Featured From the Archives: The 5 Stages of Writing on a Deadline

As I was dredging the archives for something to post this week (after realizing that I somehow managed to lose almost two whole weeks during my latest venture into the editing cave and that I missed posting anything at all last Friday), I stumbled on what feels like the perfect summation of my current state of mind. It’s a guest post from author Drew Hayes on the 5 stages authors go through when facing a deadline, but I will point out that the same is also true for editing on a deadline. Except, as an editor, you spend your time in a strange sort of stage-meld. Currently, I’m simultaneously on Stage 5 with one project, Stage 1 in another, and verging on Stage 3 with a third. You’ll understand what those mean in a moment. 😉

So, without further ado, I present the encore performance of . . .

The 5 Stages of Writing on a Deadline

by Drew Hayes

Originally Posted on 12/6/13

 

Writing, much like grief, moves in phases. The ideal process for artistic creation is the slow, gentle growth of an idea, watching it bloom from mere idle thoughts into a cohesive, beautiful flower. Then, of course, there’s writing on a deadline. This process is more akin to trying to steer a lawnmower while your drunken uncle fights you for the wheel and a swarm of honeybees swoops about, rightfully angry about the beer bottle your aforementioned uncle threw into their hive. (If this analogy made no sense to you, congratulations on not living in the country.) Point being, writing on a deadline is a crazy, often senseless process that feels as though you’re being swarmed by painful distractions. Though, to be fair, in a perfect analogy you’d be the drunk uncle. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Stage 1: Stupidity, a.k.a., I Can Totally Handle This

This is a beautiful stage, a wonderful place that you’ll find yourself at time and again. You’ve found a project that you’re suited for and been accepted into the position. You have zero fear you can handle this, because the magic of repression has given you the power to block out what your last project was like. You do everything right in this phase; you make an outline, schedule time specifically dedicated to work on this project, and even make a step-by-step checklist. You are fearless. You’ve got this shit down cold.

In fact, you’ve got it down so cold, you’re not even stressing about it. Until that window you set up to work on the project gets chomped away by angrier, more demanding tasks that are further along in the process and soon, all too soon, you’ve hit crunch time. Now you really need to write. So you finally enforce that window and sit down to truly punch out stuff on the keyboard.

Stage 2: Holy Shit, a.k.a., What Was I Thinking?

Nothing. Not one idea. Come on, you can do this. You had a billion ideas when you took on the project. There has to be one left in your brain. Just one. You’ll do anything. Come on. Focus. Foooocus. Don’t look at the spot on the wall. It’s not mold. Because you live in a dry climate and mold doesn’t look like finger smudges, that’s how I know. And now you’re cleaning the “mold” even though that’s totally not what it was. Feel better? Oh, hey, idea! No, not about the project, butrelated to the project. Remember that outline you did? Maybe there are some ideas in that.

Huh . . . this is wordy, detailed, and totally useless. Look at Point #4: draw out deeper meaning of previous subject. They’re all like that. Everything hinges on something else, and there’s no start point. Okay, deep breaths. At least you’ve got a plan if you do ever think of a starting point. Look, there’s an old truth to writing that if you’re stuck, just write anyway. Just put words down and sooner or later something cohesive will form. Type gibberish if you must, just type something.

Stage 3: Desperation, a.k.a., Shit’s ‘Bout To Get Real

Well, it’s the last day before the project is due, and you’ve written 30,000 words of gibberish. I’ll be honest, I’m impressed with the dedication, though I had hoped eventually real words might come out. Still, let’s not give up hope yet. Maybe you can still pull something off. I mean, you’ve done this before. Go look at notes from old projects. Perhaps the secret to breaking through your block lies in there.

Wow . . . these are . . . wow. I’m around ninety percent sure having this combination of words written down is a felony, along with a serious cry for help. Also, a good half of that isn’t English. Scratch that, it isn’t even language, at least nothing a healthy mind could identify as such. No, don’t throw it out, there are children in the world who could stumble across this. Burn it. Cleanse it with fire and hope there can be forgiveness in your next life. Only when that’s done can we continue to scour for the key to unlocking inspiration.

