“Butt in Chair.”

Over the past couple of years BIC has become something of a mantra here at Magical Words, and it remains some of the best advice we as a group have given.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  Simple as that.  Or not.  In fact, there is more to it than that, and I’m thinking about it this morning as I confront another blank post screen on the MW website.  Writing professionally is not only about writing, but often about writing to a deadline, writing on demand, churning out content on a regular basis.  Every Sunday, I write my Monday post for MW, and quite often it takes me a while to come up with a topic for my post.  It’s hard, after literally hundreds of posts about writing, to come up with something original and relevant and, we hope, entertaining.

But as writers, this is something we have to do.  Like creating characters and developing narrative flow and building tension, writing on demand and to deadline is a skill to be honed.  And there are great ways to teach oneself to do it.

I first learned to write creatively to a deadline when I was in seventh grade.  Really.  We had a class assignment for the second half of the school year to write just about every night (maybe five nights a week) in a journal.  We could write anything we wanted — diary-type entries, poems, stories; whatever.  I wrote poems and stories and I almost never missed a night.  In fact, I loved it.  I’d put on some music, get in bed, and write until my lights-out time.  And I put together a portfolio of work that my teacher loved.  This was a school assignment, but there is no reason why you can’t give yourself the same assignment now.  It’s a great way to make writing a habit.

There are other things we can do, of course, to make ourselves write on demand — join a writing group, start a blog, or merely resolve to turn out a story every other week, or some such thing.  The point is to force yourself not only to write, but to finish pieces by a certain time and date.  Deadlines are a fact of life for writers, and while many publishers will forgive the occasional late book, no writer, and in particular no new writer, wants to develop a reputation for turning in work late.  One of the other things we say often here at MW is that writers need to comport themselves professionally.  This means, in part, making certain that manuscripts look clean and neat, that they are free of typos and grammatical problems, and, yes, that they are turned in on time.

But wait, you might say.  Writing a short story in two weeks in one thing; turning in a manuscript of 100,000 words on time is quite another.  To which I’d reply, yes and no.  Writing a book is a larger, more complex undertaking.  But when I’m working on a book, I break down that larger project into a series of discreet tasks — chapters are very handy in this regard.  If I were to start a book today and give myself a January 31 deadline for finishing it, I’d approach it this way:  the book is going to be about 100,000 words, and I have four months to finish it.  I’ll want to give myself a couple of weeks at the end to polish and revise.  So the actual writing is actually going to have to take about 15 weeks.  The way I work, that means that I’ll have (allowing for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s) about 70 writing days.  That’s a shade under 1,500 words a day; definitely doable.  In fact, what it comes out to is a chapter every 3 to 4 days — a brisk pace, but not a terrible one.  Now, your chapters might be longer than mine, or shorter.  Your book length might be longer or shorter (although in today’s market, as a new writer, you don’t want to try to sell books that are too far off of that number in either direction).  And you might have more time than I gave myself, or you might work weekends, or you might think that 1,500 words per day is way too slow or way too fast a pace.  These are decisions you have to make for yourself.  And then you have to adjust your math accordingly.

But the process works.  Some might ask if I really think of my book writing in these terms, and the answer is yes, I really do.  As I said, writing a book is a a big thing.  It can be intimidating, especially early on.  I’ve been doing this for a long time; I’ve written more than a dozen novels, and I still find it a bit daunting to start that first page of something that will eventually be 400 or 500 pages long.  But if I look at it as starting the first page of a chapter that might be 15 pages long, it doesn’t seem so huge.  And if I can break down the process and see ahead of time exactly how I’m going to meet my deadline, it forestalls any panic I might feel.  To be honest with you, when I was working on that hypothetical example above, and I typed in that January 31 deadline, I paused for a moment, wondering if I was being realistic.  As soon as I did the math, though, I realized that I was.  That’s happened to me with actual book projects, too.  I’ve looked at a deadline, and thought, “There is no way I can meet this deadline.  No way at all.”  But then, after breaking down the project into its component parts, and plotting them out on a calendar, I’ve realized that in fact I can.

A deadline doesn’t have to be a burden.  Instead, it can be a tool, a way of carving up a project into manageable pieces.  Learning to use your time constraints that way can make you a more efficient writer.  It can also preserve your sanity.

David B. Coe

23 comments to Deadlines!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    I like your view of things…and sounds like you had a superb Seventh grade teacher.

