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Managing Deadlines with Hank Phillippi Ryan

Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston’s NBC affiliate.  Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure and millions of dollars in restitution.  Along with her 26 Emmys and 10 Edward R. Murrow Awards, Hank has won dozens of other regional, national and international journalism honors for her hard-hitting investigations.  Hank began her television career reporting and anchoring news in Indianapolis and Atlanta.  She’s also worked as a proofreader, a radio reporter and a legislative aide in the United States Senate, and in a two-year stint as editorial assistant at Rolling Stone magazine, helped organize presidential campaign coverage for Hunter S. Thompson.  Her debut novel, Prime Time, won the prestigious Agatha Award.  She and her husband live just outside Boston.


Nothing makes my little heart beat faster than when I first start to work on a new book and think about how many freaking words I’m going to have to come up with. I’ve written ten books but it never ceases to be daunting in the beginning—particularly when you see the number of words printed out—like 80,000. It makes me want to dry heave. It can also make it hard to get started. It’s like looking at the biggest, most horrifically jam-packed closet in the world and knowing you’re going to have to clean it—now.

I’m always anxious to hear the processes other writers use because I feel there’s a chance I will pick up a strategy or two. I especially wanted to know how Hank Phillippi Ryan does it, since in addition to writing the Charlotte McNally mystery series, she is an investigative reporter with Channel 7 News, the NBC affiliate, in Boston. Turns out she has a few really great tips for wrestling a word count to the ground.


We all have days when we’re running on all cylinders, right? And other days when we’re wondering whose idea this writing thing was in the first place. But then there’s a deadline, and the only reality is the time ticking by. So in the blissful moments when the contract is first signed, I take the number of words I have to write—say, 90,000—and divide by the number of days I have to write them, minus a month for revisions. Usually that comes out to around 500 words a day. Five hundred words is what—two pages a day? Piece of cake. So every day I promise myself that all I have to do is write two pages. And I do. I sit down at the computer, and no matter how long it takes, whether it’s three hours or whether it’s 15 minutes, I write my two pages. And very often, of course, since I know all I have to do is two pages—many more will somehow get written. And if they don’t, fine. I’ve still achieved my goal.

Getting started? I make an appointment with myself. When it’s, say, 10 in the morning, I promise myself, I’ll sit down at my computer, ready to write. No more email, no more Facebook, no more New York Times and coffee, no more checking my blogs, no more alphabetizing the spices in the kitchen cabinet. It’s so easy to get off track and decide, “Oh, I’ll just quickly check one thing. And the result of that is you’re trapped in on-line quicksand, and time evaporates. So I make myself my own boss, then I promise the boss I’ll be at work on schedule. Since it’s not good to displease the boss, I show up and I work.