How to Stay Sane on Deadline

Here’s a fun fact most of you probably already know about me–I’m a champion procrastinator. I developed a knack for procrastination in high school, then majored in it in college, pulling papers and midterms and finals out of my you-know-what like it was my job. Sure, cramming sucks, but doing things ahead of time like a responsible human means you have to give up essential pastimes like reading, watching TV, spending hours on YouTube, going down Wikipedia research holes, and googling infinity Nic Cage gifs.

Procrastinators, you know what I’m talking about.

But here’s another fun fact: you can’t write and edit an entire book in one night. As a writer, I’ve had to learn to actually manage my time to some degree. But no matter how good I am with my time, it never seems like enough, and when deadlines come knocking, it always feels like a mad rush to get things done. As I fight through that latest push, here are my tips on surviving any deadline with sanity intact.

Don’t stop moving! It can be really tempting to plunk your butt in your chair and glue your face to the screen and stay that way until…whenever your thing is due. But try sticking to whatever your normal workout routine may be–exercise has been proven to raise endorphins, lower stress, and improve sleep (even if that doesn’t happen until 3 am). If a sweat sesh isn’t in the cards, taking a break for a five minute walk, a quick stretch, or a few jumping jacks will bring blood flow to your brain and improve concentration.

Put things in perspective. I have a pretty vivid imagination, which means when my anxiety gets out of control I start picturing really extreme worst-case-scenarios that are totally unrealistic. Sometimes, thinking through the real-world consequences can be calming. If I don’t turn in my manuscript on time, will I die? Nope. Will a surprise meteor destroy life on Earth? Doubtful. If you can’t talk yourself down from a cliff, try to figure out who will. My husband and my literary agent are both pretty practical people. Now, whenever I start to spiral I’ve learned to reach out to them for realistic advice and feet-on-the ground guidance.

Separately yourself from distractions…by force if necessary. So y’all know about my smartphone addiction. Add to that a seasoned procrastinator’s ability to turn anything into a distraction, including but not limited to Netflix, Hulu, Wikipedia, Buzzfeed, E! News, etc. I’ve now downloaded apps to my phone, my laptop, and my desktop computer that separate me from my addictions. Figure out what your fix is, and nix it.

Stay fueled, but be smart about it. Snacks and beverages and regular meals are a must. But as someone who has done their fair share of bingeing on coffee and Trader Joe’s Key Lime Tea Cookies while on deadline, I cannot recommend it. Sugary drinks, treats, and caffeine might feel like boosts in the moment, but once the roller coaster goes the other way you’ll inevitably start to feel worse. Healthier fuel, like fruit, popcorn, sparkling water, and the occasional square of dark chocolate will serve you better in the end!

Take breaks. This one is really hard for me. When I’m on deadline I tend to feel a lot of guilt for “neglecting” my work. But I’ve learned that taking genuine breaks (not #3 breaks) does wonders for my productivity. Just make sure it’s relaxing, reviving, or reinvigorating. My favorites are a brisk walk with the dog, a bubble bath, or a few chapters of a book outside my genre (I’m partial to Regency romance!)

Give yourself a break. You’re doing something impressive and amazing and hard! Don’t forget everything you’ve accomplished, are accomplishing, and will accomplish. Be kind to yourself–you deserve it.

You can do this! I promise.

Changing Gears

For a year and some change, I’ve been in steady-state revision mode.

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Oh, not on the same project, and in different stages of different edits and revisions on those different projects, but in revision mode all the same. There were copy edits for my forthcoming novel AMBER & DUSK…and then more copyedits to those copy edits. Near the beginning of this year, I did put about 50K new words on my Swan Lake WIP, but it was more like a rewrite of an already existing project that I’d worked on the year before. Early this summer I revisited a trunked book to see if it could be given new life. August, I returned to my Swan Lake WIP for yet another round of edits.

You catch my drift. Or should I say draft? (Sorry! I’m so sorry.)

But last week, the shiny book idea that’s been patiently simmering in the back of my head tapped me on the shoulder. “Girl,” it whispered seductively. “You’ve already outlined me, named all my characters, and done enough world building to make my head spin. Let’s do this thing!”

So I gathered up all my notebooks, grabbed my favorite pen, opened up a blank document, and…nothing. Which was especially weird considering I’d more or less already written the opening scene in my head. Or so I’d thought.

“Type!” I hissed at my fingers, poised over the keyboard.

“We don’t remember how!” they wailed in unison.

And that’s when I considered quitting writing for the one-millionth time this year.

