D Is for Deadline

You know we’re off to a good start: I’m writing this at half past noon on the day after it was supposed to be up. Never mind what the button says: Blowing off deadlines is not good practice if you value your income and/or reputation.

But if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never missed a deadline, I’d be surprised.

And if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never used deadlines as an excuse, I’d be even more surprised. In the last month I’ve avoided two or three events by saying “I’m on deadline.”

It wasn’t a lie. I had three editing deadlines to meet in a two-week period, all on substantial book-length jobs. The real story is a little more complicated. I took on one job with a more-than-reasonable deadline: a little over 200 pages in about four weeks. The deadline was so reasonable that I accepted another job. And then another.

So I was on deadline, but I could have finished that first job in two weeks easy if I hadn’t taken on the other two.

I bitch about deadlines, but in truth I like them. They help me stay relatively organized. And the adrenaline surge can be, well, a rush. For the better part of a decade, from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, I worked for a weekly newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Key ingredients in the weekly rush to deadline:

  • Martha’s Vineyard is an island.
  • The printer was off-island.
  • The “boards” from which the paper would be printed had to reach the printer by a certain time to ensure that the finished copies would arrive on the island early the next morning.
  • In the days before digital transmission, there were only two ways to get the boards to the printer: by ferry or by plane.
  • Ferries and planes have fixed schedules.

The paper came out on Thursday, so Wednesday was deadline day. The boards had to be on the 5:00 ferry, without fail. No matter how much writing, editing, and paste-up got done earlier in the week — the features sections generally went to bed by Tuesday night — Wednesdays were synchronized chaos: stories breaking, reporters writing, advertisers begging to change their ads or get a new one in, and everything having to be edited, proofread, and pasted up.

Me checking the boards on my last day as features editor, October 1993. In 1996 I returned as one-woman copy desk, where I remained till I went full-time freelance in mid-1999.

I loved it. I loved the way we all came through under escalating pressure, right up to the moment that the finished boards were zipped into the big black carrying case and the editor in chief headed out the door.

After that we crashed, of course, and it was a groggy bunch of campers who showed up for staff meeting the next morning. But the camaraderie and the sense of achievement was real. We knew we could depend on each other to come through under pressure.

On the subject of pressure — I was the paper’s main theater reviewer in those days. Theater reviews had to run by opening night, which was usually our publication day or the day after. This often meant that I’d review the last or next-to-last dress rehearsal.

The deadline curbed my perfectionist tendencies, but on one occasion I froze. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The lead actress was excellent — but I had no idea what the play was about. I couldn’t watch the play again, or interview the director, or even read up on Beckett. (This was before the World Wide Web, so research options in my small town were limited.) I had to write something, so I riffed on the notes I’d taken, trying to understand what was going on.

Into the paper went my review, and after the paper came out on Thursday, the lead actress told me I’d “gotten it.” I knew her pretty well and don’t think she was just being nice. It was a major life lesson to realize I could wing it under that kind of pressure and not wind up with egg on my face.

Working on a big project without a set deadline is hard. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, my writers group stopped meeting. Well into the fourth draft of my second novel, I hadn’t realized how much I depended on those meetings to keep going. Sunday night was my weekly deadline. When it stopped, so did I.

Meetings resumed in warm weather, when we could meet, socially distanced, outside. In the fall we finally made the transition to Zoom. By then I’d put the novel aside and taken up another project: The T-Shirt Chronicles, a blog organized around my formidable T-shirt collection. Will I pick the novel up again? Not sure, but as time goes on I’ve been thinking that maybe the weekly deadline was getting in the way, and what I needed was time to step back and consider the structure of the thing. The novel’s ingredients are all fine, but the whole isn’t doing what I want it to. I’m not even sure I know what I want it to do.

Short version: Deadlines can be powerful motivators, and that includes the ones you set for yourself if you take them as seriously as the ones others set for you. But pacing yourself so that every deadline doesn’t become a crunch is important too. Leave your mind time to meander a little off the track, to follow up on leads that might take a while to bear fruit. And when you meet a deadline and know you’ve done a good job, pat yourself on the back.

B Is for Blogs & Bookstores

Some letters are friendlier to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge than others. Which is to say I could get through the month on maybe eight letters and never run short of topics. Other letters, however . . . On my brainstorm list I’ve got no shortage of Cs, Fs, and Ss but blanks for K, L, N, O, U, V, X, Y, and Z. Not to worry: one thing you learn and keep relearning as a writer to trust the process and don’t panic. The muses will come through if you let them.

I came to blogging rather late in the game, like early in 2011. My first blog was From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, about being a longtime year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Most widely circulated writing about the Vineyard is done by people who haven’t spent enough time here to know what they don’t know, so I wanted to do my bit to correct the imbalance.

Maybe three years later I started this blog, Write Through It. Since 1997 I’d been an active contributor to online editors’ groups, first Copyediting-L and eventually the Editors’ Association of Earth groups on Facebook. It dawned on me that not only was I learning a lot from these ongoing discussions — they’re great continuing education for freelancers — I’d been editing and writing long enough to have a lot to offer my colleagues. Why not put some of it in a blog?

The cataclysmic U.S. election year of 2016 redirected my energies in a big way. My blogging output is way down, I’m not actively following nearly as many blogs as I used to, and most of the people who’ve subscribed to mine in the last few years have no apparent connection with the subjects. But it’s still a pretty good way to get your words out there and maybe start developing an audience.

As a matter of fact, a little over a month ago I started a new blog: The T-Shirt Chronicles. My more than 190 T-shirts span my life back to 1976, so I’m using them to organize a sort of memoir. Perhaps it’ll eventually turn out to be the rough draft for a book, but for now it’s a work in its own right.


