Staying Creative Under Deadlines

I wrote in July on meeting my first balletbook deadline. Since then, I’ve gotten titles and an editor change, asked for and received a deadline extension, written another book for the series, revised that book twice, turned in my first round of edits on Turning Pointe and Second Position, and I’m about to hit send on Finding Center, the second (full length) book.

It’s been a busy fall, to say the least. I also started a new dayjob (nannying!) so all in all, I’ve been going basically non-stop since July. There’s one more thing that’s happened since meeting that first deadline: I’ve learned to manage my creativity better.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of manage includes “to work upon or try to alter for a purpose.” Their suggestion is “to manage stress.” My suggestion is “to manage creativity.”

And that was the first hurdle for me, personally. Once I adjusted to the idea that my creativity wasn’t the well, it was what’s in the well, then I understood it as a resource, as something that can be managed.

Adjusting Preconceptions 

What I thought would work didn’t work. I am a multitasker. I like to stay busy. My general rule is a person in motion stays in motion. My writer rule is was a writer who is writing keeps writing. I figured I’d have one book in revisions, one book in drafting stage, and one book in the plotting stage. I figured that this would help me avoid burnout. I made a spreadsheet with all of my WIPs, their current word counts, and where I’d like them to be by certain dates. I thought, this way I won’t be sick of ballet!

That was wrong. Juggling all of those projects didn’t prevent burnout. In fact, it probably caused it.

I stopped juggling balletbooks + other projects, especially in a single day. I stayed completely tapped into the balletbooks. I played with different revision techniques. Sure, I think I’ve enjoyed a few days this week where I didn’t have to write pirouette or pointe shoes or rehearsal. But I feel less burned out now than I did in September when I was juggling a lot of projects all at once.

This method might not work for you. You might NEED to juggle multiple projects. You might need to give yourself a break from your fictional universe. The point is: your ideas for working on tight deadlines and keeping up your motivation and creativity may be wrong. It’s important that if something isn’t working, you change what you’re doing. Nothing is set in stone. Your method is not as inflexible as you think it is.

Stop Buffering

I first read about buffering in a Fast Company article by Howard Jacobson I’ve linked to at the bottom. Jacobson made a list of all the articles he wanted to write for FC in 2013 and pitched them to his editor. His editor picked twelve of them and the article he wrote on Buffering wasn’t one of them, but it was because of them. He had that backlog of articles, but he couldn’t get started on any one of them in particular. As he said, “The list of articles was the thing getting in my way. I was trying to buffer myself into a productive and predictable future.”

And it happened to me just this week. I pitched three books off my spreadsheet to two writer friends as my next project. The one I sat down to write wasn’t one of those three. Managing creativity is a work in progress.

So moving forward: No more lists. If I can’t remember the book idea, then it probably isn’t a book idea that I should be working on right now. I deleted the spreadsheet. Instantly, that freed up all this space inside of me where I was like “A HUNDRED BOOK IDEAS” and now, I can just sit quietly, thinking about the book ideas that have really stuck with me through everything. Those are the books I want to write.

‘Books Aren’t Done, They’re Due’ or, ‘Deadlines Are An Act of Faith’

At BEA this year, I heard an author–and god, I wish I could remember who. If you know, tell me so I can appropriately credit!–who said, “Books aren’t done, they’re due.” And that has been a guiding light for me. I can tinker with a book forever. Literally. Forever. But at some point, I need to let it go.

So, I’ve embraced deadlines. While I’ve always known I work better under pressure (the number of college papers I wrote a few hours before they were due taught me that), I also know that deadlines give me structure and deadlines help me channel my creativity into a single purpose. Or, as Jacobson says in his article, deadlines are an act of faith. You must believe that by the deadline, you will have a product in which you can take pride.

You could tweak forever, or you can believe in yourself and your book and submit it. Believe in yourself. I do!

Do What You Need to Do To Focus

Focus looks different for different people. For me, I’m a person of habit. I like to sit in the same cafe, at the same time, listening to the same music while I work. And my brain’s now generally trained to work like that. Setting schedules is really helpful because it’s conditional learning. Your brain learns to be creative when you train it to be creative.

Additionally, I’m doing Susan Dennard and Sarah Maas’s Detox December and Rejuvenation January challenge (link below). Part of it anyways! I’m not on social media from 11am to 4pm every week day through the end of January. I’ve embraced Self Control, a free app I use on my mac to turn off my access to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It’s magic, and almost embarrassing how much I get done during these times.

Sometimes I forget that for me, as an introvert, that social media is a social activity. I generally feel drained by 4pm after a day on Twitter, so of course it’s hard to work after my dayjob ends. This has helped save my energy and brain power for writing time.

