Elizabeth: Motivation Under Pressure

diamondimageIn my blog post a few weeks ago I talked about a variety of ways to keep motivated during the writing process. As the comments on that post confirmed, what motivates us varies from person to person, and sometimes even from project to project.

My stated goal at that time was to finish revising my manuscript so that I could send it off to the folks at RWA to qualify for “PRO” (professional writer) status.   The deadline to submit a PRO application in time to have it processed before the start of the upcoming national conference was July 1st. I’m happy to say that I was able to meet that deadline with hours to spare. 🙂 To do so, I got more than 15,000 words down on paper in about 2 ½ weeks time.

I was thrilled, naturally.

I was also left wondering why I was able to get those words down on paper when I had previously spent so much time staring at a blank computer screen or doing anything else but getting words on the page. I got the first 20,000+ words of this manuscript down during one of the 10-week McDaniel workshops, and the final 15,000 during these past few weeks. Why then did the sagging middle of the manuscript process take more than a year?

Why was the beginning/end of my process different from the middle?

I had fixed deadlines

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” ~ Douglas Adams

Although I’ve had/set deadlines before, both McDaniel deadline for Act I and the PRO deadline for the manuscript were external and fixed. There was no chance of negotiating more time or turning in partial work.   The deadlines were also reasonable. Based on the amount of writing that needed to be done and the time I had to do it in, they were completely achievable, but there was no time for “I don’t feel like writing today” or “I’ll write twice as much tomorrow.”   The fixed deadlines meant I needed to schedule the work that needed to be done and then stick to that schedule. The sagging middle of the manuscript, on the other hand, operated under more of a “I wish I was done with this” deadline, which was not motivating at all.

I wrote whether I felt like it or not

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King

Having a fixed deadline and a schedule meant I had to write every day, whether I wanted to or not and, just to be clear, many days I really did not want to. At the beginning of this final writing push, I went through the manuscript and blocked out what needed to happen in each of the remaining scenes. If I had ideas about the dialogue, I noted them down. If there were clues that needed to be found (this is a bit of a mystery story, after all), I made sure to highlight them so they didn’t get lost or forgotten. This pre-work helped me when I sat down to write each day, because I didn’t have figure out what needed to be written, I just had to flesh out the notes I had made. As a result, I spent far less time staring into space and trying to get into the story, and more time being able to check off scenes as “completed.”

In some cases, there were scenes that were still problematic. Some of those I cut altogether, with the idea that if I disliked writing the scene, it’s very possible my reader would dislike reading it. A few other scenes didn’t need to be scenes at all and turned into a few lines of summary action here and there.

“Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship. Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.” ~ Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life

All of this leads me to the point of this whole post (really, I had one) and that is how being under the pressure of a deadline impacted both my writing process and my creativity. Diamonds, oil, and coal may rely on pressure in order to exist, but I’m guessing most of us would happily do without it.

Pressure can be a problem if it leaves you stressed and worried about the task at hand.   In his book Choke, Professor Sian Beilock talks about how over-thinking (“paralysis by analysis”) can destroy our ability to perform up to our full potential. Isn’t it always when you are in a hurry or under a time constraint at work that the printer jams, the computer freezes, or the file you’ve been working on for hours is suddenly corrupted? In cases like that, pressure works against our ability to be successful.

On the flip side though, time pressure can sometimes be just the motivation you need to choose an answer and move on. Being under the pressure of a deadline meant I didn’t have the luxury of writing a scene a variety of ways to see which worked best. When I looked at each scene, I had to trust my instincts, make a decision, and go. As a result, I felt more engaged in the story, and I feel like I came up with some creative solutions that I might not have arrived at via a different approach.

“No matter how good you are at planning, the pressure never goes away. So I don’t fight it. I feed of it. I turn pressure into motivation to do my best.” ~ Benjamin Carson

Another positive benefit of all this focus on writing these past few weeks was the number of new story ideas (not related to this manuscript) that I came up with. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I get a lot of my ideas from dreams. It had been months since I’d had any dreams that led to good story ideas, but in the last few weeks, I’ve had several of them. I’m hoping continuing to touch my story every day will keep this idea generating process alive and well.

So, these last few writing weeks were great, but is this a sustainable process for me?

Probably not.

The deadline and the schedule meant that I wrote far into the night on many, many occasions, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing if I hadn’t needed to get up early the next morning for work. I also worked through the weekends, causing many other projects to be put on hold. By the time I clicked “submit” on the PRO application, I was bleary eyed, sleep-deprived, and mentally worn out.

What I think is sustainable is a deadline that is not so tight, and a schedule that does not require quite so many words per day.  That’s my strategy for now. We’ll see how it goes as I kick off the initial drafting phase of book 2. Right after a brief nap. I still have some catching up to do from the past few weeks.

