Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2010

The Art of Meeting Deadlines

One of the things that professional writers have to be able to do is meet deadlines. No one really likes deadlines, not authors, not editors. But if we didn't have them, it's also probably true that most books would never be written, because, well, it's not all that comfortable to write a book. Staring at a blank page and knowing that it has to be filled by the end of the day (or hour) and that is has to be filled by you, the author, is frightening. It's even more intimidating when you know that it has to be filled by interesting, even inspired writing. But it can be done. I'm not going to say that deadlines are your friends, but maybe a deadline for a writing project is like wanting to meet a goal time in a race. You were waiting for the triathlon reference, right?

This year, I have done eight races from April to September. I met one goal time, on the last race, a marathon to qualify for Boston. The other seven times I have come in late in one degree or another. So does this make me the wrong person to talk about meeting your goals? I don't think so. Because I finished them all, and I placed first in my age group in four of them, third in one, and ended up in the overall rankings twice. I have a nice wall of medals, and I have five books that have come out on deadline (and one that hasn't). The one race that got away was Ironman St. George, on May 1 of this year. It was a race I had never done before. Yes, I did an Ironman about five years ago, but it was on a different course and in triathlon, the course matters a lot. I had never even gone down to the race venue and driven around the course. Not what I would recommend for best time results, but I have a real life with five kids and there are compromises I make.

Writing is often like this. We writers like challenges. We get bored if a book is the same as the last one we wrote. So we are always trying out new things, maybe even things that have never been done before. But the book still has to make it to copyediting. It still needs a marketing plan. And most of the time, it isn't going to be the only thing in your life. You won't be able to drop everything else to do your writing every day. The kids will get sick and have to be taken to the doctor. The plumbing will break and you'll have to spend the morning (or all day) with the Wet/Dry Vac in the basement to prevent the house from falling down. And in addition to that, you still have to eat food, do your exercise, and communicate with other human beings in order to stay sane. Believe me, staying sane is important in writing. Regular life is just there, even if you don't want it to be. Yes, we walk around wishing we could ignore certain parts of life, but they are there anyway, and they will demand time. You must build this into any of your estimates for deadlines. Though sometimes there is more than regular life that intrudes.

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When we drove down to St. George at the end of April, I finally was able to drive around the race course. That was when I realized how difficult the bike and run course were. I had seen the schematics on line beforehand, so I knew what the elevations were, but there is nothing quite like actually doing the course. And I hadn't. My goal time had been 12:00, which would have been a reasonable goal time for a course like the one I had done before in Coeur D'Alene, or a flat course like Arizona or Florida. But it wasn't reasonable anymore considering the terrain. So I spent the next couple of days recalculating my goal time to about 13:00. I also stopped thinking about qualifying for Kona and accepted that my backup goal time was going to be simply finishing the race. It might get really bad, and if worse came to worst, I would at least cross the finish line in time to be an official finisher.

You might think as a writer that you can do a project in six months, if all goes well. But it never all goes well. Never. That is why you hopefully have sane people around you who know this, who have been through the process of writing a novel before. The sane people in your life might be critique partners, a writing group, a spouse or mentor, or your agent and editor. I recall rather clearly last year promising to write a trilogy in a year. My agent said he wasn't going to let me try, even if I could do it. He was right. I could have written the trilogy in a year, but it wouldn't have been a very good trilogy. I wouldn't have been happy with the product. And in the end, this was the first project of all the ones I have tried that I ended up going over deadline on. I wanted to get it out on time. I certainly put in the time. But the book was too different from what I had done before. I have another trilogy out, but that was really a cycle of connected stories, not one big huge story that has to be coherent and cohesive. This trilogy was simply a larger project than anything I had done before, and I didn't realize it until I was in the middle, and drowning.

When I started the actual race in St. George, a lot of things went unexpectedly wrong. One was that I wasn't even in the water when the gun went off. Another was that the water temperature was a lot colder than anyone had predicted, about fifty-three. Yes, I had a wetsuit, which kept me from dying. But it didn't make the swim comfortable. There were a number of people who couldn't finish the swim because of hypothermia, but I got through it, because I am a strong swimmer. Even so, I went numb about minute three of the race and swam with numb arms and legs. I stayed numb for about three hours once I was out of the water, too. I had just started to come back to feeling when I had a flat tire. I ended up needing help because the gear I had brought didn't work. And then, about ten minutes later, I got another flat tire. At that point, I had no extra tube, no air, nothing. So I sat by the side of the road, hoping someone would take pity on me. Someone who had what I needed. Eventually, someone did.

You will hit road bumps as you are writing. I am not talking about the regular stuff, eating, sleeping, exercising, taking care of the kids. I am talking about major life problems. This isn't one of those things that you like to anticipate, and I don't believe that writing a novel on deadline causes bad things to happen. It's just that bad things are going to happen in life. Someone you know will end up with cancer. You will break a leg. Or get depression. Your child will need special medical care, or have to be home schooled. This is the stuff that you can't anticipate in terms of any real preparation. You can try to build it in, but you may also have to call your editor and talk about the backup plan. I doubt you will ever find an editor so green that she hasn't had an author miss a deadline before. You'll have to talk about putting off the book another season. And about drop-dead deadlines, like when the boat actually has to ship to China. Be up front with those involved, as soon as you can be. No one likes to miss a deadline, but it happens and usually people are understanding about things that you can't actually control.