The T-Shirt Chronicles haven’t gotten to Lammas yet, but they will.

During the first half of the 1980s I was the book buyer at Lammas, D.C.’s feminist bookstore. Bookstores testify to the the power of the written word. I had a personal relationship with every book on the shelves. It was there because I’d ordered it, and like as not I’d unpacked it, logged it into inventory, and shelved it. Whether I’d read it or not, I knew enough about it to point customers toward it if they might be interested in the subject or the author.

And almost every day I got to listen to customers talk about how a particular book or story had affected them, or even changed their life

Though I left both the job and D.C. in 1985, and though the store — like so many feminist and other independent bookstores — no longer exists, it’s my experience there that gets me through the times when my faith falters and I’m sure that writing doesn’t matter. If you’re lucky enough to live within reach of a real live bookstore, you probably already know the feeling. Clicking through the options at Mega Online Retailer doesn’t come close.

Flash Fiction

The  A to Z Challenge has been keeping me very  busy in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but directly or indirectly I’m blogging about writing, so I hope some of y’all are dropping by from time to time.

For the challenge I’ve been rereading some of the poetry I wrote in the 1980s, especially in the years after I moved to the Vineyard. Gradually my lines got longer and longer and turned into one-act plays, short stories, and eventually a novel. Still, I have to admit that some of that poetry is pretty good, and also that writing short and concise, often in meter and rhyme, had lasting and beneficial effects on my prose.

So lately a guy joined my writers’ group who’s writing flash fiction. Although, or more likely because, I tend to write long, I’m very tempted to give it a try.

And just now I discovered that Spry magazine’s blog is doing an “ABCs of Flash Fiction” series. Clearly the muses are trying to give me a message! They’re only up to D so far. If you’re interested, here’s where it starts.

A to Z Challenge 2018

Last April I did the A to Z Challenge right here in Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going. You’ll find links to all my A–Z posts under the 2017 A to A Challenge tab at the top of this page.

What’s the challenge? Blog on your chosen theme every day for a month, with the post titles beginning with A, B, C, etc., in sequence. Since there are 30 days in April but only 26 letters in the alphabet, you get Sundays off — except when April 1 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.

I’m here to tell you that blogging A to Z in one blog was a serious challenge, and one I’m pretty proud to have met, but when I briefly, very briefly, contemplated doing it in two blogs at once, I knew this was nuts.

Instead, I’m going to do the challenge in my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but to combine the theme of that blog (Martha’s Vineyard) with the theme of this one (writing and editing): How living on Martha’s Vineyard has affected my writing. Both my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and the novel in progress, Wolfie, are set on the Vineyard, so I expect to be blogging about them, and maybe about my other big writing project: developing a script for 1854: A Folk Opera, conceived but not completed by the late Jack Schimmelman.

I also plan to blog occasionally about more general stuff, like how the Vineyard both encourages creative work and makes it difficult. Place is a powerful influence on me, and I’m drawn to the work of writers who are strongly influenced by the places they live in and/or write about. So even if you aren’t all that interested in Martha’s Vineyard, you might want to follow From the Seasonally Occupied Territories for the month of April.

Come on over!

In Praise of Readers

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?

I think it did. I also suspect that when we repeat the question, we’re not just talking about trees. Trees don’t care if they make a sound. They’re going to fall, and rustle, and crack, whether we hear them or not.

For me, writing is part of a conversation. I do want people to hear the rustling and cracking of my words, and more than that: I want to hear what they have to say in response. I’ve had three one-act plays produced, and I love giving readings. Nothing beats the thrill of seeing and hearing people respond to my words.

mud-cover-smIt’s a rare audience that will sit still for a book-length work, but I’m lucky: I’ve experienced what has to be the next-best thing. Last Wednesday and the Wednesday before, I got to sit down and talk with a group of women all of whom had read my novel, The Mud of the Place, and were interested in what I was writing about, the lives of year-round residents in a seasonal resort.

Minnesota Women's Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that's all about books, writers, and readers.

Minnesota Women’s Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that’s all about books, writers, and readers.

These women, who came from all around the U.S. and Canada too, were participants in Books Afoot, also known as Reading on the Road, a program of the Minnesota Women’s Press. As organizer Mollie Hoben described it in an email, “The basic idea is that reading and travel make a rewarding combination. We pick a destination, learn about women writers from that place (which always involves exciting discoveries), select books to read beforehand, then travel there with interested reader-travelers for exploration and book discussion. Participants come from all over the country.”

I first learned about Books Afoot a year and a half ago, when Mollie contacted me out of the blue. Three Books Afoot groups would be coming to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall, and my novel was one of the four “required reading” books. Would I be willing to meet with any or (ideally) all of the groups?

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

Would I?? This was a fantasy come true, and the reality surpassed my wildest expectations. (I blogged about it here.) I’d pretty much decided that writing a second novel was a waste of time. These women changed my mind.

This year we were joined by my writer friend Shirley Mayhew, whose wonderful Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard came out early this summer — too late for the travelers to have read it before they got here, but plenty of them bought a copy to take home with them. Shirley moved here as a young bride in 1947; I arrived solo in 1985. Our books and our very different but overlapping experiences became gateways for the visitors to enter a place that many people know about but few actually know.

Last month I concluded a blog post, “Who Do You Write For?,” with this description of the kind of reader I’d like to be: “one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.”

When a book goes out into the world, does it make a sound? If it does, will I hear it through all the cacophonous competition? Having sat down and talked with dozens of such adventurous readers, I know you’re out there. I’m writing for you.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.