  • This really hits home with me. As I go through my frist, I am often daunted and overwhelmed by the task of writing a novel. The metaphor which comes to my mind most often is one of a mountain towering before me and one which I know that I must climb. Then I get reminded of the old saying, “A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step”, so I try to take one step a day.

    One thing is certain, I have a new found respect for those who can begin and finish novels.

  • I did, Jagi. Actually it was an experimental program — a team of five teachers who put together a comprehensive curriculum for a select group of kids. It was a terrific year.

    Mark, thanks for the comment. As the expression goes, watch that first step; it’s a doozy! It really is true in novel-writing. I find that first sentence the hardest to write, the first page the hardest to complete, the first chapter the hardest to get right. I’ve said this before, but I take more time with the first 100 pages of a book than I do with the next 200. It’s just hard to start such a daunting task. But that makes the completion that much more rewarding.

  • I love posts on deadlines. It’s very interesting to see how different people approach them.

    Personally, I love mountains. I’ve never had trouble continuing once I’ve started. It’s that doozy of a first step that really gets me.

    “1500 wordsa day? That’s like, and hour and a half. No sweat.” Three hours later: “Yay! I’ve written 1678 words!” But… they are all failed first sentences. 🙁

    On the other hand, I’m not at a point where I am working to deadlines yet, so maybe I should find a way to put some deadlines down, and that will help me focus.

  • I’ve had problems meeting self imposed deadlines. If it’s an important deadline that someone else makes I’ll generally meet it, but I sometimes have a hard time setting one for myself. I have far less self-discipline when it’s just for me. I think, “well, I don’t really need to make that deadline, it was just what I wanted to meet.”

    I think I’ll be fine once I do get hard set deadlines as it’s obligation based on reputation, reliability and in the end pay and publishing and not self imposed.

    The WIP I finished the first draft on originally had a deadline, due to it being an open submission for a novella anthology, but when I realized it wasn’t going to be the size the submission guideline called for in the anthology I still kept the same deadline and it actually worked out. If I hadn’t suddenly realized that it needed a few more scenes after reading through it, I would’ve had it done on the deadline.

    It did make me feel good though, when I did finish the first draft in so short a time as it showed me that I could focus and do it if I really tried. Made me feel like I’m ready to make the leap headfirst.

    ……Now if I can just stop trying to focus on too many things at the same time. One of the problems with being a Jack of all trades. :\

  • Hi David. Thank you so much for this post. I really needed exactly this.

    I’ve been *between deadlines* for the last couple of months. That said, I’ve still been working on deadline. Rewrites, page proofs, a few starts into my AKA’s new project, and a proposal and outline, which took me longer than most. A writer’s life between deadlines is really no such thing, I guess.

    Tomorrow I start on that first page of a new novel…. And I am so psyched. And terrified. I am well beyond (okay, four days beyond) the manic phase of creation/prewriting/idea-land. I am calm and have that tingling in my fingertips I get *just before*.

    Now I have to actually *do* it. BIC. And I have to have a rough draft of the novel done by January 1. First steps….

  • Atsiko, right — it’s getting started. Inertia, for me at least, is an enemy at the start — trying to push my body-at-rest into motion — but it’s my friend at the end, when the momentum I’ve built up carries me through to the conclusion of the book. And yeah, even artificial deadlines can be effective, provided you commit to them.

    Daniel, those self-imposed deadlines are the hardest for me to meet, too. As I say to Atsiko in the paragraph above the key for me it truly committing to the deadline, so that it becomes something more in my head than “the date by which I’d like to finish.” Sometimes having the new shiny waiting in the wings can be helpful in that regard.

    Faith, you’re welcome as always! Yes, there always seems to be something to fill the days (though I’m struggling with that a bit right now). Best of luck with the new novel! Yay! Hope it comes out even better than you imagine.

  • Chris Branch

    David, I think the most impressive part of your post is the throwaway line where you say you’ll need a couple of weeks to polish and revise your 100K-word ms. So that’s all it takes when you’re a pro, huh? 😉

    One question, is it really accurate that 100K words translates roughly to 400 or 500 pages? I was thinking it would be more like 300, but never having had a manuscript transformed into an actual book (yet), I never think in terms of pages.

    Regarding deadlines, for others looking for a way to self-impose them: NaNoWriMo is coming up, and it’s a great way to do that!

