1.21.16 - On The Agonies of Deadline

On the Agonies of Deadline

I went to bed the other night and realized my hair was in the most gorgeous chignon, one I didn’t remember putting in. It had no clip, no barrette, just a perfectly tucked-in curve that my hairdresser would have trouble recreating. So what was holding it in place?

A golf tee.

A GOLF TEE.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Because that’s the kind of absentmindedness that overtakes me when I’m on deadline.

Yep, it’s that time again. I have a book due in a couple of weeks. I am in an all-out sprint to make my deadline. Anytime my editors/co-writer sets a date, I say, “Sure, that’s doable,” with the kind of cocky swagger generally reserved for, well, cocky writers who are out of their minds and don’t do well saying no. And then it suddenly rushes up on me, and even though I’ve been writing for months, the word count isn’t where it should be, and it’s an unholy race against the clock to get the book finished. 

I hate to miss deadlines. I’ve actually only missed one, and that was by two weeks. Not bad. Deadlines are a point of pride with me. I will cut off my arm to make one. It’s something I learned about myself early on, back in high school, and I’ve never lost it. Which is a good skill to have, but it can get me in trouble sometimes. 

But sometimes, the story won’t work. Things happen. Life intrudes. Writers are human (humanoid, at least) and sometimes, a deadline can’t be met, for whatever reason. 

When I read George R.R. Martin’s blog post about having to miss his deadline for his new novel, I was upset for him. I _know_ how hard it must have been for him to come to that decision. And what were the headlines screaming? George R.R. Martin Disappoints Fans

How incredibly unfair. Hey, I’m just a thrillerchick writing her heart out trying to make my deadlines. I’m never going to be at his level. I will never have the kind of pressure on me as he does. But I do co-write, and I do have an idea of how many people would be let down if I were to fail at meeting a scheduled date. That pressure is overwhelming, sometimes paralyzingly so (ahem - hence, we write blog posts to get the well refilled…).

Now consider the pressure Martin has — the level of scrutiny, the number of fans of both the show and the books, how HBO is banking on the next season/story blowing our socks off, and the publishing house knows they’re going to have a Very. Good. Year. which means they’ll be able to sign new authors and renew contracts for mid-listers, and maybe they can keep that editor on board whose head was on the chopping block after the last round of mergers, plus the bookstores… I could go on and on. You get it.

There’s a lot riding on a writer being able to make their deadline. 

But take the business out of it for a moment — the sense of ownership readers have is incredible. It’s exciting. It’s also scary, because the last thing any author wants is to let down their fans. Neil Gaiman addressed this once in a spirited essay in which he told a disgruntled fan "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch," scolding said fan for being antagonistic toward Mr. Martin because of his release pace. 

But read Martin’s blog. Listen to what he’s saying. He is disappointed in himself. And when a writer starts into that spiral, it’s dangerous. I have been there, and I can honestly say, sometimes, if a book just isn’t shaping up the way its supposed to, the deadline can kill the creative spirit.

There is simply nothing worse than watching the days tick away. It’s not that you haven’t been working, been writing — on the contrary, you’re working on it all the time, but something is holding you back. Word counts are minimal, the book’s pace slows. Something is desperately wrong with the story and you can’t figure it out. Now add in the level to which he’s writing, the pressure he’s under… it’s amazing there’s going be a book at all. 

I am so glad I’m not in his shoes. 

But I am in utter and complete distraction mode. You want to know how bad it is? They paved my road. Over four miles of paving. I had no idea until I went to take the cat to the vet. How sad is that? I really didn’t think I’d been at home that long, but you know, with a sick kitten, no sleep, it becomes a blur of days, too many of which have the moments of sheer terror, when you look at the clock and realize it’s 2 p.m. and the day’s half gone and you’ve only written 1200 and OHMYGODWHATWILLIDOIFIMISSTHISDEADLINE…

If. Such a bitchy little word. Amazing what it can do to the writer’s psyche.

The last few weeks of a book are intense, stressful, and usually for me, a total blast. It’s strange to say, but I only feel like a real writer when I’m on deadline. My normal output averages 1000 words a day. On deadline, I average 3–4,000. I write in concentrated 2-hour bursts, with 5–10-minute rewards in between: Twitter check-ins, lunchtime TV, phone calls with friends. And then it’s back to it, balls to the wall, hair on fire and wrists literally rubbed raw from the edge of the keyboard.

My parents only get one call a day. The laundry is unfolded, dinners are brought in, and my poor sweet husband is walking around looking somewhat haunted, probably wearing underwear with holes, never knowing if his kind greeting will be met with a kiss or a demand for silence. But he knew what he was getting himself into when he married me, so I’m not as worried about that as I should be. The cats bring mice and drop them at my feet, which I feebly kick around for them whilst typing and staring into space.

As I’ve gotten older, every deadline brings its own unique twitch. They always start in the last two weeks, when I’m living, breathing, and crying the words onto the page, calling Randy at regular intervals to go through the what ifs, and checking the word count obsessively.

Once it was my eye. For book #7, it was my right forefinger. This time, it’s my left upper lip. When it gets noticeable, that’s when I know it’s time to pop an Ativan and drink a glass of wine. All I can do is try to get rest and exercise and push through to the end, and then it will stop.

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade this for the world. It’s… exciting, in many ways. Fun. A challenge. Pitting yourself against the clock, against your mind, against the story. Knowing that somehow, someway, a living, breathing book will come out of this. 

But it’s rough, the last few weeks of a book. Physically, emotionally. So when I read Martin’s blog, my heart really went out to him. 

And with that thought I leave you. I can still get another scene done before I have to go to bed and get up and do it all again. 

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JT Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of fifteen critically acclaimed thrillers and is the co-author of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. With over a million books in print, Ellison’s work has been published in twenty-five countries and thirteen languages. She is also the co-host of A Word on Words, Nashville's premier literary TV series, which airs on Nashville Public Television. She lives with her husband and twin kittens in Nashville. Visit JTEllison.com, and follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick or at Facebook.com/JTEllison14.