On Deadlines

If Mr. Litlove and I had met during our schooldays, I don’t think we would have been on speaking terms, let alone liked one another. I was one of those students who did her homework once I got in from school, on the evening it was set. He was one of those students who did it in the car on the way into school, on the day it was due in.

I could never bear to rub up close to a deadline; it made me feel my work would be rushed and pressurised and I would rather not have done it than done it poorly. He could never bear to get started on a project until the pressure of the impending deadline compelled him over his resistance. We haven’t changed at all, really, as I still do things with plenty of time in hand and he still does them at the eleventh hour. For both of us the deadline exerted a fearsome psychological power, it was just that we reacted to it differently. Mr. Litlove needed them, I loathed them.

I find myself thinking about this a lot recently as I embark on writing a new book. The thing is, I have no deadlines whatsoever for this project, and this is absolutely the way I wanted it; I have in fact put a great deal of time and energy into removing all possible deadlines from my creative proces. And yet I find it hard to get started without even the hint of a deadline. This has been puzzling me, because I’m not the sort of person who needs a push to get moving, nor the thought of a time constraint to keep me going. When I was an academic I overdosed on deadlines because there were always so many research projects that needed my attention. This was my own fault; my normal procedure was to get excited about a lot of different conferences and to sign up for a whole bunch of lectures because I was interested in the research. I’d put in abstracts and proposals and, being impatient, if I didn’t hear back within the time frame I felt was reasonable, I’d put in a whole lot more. I usually ended up having to write everything I’d proposed, and inevitably that meant squeezing work in around deadlines in a way that was uncomfortable. Nowadays I love the feeling of not being booked up for months and months ahead. I relish my freedom.

And yet I’ve put off starting this new project repeatedly, and toyed with the idea of offering it to editors or agents in case there’s a possible commission to be had, even though I know I really don’t want to go down that route. So I sat down and had a good think about it and was rewarded by a lightbulb moment. What I’m missing this time around is the sense that someone, somewhere wants this thing. All those projects I wrote before – there was someone, in the form of an editor or an audience, waiting for me to come good on my promises. It’s not like these people were sitting around saying ‘If I don’t hear Dr Litlove’s analysis of gothic tropes in the late 20th century family romance, my life won’t be worth living!’ (I wish!). No. But knowing who was going to read it (or listen to it) was an influential factor in the writing process. I tailor my material quite closely to the idea I have of its audience. It’s not the deadline I need, but some idea of the face behind it.

Of course you could tell me to imagine an audience. Nope, doesn’t work. I’m fully aware of the artificiality. I could target an audience, like the marketing people tell you to, only I wouldn’t be able to convince myself they actually wanted it. What I need is some invalid somewhere, who has plenty of other reading matter to satisfy her, but who might maybe look forward to reading my work; I could think of this person and feel myself wanting to do my best to entertain and amuse her. Not that I know of anyone in that situation, and how dreadful to want someone to be in it to appease my needs!

So I’m stuck with the default position that the only person who wants to see this thing written is me, even though I am regarding myself very dubiously as the potential audience. It’s such a strange feeling.

18 thoughts on “On Deadlines

  1. What kind of book is it? Is it one you could use us, your blogging audience for? I mean you could turn the whole thing or chapters of it into PDFs and post them here for us to download and read. You could use us as your audience to get you motivated. We won’t mind. 🙂

  2. Stefanie, Ms Thrifty! What dear hearts you are!

    Better to look before you leap though. The idea is a series of biographical portraits of writers who weathered crises in their lives and produced books – often their best books – out of them. I wondered about posting them here as pages, only they’ll probably be 7-8,000 words long, which is a LOT of words for a page on a blog. And then I thought about getting my dear son to put a website together for me, linked to the blog, and posting them there in PDF form. Similar sort of problem with reading online, though, and also tricky to offer them to a publisher subsequently, if they turn out better than I fear. I really picked on the idea because I need practice writing biography! And of course someone better connected than I with a proper publishing history could easily come along and take the idea and sell it to their own editor (although it’s not so very commercial). Hence I feel all confused. But I could certainly mail them or print them out and send them to particularly kind and generous guinea pigs! 🙂

  3. ‘What I need is some invalid somewhere, who has plenty of other reading matter to satisfy her, but who might maybe look forward to reading my work; I could think of this person and feel myself wanting to do my best to entertain and amuse her.’
    AHEM. Admittedly I’m working fairly hard on validity instead of invalidity, but… AHEM.

  4. I would read it too. I’ve lurked your blog for a considerable time now. It is a source of constant bemusement to me how much I enjoy your blog – I rarely read anything approaching the books you talk about as my taste runs towards utter trash. And yet I find that you make me want to read, the books but most especially your blog to find out what you think about, well, almost anything. Plus, I enjoy the way you write about it too.

    And this particular idea does sound interesting anyway.

    Although if your next project is about great 19th century fly-fishing manuals I might have to rethink that.

  5. I think I’m like Mr Litlove…if the deadline isn’t looming before me, I absolutely will not get any work done. I’ve found that to be a pretty bad way to work, personally speaking. On the rare occasion that I do finish something well in time, I feel so much better. Otherwise I keep fretting over the unfinished task, and yet, I won’t actually do it. It’s an odd way to live.

  6. I don’t like the idea of you giving away your book for free… The crappiest writers are paid for their work.
    A good one should be too. I would enjoy reading it, I’m sure.
    So, here I am, giving you a deadline. I’d like to read your book by mid – end of 2012! 🙂
    I used to be like your husband btw. but nowadays I like to be somewhere inbetween the two of you. Depending on the project.

  7. ‘The idea is a series of biographical portraits of writers who weathered crises in their lives and produced books – often their best books – out of them.’ Ahhhh! Wants.

