Writing Under a (Supertight) Deadline

Guest Blogger: Erin MacPherson

I had always been under the impression that once I got a book deal, I’d have months to write, polish and pizzazz my book before my editor got his or her hands on it. It seemed reasonable for a non-fiction writer – after all, the book was contracted on the basis of a proposal and three sample chapters.

I was wrong.

I got my book deal on February 10th, 2010—and my publisher wanted to see a complete manuscript by May 1st, 2010. I’m sure you can do the math, but just to make it easy on you, that’s two-and-a-half months. Eleven weeks. 79 days. Certainly not the read-and-re-read, carefully-analyze-every-word situation I was expecting. But it meant my book could be released sooner, only 13 months after I got the offer. That’s a good thing, right?

So I said yes. No problem. I’d already written a few chapters, so I could easily get my entire sixteen-chapter, 85,000 word book finished by then.

And, of course, I was lying. Writing a whole book in 79 days is a nearly impossible feat. I had a part-time job. And two kids. And a life. And I was a first-time author. But I knew that getting a book deal was the opportunity of a lifetime—and I couldn’t let it pass just because I was on a tight deadline.

I confess: it was probably the most stressful, most exhausting and most frustrating 79 days of my life. But on May 1, 2010, I turned in a complete manuscript to my editor. And, since tight deadlines seem to be popping up all over of the publishing industry these days, I thought I’d share a few things I learned along the way.

My Tips for Writing Under a Deadline:

1. Get out of the house. I cannot write at home. Between my two preschoolers (who seem to innately understand when I’m under a deadline and choose those times to go through one of those tantrum-every-five-minute-phases) and the lure of laundry (did I mention I have young kids?) there is absolutely no way I can manage to get a single thought on paper. Desperate times call for desperate measures—so when I was writing my book, I literally checked myself into the good ‘ole Holiday Inn every Friday night. I brought my instant cappuccino, my chips and salsa and my favorite sweats and wrote all weekend long.

2. Force yourself to write. Even if your dog chewed up your favorite boots and your kid is failing kindergarten math and your husband is stressed at work– you need to put everything out of your mind for a certain amount of time each day and just write. For me, my goal was to write ten pages every day. Those pages didn’t have to be edited or perfect or funny or anything…just written. I made a rule that I couldn’t go to bed until I had ten pages on paper. I admit there were days that I was up until 1 in the morning getting those ten pages on paper. And, there were mornings I woke up and tossed all ten pages in the trash because they were worthless. But, I wrote ten pages every day.

3. Give yourself a sugar high. Aside from the occasional Dove chocolate and an all-too-powerful addiction to caffeine, I generally eat pretty healthily. But, when I was writing my book, I allowed myself a few (okay, quite a few) treats. Why? Because I’m so much wittier on paper when I have a sugar high. Any drink that involves a combination of coffee and sugar (say, a double venti caramel Frappucino with whip) is a guaranteed tonic for writer’s block or (worse!) boring writing.

4. Do whatever it takes to get some help. When I started writing my book, I knew that I was barely going to get the thing written, much less edited and cleaned up. So, I convinced (read: bribed with homemade chocolate-chip cookies) my best friend and my two sisters to form a de-facto editing team. Whenever I finished a chapter, I passed it on to my sister Alisa who is hilarious and smart and always knows the right thing to say. She made suggestions and passed it back to me. I made changes. Then I passed it along to Hildi and Stevi who top edited it, polished it and made last minute changes. By the time I got my chapters back for a final read, they’d been polished and cleaned up so brilliantly that I hardly had to make any changes.

5. Exercise. Let me get one thing straight right away: I am not a sporty girl. I rarely (if ever) exercise—but for some reason, when I was writing my book, my best ideas usually came when I was out walking. (Hmmm… maybe God was trying to tell me something?) Anyway, whenever I found myself staring at the screen without a clue what to write next, I’d grab my barely-used running shoes, my trusty Golden Retriever Jack and a tape recorder and head outside. Usually before I was out of breath (which didn’t take long), some idea or thought would pop into my mind and the ideas would start to flow.

Q4U: What are your best tips for writing under a deadline?


Erin MacPherson is the mother of two toddlers and the author of The Christian Mama’s Guide to Having a Baby, coming in March, 2011, from Guideposts Books. Visit Erin at http://www.christianmamasguide.com/.

  1. Brenda Kezar says:

    >Great post, thanks for sharing the tips.

    And I want to emphasize how much you hit the nail on the head with Tip #1: get out of the house.

    Back before I had a separate writing room, I had the same problem with interruptions and distractions. I was lucky if I could get 500 words written.

    Then my husband suggested leaving the house to write ("If you had a nine to five job, you'd leave every day," he said). I tried out a few different coffee shops and diners, but they were always too noisy (and the waitresses would give me the "stink eye" when I didn't keep ordering).

    So then I tried the public library. Perfect! I was cranking out 3000-4000 words per day in only a few hours.

    "Get out of the house" was the best advice I'd ever received!

  2. hazel says:

    >Thank you so much for this post! As a young writer hoping to get a book deal someday… I took it all to heart.

