“A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.”
Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle, The Hand That Cradles the Rock, Southern Discomfort, and many other wonderful works, is responsible for the above quote. I’ve read that quote hundreds of times over the years, when I’ve needed to get my lazy ass motivated to write. The only piece of writing by the talented Rita Mae Brown that I love more than that quote is her script for Slumber Party Massacre, although I’m willing to bet she’s not as fond of the film as I happen to be. But I digress. Rita Mae Brown sees a deadline as an uneasy ally of the writer, something akin to when Superman and Lex Luthor have to team-up to conquer a monster that eats planets. I see a deadline as a true ally, a needed tool in my writing arsenal.
Yes, deadlines can be unpleasant. They sometimes force us to turn in work that is substandard simply because the last grain of sand has fallen down the hourglass. When forced to finish a project on a tight deadline, writers sometimes take shortcuts, sometimes settle for “good” rather than “great,” sometimes lose passion for the work, and sometimes even turn in steaming piles of crap. Deadlines hurt. They drive us crazy. They make us question everything about the writing process. Often, though, deadlines are what we make of them. They can be our friend. We can learn to love them. They don’t mean to hurt us; they aim to make us better. A deadline can purr and whisper sweet nothings in your ear. A deadline can be an alluring muse. A deadline can lift your fingers with ten invisible strings like a master puppeteer. A deadline can lead you out of the wordless abyss and into a river of perfectly-chosen words.
If we let it.
In school, I had a regular pattern when it came to writing. I would wait until the night before a project was due, then stay up all night, writing like mad until the project was finished. Whether or not it was good was not a major concern, only that it was done. This insane process precluded certain beneficial improvements to my writing that proper time might allow, you know, minor stuff like editing and rewriting. Because I waited until the last possible minute, my school writing projects never garnered higher than a “C”, unless I had a generous teacher or a subject I loved, like baseball, gladiators, or modern feminist poets.
Later, when I began writing with the hope of making it a career, I had no deadline. I’d casually work on a novel, a short story, or script, sans deadline. My stories had no ending in sight. I could finish them whenever, or never. Creatively, it was not a good situation. A few years later, when I finally completed a novel I didn’t completely hate, I sent it off to an agent, who read and liked it, but thought it needed work. He gave me a deadline, eight weeks to rewrite the novel and make it better. Eight weeks. I was terrified. But it was exactly what I needed. I have never written faster, better, or with more clarity. The deadline was exactly what I needed.
Nowadays, I create self-imposed deadlines on everything I write. I spent this past summer working on a screenplay. I gave myself a three-month deadline. Two months for the first draft, and one month for the editing and rewriting. I knew I had to finish by a certain day, and I did, and the results were terrific, better than I could’ve ever imagined. The script now has an agent and I’m feeling great about it, but it never would have been finished in such a short time if I hadn’t forced myself to complete it by a specific date. If I hadn’t imposed a deadline, I’d have spent all my time watching “Project Runway” and reruns of “The Wire”.
I give myself a deadline. Always. It works.
Many of you have a deadline this month. November 30th. 50,000 words. 175 pages. I don’t know if I could do it. So, to those of you who are attempting this monumental task: Treat that deadline like it’s your best friend, your confidant, your angel, your devil, your friend, your biggest fan. I wish you and your deadline well.
Create something great. Together.