The miracle of a deadline

If you have followed my blog, you probably have seen this black banner I occasionally have flashed this year in moments of shameless self-promotion.

As the first day of autumn and the beginning of the fourth quarter began to approach, I started to sweat a little. I have made no secret of the fact that the banner is a tease for a book I have titled Jeep Thompson and the Lost Prince of Venus, and I have been plunking away at the story — my first novel in (ulp!) nine years — for quite some time now.

Suddenly I have less than four months to make “Coming in 2021” a reality, so I’d better finish the book, right? So Wednesday, just for chagrins, I arbitrarily set a deadline: The Lost Prince will be released Nov. 26, hell or high water.

I have been making deadline for 46 years, first in the radio news business and then in newspapers, so I know the power of a deadline. You don’t NOT read the news at six minutes past the hour, and you don’t NOT publish the Friday paper. You make deadline, whether the stories are perfectly polished and Pulitzer-prize-ready or not. That’s just the way it is.

I don’t know why I hesitated to set a specific deadline until now. But I know this: After I set the Nov. 26 deadline for Jeep, I sat down and banged out the next 2,000 words. I can count on one hand the number of sessions where I’ve done 1,000 words at a time before. The miracle of the deadline is that I now know that the words have to flow, and flow now.

I also committed to finishing two other novels that have been semi-stalled for a long time, and I assigned dates to those, too. What do you know? Driving home from the day job Thursday afternoon, I suddenly had insights about both stories that had me thinking, “OMG, OMG, OMG, I have to get home and write those ideas down!”

Actually, I sort of lied two paragraphs ago: I do know why I hesitated to set a specific deadline until now, and even I’ve told you why before. In the past when I announced I would release a book on such-and-such a date, I have blown past those deadlines with no book in sight. There has been some sort of psychological block that kept me from treating the side-hustle deadline with the same iron-clad respect I have always treated day-job deadlines.

But this time, when I said, “OK, Jeep comes out on Nov. 26, and then the next two will come out on these dates,” something tumbled into place and I realized I’m serious this time. We will all know on Nov. 26 how serious I really am, but I feel more confident this time for some reason.

And so, I have created a new black banner.

A search for one thing

My mind wanders and wanders and runs off track and down rabbit holes. So many directions and so many tracks and so many holes!

Is there an advantage to focusing on one thing? Of course there is, but there is also a time to explore and to find other options and alternatives to the one thing.

Curly said, “One thing” is the secret — but which one? How do you choose? And should you choose? Is diversification and multitasking a better choice? Jack of all trades and master of none? Or the best in the world at a certain task?

All the shiny pretty shiny-things out there to distract from what’s important — or are they all as important in their own way? Dive, Forrest, dive into that rabbit hole and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain — he sends you to capture broomsticks and perhaps die, but you were brave and brought back the broomstick, didn’t you? And the greater good is better for all that, isn’t it?

And look over here, another shiny-thing to keep you happy until the next mission. So many rabbit holes, so little time …

The list against forgetfulness

[I set the alarm for seven minutes from now and wrote …]

There is a list of everything I want to do and have been asked to do and should be doing and could be doing and would be doing if I wasn’t doing this.

The list is long and not written down, so from time to time I forget what’s on the list until I’m asked how something is going and I have to confess I forgot to do it.

I could write it all down, but what if I happen to forget something and eventually have to admit I forgot even to write it down?

The knots we tie ourselves into are complex and beautiful and horrifying and wonderful.

[… and then the dog started barking and what do you know the alarm went off.]

Does the author have to know whodunit?

I “read” the classic Hercule Poirot mystery Murder On the Orient Express audiobook this week during my commute to the day job. Poirot and David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series have been my light “reading” this summer.

I had the advantage over Christie’s famous Belgian detective because I remembered the gist of the solution from memorable adaptations on the big and little screens, but even knowing whodunit, the novel is a lot of fun and shows Christie’s ingenious imagination at its peak.

As a writer it’s interesting to see how she drops the pieces so they tumble into place at just the right moments. I imagine she figured out how the killer did it and worked backwards from there.

In the old “plotters vs. pantser” argument — should you plot out your story before you start writing or fly by the seat of your pants — I suppose mystery writers at the very least need to know whodunit before they begin. Or do they?

I’ve found it helps to have a target. One of the first things I wrote for The Imaginary Bomb was the last paragraph of Chapter 26 (it has 27 chapters), and then I crafted a story aiming for that paragraph. So I think it probably helps a mystery writer to understand what happened, even if you dive in not knowing how the hero can possibly figure it out.

But would it work to just start writing and figure out whodunit as you write along? It might be fun to try.


I am a gentle snowfall
a breeze making me dance
and a cool (not cold) night
by the water.

Do the deer rustle in their sleep
or is that a night prowler
foraging for odds and ends
in the shadows?

Too quiet for melancholy
I cover last week’s snow
with a fresh coat of chilly paint
without a sound.

Not a stirring within or without
To cut the peace apart, so all rest.

Give and receive

Every day we give of ourselves through our work, producing something of value that did not exist until we did so, whether it’s a Quarter Pounder with Cheese or a theory of relativity. We are compensated for that work under terms that we agreed to when we signed up to perform the work.

You did not steal from me when you took my bucks in a peaceful exchange for the burger. My life was enriched because I had a decent meal, and your life was enriched because you earned a few pennies for your effort.

Please, please, please stop thinking that one of us exploited the other, or that Mr. McD exploited us both. That way lies pain and anger and resentment and hatred and all the other nasty stuff that ruins lives.