Okay, those pages are gone, though it took them a curiously long time to burn, and the whole house smells like smoke and regret. After a bit more digging, you’ve found different sets of notes from your last project. Let’s take a gander and see what you’ve got.

Cursing.

Cursing.

Teardrop stains.

Enthusiastic cursing.

A cocktail recipe.

Eh, what the hell, seems like as good a time as any to progress to the next step.

Step 4: Booze, a.k.a., Hang On Just A Minute . . . I Know What I’m Talking . . . Here Shush . . . Just Let Me Say One More Thing And I Will — Zzzzzzz

If it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for you. Furiously hurling vodka down your throat like there’s a gasoline fire in your belly and you have no concept of how putting out a fire works, you take an alcoholic wrecking ball to your sober consciousness. Soon the ideas begin to flow. Unfortunately, they aren’t ideas directly related to the project you’re working on. No, texting your ex is a bad idea; they don’t want to hear from you. I don’t care how unhappy you think they looked in their wedding photo on Facebook, they don’t want to hear from — aaaand you’re texting anyway.

Several drinks later, you’ve worked through nearly all the alcohol stocked in your meager bar, save for the break-in-case-of-emergency last resort: Tequila. You know you shouldn’t do it, but by Faulkner you’ve come this far, and, at this point, you’d rather go down in flames than burn away gently. You guzzle straight from the bottle, downing the well-grade liquor in less time than it took for the under-paid clerk to slap it on the sale shelf. This is going to be bad.

The next few hours pass in a blur. Only snippets and highlights will remain once the alcohol has run its course:

You remember trying to order a pizza on the phone, only for the clerk to consistently reiterate that you have dialed a dry-cleaner. You are not fooled by his lies.

You know you uploaded a clip to YouTube. Unfortunately, you have no memory of what was on it, the name it was under, or even the account you used to post it. You will spend the next six months trying to find it and/or hoping you cannot be identified by the footage. That hope will eventually be dashed.

You fill more pages with the cursed writing, the arcane script that made those previous pages so difficult to burn. This time you hide them so that your sober-self cannot unmake your hard work. There can be no more interruptions, not with the rising so near.

You sit down at your computer, staring at the monitor that mocks your literary impotence with an unsullied white screen. You stick your tongue out at it. This is the last memory of the night.

Stage 5: Completion, a.k.a., Who The What Now?

As you rise slowly from the keyboard, you immediately become aware of three things. Firstly, you have a headache that would send lesser drinkers to their graves. Secondly, you slept with your face on the keyboard and will wear this waffle iron-esque mark of shame for several hours. Lastly, and most importantly, your project is complete. The crisp, neatly edited words stare back at you from the monitor, all mockery quieted. You read through them just to be sure, but everything is germane to the topic, well-worded, and grammatically correct.

You send it off to the client without asking too many questions. Better not to know, you assure yourself. Better not to ask what exactly those pages you wrote signify. Better not to wonder just what it is you might have traded away in a fit of drunken desperation.

Nope, instead you’re off to get a shower and a well-deserved bagel. Maybe you’ll even go see if there are any new projects you might be a good fit for. After all, with this beast done, you’ve got a lot of free time, and you really should try and stay productive.

***

See? Pretty perfect, wasn’t it? For more of Drew’s deadpan hilarity, be sure to check out his website and many novels. Whether you like superheroes, paranormal creatures and vampire accountants, or fantasy characters from table-top role-playing games, Drew’s signature wit and storytelling mastery is guaranteed to shine through. His work is a personal favorite of mine, so I highly recommend giving it a chance if you’re looking for quirky, sarcastic, and different from the norm. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Featured From the Archives: The 5 Stages of Writing on a Deadline

    • Haha, no, it’s definitely not mandatory. Everyone copes with stress differently; this was just one analogy for it. I’m sure you could substitute all sorts of things in its place–exercise, stress-eating, sleeping, etc. etc. 😉

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