If you sit around waiting for inspiration, it may never come.
I met an author—let’s call him “Larry”—at a conference last year whose first novel, part one of a trilogy, was soon to come out. When I asked how the second was coming along, he said he didn’t feel much urgency since his deadline lay a year out. Once his publisher set that deadline, his work slowed down—in fact, it stopped.
Perhaps Larry, like many of us, works well under pressure. He may complete the manuscript in two or three months and do a fine job. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so, however, for several reasons. First, taking too much time off from writing can lead to creative atrophy. Once we restart, it may take a while to warm back up to our usual groove. Second, all of those months off are months that could contribute to sharpened writing skills. And third, if Larry only takes a few months to complete one novel, why not finish the next two in the series sooner? The more quality work we complete, the better.
I’m not sure which contributes more to my adoration of deadlines—my work as a journalist or the on-time-is-late gene I inherited from my dad. In either case, I believe deadlines can serve as a lifeline for most writers. Here’s why:
1) Sitting around waiting for our muse to appear is impractical. Sure, being struck with wicked inspiration is awesome. But complacency can block inspiration, in my opinion. When I worked as an actress, I used slow months to create film projects of my own. When times were slow at a magazine I worked for, I wrote additional articles and submitted my work to other publications. And you know what? The work inspired me. It still does. The more routinely we sit down and write, the more inspiring we’ll find the act of doing so. Deadlines, whether set by us or others, helps keep us focused. We have little choice but to work.
2) The Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, the more time we have to complete a project, the longer it will take us to complete it. If Larry set his own deadline of six months rather than twelve and took it seriously, he’d probably meet it. The same goes for all of us.
3) Honing the practice of deadline-keeping promotes professionalism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the interest some agents expressed in representing me stemmed from the skill set journalism requires. One even said, “Ah, so you’re good with deadlines.” (Are you kidding? We’re like BFFS. ;)) Fortunately, you don’t need to work with editors, agents or publishers to get your deadline skills in order.
Tips for Setting Your Own Deadlines and Making them Work
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” — Les Brown
Choose realistic dates. If our deadlines are too far off, we may make like Larry and feel no sense of urgency. They can then sneak up us, causing crazy stress, weakened self confidence or total surrender. (“I give up!”) If our deadlines are too short, we run the risk of little things getting in the way or overwhelming ourselves, which again may inspire us to give up. Deadlines should trigger anticipation and enthusiasm, not panic.
Allow for some wiggle room. I generally have about a week to finish feature articles. I give myself a deadline of two to three days. This way, I have plenty of time for unexpected delays and to review my work with fresh eyes before submitting it. And my editors know that I work fast, so if a short turn around piece arises, I’m a realistic candidate. If you feel confident that you can complete a project in six weeks, take seven or eight. Or set a rough draft deadline of six weeks and a final deadlines of seven.
Set incremental deadlines. If your goal is finishing a novel in one year, setting weekly or monthly goals of a certain amount of work time, pages, words or “chunk” can be helpful. I personally don’t dig goals of specific words or pages because quality matters more to me than quantity. But you should do what works best for you.
Create accountability. The more often you set and meet deadlines, the more likely you’ll be to take them seriously, simply by thinking or stating them. If you need more accountability, try joining or starting a critique or writers group. (FYI, choose critique groups with caution. Taking feedback from a bunch of writers can help or hinder our work. What you want is accountability, not a bunch of contradicting opinions.) Or use the buddy system with a fellow reader or writer. Each week or month, share or exchange x-number of pages, chapters or whatever quality work you’ve churned out.
Reward yourself, but don’t punish. Once you meet a deadline, reward yourself with a day off, new book or whatever else strikes your fancy. If your deadline draws near and you’re way behind, set a new one—preferably not too far off. The beauty of setting our own deadlines is that we can remain flexible. In many cases, editors, agents and publishers will allow extra time if you explain in advance that a few more days or weeks would allow greater work quality. Quality often trumps meeting specific dates.
So, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts. What do you like or dislike about deadlines? Any points to add? Experiences to share? Challenges we can help you manage? Share, share away…