  8. Deadlines are the bane of my work life. Everything I do has one and the biggest route to disaster is to miss one. Oh, those middle of the night stark awakenings when I sit up in bed and panic, “Oh damn, when was that due?” The premise of your book sounds wonderful, please write it, and I agree with Caroline. It will be a worthy expense and one I would happily pay to read. Do not give it to us for free. Your blog is already a valuable freebie. Of course, you have to take into consideration I am a strong supporter of capitalism and the profit motive and keeping up with the mortgage payments, so that does color my point of view.

  9. When I have this problem (I hate coming close up on deadlines too), I incentivize doing the work. The fastest I’ve ever written a paper was the time when I was watching Buffy for the first time, and I took the DVDs away from myself and gave them to my mother and told her not to give them back to me until my paper was done. So the thing of taking away something I like until I do the work helps. Or sometimes I make a rule that I have to pay a terrible penalty if I don’t do the work, like send money to an organization I really hate.

  10. I think the greater challenge (above that inferred from “writing” itself) is to have no deadline. Oh you are so right, it is so wonderful to have no deadlines in the evening (I have let some freelance work go because my day job has taken on intense proportions with our company’s acquisition by a bigger fish), to actually do laundry, bake, I have stories to write and article to write (you know, just in case but not with any deadlines) and it’s a wonderful feeling however, it has its aimlessness to it.

    So, I hear you, and I have complete faith that you will find this new level, this new deadline of sorts and once in the thick of the writing, you will find your way, in some joyful way, through this book and the next and the next.

    We are cheering you on, you know.
    And happy to read anything of it, it bits or chunks or whatever you might like or allow!
    OK, go!

  11. Miriam and Lilian – bless you for your encouragement; you are so kind!

    JB – I think old age is as much of a fantasy for me as my ideal reader, but it’s a very nice idea!

    Fugitive – oh this did make me laugh so! You’ll be busy with family things for a while, but we’ll talk soon, my friend. Sending love.

    Solnushka – that is just the nicest compliment – you made my day with that. And your comment about the fly fishing had me laughing out loud. I’ll try not to risk anything quite so esoteric, but you know academics! I won’t make any promises. 😉

    p2c2u – I’ve come to the conclusion that people decribed as procrastinators ought really to be termed manic perfectionists. At least in my experience, it’s the horror of making mistakes or not having the full information, or not being in the exact right head space to tackle a job that makes it hard to begin. I have a friend who tells me all the time ‘care less!’ and you know, it can be very useful.

    Caroline – that is so nice of you to give me a deadline! Okay, I’ll see what I can get done by then. I know what you mean about being paid for work. When the argument comes up about other people, I’m on your side, and then when it’s about me, I get uncertain. But authors ought to hold out for pay in these difficult conditions, I agree.

    Jodie – you’re a sweetheart! Be careful – wants gets sometimes. 🙂

    Grad – oh I am so with you about that awful middle of the night panic. I can see that your work environment would be a lot about unmoveable deadlines and that is NOT comfortable. Bless you also for being such a dear heart. I heed your wise words.

    Jenny – I am impressed by how tough you are with yourself! And then I also like the idea of having delightful rewards stashed about the place for work rendered. I guess it’s the stick and the carrot approach, which has long been considered an effective way to get motivated!

    Oh – you really are a wonderful person. Do you think you could ditch this current job which is causing all kinds of unnecessary pain and get yourself a position just making people feel better? Goodness knows it’s a skill we need, there really ought to be recompense for it!

  12. How exciting! I think that’s a great idea, and would love to read it – either the finished version or, if it would help at all, any drafts along the way. I think you’re right that big blocks of text would be hard on a blog – I haven’t found anything better than paper I’m afraid. Plus, as Caroline rightly says, you should definitely not give your hard work away for nothing.

    I know exactly what you mean about the audience! I struggle with it myself, feeling that there are already so many novels in the world and do we really need another one? It comes down to self-belief, I think, or lack of it. I’m amazed sometimes at how much negativity I have swimming around in my subsconscious. It may be true that few people are waiting with baited breath for your book, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have an audience. You have a huge audience, but they just haven’t discovered you yet 🙂 If you believe that you have something worthwhile to say, then they will discover you in the end, and their lives will be slightly better for it. Think of a book you really value, and then imagine that the author had, for reasons of procrastination or self-doubt, never written it. It would be a shame, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t know the difference, of course, but you would have missed out. Not sure if I’m being clear at this hour, but hope you understand what I’m getting at. Write the book!

    As far as deadlines go, I prefer to commit instead to working a certain schedule, say 3 hours a day, and to sit the entire time at my desk with the internet off and all other distractions minimised. If I do that, I have no choice but to produce something, and it seems to work better for me than setting target word counts etc. Good luck, anyway, and look forward to hearing the updates as you progress.

  13. Pingback: Saturday…just like that « This Writing Life …

  14. Andrew – that is just SUCH a lovely, satisfying comment on so many levels. Thank you! I just love the idea that my audience is huge but unaware they are my audience – that’s great. And it is incredibly kind of you to say you’d read my work. Be warned I might take you up on that as I do so value other pairs of eyes. It is so hard to see around one’s own blind spots. Mind you, at the moment I have five atrocious pages that are doing my head in, so there is no immediate risk of it landing on your desk. I decided to work on short biography as it’s something I want to do but have always had trouble with. It’s all coming back to me now just why I have so much trouble!

    I do think that all authors are afflicted by self-doubt, as you say. I think it’s like jogging: no matter who you are, it hurts, but some just get further than others with it. Committing to a period of time a day is an excellent solution to the deadline problem, and now I think back I recall I used to do that and had completely forgotten. Now why should that be? And there are so many books out there I would be gutted not to have been able to read. That’s a good thing to think about when the going gets tough.

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