Lessons learned on deadline: "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger"
That was the quote (German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote it long before Kelly Clarkson’s anthem) taped onto the police scanner in the middle of our newsroom, and let me tell you, it was there for good reason.
Like many of you, I always wanted to be a writer. But trying to wrench information out of closed-mouthed cops and getting thrown out of post-election parties whose candidates blamed me for defeat wasn’t quite what I had planned.
Still, those sometimes exhilarating, often painful years at that mid-sized daily paper left me with lots of story writing—and editing—experience for which I remain grateful. Sort of.
Turns out, as I aim to publish in the children’s market, I still need deadlines. That’s why I joined PiBoIdMo in 2011 and 2012. PiBoIdMo led me to 12 x 12 in 2012 where I pumped out 12 picture book manuscripts in 12 months. Guess when? Usually, okay, always, either the day before or the day of the deadline. (Thanks, Julie!) Turns out, I also need Julie (and all of you in 12 x 12) to get those manuscripts out of the computer and off to an agent or editor.
Let me share, then, what I learned, in the hopes that you won’t have to suffer like I did.
1. Stuck for a story idea? Get out there. During a hurricane, my editor stood on a desk in the middle of the newsroom. “Your stories are outside, not inside,” he shouted. “Get out there!” Stories are everywhere—but usually not at your desk.
2. Study the best of them. We reporters revered Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan, who wrote the kind of ledes that not only hooked you, they knocked you out. “Gary Robinson died hungry” led her story about an ex-con whose desperate longing for fried chicken went unfulfilled when he turned a tad too impatient. For the kidlit version of excellence, look no further than Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie: “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”
3. Practice. Write as much as you can—and about as many topics as you can. Try that story from every angle possible. We wrote two stories per day, every day, from conception, to calling sources, hitting the pavement, getting the facts, and attempting to throw it all into a comprehensible whole. Which leads to…
4. Write tight. As our newshole shrunk with the economy, so did our story length. If you couldn’t say it in 12 column inches, too bad—the bottom would be cut to ribbons. I learned to make those decisions myself rather than surrender to an editor desperate to meet deadline.
5. Three’s a trend. When we sniffed around and found three people saying the same thing, that was fodder for a story. If you get three critiques recommending the same changes, you’d better listen. Time for rewrite!
6. Speaking of rewrite: Know what the story is about and be true to it. It’s easy to get lost in the details. Lay back and study your story’s structure. Make it work no matter how painful the revision.
7. Love those deadlines: Don’t have an editor breathing down your neck? Set deadlines within your critique group. Pal up with another writer for a weekly or monthly check-in. Tell someone you’re going to finish/rewrite/submit, then do it. Take advantage of all the 12 x 12 opportunities you can!
8. Let the story go—it doesn’t belong to you. We all hope for readers—lots of them. Your story came from you. But it really belongs to those who read it and share it with others. Let them enjoy it. After all, deadline’s coming—and you need to meet it!
Lisa Rogers worked for nearly 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. When she came to her senses, she became an elementary library school teacher, where she’s inspired by the way her amazing students respond to literature. She lives in Wellesley, MA with her historian husband and novelist-future engineer daughter. Her foxhound Tucker has endless ideas for his blog, dreamsdudog.blogspot.com, and someday she would like to have as many readers as he does. Learn more at lisarogerswrites.com.