Bear with me through another long winded analogy. I’m going to deliberately bury the lede to weed out the TLDN types.
When I was heading up the Reserve at Station New York, one of my top metrics was safety. Like any machine shop, assembly line, and mechanic bay, Coast Guard stations take a lot of pride in mishap-free operations. Yes, we count the days we’ve gone mishap free. Yes, we proudly display signs that show our record.
This is important. Because while the dramatic ways a guard can lose their lives (in a gunfight, during a rescue op) are also the least likely. Far more likely is an injury due to a boat accident, or hypothermia due to failed seal on a dry suit, or burns resulting from oil allowed to pool in the fantail.
Part of bringing my people home safely after every mission was ensuring that the boring, by-the-book safety checks were performed rigorously and constantly. Even when they seemed useless and stupid. Even when we were exhausted.
Can you guess the biggest threat to my safety regimen? Lazy crew? Not in my unit. Insufficient time and resources? We always made time for boat and equipment checks, and safety procedures were among the best funded line items in the service.
The biggest threat to crew safety in all my time on duty was “Gethomeitis.”
Imagine you’re serving at a guard boat station. You come on duty at 2100 hours, and go through a mission brief, boat and equipment checks. You run your GAR, assess your crew, review your patrol route and launch by 0000. It’s January, snowing and 1 degree out. With windchill, it feels like 10 below. Seas are choppy, with four foot swells that range up to five feet when the wind picks up, gusting at up to 23 knots.
You run your patrol, do man overboard drills and practice tows. You get a radio call to respond to a PIW that turns out to be a false alarm. You then get another to run Victor-Sierra pattern searches for a missing lunatic who decided that going kayaking on a freezing January night was a good idea. After 8 hours on a pitching deck, with nothing to eat or drink other than the granola bars and gatorade you packed in your go-bag, you’ve just about had it. Your dry suit collar is a rubber gasket around your neck. In order to form a watertight seal, it’s choking you to death, and every few minutes you have to jam your fingers in there just to give yourself some breathing room. The razor stubble on your neck is rubbed raw by the tight grip of the seal. The diesel heater in the cabin stinks, so you just leave it off. And since visibility is poor and you’re looking for a missing kayaker, you have to be out on the bow in the wind, cold and driving snow anyway, to get better visibility. Between your dry-suit, body armor, weapons, ammunition, rad-pager, gas-meter, radio, baton, handcuffs and paperspray, you’ve got roughly 40 lbs of gear strapped to you.
After eight hours, you still haven’t found the kayaker, you radio station and request a waiver to stay out past your operating limit. The request is denied. Another boat has already been launched to relieve you. You are ordered to RTB.
Return To Base. Home.
Home is everything that patrol isn’t. It is warmth and safety. It is friends and family. It is pets and food and a hot shower. It is your bed and your possessions. It is the Internet and books and video games. And most importantly, it is RIGHT THERE. You are so damn close. All you have to do is get back to the dock. Tie up and clean up. Do your AAR and check the boat in and you are DONE. You are HOME.
Needless to say, the compulsion to get on with it is intense. Gethomeitis is real. Crews, exhausted and dreaming of comfort, rush it on the way back.
And that’s when they get in trouble. Gethomeitis is when you ignore warning signs and safety checks. Gethomeitis is when you stop “commentary piloting” and notifying shipmates of potential problems. Gethomeitis is when the lookout decides they can look down at their phone to text their spouse that they’re on their way. Gethomeitis is deadly.
Because that’s when you run aground, or hit a buoy, or crash into another boat. That’s when you cut a turn too tight, chine-dig and capsize. That’s when you slam the throttle on or off and toss a shipmate overboard. That’s when you ignore a warning light and a fire breaks out. Gethomeitis causes mishaps.
This post is, of course, about writing.
Anyone who has ever tried their hand at a novel understands my description of a small boat SAR patrol. Writing a book is the height of discomfort, and like patrolling in the winter, it is as endless as it is miserable. You want it done right, but you also want it DONE and OVER so you can satisfy your animal cravings: sex or sleep or food or the dalliances that put your brain into simple, relaxing loops. We know the work has to be done up front, but as we near the end? As we feel ourselves closing on the hard part (the writing and editing) and nearing the easy part (querying, submitting), the temptation is great.
Getdoneitis. We rush it.
And just as Gethomeitis can be fatal to the SAR operator, Getdoneitis can be fatal to the book. The end is when attention to detail is MOST important. It is the time when you must force yourself to read the manuscript again, to remind yourself that, if the project isn’t on a deadline, there is no emergency, no reason why you can’t check things one more time, or walk away and give your brain much needed space before revisiting the work.
And if the book is under deadline, it’s the time where you have to seriously consider asking for an extension, because done-right is *always* better than done-fast, and even better than done-on-time. Readers will forgive you for blowing a deadline, they will NEVER forgive you for a shitty book. Winds of Winter will be YEARS late, and it will still debut at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and hold that spot for weeks. This is because people want gems, and as much as they complain, they’re willing to wait for them.
This is my single biggest challenge as a writer, just as it was my single biggest challenge as a search-and-rescueman. Patience and endurance. The solution in the guard was simple, you learned to suck it up. Officer Candidate School and Boot Camp steeped you in discipline and self-denial. We knew what to expect, we were taught how to tap reserves we didn’t know we had.
No such training exists for the writer. We have to learn it on the job. We have to teach it to ourselves. And it’s critical that we do, because the alternative is art that falls short, that fails your vision, and for me at least, that’s fucking serious. I was trained to accomplish the mission in the guard, and the same holds true as a writer. You set a task for yourself – write an amazing book. That is a contract between yourself and your future audience, and if you fail to honor it, you let everyone down. Take it seriously. Take it slow. Keep the pressure on yourself.
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Get to work.