, I did it with music, because music creates mood for me. When I write, I usually listen to the exact same playlist on my iPod, because I’m used to it enough that it drowns everything else out and my writing voice comes through. And when I write, I usually listen to the blues…Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, etc.
So now when I open the WIP to do my rewriting, I go with the playlist I exercise/lift weights to…Metallica, G N’R, LA Guns, etc. When I’m writing, even a thriller, mellow works for me. So to edit, I create a state of anger and go with it.
It may not work, but it’s something you could try, and I hope no matter what that you find something to drive you through this as close to unscathed as possible.
Melanie, I too have been shaken by the notion of authors whose “idea files” bulge. My bigger question is not the quantity of the ideas I have but the quality. “Is this big enough/interesting enough/different enough to sustain a whole novel?” Often, it’s not.
Toni, that’s a fabulous reverse therapy trick. Maybe if I tell myself that I’m not allowed to jot a note, think of a pun, dwell on a fictional character at all for a few days, I’ll realize the shallowness of my life without writing in it.
And Jake … the music! You use mellow for writing and anger for editing? Interesting. If I put together a playlist for writing right now, it would probably include all the Amos Lee sad songs.
Let me be clear – I know it’s perfectly psychotic that I don’t take breaks.
But I keep at it because there are always those days – and you never know when those days are going to be – that writing is better than Ecstacy, or Valium, or Percodan, or, gasp, sex.
Not that I know anything about any of the above. I’m just… oh,whatever.
Louise, I never missed a deadline until I was writing PLAYING DEAD. It was a complex story, we were in the middle of buying a house as the entire market was collapsing around us, I had to jump when the bank said jump, run to Kinkos to copy documents . . . run again when they decided they HAD to have copies of my foreign contracts . . . and all the while, we had money invested in a house that wasn’t finished and we could lose because banks weren’t loaning money.
My oldest daughter was having major problems with one of her teachers; my second daughter was having major problems with the kids at school; and my youngest had three ear infections in a row. (But not one since!)
I realized that I can juggle two things very well. It’s like cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner. The two most important things are on the front burner. You need to keep those stirred, tasted, spiced. You can’t neglect them. But you have other pots simmering, lids you have to raise from time to time just to check. You can do that, as long as the two front pots are coming along. But what if one of those back-burner items boils over? Through no fault of your own–your cat jumped up and turned up the heat–you have a crisis. You try to clean up the mess and salvage the veggies, and in the meantime, your front burner-can’t-be-neglected items are burning and steaming and you’re about to run for the hills or down a bottle of wine.
That happened while writing PLAYING DEAD. My front burner items are always the kids and my writing. I can juggle them well. When one of the back-burner items–major home repairs, kids getting sick, buying a house, putting the dog down–becomes a crisis, something has to give.
But I didn’t want to be late on my deadline. But the panic I felt prevented me from writing anything. I’d stare and re-write the same chapter over and over.
The only way I fixed it was to admit that I was overwhelmed, called my editor, said I was going to be late and why, and put it all aside for a week so that I could take care of the house crisis. If I hadn’t, nothing would have been accomplished.
Put everything aside for a week, work through everything else going on, and give yourself a go-back-to-writing day. I’m generally the person who says you have to write every day because then it becomes a habit–if you DON’T write, then NOT writing becomes a habit. However, we’re only human. Put aside the guilt of not writing and tell yourself, On XXXX date, I’m going to sit back down and work on this project. Until then, I’m not going to think about it, feel guilty for not working on it, or stress.
Alex, I remember those days … when writing was better than any drug and most men (well, except for that guy in Belgium, maybe).
And Allison, your Thanksgiving dinner analogy is perfect. God, I can’t believe how much stuff you had cooking and boiling all at the same time. I hope things have calmed down a bit. I’ve probably already given myself more time off than I deserve, but didn’t give myself permission to do it. If I try that “no guilt” thing for a couple of days and then settle back in … one toe at a time … just seven or eight words. Who knows?
Louise, your blogs are the reason I became a regular reader here. What you see in life and how you put it on the page make a difference to me.
Losing a parent is a huge disruption. The world as we know it changes. Our internal gyrocompass tumbles. How could it not? Atlantis has vanished. The earth’s magnetic field is altered.
I hope you’ll take your time to feel your way through all these changes. We are different people afterwards, inevitably.
It only makes sense that our process will be different in the aftermath.
