Tuesday, March 08, 2011

For Writers - Deadline Survival with Erica O'Rourke

This week's tip comes to you courtesy of Erica O'Rourke, RWA's 2010 YA Golden Heart® winner. I met Erica at the National conference, and got to celebrate her win in person. Her book, TORN went on to earn a multi-book contract from Kensington, and will hit the shelves in July. Erica lives outside of Chicago with her family - including two very bad cats.

You can find Erica online on her website/blog, on twitter, and on facebook.

Erica Says:

So, you are on deadline! Congratulations! Someone – be it an agent or an editor – wants your manuscript on their desk. This is a Yoda moment if ever there was one, people. You don’t “try” to make a deadline. You Do, or Do Not. (And if you are serious about your writing career, go with the former.)

The thing about deadlines is that, while it would be really nice to hit the pause button on the rest of your life and devote yourself exclusively to the creation of luminous, heart-rending prose, life is in no way like a TiVo. You’re going to have to manage real life and writing life simultaneously. I’m currently working on the second and third books in my YA trilogy, as well as preparing for my debut novel’s release. It’s been a whirlwind, but I’ve had ample opportunity over the last eight months to familiarize myself with deadlines and develop a bag of tricks to deal with them. Here are my favorites:

Tip Number One: Think Like A Boy Scout.

In other words, be prepared. On the writing side, make sure your workspace has what you need – notes, outlines, a handy whiteboard, reference books you use frequently, the types of pens you like to use. There’s nothing worse than sitting down at your desk and realizing that the notes you scribbled to yourself the night before, the ones that will resolve the yawning plot hole in the middle of chapter seventeen, are somewhere in the stack of papers on your kitchen counter. Everything else? The stuff you don’t need? Throw it in a grocery bag and put it in the basement. You aren’t going to have time to read the latest issue of Real Simple anyway, so remove the distraction entirely. Soon enough, your desk is going to be covered with post-it notes, half-empty coffee cups, and Luna Bar wrappers, but you might as well start out with a clean worksurface.

On the real life side, accept that things are going to slide, and devise ways to counteract the chaos. Around here, the first thing that goes is my commitment to a tidy kitchen (not that it was ever a terribly strong commitment, but you get the idea). When I know I’m facing a big deadline, I stock up on frozen veggies, pizzas, and Trader Joe’s meals – stuff that I can make quickly – or even better, my husband can make quickly – and doesn’t require every pot in my cabinet. You should also know what areas you aren’t willing to let slide, and schedule in time for those things. At my house, helping our girls with their homework is non-negotiable, so I don’t even try to write during that time.

Tip Number Two: Find The Right Carrot

Meeting a book deadline is like running a marathon. It’s a long slog that gets pretty damn frantic at the end. But for most of the trip, you need a little something to keep yourself motivated. The key is to figure out what that something is. There are, I am told, people who are intrinsically motivated – the sheer rush of meeting their day’s wordcount is sufficient. Perhaps their motivational tool is a bar graph that they color in nightly with smelly markers, or a sticker chart. I have never met these people, but I’m sure they’re charming and not at all smug.

Some of us, however, need something a little more…tangible. A DVD. A dinner at a nice restaurant with their long-suffering spouse. A trip to Disneyworld. Really, it’s whatever carrot is sufficiently tasty enough to keep you going when you’d much rather nap than write another word. The nice thing about extrinsic rewards is that they’re scalable. I can give myself small rewards for making my daily page count (a shower!); medium –sized ones for making my weekly goal (a Panera egg soufflé!) and something awesome for finishing the manuscript altogether (Season Five of Doctor Who on DVD and a nice bottle of wine).

But there’s another motivator, and I think it shouldn’t be ignored: FEAR.

I know approximately how long my manuscript should be. I know when my deadline is. And while I’ve never been much of a math person, I am fairly proficient with both calculator and calendar, so it’s a simple process to determine my daily page count and write a running page count on the calendar. For example, if I need to write three pages a day, I label the squares: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15…all the way to 350. This might seem like overkill, but trust me – skip two days, and the weight of those missed pages will land squarely on your chest at three in the morning. It won’t happen again.

Tip Number Three: Muscle Memory

Muscle memory, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is when your body repeats a movement frequently enough that you no longer have to consciously think about it. Knitters on their third scarf no longer worry about how to wrap the yarn around the needle, because they’ve done it eleventy-billion times, for example. Ballet dancers can whip through the five feet and arm positions automatically, because they’ve practiced those positions since they were in kindergarten. Writing is no different. Get yourself into a writing routine, and instead of fidgeting in your chair, arranging your pencils, and finding the exact right spot for your coffee cup while you wait for inspiration to strike, you’ll sit down and go-go-go, because your body and brain have been trained to do exactly that. And here’s the beauty of muscle memory: it doesn’t matter what your routine is.

