It’s Raining Deadlines — Jim C. Hines

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Codex-Born-Full-185x300 Jim C HinesFaith Hunter was kind enough to invite me to do a guest post for Magical Words back in January of this year. We agreed I’d contribute a post for early August, to coincide with the release of Codex Born. And then I did something that makes me Hulk out and smash my desk: I forgot about the commitment I’d made, and missed my deadline.

I emailed her to apologize. Fortunately, Faith is both kind and forgiving. As a fellow author, I think she understands that no matter how hard we try, sometimes life gets in the way. She commented in her email to me, “For instance, today, I have to get groceries, go to the vet and the dry-cleaners, show up for a doctor’s apt, and, oh yeah. Write a couple thousand words.”

Sometimes things slip through the cracks. Sometimes we blow it.

This wasn’t much of an issue when I first began writing. Back then, my only deadlines were self-imposed. There might be a contest I wanted to enter, or an open call for anthology submissions, but it wasn’t a lot to keep track of. If I missed one, it didn’t affect anyone else (except the poor editor or contest judge who was deprived of the chance to read my BRILLIANT retelling of the Adam & Eve story, in which Eve is actually a vampire, and–)

Anyway, things changed once I sold my first book. Suddenly I had deadlines from my publisher, who were paying me actual money for the next book. They paid some of that money up front when we signed the contract.

No problem! All I had to do was get the next book written and turned in by a deadline that was twelve months out. I could do that.

And for the most part, I did. My once joked that I was one of the only authors he represented who consistently hit deadlines. But then there were more deadlines. Not only did I have to write another book, I had to talk to my editor about revisions and get those back to her. I had to review page proofs. There was publicity stuff to take care of. And all these tasks had to be done on time in order to get the book out on schedule.

It was my fifth book, The Mermaid’s Madness, that broke me. My wife had gone in for several knee surgeries, meaning I was full-time caregiver for her and the kids while she recovered. I was writing Mermaid and revising the previous book and doing all of my regular stuff around the house plus all of the work my wife usually does—and I want to give a shout-out to all the single parents out there who somehow keep all those different plates spinning, because holy crap!—and I realized there was no way I was going to get this book turned in on time.

I called my agent, talked to my editor, and got an extension. I ended up skipping part of our family vacation that year. The book wasn’t too late, and I don’t think I messed up the production schedule very much, but I was not a happy writer, husband, or father.

Life happens. Kids get sick. A pipe freezes and breaks in your basement. (Maybe not your basement, but I live in Michigan.) A tree falls and smashes the kids’ playset in the back yard. Your dog gets digestive troubles and creates new patterns all over your formerly single-color carpet…

So what do you do? How do you get ahead of all those deadlines, and what do you do when your best effort isn’t enough?

  1. Be realistic. I’d love to write 3 books a year like a few of my colleagues, but I know that kind of schedule would break me. When I negotiated my last deal with DAW, I asked for more time. It meant the next book wouldn’t be out as soon as I wanted, but it also meant I had time to finish the book, and to do it well. I was surprising how much more relaxed I felt when that contract went through with the extended deadlines.
  2. Track your progress. I have a pretty good idea how much I can write in a day, and for the past year, I’ve been spreadsheeting (that’s a word, right?) my daily progress. What this does is show me the progress I’m making, and whether I’m on track to hit my deadlines. If I fall behind, I see that sooner, with more time to do something about it.
  3. Play Habit RPG. This might not work for everyone, but over the past few months, I’ve gotten quite fond of this free application that turns your habits and To Do List into a role-playing game. “Write 1000 words (or revise 2000)” is one of my daily items, and every time I check it off, my character gains gold and XP. It’s a little silly, but it’s helped me both with motivation, and by giving me a To Do List where I can note things like, “Write Guest Blog Post for Magical Words.”
  4. Keep a list. Mine’s in Habit RPG, but the point is, human brains can only hold so much before they leak. Whether it’s a whiteboard, smartphone reminders, online game, or all of the above, give your brain a hand. (And now Jim pauses to contemplate that visual…)
  5. Learn to say no. I hate this one. The me from ten years ago screams my name, William Shatner style, whenever I turn down an anthology invitation. But I can’t do everything, and each time I take on a short story, it’s the equivalent of shaving 1-2 weeks off another deadline. Saying no can be really, really hard, but it’s important.
  6. Prioritize. Because we’re not going to get everything done today.

