Extreme Writing

It is a supreme moment of artistry.

You have just sat through two hours of interminable drawling rubbish spouted by councillors who should have retired years ago, but somewhere in the middle of it all nestles the story which might make a lead.

You have taken pages upon pages of shorthand on the matter, jotting quickfire notes in the margin to signpost the most outrageous quotes.

It is 10:30 pm, but you charge back to the newspaper offices and let yourself in, a latchkey hack, with a view to filing a story with promise.

But here’s the thing: the Newsdesk turns into a pumpkin at 11pm.

By that time the paper must be ‘put to bed’ – or in plain English, prepared for the presses. All night long those presses will roar, out there on some industrial estate. They will print the papers which will be baled and despatched posthaste to newsagents, ready to bring the county its morning news.

So: to get your story onto that front page you have 30 minutes to translate the shorthand, distil the story, select the juciest quotes, ensure you avoid litigation, and – above all – absorb the readers utterly, to the last par.

This, my friends, is Extreme Writing. And it is a buzz like no other.

Adrenaline concentrates the mind and the skills. There is no second chance: you write without a safety net. And you are writing for publication not next year, but in less than 24 hours.

I urge you to try it.

For journalists are not the only Exrreme Writers: novelist and former journalist Alice Thomas Ellis spoke to the Independent about the pressure to complete her collection of memoirs, A Welsh Childhood:””I had to run like hell…..I was idling along and then the deadline started to loom.”

When the Independent interviewed her, she had 18 months previously agreed a deadline with her publishers. She was interviewed in July 1997: the book was due in November of that year. At time of interview, she had written one and a half pages and had a research trip to Mexico planned.

And just four months to go.

And playwrights? Dow they practice Extreme Writing?

The curtain will go up, inexorably, on the planned first night. One would have thought, wouldn’t one, that the owner of Drury Lane Theatre would be concerned when he was supposed to have written the script for a play opening in a few days; and had as yet failed to do so.

Not a bit of it.

It was in 1779 that the most Machiavellian tactics were used to persuade Richard Brinsley Sheridan to complete the final scene of what he considered his finest play: The Critic.

The plot concerns playwright Mr Puff, who invites critics Dangle and Sneer to a rehearsal of what he think of as a great tragic drama of the kind very fashionable at the time.

Of course, it’s just a chance for Sheridan to use his razor-sharp wit to parody the tragic drama; Puff’s is grandly entitled The Spanish Armada.

Just weeks before curtain up, the last scene remained unwritten.

Sheridan’s partners were extremely uneasy, a thespian in Sheridan’s company, Michael Kelly, reported, and he and the other actors confessed themselves au desespoir.

The man who was to play Puff, one Mr King, was also stage manager, and was the unfortunate charged with extricating the script from the great man.

But whether he was frightened or just could not pin Sheridan down, the days passed: and still, no script. Things were getting desperate. Finally, Sheridan’s father in law and partner hit upon a scheme.

Two days before curtain-up, they called a night-rehearsal. And just to be sure Sheridan attended, he was invited to dine with his father in law beforehand.

The moment they had the playwright on stage, King whispered to him: might he have a word in the second green room? He had something to tell the great man which was very much to his advantage.

Sheridan accompanied him, and found the room set up with the greatest comfort in mind: a table, with paper, pens and ink; a warm fire in the hearth; a comfy armchair at a table; two bottles of claret, and a dish of anchovy sandwiches.

As he surveyed the scene he heard the door shut stealthily behind him, and the key turn in the lock.

The message was plain. And to his credit, Sheridan set to, finished the wine and the sandwiches, and completed the play that very night.Kelly reports that “he laughed heartily at the ingenuity of the contrivance.”

There is nothing like a deadline to focus a writer. It removes the precious urge to navel-gaze, and gives wings to the fingers as they fly over the keyboard with the equivalent of a large cannon at one’s backside.

Long live the deadline, I say: Vive l’echeance.


69 thoughts on “Extreme Writing

  1. Deadlines. Meet one, and three more await. I was a slave to unrelenting deadlines for 15 years before I retired. Although I’ve missed a lot of things about that job, deadlines aren’t one of them.

    1. For editors, they were the worst, if I remember rightly, PT. As a regional journo I only had to get the story there on time and spelt right: we had none of the roasting that went on among the chiefs. I am still someone who writes best with her back to the wall: this daily deadline does me good…

    1. Thank you Rosemary 🙂 what a wonderful compliment….this daily habit can be intrusive; but it’s huge fun and – yes – it has elements of Extreme Writing about it. These days I don’t even get a typewriter and a deadline and a nice office: I write surrounded by the mayhem of family life. But I can’t grumble; they’re superb material.

  2. You could eliminate all this stress by simply dropping by Madam LeRue’s Crystal ball salon and write about what “is probably going to happen” next week and you will have plenty of time.