It doesn’t matter where you like to work – coffee shop, library, home office, kitchen table, wherever. Choose a location and stick with it. Train your body to recognize that location as Where Work Happens, and the work will go a lot easier. The same goes for your workstyle: Plotter? Pantser? Do you polish as you go, or write a sloppy first draft? Do you like silence or a soundtrack as you write? It doesn’t matter, so long as you keep to the routine.

Experimenting is good when you’re in the easy-peasy drafting stage, or brainstorming, or trying to fight writer’s block. But when you’re on a deadline and fifteen minutes is the difference between making your word count for the day and (again) waking up at three in the morning in a cold sweat…routine is your friend.

My one caveat is this: don’t let your need for routine turn into a form of procrastination. If you can’t possibly settle down to write because your favorite coffee mug broke, or you ran out of the hot pink post-it-notes, or Panera ran out of bear claws before you arrived, your routine is no longer helping you – it’s restraining you. Try a chocolate croissant or the purple post-its, and get back to work.

Tip Number Four: Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition.

Look: disaster is going to strike. Your computer is going to crash. Your kids are going to get sick. Your inlaws are going to come for a visit. There’s no getting around these things, so you might as well plan for them. Build some wiggle room into your schedule – give yourself Saturdays off, for example. When things are going well, you can use that day off as a chance to unwind and recharge your batteries. In bad times, you can use it as a chance to catch up. Consider it preventative maintenance.

And while we’re on the topic of preventative maintenance? Back up your work. Every day. The very last thing I do at night is send a copy of my manuscript to three separate email accounts; I also save a copy to a flash drive. If you back up religiously, odds are good you’ll never need to use it. Forget to back up the day you write that hauntingly beautiful breakup scene? I guarantee your hard drive will fry like an egg while you sleep.

Tip Number Five: Family Matters

Your family and friends love you. They want you to be successful. They want to help. Sadly, they cannot write the words on the page. They also cannot read your mind, so you need to communicate with them. This is a three-pronged approach.

· Explain what you need to do. Make sure your family knows when your deadlines are, and how much time you need each day to get your work done. When I’m on deadline, I get dinner on the table and then get to work for the night. That’s not our normal routine, but in that last month, those few extra hours make a huge difference. And because we’ve talked about it beforehand, my husband isn’t surprised when I say, “Enjoy the pork roast, everybody! See you in the morning!”

· Ask for help. Sometimes this is asking someone to pick your kids up from dance class. Sometimes this is asking your husband to do the laundry, or bring you a fresh cup of coffee. Sometimes this is asking your ten-year-old to watch Sesame Street with her baby sister so that you can finish writing a scene. Your family loves you, and they’d much rather chip in along the way than deal with a category-five freakout two weeks before your manuscript is due.

· Set some rewards. Finishing a book is a major victory – for you, and your loved ones. So once you meet that deadline, celebrate with the people who have made it possible. They’ve watched you work, they’ve been deprived of the pleasure of your company, and they’ve supported you throughout the marathon. In my experience, your family will enjoy spending time with you far more than any gift you can buy, so plan to do something fun – a trip to a museum, a family game night, making cookies together – and don’t think about your manuscript at all while you’re doing it. Besides…you’re going to want to have built up some goodwill before the next deadline comes along.

As always, my advice comes with the following disclaimer: there are many roads to Oz, and what works for me might not work for you, so feel free to cherry-pick. Or, leave your own deadline tips in the comments below. I’m always looking for more tricks to add to my bag.

This week's link roundup:


Getting to know new characters (Don't Pet Me) Four tricks

Talking about voice (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) Excellent examples

Creating Emotional Impact (Cheryl's Musings) Let readers see acts of heroism

How to write a page turner (pt. 1) (pt. 2) (pt. 3) (pt. 4) (pt. 5) Thank you, Jurgen Wolff!

Unstoppable characters (Writer's Ally) Make the reader need to follow the story

Sound of Words (Edittorent) Word cadence

Sample Pages - The Big Reveal (Behler Blog) What do they say about your book?

Writing for kids (write or die)

Writing Men (A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing)


The story in what you don't say (Other Side of the Story) Cool link

Story Arcs (Book Dreaming) Increase tension by applying arcs to individual scenes

Expanded story elements checklists (Alexandra Sokoloff) Acts I & II up so far. I seriously suggest following her... She has so much great information on her blog!

Backstory Informs Frontstory (Plot Whisperer) Backstory is not the story


Perfectionist's Guide to Editing (JamiGold) Four phases

Now go. Write!