Learn from the Business World

I know. I didn’t believe it either. But I’ve learned a lot from how those genius CEOs we hear about enact change and invigorate their staff to be creative and innovative. There’s an article linked below that I really liked, but here is my favorite takeaway:

The buddy system is key. Vent, bitch, whine, do word sprints, and lean on your creative friends who are also under deadline. If you’re not under deadline, you don’t always get the days when you feel like a puddle. You want someone who is also a puddle and isn’t going to logic you out of your puddle state. You want someone who is going to form puddle-arms to hold pom poms, cheer you on, and slide you a bottle of wine while you’re at it.

You Can’t Shame Yourself Creative

I’m also reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (link below). She talks about going into corporations to talk about shame and vulnerability, her research topics. And she talks about management style in terms of shame and engagement vs disengagement. “When shame becomes a management style, engagement dies. When failure is not an option we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.”

So what does that mean in terms of managing creativity?

You cannot badger yourself into creativity. You cannot tell yourself, Everyone will be disappointed in you. You are a failure of a person if you don’t write the best book ever today  right now by that deadline. You will disempower yourself. You will shame yourself away from the exact thing you’re trying to create. You have to start building trust and shame resilience (one of Brown’s terms) with yourself and within yourself.

Exercise Is Important (No. Really. It is.)

I’ve learned that walking is just as magical as showers are. And honestly, better for me. There are only so many showers that you can take in a day before you actually do wince at your water bill. And since I’m not someone who generally exercises, walking is a great way to both free myself up from my keyboard, think about a story or a plot problem, and improve my health at the same time. Almost every plot question with Finding Center was solved on my mile walk to and from the Starbucks where I write after work.

Take a walk. Take the dog if you have one. If you don’t have one, go volunteer at your local shelter and see if they have a program where you can take a dog out for a walk, or if you can just walk the dog around their parking lot. That’s a three-fer. You’re improving a shelter dog’s life and improving your health and fixing a story problem.

But even if you can’t do that, take a walk.

Seriously. Go do it.

Create ‘Meaningful Urgency’

A study linked below came up with a Creativity vs Time matrix. People were more likely to have high creativity under extreme time limits if they felt like they were on a mission. People were less likely to have high creativity under extreme time limits if they felt they were on a treadmill (aka, going nowhere). What does this mean?

Your book is your mission.

Write. That. Down. Research also tells us that you’re more likely to achieve your goals if there’s public accountability (another reason why I really like writing/editing sprints. Even if it’s just checking in with another writer at the end of the day to make sure that words were accomplished, I think that’s a simple, fast, and very effective tool at our disposal.)

“I am going to finish writing Finding Center by December 15th. The book is about _______ and it’s going to be the best book I can produce by December 15th.”

That’s written down. I wrote it down the day I asked for my deadline to be pushed because I started to freak out about my timeline. And I’ve met that. If I had three years to produce this book, might it be different than it is? Sure. Of course. But it’s not because I don’t have three years. But it’s a damn good book and I’m really proud of it. I met my goal. My mission was a success. I rescued the hostages.

Create meaningful urgency. You aren’t on a treadmill going nowhere. You’re on a goddamn mission. Your book is being held hostage by gremlins. Slay them by the deadline. You can do it.

Creative Fuel

I get a cupcake for every 10,000 words. I love cupcakes. I’m eating a super expensive but delicious peppermint brownie in a mug tonight when I send in Finding Center. Whatever you need to do to reward yourself? Do it. Sugar’s a remarkable factor in keeping creativity high.

Additionally, I am more likely to listen to curated playlists online when I need to be at my creative best. My personal favorite is 8tracks and I search different tags (inspiration, writing, original character, or fanfics of my favorite tv shows or books) for fun playlists. New music helps wake up my brain so I’m not just spinning my tires in the same rut.

Talk through story problems or new ideas with a writer friend. Preferably, aloud. Because it uses a different part of your brain and processing method than typing (if you email, your brain is working the same way that it does when you’re typing in MS word. Really. It does), you’re more likely to work through a block than keeping your fingers on the keys.

Embrace the Slog

Even when you’re embracing the idea of managing creativity, you’re going to write chapters that suck. You’re going to write dialogue that’s stilted. You’re going to write characters who are flatter than a piece of paper. That’s okay. Let it go. Be one with the slog and mire. The process never bothered you anyway.

Frozen allusions aside, you have to slog through. No matter how close your deadline looms, you need to hit the end before you turn around and tweak those words. The slog is part of it.

Slow days are not less creative days. That’s really important to learn and maybe is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last five months. Slow days are not bad days. They are not less creative. They are not inherently worse. They will not ruin your career. They will not break the book. They do not make you a bad writer.

They’re just slow days.

Okay! Go forth and be creative! (Or, leave me creativity managing ideas in the comments. And I will love you a latke if you share this :))

Further Reading:

How You Sabotage Your Own Creativity by Howard Jacobson

Detox December & Rejuvenation January Challenge by Susan Dennard

How to Stay Creative When Faced with Deadlines by Diana Adams

How To Stay Creative Under Pressure by John Baldoni

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Creativity Under the Gun (study) by Constance Hadley

 

 

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