  3. So true, Kate. Often that which is dashed off quickly, under pressure, contains the best gems… but for me I like to allow a little breathing space and then editing before submitting! In poetry especially. The first draft is usually too bulky and needs reduction!

    1. More than once you have rescued me from typos and little bits and pieces which needed tidying up, Pseu 🙂 A journalist usually has a whole sea of people looking at and checking work before it is finally printed. It’s built-in, Extreme Editing and if you read PiedType’s comment – she was an experienced editor for many years- you will see the stressful effect of such brinkmanship. But us foot soldiers- certainly on regional papers – improved in accuracy very quickly even so.

  4. Oh i do know about rewriting pages of script for plays and film, right up to the day and more fun is when the director calls and says for one reason or the other (usually a producers whim) we need to rewrite that dialogue, we shoot in an hour and twenty minutes. I am scribbling as they are having their make up applied and almost always the words will zing! I love deadlines, the drive is great! c

  5. I have many deadlines at the office and in Rotary, getting things done correctly is not an option, it has to be correct. The rhythm of Rotary involves putting together training session, presentations at Clubs, etc. Sometimes a bit overwhelming, but, I go back to the one thing at at time mode and get it all done, sometimes at the last moment, but, done indeed.

    I marvel at your ability to present us with a daily post that always involves research that can’t be easy to do every day. Thanks for challenging us with thoughts, language, history and fun stuff.

    1. Thank you for coming to read, Lou 🙂 I get glimpses of your Rotary activities through Andra occasionally. I don’t know how you do find the time to fit it all in; the deadlines must be numerous…

  6. Having been a procrastinator par excellence most of my lifetime, this is relatable. Deadlines, allowing no wiggle-room for completion of a project, always caused me to perform best . Since retirement it’s been no effort to slip back to slothful ways…to ignore the distasteful…to postpone “just one more day” (or “just another hour or two”) . . . 😦

    Your post has prompted some self-examination. I. Need. Deadlines!

    (And, maybe it’s just my nature to read between lines, but I seemed to detect skillfully interwoven encouragement to other writers throughout this piece, Kate.) Well done!

    1. Thanks, Karen 🙂 The response to this piece has been so interesting: for everyone who needs a deadline there is someone who would rather anything than work to one. I guess we’re all different. And different times of our lives, as you say, demand different working styles too.

  7. Wonderful post, Kate. I prefer NOT racing the clock when I write . . . but as an attorney the deadlines loomed large and came in waves, one after the next.

    Sometimes waves of adrenaline would be accompanied with the right stroke of brilliance . . . causing the jury to see the world as I wished they would. 😀

  8. One gets a taste of it when writing an exam essay.
    I also had deadlines with having to prepare and submit ‘essays’ in motivation for customers wanting extra foreign exchange at the height of SA stringent controls. Not fun.
    I laughed out loud at the Sheridan story. I don’t know that play – in fact The Rivals is the only one I can think of, with surely his most famous character.

  9. Great post, though for myself I’m hopeless with deadlines… just can’t handle them at all, the closer I get to one my mind goes blank. That said, I’ve been able to do blog posts pretty quickly when needed.

    1. Thanks! I think the fear of getting it wrong kicks in for some people, Val, and it’s hard to fight that when it comes. I have it in other areas of my life: if I’m planning a lesson where someone is going to be watching, for example.

  10. After a business life full of deadlines set by others, I now relish being able to set my own. However, my mother was correct. When I run out of bosses, there’s always the clock!

    When deadlines jammed up, I used to be amazed at the strategies, approaches and new directions that would suddenly appear. Often, I awakened with a solution that was wickedly apropos – obviously higher sources had come to the rescue.

    Not having had the dubious frill of a proofreader or editor to check and demand polish…I wanted to club the Trustee or Councillor whose *only* comment, while looking at a brilliant approach my staff developed for overcoming a major fiscal problem, would say, “Shouldn’t there be a comma after…” Grrrrrr.

    1. 😀 I know- as a journalist my only job was to get the English right and make sure it was legal; when you are achieving a game plan for a team, or producing something which has a lot of value for many stakeholders, nit-picking over punctuation is just plain insulting.

      Our unconscious: a sea of possibilities and brilliant solutions….

  11. Dear Kate,
    So sorry to be commenting on only this one of your latest postings. I’ve gotten behind because of a project with a stringent deadline, so this posting of yours is timely.

    Like you, I need my back to the wall to produce. Having been a trade book and curriculum line editor for many years and a curriculum developer as well, I had to meet many, and multiple, deadlines. So that just seems normal to me now. I seem to respond best to pressure.

    One of the reasons I’ve been so lackadaisical about writing since 2008 is that I haven’t given myself deadlines. So nothing’s gotten done. When I complete this project for a friend, I’m going to create some deadlines for myself! Works every time.


    1. Hi Dee, as I often say to people here please never trouble about how often you come: it is complement enough that you pop your head round the door and leave a message. Like every single one of my other contributors you have such a wonderful and unique perspective and your comments are always fabulous additions to the debate: but never let it become a rod for your back! Call in when, and if, you have time.