  • Chris, don’t be impressed. Really. Because that 2 week polishing period that you find impressive is linked directly to the very unimpressive writing pace of 1,500 words per day. Now, these days I’m a bit faster than that — maybe 2,000 words a day — but this is a new pace for me and I don’t like to plan for it yet. But my point is this: I write slowly because I tend to polish and revise as I go along. That’s just the way I work. My first drafts tend to be very clean and, thus, they tend to need relatively little work. Plus, I factor in that the book is going off to my editor, who is going to help me revise and polish as part of the publication process. Other authors, whose books are every bit as good as mine, might work very differently. They might write 3,000 words a day and thus finish their books in only thirty-five or forty days, but they might do all of their polishing in the revision stage, in which case they’ll need those extra weeks at the end. Does that make sense? It’s not that I’m a professional, or that I don’t need as much revising as others. It’s just a matter of where in my creative process I do that polishing work. I do it along the way, so that I only need a bit of time at the end to do some last minute work. I hope I’m being clear.

    As for your page count/word count question: Yes, 100k words is about 400 pages give or take a few. Industry standard for manuscript pages is as follows: double spaced, 1 inch margins all around, and somewhere around a 10 or 12 pitch font. The end result is about 250 words per page. Now this number tends to fluctuate a bit: more words per page when you’re doing lots of exposition; fewer when you’re writing lots of dialogue. But that’s the standard. Me? I use Courier New font at 11 pitch because it just looks right to me. And I get about 240-260 words per page, which is right where I should be.

    And while I’ve never none NaNoWriMo myself, I’ve heard great things about it as a writing exercise. I would recommend it to anyone who has the time and inclination to try.

  • Sarah

    Thank you David. This post is really on target. It brings up a related issue that I’m dealing with, both as a writer and as advisor to the campus writing club. (Go figure – I published one flash piece. Now I’m an expert.) Kids keep saying “I can’t write until after midnight.” I keep urging them that BIC is the antidote to this problem. But I have to admit, I’m more productive after midnight myself. Yesterday I pounded out 2000 words in the afternoon. I was tired, long day, blah, blah, blah. But come bedtime I was wide awake and raring to sit down and write another 2000. Only the thought that I had to teach in the rapidly approaching morning got me into bed. Now it’s daylight and the ideas are still there, but I know when I sit down to write this afternoon it will be slower than it would have been in the wee hours. The maniac spark is gone. Is there a cure for this? Or just an explanation? Is this common, or just another writer myth?

  • Yeah, I tend to do much of my polish as I go as well. It’s just always how I’ve worked.

    I was doing somewhere around 2000 to 4000 words a day on my first, but I was working from the time I got up to the time I needed to start dinner, a good 8-10 hours with some break time somewhere in that, and we got take out on any day where I got frustrated because I didn’t meet my word count or any day I was on a roll and couldn’t stop. Occasionally I’d hit 5000, but the average was around 3000 words. Pretty much, and finally, I felt obsessed, possessed even, to finish the thing. I think with this accomplishment I’ve broken past my barriers.

  • Thanks for the comment and the question, Sarah. Ah, to be in college again and able to work into the wee hours. I envy your students. I’m a middle-aged Dad now and have trouble staying up late enough to watch Jon Stewart. And I live in Central Time!! To answer your question, no it’s not that unusual and no it’s not a myth. Different people work best at different times of day. My wife is a morning worker. If she can get up early she can get a ton of writing done before the rest of the world is even stirring. I’m odd in that my most productive hours are mid to late afternoon. My mornings are usually pretty slow — maybe a page or two. But I’ll do three times that in the afternoon. That’s just the way I am. Now there are two ways to look at this. If you can get your other course/prep work done in more normal work hours, then saving your creative writing time for after midnight will work great. If, on the other hand, you need those productive late-night hours for course work, then using the BIC approach to force more creative productivity out of other times of day might be the answer. In a sense, BIC can mean working through those slower periods and making them productive. But time constraints are a fact of life, as are our daily rhythms.

    Daniel, that’s some very fast writing, particularly if you polish along the way. I wish I could turn out material that quickly.

  • QUOTE: Daniel, that’s some very fast writing, particularly if you polish along the way. I wish I could turn out material that quickly.