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Listen–writing is hard. All of it. Every stage. It is a pure and exquisite expression of individual creativity, but it’s also messy. And hard. Did I mention hard? Revising and editing is hard, and rarely fun. It’s a lot of tweaking and moving around and deleting and adding and rephrasing. But here’s the thing–you’re working with something that already exists. It may be a jumbled, half-incoherent first draft full of cliches, dropped characters, and bad dialogue, but it’s words on a page. It’s something. And even with a first draft, there are probably glimmers of voice, murmurs of character development, a vague inkling of plot.

But facing the tyranny of the blank page–of staring down the barrel at 80 to 100 thousand words of unwritten story–is probably one of the hardest aspects of writing. Especially because if you don’t write the story living inside you…no one else ever will. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

So I’m shifting gears. I’m downshifting–back to first gear, where I’m building a world from scratch and filling it with complicated, obtuse characters who aren’t interested in cooperating with the plan I’ve made for them. To second gear, where motivations are finally clear and I’m consistently hitting my daily word counts. And–gods willing–third gear, where I’m up writing far past my bedtime, because I’m not longer a creator but a participant in the story hurtling toward its inevitable climax.

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And then, of course…it will be time for revisions.

To Trunk, or Not To Trunk

Have you ever heard a writer refer to a “trunk book,” or even “trunking a book”? Although the exact definition seems to change depending on who you ask, the term usually describes a project an author has spent a good deal of time, effort, and often emotional energy on, only to decide–based on any number of reasons–that the book is no longer worth said effort and should be abandoned, for now or even for ever. A trunk book gathers dust (usually metaphorically, in the abyss of one’s hard drive rather than a physical trunk), out of sight and out of mind, hardly ever revisited and rarely revived.

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Now, don’t misunderstand me: a trunk book is not automatically a bad book. They certainly can be (one of mine is 100% a Very Bad Book) but they can also be genre books with a non-existent markets, or good books that didn’t survive querying or submission, or half-baked novels writers simply lost interest in partway through. In fact, I would even wager that most authors have at least one book they trunked and still think of fondly, perhaps dreaming of someday resurrecting it and giving it new life.

My current trunk book count is three (that’s not counting false starts or massive rewrites, which would push the number significantly higher). There is my very first completed novel, which I now know belongs hidden away in the dark and really doesn’t ever need to see the light of day under any circumstances. I actually still quite like my second book, a demon-hunting urban fantasy set in London, but sadly I trailed the market by about 2 years and no one wanted to touch it. The third–a paranormal science fiction (I just made up that genre) set in a city where dreams are forbidden–is very dear to me, especially since it got me into PitchWars and landed me my agent, but I’ve come to realize it would need an overhaul.

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Gods help me, I sold my fourth book. (Hashtag Amber & Dusk, go add it on Goodreads!)

And that catches us up to my current work-in-progress. The story is a loose, Celtic-inspired retelling of Swan Lake, told from the perspective of the “Black Swan.” This book has been difficult from the start, and has taken me waaayyyy longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I started it nearly a year and a half ago, as a distraction from the mind-curdling misery that is editor submission. (Let me tell you, the first few false starts were so angsty you’d think I was fifteen and listening to My Chemical Romance on repeat.) I passed my halfway mark last spring, but every word felt labored, every sentence a struggle. So when I got my revision letter for A&D, I was more than happy to put it aside until this fall.

At which point I opened it up and realized I needed to add a character and change the tense. (When am I going to learn to write in the appropriate tense from the start?) Oh, and no big deal, restructure everything.

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And now, after months of feeling blocked and struggling to get any words whatsoever, I’m finally close-ish to finishing. Like twenty thousand words until “The End.” Tops.

But…I’ll be honest. I’m this close to trunking this book. Even with that finish line in sight, I’ve been falling into the Orphean trap of looking backwards at the chapters I’ve already done. And I’ve completely lost perspective. One minute I’ll be marveling at a turn of phrase or good scene, and the next I’ll be absolutely certain the entire manuscript is a boring, self-indulgent, plot-less dumpster fire. At this point, the only thing preventing me from trunking this book is this irrational thought: “But I’ve never trunked a book I didn’t finish before.” 

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Truman Capote once remarked, on the topic of his last unfinished book he spent twenty years working on, “Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” The unfinished draft of the novel was published posthumously.

So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe it’s time I trunk this book.

Do you have any trunk books gathering dust? When do you decide to abandon a project? Let me know in the comment section below!