    Good luck!


  3. OlwenAnderson says:

    >Thanks for the tips Erin, and congrats on the book! Had quite a giggle at your ‘sugar high’ comments. Could picture you at the Holiday Inn armed with plenty of ‘inducements’ to write!!

  4. Sandy Cooper says:

    >Congrats on the contract, the new book and the amazing feat of getting it written in record time. I love the idea of having a group of friends who will edit for you. I've done that for people and I hope I'll reap a favor in return when the time comes for me.


  5. Martha Ramirez says:

    >Awesome post, Erin! I have a 4 yr old so I know exactly what it's like and it's great to see mothers can become writers and make things happen.
    Your book looks awesome!
    Thanks so much for sharing your tips and what worked for you. Def be keeping this post in my files:)

  6. Tonya Renee Callihan says:

    >This post was really helpful. I have so many writing deadlines right not I feel like I'm ahead half of the time to learn I'm so far behind I don't think I'll ever catch up. I will put these tips to use and see which ones help me the best. Will share your article with other writers, especially those I know who are doing NaNo this year.

  7. AJ says:

    >At the gym … which I try to get to, a few times a week! This is where my creative juices flowing. I need to get a voice recorder for these times. I think its easy for ideas to come when there is little if no pressure … in these moments, your characters can talk to you without interruption, i.e. kids. 🙂

  8. Neil Larkins says:

    >So, with #1 can I assume you did something with the kids before checking into that sanctuary? Oh, that's right…you have family support. And that is fortunate, and valuable beyond measure. Would that I had it. Oh, wait. I do. My wife. There, you see? We can all work out something if we just try. Good going.

  9. R. D. Allen says:

    >Well, I haven't written for an actual deadline, but the three books that I wrote before my current Writing-In-Progress were all written in about a month, so I guess that counts…

    I almost ALWAYS listen to music. One of my big things is a lack of focus, so it drowns out the stuff around me. This is the biggest factor, and the only one present in every novel I have written so far. Also, I have a drink when I write. It's easier to focus when I've got a drink. I'm not really sure why.

    Though it doesn't apply to a deadline, two things that really help me write when I'm stuck are: finding people that look how I picture my characters and having images open for each character in a given scene, and laying down on my bed and letting myself FEEL like my characters.

  10. Rebecca Laffar-Smith says:

    >Congratulations on getting it done! Over the years I've set myself deadlines and watched them zoom on by then felt guilt, regret, and even anger at myself for not getting it done. I'm still trying to work through my personal commitment issues so I'm always amazed and inspired by others who show true dedication and personal integrity to stick to it and make things happen. Kudos to you!

  11. davey says:

    >Congrats on the book, Erin. And wow, that really was a tight deadline! Glad you survived it, and that it gave you some good insight to share with the rest of us.

  12. Flower Patch Farmgirl says:

    >Thank you for telling it just like it is. Of course, to all of us unpublished peeps, it still sounds quite glamorous and charming. 😉

    ps – Chips-and-salsa is my soul mate!

  13. Marla Taviano says:

    >Love this post, Erin! I'm so glad we've connected, and I can't wait to read your book. You forgot to tell everybody that you're pregnant with #3, holed up in the hospital with severe morning sickness, and working on book #2! A-ma-zing.

  14. Jessica Nelson says:

    >I don't know that I have any good tips, but I hope if I'm ever in that situation I'll handle it as well as you did! Great post. 🙂 Thanks for sharing about your experience.

  15. Rachel says:

    >My comment earlier this morning must have been eaten. Oh well. Loved this post, full of great tips. I have a feeling with Nano this month, I'll be using many of these 🙂 Congratulations on meeting your deadline and your upcoming book!

  16. Lindsay says:

    >I love these tips! Quiet rooms and showers work wonders for me. I also get a lot out of talking through a problem scene with my husband. All he has to do is sit there, and I almost always solve the problem when looking at it from a different (out loud) angle. Also, when I'm on a tight deadline, it helps to remember that not every day can be a 19-pager. Usually, a big day for me is followed by a kind of smallish day. Just the way it is…

  17. Ellen says:

    >Thanks for the helpful tips Erin. I won't forget the coffee and sugar- my favorites!

  18. Jan Markley says:

    >Great tips. Love the getting out of the house one. My tip is take a lot of chai tea, sushi and sour ju jubes with you into your sasquatch writing cave!

  19. heavy hedonist says:

    >My method for getting much done in not much time: 1000 words before breakfast, no matter what. However early I have to get up to accomplish this, I find myself writing more and better when I make that number at the start of the day. The rest of the words I may need to get down are a breeze afterward.

  20. Scott Eagan says:

    >Awesome post. Thanks for sharing this information with the other writers.

  21. R. Anderson says:

    >Geez, that was an extremely tight deadline. I can only imagine. Eye twitch worthy. lol. You made it through!!