What happens when you blow it?

Communicate. If you’re going to miss a writing deadline, tell your editor! The sooner they know, the easier it is for them to shift things around in their schedule, or find someone else to fill the gap. It’s a hard conversation to have, but if you wait until the last minute, you end up making a lot of people’s lives more difficult…and some of those people have long memories.

Life happens. I’ve found that most people are understanding when you have to ask for an extension or back out of a project, as long as you’re up front about it, let them know as quickly as possible, and don’t make it a habit.

Some of them will even give you a second chance to write a guest blog post.

Jim C Hines photoBio
Jim C. Hines’ first novel was Goblin Quest, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After finishing the goblin trilogy, he went on to write the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, and is currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, a modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies.

Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan. You can find him online at www.jimchines.com.

Other Links
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jimchines
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jimhines

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9 comments to It’s Raining Deadlines — Jim C. Hines

  • Hi Jim! We’re tickled you could be here today!

    Faith and I were talking about deadlines recently, and we both agreed that despite the stress, we work more efficiently when we know someone’s waiting. I guess that’s a silver lining to the deadline cloud. 🙂 But even so, it sometimes happens. So far, I’ve only ever missed one deadline (and boy! did I miss it! Late by a couple of months, I think. Sheesh.) and I think the editor has forgiven me. But I’m going to have to be on my toes from now on.

  • princejvstin

    Play Habit RPG. This might not work for everyone, but over the past few months, I’ve gotten quite fond of this free application that turns your habits and To Do List into a role-playing game. “Write 1000 words (or revise 2000)” is one of my daily items, and every time I check it off, my character gains gold and XP. It’s a little silly, but it’s helped me both with motivation, and by giving me a To Do List where I can note things like, “Write Guest Blog Post for Magical Words.”

    No, its not silly, Jim. This is just a manifestation, a variation on “the gameification of life”. Deep down, in some ways, we ARE those monkeys that want a reward, and can motivate ourselves by using that power for good.

  • Welcome, Jim! Great to see you here! 🙂 (I took the videos of your awesome keynote speech at SIWC.)

    Thanks for those great tips. #5, learning to say no, is the one I struggle with. Love the Habit RPG idea! Do you “spend” that gold on anything, like rewards for progress?

  • Laura – in the game, I’ve been spending it on better equipment 🙂

  • Lady Ash

    In tracking your progress, what information do you keep on your spreadsheet? Is it just the date and word count, or do you have any other metrics as well?

  • Ken

    Welcome Jim! I’m really digging that Habit RPG idea. I’m going to have to check that out this weekend. Those were great tips. It’s amazing how often 5 and 6 drop off the radar for me.

  • Razziecat

    Rule #6 FTW!! That’s something I should know well, working with deadlines every day at my job. But it’s good to be reminded how they can apply to my own writing, too…

  • Lady Ash – I’ve got several columns going. The first one is the date. Next is the total wordcount for the project I’m working on. There’s a third column with my deadlines marked, and sometimes I also add a column showing the wordcount I should be hitting in order to stay on track to hit said deadlines. I also add notes from time to time if I’m on vacation or at a convention, to help me remember why my word count might stall out for a few days.

  • Great to see you here, Jim. Welcome to Magical Words; we’re glad to have you. I’m trying to write three books this calendar year — first time I’ve ever made the attempt. I have two done, but that last one is going to be the killer. Because it turns out my first two manuscripts were not perfect (– audible gasp –) and so I’ll be doing revisions on those at the same time I’m writing the third. All this by way of saying that I love this post and the suggestions therein. And I might need to check out the RPG, because if I can check things off my to-do list AND get points and coins, well that’s just too cool. Be well; hope our paths cross again soon.