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.'