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May 15

How to finish the draft: maybe you need a deadline

I did it! It’s done! I wrote a decent draft of a whole novel! I would have celebrated, but I was too tired.

You see, I was writing to a deadline—an honest-to-goodness deadline with money on the line and someone waiting to receive my manuscript. I almost didn’t make it, but, as it turns out, I am very motivated by deadlines.

In this case, I had hired a freelance developmental editor to look at the draft and make sure the plot and character arcs were solid. Some agents recommend doing this, others don’t. It costs a lot, but I found a good deal, so I decided to give it a try. That was in late January, when May 1st seemed far away.

Then…with my draft approaching 75,000 (!) words but nowhere near the 75% mark of my outline, I fell out of love with my love interest. I spent a week or so in March trying to fix it before finally admitting that trying to shoehorn him in, after the story had drastically changed around him, just wasn’t going to work. I noticed that something I’d invented while trying to make the love interest interesting would work perfectly with this other way more intriguing character who’d been hovering at the edges of the story since I first envisioned it (well over a decade ago…). It was brilliant to the point of serendipitous.

Unfortunately, I was approaching the end of March. I had just invalidated nearly half of my existing draft and the other half would have to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I hadn’t left any dangling references to the now non-existent character. Moreover, the entire ending had to be written from scratch! And did I mention I’d started a diet, too, so that I could look good at the wedding I was in, which occasioned an international trip the week before the deadline? So I did what any self-respecting author would do: panic.

This is the perfect time to panic!

The editor was willing and able to flex on the deadline, but my friends assured me I could get the story done and that, moreover, delaying the deadline would only extend how long I was panicking. So I stuck with May 1 and buckled down to write. At first I just wrote with a little extra fire under my tush. Then I added writing in the evenings after the kids went to bed. As the deadline came ever closer, I canceled social activities and skipped yoga (which is usually not how to feel better). One day I was so panicked that it took me half an hour to calm down enough even to write. (To reward myself for recovering, I went to Starbucks for a breve lightly sweet chai latte. That drink might just save the world.) On a few nights, I hired babysitters to put the kids to bed so I could squeeze in an extra hour or two of writing. I spent a few of the days I was in London writing in the (admittedly posh and beautiful) hotel lobby instead of sightseeing.

But you know what? Aside from the one or two actual panic attacks, the whole experience was amazing. Unbelievably invigorating. I was so immersed in the story that I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I would daydream about it when I was trying to fall asleep at night. I took so much time to write that I found it easier to get “into the zone” and enjoyed some transcendant hours embodying the characters I was torturing. I got really good at making playlists for the mood of the scene I was writing. My best friend/alpha reader was incredibly supportive and ensured that I didn’t have any incomplete sentences or totally dangling plot threads. And when I got to the end, I was really, really proud of it!

Of course it still needs work, but I’m actually looking forward to editing so that I can give these characters the best possible story.

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