Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. -- Gene Fowler

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pressure and Deadlines: The Fire Beneath Your Butt

"Writers are attuned to deadlines. Most, as students, wrote their term papers the night before they were due. We are energized by impending doom, motivated by a sense that now the work really must be completed; someone is waiting for it." -- Susan Shaugnessy, Walking On Alligators

"A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most ass-kicking form. ... Because in the artistic realms, deadlines do much more than just get projects finished. They serve as creative midwives, as enthusiastic shepherds adept at plucking the timid inspirations that lurk in the wings of our imaginations and flinging them bodily into the bright light of day." -- Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!

Raise your hand if you've ever written a term paper on the bus on the way to school because you'd put it off for two weeks. Yeah, that's what I thought. Anyone who's done any writing for a class, whether it be a term paper or a short story, knows how it feels to wake up with the cold realisation that it's due. Today. And it's not finished yet. It may not even be started. "Crap," we may think, "and I was going to really try to do a fantastic job on this thing this time. Oh well. Let's get it banged out so at least I don't get an incomplete for not turning it in."

My school life was full of such thoughts. As a long-time hard-core procrastinator, I frequently stuck my fingers in my metaphorical ears and sang, "La la la, I'm not listening!" when I had a project to do. It's the most difficult for me to get started. Once I get the work begun I find I build up a sense of momentum and it's easier to carry on. But when the realisation dawns that this five-page paper I've conveniently shuffled to the back of my mind for two weeks is due in three hours, some of which need to be spent doing things like eating and riding or walking to school, panic sets in. And panic is never, in my experience, conducive to writing something as pedestrian as a term paper.

It can be useful for fiction writing, though. National Novel Writing Month is a perfect example. Your plan is to write about 1600 words each day. Not a big task. If you start to slip, though, if you miss a day of writing, or put up a low word count for the day, the task gets bigger. Now you need even more words to catch up. At the end I'm usually behind at least somewhat, and that 'Oh My God I have to HURRY or I'll fail!' feeling sets in.

And I write. I write like the house is on fire and sometimes it's contrived and stupid, with wooden dialogue and idiotic plot leaps. But sometimes it's good. Sometimes my characters surprise me, for good or for ill. When a secondary character suddenly runs off to war unexpectedly, it can be great for the word count, but potentially bad for the plot, which spirals off in an unintended and perhaps useless direction. More often than not, though, I find that those side-tracks can lead to more character development and even a subplot all their own.

There's a feeling of triumph, of accomplishment when a thing is done. When I've finished up in here, particularly after beating Blogger with a stick on the days I'm composing my initial post in it, I feel like I've made a checkmark in a worthwhile box. "Well," I think, "that's finished. Maybe now I should feed the cat. She's been trying to paw my door down for half an hour."

I write here in this blog six days out of seven. Even bloggers get a chance to rest, right? I sit down and write nearly every day because I know someone is reading it. And even if those people aren't waiting with bated breath for the next post to appear, it means something to me that they're waiting. They're anticipating. And it gives me the motivation to deliver. Even on days when my mind is being crazy and coming up with all kinds of weirdnesses, it's part of the process and it's my dim hope that someone's entertained by it. My audience forms my deadline, the expectation that I'll produce this blog (nearly) every day, and gives me the motivation to write.

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