So, do you work well under pressure, or do you find it just makes you stressed?

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Motivation Under Pressure

  1. Congrats on your PRO status and for meeting your goal! That’s fantastic!

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with my problem — lack of an external deadline. I was at dinner last night with my husband and kids and he asked (as he periodically does), “How’s the book going?” followed quickly by “When do you think you’ll finish?” Before I could answer either question, he said (in a rather smart-ass way), “I know…why don’t you set a deadline for the end of the year, and then extend it by six months every six months?”

    Ouch.

    He got a kick under the table for that one. Yes, I have editors and agents who’ve expressed interest in my MS, but none of them have said, “Get it to me by the end of July.” I’ve moaned to my CP that I could get this book finished if I really wanted to. I mean, I don’t have that much left to do. But I’m being so freaking SLOW about it. Even now, I’m commenting on this blog instead of writing. What is my problem!?!

    I’ll have to think about ways to motivate myself. Like REALLY motivate myself. Or maybe I just need to touch my story every day like you have. I haven’t been doing that. And that might be part of my problem, too. Maybe I’m afraid to finish, because then I WILL have to send it to those agents/editors and open it up to a bunch of rejections.

    I don’t know. I really don’t know what to do/think/say on my deadline problem. Except I wish I didn’t have it. 😦

    • Justine – ouch! I would have kicked him under the table too. Maybe twice 🙂

      I can relate to being slow about getting the manuscript finished and off. Part of the problem for me is that this part of the process isn’t particularly fun. The research and the starting off is exciting and full of possibilities, but more than a year later, that glow has worn off. Plus, there are other, exciting and new stories that are much more tempting to focus on.

      I too have agents who have requested a “full” (and haven’t gotten it yet). Fear that they’ll get it and decide, “meh, not really interested” leaves me finding one more thing to fix or one more bright idea to incorporate. My plan at this point is to touch the story every day, look at what remaining work I want to do on it, and then set an end date for when I’ll be done (or move on).

      I’ll be talking more about this next Wednesday in my new “What’s Your Goal” monthly post. I’m hoping if I make that end date public, it will give me the extra motivation to hit it, instead of extending it. Maybe that will work for others too.

    • Poor you, Justine. But keep going and you will have the last laugh. It’s so hard without deadlines – I am quite superstitious about touching the story every day but whether this is necessarily a good thing I don’t know. I completely understand the thing about rejection/poor feedback but I also think that writing is a hard profession and there is something to be said about getting used to rejection when you are learning your craft. Writing is an intensely personal thing but we have to learn how to deal with rejection without it killing us (am I sounding like a person who’s had negative feedback recently!).

      • LOL! Thanks for the reassurances, Rachel, and you’re absolutely right. We’re going to get rejected more than we’re going to be celebrated (at first, anyway). Time to suck it up and Finish The Damn Book. 😀

      • Rachel, you are absolutely correct, learning how to deal with rejection is part of the whole writing gig. Probably better to hone those skills sooner rather than later. It’s kind of like pulling off a band-aid; better to just do it and get it over with rather than worry that it’s going to sting.

        p.s. Sorry about the recent negative feedback. Hope it was constructive, at least.

    • Ouch, ouch, ouch. It’s so hurtful because there’s a bit of truth to it in my case, so even though it’s not MY husband, I’m still wincing all the way over here.

      There’s a very good reason why people don’t become entrepreneurs. It’s really nice having a boss to set the goals, and to blame for setting stupid goals.

      And there’s all sorts of stuff that I would never do for myself, but I completely do for my kids.

      I wonder if it’s a self-worth issue at the base (for me — I’m not speculating about other people’s reasons for failing to meet self-proclaimed deadlines). Or if it is simple laziness, or going for the immediate reward (posting a comment) over the longer-term reward (finishing a novel).

      In my mind, I have it in my head that I need to make writing more fun — because it really is more fun when I’m not worrying about all the rules or someone else reading it. That dread of judgement is a real block for me. I may also have to figure out a way to make it about someone else — if I don’t finish scene X, it hurts my kids or my grandchildren. Hard to be too concerned about future readers who will miss out on my paranormal adventures (-:. They, like 2/3rds of my paranormal adventure, are still imaginary, after all.

      Sorry, angsting all over isn’t very helpful, is it? But I feel a little better for getting it out.

      And Elizabeth, that’s great news that you made your PRO. Congratulations!!

  2. Deadlines help me immensely, but I have been in a deadline-driven business for 25 years. Everything about the grants game is about deadlines. I don’t have one right now so my writing is going very slowly. Must go write!

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: Will Write for $$$ | Eight Ladies Writing

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