      Happy deadlining 😀

  12. Speaking of back to the wall……….my book is due back to the pre-editor on April 15. I could choose my date, and I chose to put myself in the hot seat. I have to totally re-write the A plot line – and make it literary – in less than 2 months.

    I figure this proclivity is one of the reasons I always enjoyed performing on stage. Nights when the show went well were great, of course, but the ones where things went wrong were crack cocaine. I loved the thrill of it.

    I hope that will translate to my ability to create with words instead of deeds.

    1. Andra, so sorry to be deplorably tardy in my reply: back to school today, and a bit disorganised. I think you describe the most intoxicating part of the deadline: the need for the unconscious to problem solve with incredible ingenuity. To think fast and act with lightening speed to get the resolution we want. Fab, isn’t it?

  13. Kate, I kind of work well with deadlines (and targets), but not all of the time… however, if I miss my deadlines in work it can cause a few problems. I find that last-minute dash is where I make the biggest mistakes… although I was once told off by my manager for reaching a deadline. I’ve never worked that one out…

    1. Excellent point, Tom: no point in dashing if you make mistakes while you do it.

      And managers and their foibles? I fear we’ll never get to the bottom of that one. Tell me about it….

  14. Oh, gosh, Kate. If it weren’t for deadlines, I would never get any job done. You spoke to my procrastinating spirit here. I have two looming at the moment. It’s more fun to read blogs. I’ll worry about the deadline at 2 am.

  15. I love a deadline, but I’m rubbish at establishing my own. I need someone to hand one down so I can finish my manuscripts.

    Because I very much work my best when a deadline looms hard and fast.

  16. An absence of deadlines leads to inertia or over-refinement, I find, whereas a deadline makes you get the gist down, hone it efficiently and press the GO lever, thereby, best of all, leaving you free to move on to the next big thing.

    I’m delighted to meet my first follow-everyone woman. You are a credit to bloggers everywhere.

    1. Hi Mise 😀 It works a treat, but does not, sadly guarantee I read the blog, as I have explained. I love the idea of the deadline being a freeing thin- leaving us totally available for The Next Big Thing. Lovely to meet you. That’s a great blog you have…

  17. I think the adrenaline of panic (with deadline looming) seems to put a person in the right zone for writing – not a bad thing at all – I might have to create some artificial deadlines for myself – haha – great post Kate 🙂

    1. Thanks Gabrielle 🙂 Deadlines work well for me: but as you see, not for all….whatever you opt for- deadlines or no – I feel sure you will do it beautifully.

      Thank you once again for the most amazing week of posts.

  18. I seem to work better under pressure with the writing deadlines (academic reports) at the university, but I don’t know how that would ever work for me in a creative environment. I think I’d have brain-freeze. I do admire those who remain flexible in light of necessary re-writes or tight deadlines. And then prolific–I admire you in that department, Kate. I really do! Debra

  19. Yes, a deadline is a mighty weapon for getting the job done — I know, I’ve done some of my best work under a looming deadline. The problem I face now is that I set deadlines but because they’re self-imposed I don’t take them seriously. I should hire someone to harass me — maybe that would work to motivate me. LOL

  20. I really enjoyed this post, in particular, Kate. Only this morning I’d been reading an article about avoiding procrastination. Usually, I’m hopeless with deadlines, whatever they are. I don’t mean I don’t meet them, I just mean I get in a tizz trying to do so. 😀 But reading this has made me think that I ought to view them differently and has even given me – dare I say it? – an enthusiasm for them that I’ve never had before, but that I think I ought to try to nurture! As for the last minute play, I remember reading an Irving Berlin biography several years ago which mentioned people rewriting the book so many times and at the last minute before shows were to hit Broadway. They made it sound so matter-of-fact as if it was actually easy!! Still, it gave me a little hope. 🙂

  21. As a former newspaper journalist who sometimes literally had 5 minutes to file, I love The Deadline. I’m good at it. What I’m not good at? Endless amounts of time with no deadline whatsoever. It just gives me too much time on The Twitter and Facebook.

  22. Hi Cheryl! Thanks for taking the time to comment, especially as a former journalist with a very similar take to deadlines to mine. Loads of time and no deadlines – it’s almost impossible for me. When I had my first child and stopped writing for a while I felt completely at sea. No: as Thackeray put it: Write for your life!

  23. You got my heart pumping, Kate!. It was college; the final paper: 15 pp min; Started at 8PM, by 4AM, on page 9/10! Class was at 9AM, fell asleep at 7, woke at 9, hit copy shop(this was back in the day) at 9:20 and delivered at 10. Missed deadline, i thought, then prof told me I had until 4PM…with a smug twinkle in his eye ~

  24. Great story Kate. Love the detail of anchovy sandwiches and TWO bottles of claret.

    Deadlines tend to work for me too…

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