Coping With Crunch-Time

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, January 2010.]

Every author is – or should be – an expert at time management.  We all figure out how to eke out five minutes here, a half hour there. But sometimes, even the best plans fall apart – family emergencies, day-job demands, and personal health crises are only a few disasters that can shred a well-structured writing schedule.  Sometimes, we face the dread “crunch-time”, the paralyzing demand of absolute deadlines to enter contests, to meet critique partners’ expectations, or to meet contractual obligations.  Fortunately, coping strategies for success exist.   “Coping Writers” harness a variety of psychological, technological, and social tools to meet their crunch-time deadlines.

 My First Crunch

Years ago, I received The Call.  As I hyperventilated, my agent said, “The editor wanted to know if you have a sequel to The Glasswrights’ Apprentice. I told them you had two.  When can you deliver the first new book?”

I counted on my fingers.  It had taken me three years to write Apprentice, but I’d learned a lot doing it.  I told my agent, “I think that I can write a sequel in about two years.”

“The correct answer,” he said, “is one year.”

And so I agreed to one year.  That was before I learned about editorial letters, copy edits, publicity and promotion – all those aspects of the first book that lingered long after the excitement of my first sale.  That was before my day-job decided to offer me new … challenges, sending me on several out-of-town trips, making me camp out in distant hotels for weeks at a time.  That was before some nasty health matters arose, making it difficult for me to maintain my traditional 4:30 wake-up time and sacred writing slot.

I met crunch-time in a major way.  I survived, through a combination of hysterical tears, over-caffeination, and far more sugar than the Surgeon General recommends.  Over the years, though, I’ve developed substantially better – and healthier – strategies.

Psyching Out the Crunch

Crunch-time is like a wily enemy, hiding in offices (or writing nooks or laptop computers or spiral notebooks), waiting to catch authors unaware.  Crunch-time preys on writers’ emotions – it whispers that they aren’t ready to write, that they have too many other things to do, that they cannot possibly finish a job, so the job is not worth starting.  Crunch-time fights on a psychological battleground, and the Coping Writer uses a variety of psychological tips and tricks to fight back.

As an initial matter, every writer must measure the size of the crunch that she faces.  While we all know, in vague terms, what is pending on our authorial plates, most of us forget details of projects.  Many of us are uncertain about specific due dates.  Some of us have forgotten the precise terms (contract obligations or contest rules) of the project we are working on.  Every time we discover new details, we feel our writing schedule spin a little more out of control; we lose the psychological battle.

Therefore, the Coping Writer’s first goal is to identify every aspect of her project.  She calculates each and every obligation, breaking her overall project into discrete chunks.  The definition of “chunk” varies by author – some find it best to define by word count (e.g., “This 100,000 word novel consists of twenty 5000-word chunks, and I have twelve of those chunks left to write in the next month.”)  Some writers think in terms of chapters (e.g., “This novel consists of thirty-two chapters of varying length, and I have twenty-one of those chapters left to write in the next twenty-five days.)   Chunks can be defined by any writer, whether she is a “pantser” (writing without an outline, but knowing how many words her overall work will contain) or a “plotter” (working out her plot by outline, including specific chapter breaks).

The Coping Writer not only becomes aware of the precise scope of her project; she writes down that information.  Seeing each chunk listed on a piece of paper or a computer screen makes writing goals real, concrete, and attainable.

Once the precise “chunks” of a project have been recorded, the Coping Writer determines specific, inflexible deadlines for each.  Once again, authors should write down their goals, stating them explicitly on paper or computer.  Each project chunk should be associated with a specific goal.  The Coping Writer records, “I will complete (both drafting and making two passes of revision) Chapters 7 and 8 by 5:00 p.m. on January 31” rather than saying to herself, “My next goal is to write a sex scene.”

Many authors must juggle multiple projects, often with competing crunch-time deadlines.  Jackie Kessler, author of the Hell on Earth series, co-author of Black and White, and (as Jackie Morse Kessler), author of the upcoming YA magical realism novel Hunger regularly juggles multiple works.  During crunch-time, she selects the most urgent project and completes it entirely before moving on to a different work.  She notes, “Sometimes that means stopping one project to work on (and complete) another one, but I find that works much better than bobbing back and forth between projects, doing a little on one and then a little on another and then back to the first one again.”

When every chunk on a given project has been associated with a specific goal, the Coping Writer can see precisely what she must accomplish.  It’s not enough, though, to record those goals, then hide them away.  Pocket calendars get shoved to the bottom of purses; online calendars may never be launched.  The Coping Writer makes her goals visible, each and every day during crunch-time.  Shannon Delany, author of the forthcoming 13 to Life (St. Martin’s Griffin), recommends, “If your short-term goals are brief enough each day, write the new day’s goals on a Post-it and stick it on your bathroom mirror so it’s one of the first things you spot each morning. Tearing it down each evening after you’ve accomplished it is a great feeling.”