I lost about an hour on bike flats. But I have to say that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It freed me from caring about my time and I was suddenly able to experience the pleasure of each moment of the rest of the race. I enjoyed the last climb up a crazy mountainside. I slowed down and didn't risk my life going sixty miles an hour into town, where the run started. I kept running when I could keep running, and I didn't beat myself up over the parts when I genuinely felt like I would puke if I didn't start walking. I just walked. I kept moving forward to the goal, always asking myself if I could go any faster. If I couldn't, I let it be. If I could, I tried to run. I got to the top of the final climb and could see down into the city and could hear the announcer calling out the names of those who had finished. It was an amazing feeling, knowing that I would be down there in a matter of minutes, that I would be done.

Sometimes it feels especially good when you are writing and know you have finally hit the last stretch. I can't guarantee it, but if it's gone badly, look for the bright spots. If you are truly giving your best effort, sitting down and writing (or thinking, at least) every day, then you don't need to beat yourself up about it. If you are, instead, avoiding writing, playing computer games, cleaning the house, shopping, or going on lunch dates, you may need to reevaluate your priorities. But honestly, no one can decide but you if you are doing your best. Even your editor, agent, spouse, are not the writer or this particular book. They may wish that you could write it faster, and you may wish it, too. But be honest with them and with yourself about if you are doing the best you can. If you are, and it is simply taking longer than you would like because it is simply a much harder book, then be at peace with yourself about the journey. If you have to do research and that research involves shopping or on-line games -- well, I'm not your judge. You are.

I finished Ironman St. George in 14:33, well off my goal time. But I remain happy with what I did in the race. I gave it all I had, and there were circumstances beyond my control. So it goes. Most of my other races this year I came very close to my goal times, sometimes within a minute or two. Granted, my goal times tend to be aggressive. I am always trying to beat a time from the year before, even though I am getting older. So I can still be happy with a few minutes off, if it's close to what I wanted.

The one race this year that I got my goal time on was the Top of Utah Marathon a few weeks ago in Logan, Utah. This was a different experience, though also rewarding. I set a goal time that I thought was reasonable, but was also a Boston qualifying time. I'd qualified for Boston three years ago, but didn't go, and thought that was a shame. This time, I wanted to make it and actually go out and do the historic race in Boston with the elite of the elite in running. So, I made a plan. I thought I could hold an eight minute per mile pace for the first ten miles without too much pain. After that, I figured it would slow to about eight and a half. The last 10k of the race I knew would be brutal. I knew the course. I knew the hills (not very bad) would still be extremely painful after twenty miles down a canyon. So I set an outside goal of an hour for that part of the race.

In the end, the race went perfectly. The weather was cool, but not cold. No rain, no hail (as on my first marathon). I had planned out when I would take my gels, how much I would drink, and everything went as I wanted it to. None of the aid stations were out of Gatorade (which has happened to me before). I did forget to put on some anti-chafing spray before the race began, so I had to get Vaseline at a couple of aid stations to keep from bleeding, but that was a minor snafu. I had new shoes, just broken in a few weeks before, my Ipod shuffle to keep me happy, and I was at peace.

I met every goal almost exactly. I did not press myself to go faster, because I had learned from previous experience this year that going faster in one part of the race makes you twice as slow later on. The last few miles of the race, I counted every step. Doing so helps me focus in extreme situations, and it helps me to think about the moment, rather than the finish line. When I crossed the finish line, it was with a huge emotional burden carried from the whole year. I had done it. I don't know that I felt more pleased than I had when I crossed the finish line at the Ironman. It was a different experience, but I also felt that I had given my best, and I could be happy with that.

When you are writing, there will be books that go as planned, too, usually the ones you have done the best preparation for before you start, and usually the ones where you have the best idea of what you are doing, ones that are similar to what you have done before. It helps if you build in some extra time for when you know it will get rough. And writing does get rough. There are days where writing 500 words is going to be hard and you may have to count every one of them. But just plan that in advance. My husband is a computer programmer and his company has a general policy of bidding projects out at twice or three times the number of hours (depending on how well they know the customer and the project) that it seems that they will take. I think 2.3 was a figure used by a national company similar to theirs. I suspect just about everyone working knows that this figure is pretty conservative. When you are making commitments to an editor, you should feel confident that you can finish the project in half the time that you have asked for. If not, you are probably being too optimistic and not planning in real life.

I'm looking back at this and thinking about how the process of accepting my own limitations with regard to deadlines is like the process of grieving. First is denial -- I can make my goal time, I can write a trilogy in a year, I can! Then anger. It's not my fault that I can't make my goal time! It's because of my stupid bike! Why didn't the bike shop get me the right gear! Why didn't I check this properly myself? Why didn't I go over this course before the race? Why does my editor see a problem with this section of the book! Why can't I write better? Third, bargaining. If I can go faster on this section, then I can still make my deadline. Maybe if I skip this part, or hire someone to do this part for me, it will still work out OK. Fourth, depression. I'm never going to make my deadline. What's the point? I might as well give up now and never try to write another word again. Finally, acceptance. Seeing what the real deadline you can meet is, and accepting that is as good as you are going to be able to manage, and that the novel that you produce by then, while not perfect, is a damned good one. Good enough. That's all we've got, really.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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