What guy in Belgium?
Louise, your ideas are always amazing–fresh, stunning, wry–to the extent that I always want to chain you to your computer to write them in one fell swoop because I’m so desperate to find out what happens in the end (and/or throw in the towel myself, after rolling around on the floor and gnashing my teeth for several hours.)
I think people who have a bazillion ideas have an even harder time than those of us whose brains offer more slender harvest. Judy Greber touched on that in her keynote at Book Passage last summer, the urge to go rabbiting off after a “better idea” when she hits the soggy middle of each and every WIP, and how hard it is to convince herself that the new idea will look just as tired and empty when she hits *its* soggy middle.
I’ve watched friends rabbit themselves right out of finishing seven or eight novels that way, and don’t have the heart to tell them how good the first one would have been if they’d put all those hours into a single manuscript, no matter how hard the slog.
And, too, it can be impossible to remember in the moment that the *idea* isn’t what makes a book–the *execution* of the idea makes a book, and that happens one painfully extracted wisdom tooth of a word at a time.
Sometimes the idea is just the first inkling of what the book will turn out to concern itself with–not the true path, merely a tiny signpost telling you how far it is from the parking lot to the actual trailhead, where the real story is hiding behind a stand of blue spruce, just around the curve of the lake. I thought my first novel would either be about psycho ‘Nam vets or wealthy neo-Nazis, and ended up with neither by halfway through the first draft.
When I get stuck and start berating myself for being such a lazy shithead, it always turns out (every, every, EVERY time) that the little bit I thought I was supposed to jot off next was in fact utterly wrong, only I never realize it until the correct move reveals itself after days of angst and self-recrimination.
And I agree with JT–the day a writer doesn’t contemplate the abyss is the day she/he should write “HACK” across her/his forehead (with Braille tape and fingerprints on top)
Forgive the shortness of this reply to the important, thoughtful and heart-healing comments above. Blame it only on my sluggish iPhone skills, and not my intent.
Tom and Cornelia, you make me cry, and yet make me want to cleave to those sweet, sweet words. Thank you, more than you can know.
And Allison, I never got his name. But there may be a good blog post in there some day.
Ms. Ure, but that’s why I try to change the emotion. The Amos Lee is what you’re feeling right now. Which means when you sit down to write, it’s what you feel then, too. So, you gotta manufacture a new emotion (ANY new emotion…fear, joy, anger, somethin’) If not music, then something else.
Try for joy…take a notebook and pen with you, drive into a random neighborhood with lots of young families tomorrow, and find an ice cream truck. Get out of the car and chase that sucker down, and buy something frivilous. As soon as you get done eating, pick up the paper (sticky shit on your fingers and all) and write. Doesn’t matter what, just write.
If that doesn’t do it, get on an internet search engine and find something that infuriates you: animal endangerment, car theft, people taking too long at Starbucks…ANYTHING. Then Open up a document (blank page, please), and scream.
Not on the paper. I mean actually scream out all the outrage you have toward those slow-ass people at Starbucks (or whatever). Scream until you are exhausted. And then you have that blank page ready for whatever anger and exhaustion leave in their wake.
Or try what Janet Reid does (and I admit, I do too sometimes). Go over to failblog.org and delight in people whose parents should have used protection doing incredibly stupid things…like the guy with the full back tatoo of the Grim Reaper, and the words “YOUR MINE” permanently inked above it. See if that laughter (or maybe pity) gives you anything new besides sadness.
Because I’m worried it’s the sadness that’s crippling you. And you’re too talented. And look on the bright side…even if none of this shit works, you’ll still have metallic purple toes winking up at you.
Jake, you are brilliant and a brilliant teacher. God send.
>> I’ve watched friends rabbit themselves right out of finishing seven or eight novels that way, and don’t have the heart to tell them how good the first one would have been if they’d put all those hours into a single manuscript, no matter how hard the slog.<< Right on, Cornelia!!!! Now, back to that guy in Belgium… I love the ones with no names!
Alex, we’re on the same wave length. This one really might have to become a blog post.
Oh Lordy, you all give an unpublished writer dark clouds with silver linings. I keep thinking of what Michael J Fox (and many others) said. You can never get the moment back. I try to be aware of the moment and make sure my decisions to write or not write are conscious, not like chips and dips that disappear magically from the bowl. Sometimes, I make lousy decisions – but the chips still taste marvelous.