  22. Lory Manrique-Hyland says:

    >Hi Erin, I had a super tight deadline on my first novel – one month! And I only had 60 or 70 pages, only 30 of which were good. It was a dawn until 10 pm effort, breaks for a long walk and a healthy lunch. I did it, but I had no kids (or job) at the time. Doing it with that in the mix is so much harder. Kudos. – Lory

  23. Anonymous says:

    >So glad you posted this! As I was driving to work this morning I was trying to think of ways to have more energy to write late into the evenings. I realize now, have the answer is coffee and sugar :); the other half is probably a deadline and a reminder that I can go to bed early all I want after it's done! Thanks.

  24. Erin MacPherson says:

    >Thanks for all of your kind words and comments! I love all of your suggestions… although I'm not sure I can learn to tune out my surroundings. My kids are too demanding. 🙂

  25. Colene Murphy says:

    >Awesome tips! That was written in incredible time! Wow.

    I learned how to zone out and tune out my surroundings to write. Otherwise I get too distracted.

    • Ionutz says:

      Together with everything which seems to be bindliug within this particular area, all your viewpoints tend to be relatively stimulating. Even so, I am sorry, because I can not give credence to your whole idea, all be it exciting none the less. It seems to everybody that your remarks are not completely validated and in reality you are yourself not really completely convinced of the assertion. In any event I did enjoy reading through it.

  26. Caroline Starr Rose says:

    >I worked on first and second round edits this last summer, while selling a house, packing up, and moving across country.

    Getting out of the house is essential (as is a super-helpful husband. We called last summer The Summer of Dad).

  27. Erica Vetsch says:

    >I second the 'get out of the house' advice. For some reason, I feel as if I have to justify the time away by being productive, and I get much more work done.

    Congrats on such a great support system, too. That makes a huge difference.

  28. Susan Bourgeois says:

    >These are great tips!

    I love the 10 pages a day suggestion.

    You brought to my attention the importance of bribery. It's always best to do something for someone if you ask them to do a favor for you.

    I love to cook and bake. I'm known for that, so I can cook or bake for my friends and family when I need their valuable feeback.

    Thanks for the hints!

  29. Em-Musing says:

    >I will keep these tips in mind when my time comes. 🙂

  30. Mary P says:

    >Last year I set a deadline for myself to finish Draft 1 of my Young Adult Fantasy novel by December 31. Not long after I set that goal, my grandparents began having some major health issues that required a lot of time and attention from my family, so I resigned myself to giving up the Dec. 31 deadline.
    In November, the health issues were temporarily resolved, but by that time I thought 'There's no way I can make it in time'. However, for some compelling reason I just HAD to go ahead and try it.
    I learned to live off only two meals a day, the dog learned that she only had three trips outside a day so she'd better make the most of it, and most importantly, I learned not to let any problem story-wise slow me down. If a scene got stuck and just wouldn't come, I'd skip it, leave a note to myself summarizing it in red font, and keep going. Once I got to the end of Draft 1 (and I did make it by my deadline) those problem scenes had resolved themselves in my head and I was able to go back and fill them in.

  31. Non-Christian says:

    >My tip?

    Enjoy it.

    A sugar high is all very well, but there's no high like a writing high.

  32. Wendy Paine Miller says:

    >Hi Erin,

    Congratulations! I agree about the sugar high. I'm much nicer after I've had my coffee or tea. 😉

    I love how you checked yourself into a hotel. Shows your dedication to the project.

    A combination of your #1 and #3 help me when I feel stressed. A hike. A long walk. Just being outdoors.

    Great post. I cannot wait to read your book. My husband may hide it though because supposedly we’re done.
    ~ Wendy

  33. Anna Zagar says:

    >You're my hero Erin. Writing the thing in two months is a spectacular feat–but turning it in polished…well, that increases the awesome factor exponentially. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  34. Sue Harrison says:

    >You are incredible,Erin! I don't know how you did it.

    My toughest deadline (at least I thought it was tough until I read this post) was a 100,000 word historical novel that required a lot of research to my publisher in a year. I opted out of some of my community and church committees (sometimes gleefully, I have to admit), began a PYOW policy at home (Pull Your Own Weight) regarding chores, and got up even earlier in the morning (5 am or so) to write.

  35. Steve Pritchett says:

    >Isolation in a quiet room always gets me through a deadline. Hours of closing my eyes and drifting into the words, letting them drift through me … That's my way. Oh, and the best ideas always come to me when I'm in the shower. I wonder if there's a waterproof laptop out there.

  36. Molls says:

    >Congrats, Erin!! Thanks for sharing!

  37. Katie Ganshert says:

    >Awesome post, Erin!

  38. Gretta says:

    >Wonderful tips Erin & I am looking forward to reviewing your book for my blog too!

  39. T. Anne says:

    >Hi Erin! *waves* I'm super proud of you for accomplishing such a feat. I cannot wait for your book to come out. Although I'm not having any more babies I'd love to donate a copy to my church library, plus I want to read it. 😉 Great post!

  40. Aimee L Salter says:

    >My hat goes off to you Erin – a herculean effort! Good for you! And hopefully your editor was happy with the end result. Thanks for sharing the ride, I hope the rest of your…er…'year' goes more smoothly. God bless

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