A little over a month ago, at the end of October, I agreed to write this piece about deadlines. At that time, my editor was expecting me to deliver a draft of my new novel by Christmas. As I type, there are two and a half hours left until the end-of-November deadline for this article and I’ve had to plead for an extension for the novel. I wish I had an excuse.
In a sense, though, I’ve been working on this piece all month. As the days have passed, I’ve been studying myself, noting my changing attitudes towards it. To start, I had the impression of an ocean of time – days, weeks! – with just 900 words – not even a thousand! – to produce in all that expanse. For perhaps a fortnight, I mulled potential approaches, making mental notes here and there, remembering deadlines of my past and the resulting war stories. (Oh, there are stories. More on which later.) The article I envisaged at this stage was perfect – pithy, insightful, possibly even useful to someone.
Around mid-month, as is customary, I realized that the remaining weeks would be significantly interrupted. A couple of the events were unexpected – a dentist appointment, a friend in town – but no one here in North America can credibly claim they weren’t expecting Thanksgiving. And yet I hadn’t accounted for that missing time. Well, that was okay, there was still plenty, especially as my husband was looking after our daughter for the weekend so I could work, right?
At this point, a sensible person might have decided to write a first draft of the piece over the weekend then refine it at a civilized pace over the following days while also working on the novel with a clean conscience.
This is the point at which I began the Jedi-knight mental games. A lot of writers have two projects going at a time because they work best on one thing when they are meant to be working on another. This is true for me sometimes but more often, the nagging awareness of something pressing can be enough to derail me from successful work at all. I have known this for twenty years. I have applied this knowledge never.
Relentless now, the days ticked past. Five left, four, three. The right-thinking person would get to work on the piece tout de suite. I concluded that I should get to work on my novel – it was due in March! I now also remembered that I’d committed to answering a handful of apparently simple questions for a website for crime writers. I looked up the questions. Oh god, they were really good questions, interesting questions, the sort that need to be answered at length. When was the deadline? I looked. You guessed it.
There’s now an hour and a half left so this seems an good opportunity to take a little time out for the war stories.
The truth is, I love a deadline and not just, as Douglas Adams said, for the whooshing sound they make when they fly by. I’ve always thrived under pressure – give me an exam over course work any day. At university we were expected to write two essays a week so for four years, I saw two sunrises a week. On several occasions I took taxis to tutorials so that I could finish writing an essay on the way.
The biggest deadline I’ve ever run up against, however, was for my third novel, Before We Met. It was the hardest of my books to write and I threw two complete versions in the bin – including the one I sold – before starting the draft that was published. By the time I embarked on draft three, I had two deadlines, one for the novel and a personal one: my daughter’s due date. They were the same week.
I’ll never know for sure whether my self-induced panic resulted in the high blood pressure that led to an emergency C-section that in turn led to my missing that deadline – oh, the irony – but I’ll always be able to tell my daughter that I finished that book while she slept in her basket by my desk.
So why do I work like this? I’ve read a lot about the psychology of deadlines but one theory feels true, at least for me. We deadline-dodgers do it, it posits, so that if the work doesn’t meet the high standard we set for ourselves when we start out – that perfect, pithy, insightful piece – we have an excuse. Of course, we can say, I could have done better if I’d had more time.
Time management is a failing of mine for sure but my perfectionism is almost overwhelming. A piece of 900 words would need to be impossibly good if I’d worked on it for a month, and that’s paralysing. Knowing I have only a small and finite window of time helps me deal with it. While I cause myself a great deal of stress in these final hours, I keep a lid on the perfectionism for a whole month. It’s a bargain. I think.
And when it comes down to it, I love deadlines because they make things happen. They get things done. My first novel, The House at Midnight, written without a deadline, took six years. The next three took about two years each – less than a third that. I’m writing my fifth novel now. It’s due in March…
Lucie Whitehouse grew up near Stratford on Avon, UK. After a Classics degree at Oxford, she moved to London where she worked briefly in journalism and then for two major literary agencies. Her four novels of psychological suspense include Before We Met, the Richard & Judy and ITV Crime Thriller Book Club selection, and, most recently, Keep You Close. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. Her fifth novel, the first in a crime series set in Birmingham, UK, will be published in early 2019.
Follow her on Twitter @LWhitehouse5
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About KEEP YOU CLOSE
When the artist Marianne Glass falls to her death, everyone insists it was a tragic accident. Yet Rowan Winter, once her closest friend, suspects there is more to the story. Ever since she was young, Marianne had paralyzing vertigo. She would never have gone so close to the roof’s edge.
Marianne–and the whole Glass family–once meant everything to Rowan. For a teenage girl, motherless with a much-absent father, this lively, intellectual household represented a world of glamour and opportunity.
But since their estrangement, Rowan knows only what the papers reported about Marianne’s life: her swift ascent in the London art world, her much-scrutinized romance with her gallerist. If she wants to discover the truth about her death, Rowan needs to know more. Was Marianne in distress? In danger? And so she begins to seek clues–in Marianne’s latest work, her closest relationships, and her new friendship with an iconoclastic fellow artist.
But the deeper Rowan goes, the more sinister everything seems. And a secret in the past only she knows makes her worry about her own fate . . .
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Category: On Writing