Deborah Blake, author of five books on witchcraft from Llewellyn Worldwide, and winner of the EMILY “Best of the Best” Award for her novel Witchever Way You Can, admits that meeting specific goals requires an obsessive attention to the overall plan:  “I make sure [my goals are] reasonable and do-able, and then I don’t take “can’t” for an answer. But I save this for major projects, or it stops working.”

One of the most important weapons in the psychological tool chest is reward.  The Coping Writer identifies specific rewards that she will receive when she meets each of her specific goals.  New York Times bestselling author and two-time RITA finalist Maria V. Snyder rewards herself with a glass of wine – allowed only after she has completed her daily goal (but the bottle might rest on her writing desk while she works, as a reminder!)  Other authors give themselves chocolate, walks outdoors, bubble baths, single episodes of favorite television shows, listening to favorite songs – the possibilities are endless.  The Coping Writer, however, always remembers that her rewards should not take up so much time or energy that she is unable to meet her next recorded goal.

Harnessing Technology to Crunch the Crunch

Modern technology presents a two-edged sword for the Coping Writer.  On the one hand, technology offers an almost endless array of distraction:  telephones, television, radio, recorded music, and the biggest time sponge of all, the Internet.  Every technological tool offers unwary authors the chance to leave behind their writing, to forget the precisely-defined goals for any given day.

At the same time, technology can be harnessed to limit interruptions and to increase writing efficiency. “Old” technology still has its uses.  Some writers turn off the ringer on their home phones and set their cell phones to “silent mode.” Deborah Blake changes the outgoing message on her voice mail, telling callers that she is working under a deadline and will respond to their messages as soon as she is able.  Maria V. Snyder swears by her Caller ID, reveling in the ability to avoid telemarketers and talkative non-writing friends, even as she remains available to family members in emergencies.

Some writers unplug completely, working on computers that have no Internet connectivity.  Jackie Kessler goes even further – she prohibits herself from using the Internet, the phone, and the television for the entire time that she’s working to meet her goals.

Other victims of crunch-time are able to manage some access to the Internet, but fall prey to a few seductive websites (Weboggle, anyone?)  Free productivity software can block access to specific web addresses.  Leechblock, for example, works with the Firefox web browser to limit acces – users can determine which sites they want to block, defining permissible hours or time limits for access.  Internet Explorer users can configure free versions of Net Nanny (originally intended to help parents control their children’s Internet experience) to meet their needs.

Many writers insist that they must maintain access to the Web for book-related research; however, some Coping Writers adapt by inserting “placeholders” in their manuscripts.  For example, when an author needs to research the name of a specific clothing designer, she inserts the letters ZZZ into her manuscript.  As ZZZ does not occur in any English-language word, a quick, post-goal search lets the author find each research bit that she must complete after drafting.

Social Networking at Home and Abroad

Technological tools have the added benefit that they have no feelings to hurt.  Coping Writers, though, must balance their needs with those of family and friends, all the while keeping lines of communication open.

Shannon Delany advocates calling family meetings just before crunch-time begins.  She details her upcoming writing time, clearly setting out her needs for her family:  “Explain why these goals [and] deadlines are important to you (and quite possibly to them). Warn them that you may get a little anxious (or, in my case, obsessive and cranky) as the dates approach and that they are likely to see more takeout than home cooking. Remind them this is a temporary situation and that now is the time to gather menus from the restaurants in town otherwise they’ll be relying on your memory for ordering their food.”  By bringing her family into the discussion, Shannon avoids surprise and hurt feelings.

To the greatest extent possible, the Coping Writers calls upon her extended social support networks, delegating responsibilities until she is able to return to her usual obligations and commitments.  Carpool duties can often be swapped.  Cooking commitments can be postponed.

Children and dependent elders present a special challenge during crunch-time.  Jackie Kessler and Maria V. Snyder both shift their writing time to late evening hours, taking advantage of the time when their children are in bed (even if that means living on the “graveyard shift” for a few consecutive weeks.)  Jackie Kessler once met a goal of writing 26,000 words in one weekend by collecting on a holiday gift from her husband:  “My husband stayed with the kids at my in-laws’ house, leaving me most of Friday, all of Saturday, and most of Sunday to write.”

Some writers reach out to other authors to help them meet goals.  Maria V. Snyder once launched a word count contest with a friend:  “We sent each other daily emails with our word count and whoever had the most [at the end] received a half case of wine.”  Maria completed 50,870 words in forty-five days, and she had the perfect celebratory glass when she was through.  Other authors structure “word wars” with friends, signing in to an online chat room, socializing for a few minutes, going away to write for an hour, then checking back to compare results.

All authors face crunch-time at some point in their careers.  Coping Writers are the ones who rise to the challenge, defining their goals with specificity before harnessing technology and social support to complete their work on time.