    It didn’t feel fast. My backside was frequently killing me after 10 hours in a rickety office chair (the lower back just ain’t what it used to be in my prime). And I’m sure whatever polish I did it wasn’t enough. 😉 Fingers are still crossed and cramping that my proofers don’t laugh at it.

    I may have pulled off the first draft in a couple months, but it’s also the first one I’ve actually finished in…ever. Though it did give me confidence that I can actually do it if I push hard enough.

  • Congrats on finishing it. Now get going on the next one.

  • Haha! No doubt. Now all I gotta do is quit taking other jobs that have nothing to do with writing that eat up all my time (like working FX for a haunted orchard). My wife’s been nudging me to finish my urban fantasy I started a while back.

  • Emily

    Great post, David, thanks! I have a hard time writing every day, but on Friday I wrote about 7000 words. I camped out at Barns and Noble for several hours. I do some polishing as I write, but mostly I leave it to the end. I sit and think for a few days and then write a whole bunch and then do it again. My schedule (esp. since I teach night classes) makes it hard to have time every day, but I can make larger chunks at other times. (Fall is hard, too, because I like football.)

    I’m saving most of the polishing for the end, because that has been recommended to me. I just want to finish it. I’m a little more than 1/4 of the way through, and I’m setting my deadline for Christmas brea–so that I’m done before it, and I can take the time then and do other writing and polishing.

  • Thank you, Emily. 7k in one day! That’s positively Murphian! (As in Catie….) That’s an interesting approach — writing in chunks, letting it stew, then writing some more. I’m not sure I could do it, but if it’s working for you that’s great. And doing the polishing at the end — as I say, not my approach, but definitely one used by lots of writers. There is absolutely something to be said for Just Getting It Done.

    And I like football, too…. Playoff baseball as well. I don’t get a lot of sleep this time of year…..

  • David,
    Your seventh grade example reminds me of a journal I had to write for 11th grade English. Initially we weren’t allowed to write fiction or poetry, but when enough of us told the teacher that was how we put our thoughts down, he changed the parameters and a journal became a great tool for me. In fact, your story has me thinking I might start one up again.

    As for the breakdown of final word count to a daily goal, I think that’s a fantastic idea. Luckily for me the program I use, yWriter by Aussie sci-fi author Simon Haynes, has a daily word count total calculator. It does something similar to what you proposed. If you provide an end date and final word count projection, it breaks down your daily limit based on how many words you’ve written in the project. The only problem with this automated tool is that it doesn’t take into account weekends or holidays. It does live update, which is encouraging to see your daily word count requirement shrink.

    Great post. Now, BIC for me. I must hit my revision goal for the day.

  • I’ve often thought that I should go back to keeping a regular journal, too, Dave. I did during a year we spent abroad (in Australia, actually), because I wanted to chronicle that special time in our lives. But it would be great to do it even for these more mundane times. But I find that I don’t have the energy for yet more writing after working on books and blogs during the day. Still, I miss it sometimes.

    I know Simon through another online community and I have heard about some of his programming exploits. That sounds like a great program.

    Good luck with the revisions.

  • QUOTE: Your seventh grade example reminds me of a journal I had to write for 11th grade English.

    I had something similar in 9th grade that got me thinking about writing as something more than just for RPG campaigns. We had a daily journal too that we had to write in during class for a certain period of time per day. Each day there’d be a different topic, but ofttimes the topic either didn’t interest me in the slightest or it would be something I couldn’t write about for one reason or another. So, I decided to just write whatever I wanted on those days. I wasn’t really supposed to, but I did anyway and eventually the guy, Dr. Macioci, I remember the name well, talked to me afterward and I told him that I didn’t have anything for that topic, but I wanted to write something, so I wrote about one of my D&D characters and made up adventures. It was then that he uttered the fateful words, “You should think about becoming a writer.” And from that point on, I did. Thought about it all the time.

    It was pretty much from that point that I started writing all the stuff I have laying around here in various notebooks and folders. Most of it is atrocious, being from those early days, but you can see, looking through it, the refinement that I was undergoing on my own, the steady advancement in skill.

    It’s been a long learning session, but fruitful, I believe.

  • Very cool, Daniel. And great that you’ve kept it all to mark your progress. I wish I’d kept more of my early stuff, bad though it was.

  • Lily

    Wow, what great advice! Thank you so much for sharing! I think I’ll try that activity out.

  • Glad to be of help, Lily. Anything that can help make writing into a habit is sure to improve your craft. Good luck!