As the year winds down, and I start considering all the work I need to get done in the next few weeks, my mind naturally turns to the topic of deadlines. Deadlines are one of the harsh realities of life as a professional writer. We are always working under one deadline or another; often we face several at once, some of them external, some of them self-imposed. I am looking at four looming deadlines right now, one that I established myself, one that is contractual, one for a short story that I promised to a friend [waves at Misty], and another for an anthology to which I’d like to submit another story.
Writing to deadline is something pros do. Ask any writer what he or she feels is a defining characteristic of a professional writer and s/he is bound to mention hitting deadlines. If we can’t hand in work on time, we’re not going to last long in this business.
So what are some secrets for successfully working under deadlines?
1. Treat all deadlines as immutable. No writer wants a reputation for missing deadlines or constantly asking editors for extensions. It makes us look bad. It suggests that we are not able to produce on demand, which is another element of being a professional. But more than that, we don’t want to get bogged down with a project that lingers and lingers, never getting done. This is why I treat my own self-imposed deadlines with the same respect I extend to deadlines imposed by others. When I work on a book that I’m writing on spec — by which I mean a book I’m going to finish and then try to sell to a publisher, as opposed to a book that’s already under contract — I set a deadline for the completion of that novel and I stick to it.
Why? A couple of reasons. First, I don’t want to get in the habit of letting deadlines slide. By treating all of my due dates with the same sense of finality I reinforce a good habit. And second, I set goals for each calendar year. Every deadline I miss makes it harder to meet the next goal on my list. It becomes a self-reinforcing pattern of failure and missed end-points.
2. Keep deadlines realistic. Do you ever watch Chopped on the Food Network? For those who aren’t familiar with the show, it’s a cooking competition in which contestants are given specific ingredients they have to use in a dish that they complete in a set amount of time. My wife and I love it. Invariably, an episode will crop up in which someone tries to make, say, risotto, in ten minutes, despite the fact that risotto ALWAYS takes longer to cook. Invariably, these people get chopped — in other words, they lose.
Writers sometimes do something similar by agreeing to, or giving themselves, unreasonable deadlines. If you write a thousand words a day, chances are you won’t be able to complete a 100,000 word novel in two months. The math doesn’t work. So don’t expect it of yourself, even if it’s a deadline no one but you will ever know about. Don’t set yourself up for failure.
“But,” you say, “what if an editor asks me to make that two month deadline?”
Be honest with her. Tell her that two months won’t work, but you can get it done in three, or three and a half. When it comes down to it, the editor is going to get the book at the same time no matter what. You can only write so fast. Faced with the choice between A) an honest assessment of your writing pace and a book handed in when she expects it, or B) a book promised on an unattainable schedule and then handed in a month late, just about every editor will choose A.
3. Set intermediate goals to keep yourself on pace. I find that it’s not enough for me to know that I have a deadline three months away. I can promise myself that I’ll finish my 100,000 word novel on time, but I need a measuring stick by which to keep track of my progress. And so I set word count goals along the way. I try to have X number of words written by the end of the first month, and X+Y finished at the end of month two.
As I’m making my schedule, I keep in mind that life happens. Each month I’m going to miss a day or two of work. This time of year holidays limit our productivity. Sometime in the summer I’ll be traveling with my family. Certain times of the year tend to be busier than others with conventions, family events, birthdays, etc. I need to consider all of these things.
In other words, when I set my intermediate goals, I keep in mind all the possible delays I might encounter. Again, my goals are to meet the deadline and to avoid setting myself up for failure. So I try to be as realistic with my intermediate measures as I am with the deadline itself.
Deadlines are a reality, but with some forethought, discipline, and honest planning, they shouldn’t be anything we can’t handle.