Writing Against Deadlines

Ed. Note: In our spring/summer series – “The Tough Times, and How I Wrote Through Them” – one of this site’s regular contributors will write about a complication they’ve faced in writing and/or publishing, a complication you’re likely to experience someday, and they’ll disclose how they got past it (alcohol may be part of the answer but, no, it’s not the whole answer).

By Rob Brunet

Every writer needs intrinsic motivation, but something about deadlines funnels your energy to the right task at the right time. It forces the eventual abandonment a novel needs if it’s ever to meet a reader’s eyes. I’ve spent enough of my life driven by extrinsic forces to know I rely on them more than I should. So when we discussed the idea of a series about struggling through the hard times, it was pretty easy for me to define what’s been driving me crazy for longer than I want to admit.

A brief bit of backstory should help what follows make sense.

My first novel, Stinking Richwas published in 2014 after ten years of scribbling, rewriting, being torn apart, and edited. By the time the book came out, I was finding homes for short stories and had written a quick 3-day 22,000-word pass at what would—or will—be its sequel. Working title for that piece was Kaboom, even if I don’t call it that any more.

But two summers ago, fresh from an extended road trip launch for my debut, I found myself creatively blocked. Kaboom is written in the same darkly funny vein as Stinking Rich but it takes on racism—something I couldn’t make myself laugh about. I decided to work on something entirely different: a high-adrenaline story about a father turning himself inside out over life-threatening mistakes his adolescent son was making—on a path too close to his own.

Over the course of two months, I cranked out nearly forty thousand words—enough to know the story had legs and could hold my interest. It’s the most focused story-telling I’d ever engaged in and something I’m still waiting to get back to.

Why didn’t I finish? Because in the interim, Kaboom kept itself alive in my brain and, by September 2015, I knew how to reshape it into a story that could carry the message I wanted, deliver on the humour, and avoid the darker depths that made me cringe.

So I plastered my writing room with insight-laden sticky notes and character charts and white-boarded arcs and dug back in. I’d shifted the central character to one I could better relate to and moved subplots around so they could support the theme without killing the comedy. I felt the wind return to my back and convinced myself I could complete a first draft within a couple of months. The fifty thousand or so words I had from my earlier effort would need a heavy rewrite, but little would be tossed.

Then I got a letter.

It’s the kind of letter many writers dream of. It came from the Toronto Arts Council and, unlike the rejection letters I’d been collecting for the past couple of years, it told me I’d been approved. A blind, independent jury of my peers had decided my writing was worthy of a grant. A good grant. Enough to provide a few months of subsistence while I worked on my first draft of a novel.

But there was a hitch. The novel that had been approved wasn’t Kaboom. Nor was it the piece I’d been working on over the summer. Instead, it was for a novel called The Hunt, which had been rejected a year earlier by another program—something I had written perhaps eight thousand words against. A story I’m not sure I would have gotten back to were it not for the TAC grant.

For some reason, I left the Kaboom materials up on the wall, but I piled my notes and marked-up chapters into a box and got ready to write The Hunt. How long could it take? I’d pounded out forty thousand words over the summer, had fifty thousand words of Kaboom under my belt, and had been steadily producing short stories for at least three years.

Then I got a gig. A less-than-full-time consulting engagement based on the digital media work I’d done for nearly thirty years before committing myself to writing. It was good money working on an interesting project for people I liked. It offered the kind of flexibility I’d need to keep writing and was only supposed to last a couple months—three at most. Hell, I’d be done The Hunt by then, even pecking part-time.

Famous last words.

The gig dragged on for over six months and part-time hours didn’t mean part-time focus. It meant twenty minutes here, a meeting there, and the kind of continual disruption I’d grown unused to. The kind that made Stinking Rich take ten years to complete. By the time the next summer rolled around, I had barely thirty thousand words against The Hunt

Meanwhile, my brain wouldn’t stop bugging me about Kaboom, I’d started writing this column, kept up my co-hosting duties for Noir at the Bar Toronto, joined the board of Crime Writers of Canada, pitched and secured a second creative writing class to teach at a community college, and continued sending in short stories to whoever would have them.

Whenever people asked when my next book was coming out, I’d say I was either weeks or maybe a couple of months from a solid first draft. It was never a lie, but after I’d said it a hundred times, even I’d roll my eyes as the words left my mouth.

I wish I could write this post as a humble brag. I wish I could sit back and be proud of the fact I’ve cranked out words of one sort or another on a fairly-continual basis for the past three years. That I’ve seen short stories published in great markets and done my small part to contribute to the resources The Thrill Begins offers other writers. That I’ve created a place for myself in this crazy writing world—one I never lost sight of while I spent three decades pursuing an entirely different career.

But the fact remains: I’ve written well over 150,000 words against three manuscripts and have yet to complete one of them.

That first draft of The Hunt is finally in hand and rewriting is progressing as well as life allows. The characters in Kaboom have taken root in the hind part of my mind, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from changing horses again. Meanwhile, that father-son novel I began two summers ago? It’s likely to languish in a drawer for a while, but I still wonder where it will take me.

I’ve learned something I probably could have figured out with a lot less anguish: I need deadlines. Extrinsic motivation. Someone or something with a calendar and a clock, prodding me, telling me my work is due. Without it, all the writing I can manage takes too long to complete. If I only reach the finish line on a novel every ten years, I’ll be a cliché, not an author.

Maybe, just maybe, putting this out there will give me a much-needed kick in the ass. Time—hopefully not too much of it—will tell.

Rob Brunet writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

To learn more about STINKING RICH, click on the cover below:

Previously in The Tough Times (And How I Wrote Through Them):

Facing Your Personal “issues” and “Issues,” by Shannon Kirk

Shutting Down Places Like Eliot Ness, by J.J. Hensley

On Time Management, by Mark Pryor