How Not to Finish a Manuscript

First of all, let me confess: I’m a pantser. I write by the skin of my teeth, the seat of my pants, insert your metaphor here. I’ve created outlines and detailed synopses only to leave them in the dust halfway through the book. I did the same thing last year, when I was working to finish my current romance, Through the Fire. The manuscript was due in to the editor the first of July. After I got back from a camping trip in the middle of June, I realized I had a problem: less than two weeks to finish 100 pages.

Okay, so I had a big problem.

By the way, I have a full time job, writing training materials. There was a deadline fast approaching there as well. Those last two weeks of June I spent ten hours in a cubicle staring at a blinking cursor, then went home to spend another 2-4 hours doing the exact same thing. By June 30th, my brain had become the equivalent of slush.

With my July deadline bearing down like a freight train, I knew I had to take drastic measures. I sent my editor an email (the coward’s way out, since I knew she wouldn’t be in the office long on the Friday of a holiday weekend) saying I was checking into a hotel for the holiday weekend and I’d email her the completed manuscript when she returned to the office Tuesday, to be followed by hardcopy.

SATURDAY, July 2nd: I checked into a hotel with the intent of not leaving without a completed manuscript. I ordered some General Tso’s Chicken, set up my laptop, notebooks and pens, and the Diet Mountain Dew I.V., and then pressed the power button on my laptop.

Nothing. The laptop was dead.

Like any good author doped up on caffeine, I hyperventilated. Neurotics R Us, after all. I called my friend Lynne and started channeling Chrissy from Three’s Company when she’s really upset: high-pitched whines that disrupted the Dish Network reception for a few minutes.

Luckily for me, Lynne had revived my laptop before; she’d do it again. She and her husband drove to Perimeter Mall from Douglasville, tools at the ready, like Jedi Knights kicking Storm Trooper butt.

The laptop powered on. However, it wouldn’t boot Windows. As any writer will tell you, this is known as The Black Moment, when everything has gone to hell in a hand basket. On rollerskates. Downhill.

Bemoaning the cosmic unfairness that wouldn’t let me get this VERY OVERDUE book done, I tried to shake some sense into the laptop, but I didn’t chuck it. Hey, I was emotional, not stupid. And I decided to besiege the Geek Squad the very next morning, and if that failed, I would buy another computer. Not once did it occur to me to return home and use my PC. Instead, I wrote longhand into the wee hours, thinking I’d just go into the office Sunday afternoon and type in the rest of the story there.

SUNDAY: woke up at sunrise with a pen stuck to my face. Dressed, headed downstairs for the free continental breakfast. Everything looks better with caffeine. Returned to the ivory tower, stared balefully at my personal Judas. “Please, whatever god or goddess is over computers, please let this thing work.” And I hit the power button.

It powered up, like it always does. Then it proceeded to ask me if I’d like to load Windows in safe mode. You bet your ass I would! Windows loaded, Word loaded. I vowed not to power off the laptop for the next 48 hours. And I didn’t. I got down to business, typing, writing, and drinking espresso shots from Starbucks.

MONDAY: By 10 am I had slipped into a fugue-like state working on the computer, stretching out on the bed to write longhand, eating cherries and Reisens and drinking Diet Coke, the only nourishment a writer needs. A “Monk” marathon kept me company. Something fitting in that, I think.

TUESDAY, 7:30 am: 404 pages. Good pages. At lunchtime, I treated myself to some Priority Mail USPS. Package gone, phone calls made, emails sent–I accomplished the biggest goal, and IT FELT DAMN GOOD. Went home at three and slept for fifteen hours. And then the edits came.

So, the do’s and don’ts of how (not) to finish your manuscript:

1. Do not wait until the last minute. Something will always go wrong, some crisis will need to be averted, some relative will attempt to drain your time.
2. Do check yourself into a hotel if need be, and turn the cell phone off. It’s the easiest way to get focused. Really, count up the number of times you’ve told your dear family not to bother you unless the house is on fire, only to have someone knock on your office door to inform you the fridge is empty. Since you can’t kill them, you might as well leave them (temporarily, of course).
3. Do not take questionable electronics with you. A faulty battery doomed my old laptop, and it works just fine without it. However, I do have a nice new laptop now.
4. Do not allow any interruptions. Again, this is why getting away from any and everyone is a good idea. Even if your dear family heeds your threat and doesn’t bother you, you’re going to wonder why the house is so quiet, how the dirty laundry replicated itself, and why the fridge is empty.
5. Do give yourself a break from the computer. A friend of mine uses an egg timer, sets it for an hour, and writes furiously (and without editing) until it pings. She takes a short break then sets it again. My breaks at the hotel consisted of walking to the ice machine so that I could keep my Diet Mountain Dew cold.
6. Do arrive prepared. Take a printed version of your manuscript with you. Never underestimate the power of a notebook and pen. Or an Alphasmart. Or Diet Mountain Dew.
7. Do not check your email. Email is not your friend when you’re on deadline.
8. Do believe that you can and will finish a quality product. My one-page revision letter translated into maybe two hours’ work. Which I did immediately.