Deadline Stress for Fiction Writers: 10 Coping Tips

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Deadline stress can paralyze fiction writers -- and I'm not just speaking figuratively. 

Who would've thought that writing novels could be so hazardous to your health?  I'm just one of many fiction writers who has suffered physical pain (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) to keep pace with the Muse during deadline stress.  When I'm not writing novels and inventing characters, I’m miserable.  The "writing blues" only make the physical pain worse. 

So I consulted with some experts!

According to my medical sources, emotional stress (eg, freaking out as your deadline approaches) is caused by the way you perceive events in your life. Most experts agree that positive stress (like winning writing contests and meeting book editors) shouldn't be avoided, because positive stress can motivate, challenge or stimulate you into bigger and better novel writing successes.

However, negative stress (like erasing the only copy of Chapter Two from your computer memory) is definitely worth mastering, particularly if this stress is external and you have no control over the situation. In such instances, positive thinking will zap the stress monster.

“I AM positive,” you may be growling as you pound the keyboard.

Uh . . . right. (Stress alert! Stress alert!)

When deadline stress sets in, it’s time to examine your underlying thinking. Are you REALLY a bad person because you didn’t throw the wet towels in the hamper, or you arrived late to pick up little Johnnie at baseball practice?  Are you really lousy at writing novels because you got another rejection letter from some book editor in New York?

Of course not! But we’re so indoctrinated with ideas about what makes us good partners, or loving parents, or bestselling fiction writers, that we often can’t accept ourselves when we fall short of the ideal.

Clinical experts are quick to point out that stress overload, not stress itself, causes the physical, emotional and psychological setbacks generally associated with deadline stress.

How, you may ask, does overload set in for creative types, like fiction writers?

Consider your earliest lessons. Most of us have been bombarded by lifelong, conditioning messages to be strong, brave and perfect; to hurry up; and to please others. We convince ourselves that we won't be satisfied with anything less than supreme wealth, boundless affluence and the ideal body. We place demands on ourselves that, realistically, can be achieved only by gods, fictional characters and gluttons for punishment.  All this emphasis on perfection makes fiction writers reluctant to start writing novels, much less finish and market them.

The good news is that even frenzied fiction writers can raise their stress buffer shields. You must first understand, however, that the pressures that turn you into Fruit Loops may stimulate and challenge your spouse.  Everyone's stress tolerance level differs.

Fiction writers who deal well with deadline stress are willing to confront it. Quoth the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche: "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

(For the sake of my example, kindly disregard the fact that Nietzche went mad before he passed on.)

So now the question remains: who or what can help you raise your stress buffer shield?

10 Tips for Frenzied Fiction Writers Coping with Deadline Stress:

#1 Supporters

Supporters top the list. You need emotional, psychological, spiritual and professional support. It can come from many sources: family, friends, mentors, even your critique partners. The important thing is for you to build your own support network, people who will nurture and console you and who will help you understand that you're not alone in your deadline stress. These people will help you think through your dilemmas and ‑‑ yes, show this to your family! ‑‑ they will pitch in when routine responsibilities make you frenetic.

#2 Physical Health

Another contributor to your deadline stress buffer shield is your physical health. If you binge on chocolate ice cream or inhale a pack of cigarettes whenever you're feeling tense, chances are that your body will retaliate with a heightened pulse rate and labored breathing. In consideration of the fact that you only have one body in this lifetime, medical stress experts suggest that you treat your body more kindly with nutritional foods, adequate sleep, regular/appropriate exercise and restraint from alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

#3 Relax

Muscle tension can exert itself with aches, pains, spasms, even toothaches (if you're a teeth grinder). Learn relaxation and/or breathing techniques ‑‑ books and audio visuals abound on the topic ‑‑ that will systematically relax each part of your body while helping you consciously discard the tension of deadline stress.

#4 Work out your frustration

According to the stress specialists, pent up anger often leads to verbal or physical aggression (ie, surliness and fist banging). When you feel your blood begin to simmer, get busy:  walk Fido; bake cookies; weed your garden. Find an activity that eases your frustration and, hence, unleashes your creative problem‑solving skills so your writing flows smoothly under deadline stress.

#5 Escape!

Unless you're a glutton, don't punish yourself with a stiff upper lip. Forcing yourself to "hang tough" while writing novels doesn't solve your problem, but it does add to your deadline stress. The very best ‑‑ and nicest ‑‑ thing that you can do for yourself is make a graceful exit. Temporarily leave that relentless, blinking cursor until you can reorganize your thoughts.

#6 Stop "shoulding" yourself

While you can't avoid all of your responsibilities, take a break from your deadline stress and do something you want to do, rather than something you should do. This tiny indulgence will help you cultivate the positive attitude so necessary for stamping out negative stress and increasing your creativity level so you can enjoy writing novels.

#7 Find a sympathetic ear

If your hero and heroine refuse to act romantic or your nightstalker threatens surrender in Chapter Three, shelve the whole ungrateful lot and call an empathetic peer. Another, objective point of view can help you find a solution for your creative bottle‑neck. It can also help you remember that insubordinate characters and contrived clues happen to the best of us ‑‑ published or unpublished.

#8 Take a mental vacation

Lean back, close your eyes and spend five minutes imagining yourself in Tahiti (unless, of course, that's where your story takes place). Use your imagination, in all its vivid wickedness, to conjure up a less taxing environment. Your mental break will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to start writing novels again.

#9 Practice time management

Writing novels is a marathon, not a sprint.  If you find yourself putting off unpleasant tasks (like your 23rd revision of Chapter One), you can bet you'll be nail‑biting when your deadline arrives. To avoid stress overload, plan ahead. Minimize rewrites by outlining your scenes. Set goals, then reward yourself when you accomplish them. Above all, control your time; don't let time control you.

#10 Make yourself available

When you're suffering under deadline stress, it's tempting to hole up where your support network can't spy on you. Unfortunately, these are the times when you need your buddies most. So, if you're feeling neglected or alone, make the first move. Let others know that, even if you are sulking, you really would prefer someone else's company to suffering, and let them help you relieve your deadline stress.

Bonus Tip:  Reach out! 

If all else fails, do something nice for someone else. Proofread a friend’s manuscript; volunteer at a local writing convention, send a "Thinking of You" card to your favorite, struggling writer. Your thoughtfulness may not directly solve your dilemma, but it can help you view your own situation from a brighter point of view.

No matter what you do, however, make deadline stress work for you. Bombard yourself with positive thoughts. Stop saying, "I can't", "I'll never," "I failed."

Instead, feed yourself a steady diet of "I'm great," "I'm doing it," "I'm on my way."

Who knows?

With enough practice, deadline stress might lose its power to make you frenetic while you're writing novels.