Friday, July 16, 2010

The Welcome Arms of Panic

A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it's better than no inspiration at all.

Next week the kids break up from school for the summer. Seven long weeks follow of holiday, of filling idle days, planning and plotting days out, amusement for rainy days, and of just giving up and sticking a DVD on (my kids go to state school - private schools get even longer holidays. As a fee paying dad friend said to me ruefully, 'How come I pay through the nose yet my kids are at home more than yours?'). For the writer who works from home, the summer holidays means getting very little done. On the plus side, knowing this for the past few weeks, aware that I needed to get as much done as possible right now, I have had my most productive period of work since, well, since the last time I was faced with a deadline.

What is it about deadlines? Not only would my working life be a disaster without them, but also my personal life. We're moving. We have stuff to move. Lots of time to move it. So we don't. Then we get told the date the stuff has to moved by. In days it's moved. Same with a book or an article. Give me 12 months to write a book. The first six months, that's thinking, plotting, researching time. I start writing. The next three months I'm as about as productive as a French farmer. The final three months roll around, a few sleepless nights follow, a vague sense of panic. From then on I'm churning it out and it's usually good stuff, too. Tight, focused, unlike the flabby meandering crap that came before. Come the last few weeks and it's seat of the pants. I've been here before and I know I will make it, but there's enough doubt to make sure I don't let up the pace. Finally, I finish. I vow never to leave it so late again. My vow is worth nothing.

I have never suffered from writer's block, thankfully. I hope I don't get people's backs up here, and understand that by trade I'm a daily news journalist, but I'm not sure I really believe in writer's block in isolation, of a malady that strikes without warning. I think sometimes an idea just isn't strong enough, or a writer's enthusiasm has waned, or there are private problems causing the block. However, mainly, I think there's simply an absence of a deadline. The deadline is a writer's most effective laxative (and similarly, sometimes the results can be a load of sh**).

I have been known to bully editors into giving me a deadline. My heart sinks when I hear the words, 'Whenever it's ready, there's no rush.'  My heart sings when someone smashes the table with their fist and says 'Get this to me yesterday!' although  part of me thinks 'Only yesterday?' The best praise I ever received from a book editor wasn't 'Your book is brilliant, I loved it' because, let's face it, they tell us all that once they've agreed to publish it, even if at the same time they're penning hostile Amazon reviews under a pseudonym (I know of a case where that happened...). The kindest words, to my ears at least, were 'Dan always delivers on time.' Somewhere, in whichever circle of hell they reserve for unscrupulous, exploitative hacks, my first boss, a fearsome, Dickensian one-eyed man (who crashed his Jaguar drunk, emerged unscathed from the steaming wreck only to have a tree branch pop his eye out), would have nodded proudly. Then told me to stop wasting my time with books and get back to news journalism.

Keith Waterhouse, the doyen of British journalism, died recently aged 80. Many tall stories about his exploits did the rounds on his demise, but the most repeated phrase was 'Keith never missed a deadline, however poorly, however hungover.' Waterhouse never wrote one of his columns before the day it was due. Nor did he think much about it, other than odd scribbled note. He had a theme, he sat down at his typewriter and, with a bottle of champagne and the deadline approaching, he wrote. It is such good advice that I have taken it to heart for my weekly blog for MiE. Minus the champagne sadly (actually I lie - I often have these worked out a few days in advance but I never write them until the day before. We never guessed - Ed)

So, here's to deadlines. When it comes to my tombstone, I want it say: 'Here lies Dan. He met his final deadline.'




  1. Deadlines are a necessity for people who have nothing to do and for people who have too much to do.

    My sister-in-law has 4 children, 3 boys. She forgot to order the birthday cake for one and had to run out to the bakery just as the guests were arriving for the party. It wasn't until my brother was taking the candles out of the cake that either noticed that it bore the name of the wrong boy.

    Deadlines are for people like my daughter who is visiting for the weekend. She doesn't like to use a suitcase so she uses an overstuffed backpack and three large canvas bags. We will shop (that's part of our routine on these visits)so she will have more going back than when she came. The backpack and the three canvas bags will be supplemented by a variety of plastic shopping bags. Forty-five minutes before her train is scheduled to pull out of the station, a thirty minute drive from the house, she will be dropping things out of the bags, picking them up, dropping them again, until she has made me crazy. I don't drive to the station; I am incapable of driving by the time she is out the door. She has never missed a train.

    Deadlines are made to teach people lessons. My daughter hasn't learned about time management because she always makes the train.

    She wins no points when she keeps telling me to relax. On Sunday afternoon, about 1:30 pm eastern time, you may hear me.


  2. Beth, your sister sounds just like my mother. As a kid all I remember was hurtling through airports to catch a plane, pulling up late at parties or cricket matches I was supposed to be at much earlier, waiting in the hall while the clock ticks on and you realise you're missing out.

    We always made the train or plane though. Meanwhile, I remember once missing a plane even though I was there way early. Unfortunately, wrong airport :/

    Funnily enough, while I flirt with deadlines in my work, when it comes to trains, planes and getting anywhere on time, I'm a stickler for punctuality. I despise being late. A consequence, no doubt, of my upbringing when tardiness was normal.

  3. Dan -- How I envy you. Deadlines paralyze me. Somewhere deep inside there's a contrarian, too small to see but with enormous feet, and when a deadline approaches, he stamps those feet and says, NO!!!! And I begin to dither. I'll wax floors, get my hair cut, reorganize my drawers -- anything to keep from getting to work. Then, of course, I've blown one of the few remaining days and I sit up all night at the keyboard trying to catch up.

    It's not writing block because the words come and the character boss me around in a satisfactory manner; it's a resistance to writing being WORK, which is obviously what it is when time is short.

    Nothing to do for it but to sit down and let my fingers do the talking.

  4. I, too, love deadlines. I prefer everything to be open, above-board, and clear cut. As much as I hate violence, I'd rather be [literally] smacked in the face than verbally stabbed in the back. The smack is tangible and you know where it's coming from. Like a deadline.

    Of course, we writers sound so much more legitimate if we talk about our deadlines, don't we? Having a deadline sure beats the alternative...