Dealing with Deadlines… Or Not

The other day, my friend Michael Wester asked, “Do authors work better under deadlines?”  He then commented that he didn’t remember seeing me address the question of deadlines in the course of my Wanderings.

Marking the Deadline

Marking the Deadline

So, here I am, attempting to do so.

I guess the first thing I’d better say is that I have no idea what “authors” do about anything.  I only know what this one author does.  Writers are more different than most people who share a common professional title.  About the only thing they share in common is a desire to use words to create something.  I say “desire” very specifically.

I’ve known an awful lot of people who refer to themselves as “writers” or “authors” who have never professionally published.  Do I have a problem with this?  Not at all.  You don’t need to have your work shown in a gallery to be considered a painter or sculptor.  I do have a bit of a problem, however, with people who refer to themselves as “writers,” yet who seem to spend a whole lot more time talking about writing than actually putting words down.

But that’s another topic…  Or maybe it isn’t.  I think that a writer needs to actually write – not just to talk about writing – to be a writer.

And this brings me back to Michael’s question: “Do authors work better under deadlines?”

I don’t…  Or rather, I don’t need someone else to impose a deadline for me to write.   If I have a contractual deadline, I usually do a bit of math and work out how much I need to write in a given month to meet it.  In addition, I factor in time for me to read through the manuscript in full, beginning to end, red pencil the hell out of it, and make the corrections.  Another element I work in is time for Jim to read the manuscript.

I take a look at my calendar and try to anticipate periods when it may be difficult to find time to write as much as I’d like  – holidays,  or upcoming trips, or other projects (for example, the time I will need to review a copyedited manuscript or page proofs on a book that’s already in production).

When I don’t have a deadline, as happens from time to time, I still tend to impose deadlines on myself – and meet them.  I’ve written several novels that way, including Through Wolf’s Eyes.  I had written a proposal for my agent to shop around.  Then one day it hit me.

I said to Jim:“I want to write this book no matter what, so I’ll just write it.  If Kay sells it based on the proposal, all well and good.  If she doesn’t, then she’ll have a complete manuscript to shop around.  And I’ll have written the book I want to write.”

Eventually, it was the full manuscript that sold.   The nice thing was that I was then in a position to start the sequel as soon as it was under contract.  Wolf’s Head, Wolf’s Heart was completed before Through Wolf’s Eyes was released.

In fact, in my relatively long career as a writer of novels and short stories, I have missed only one contractual deadline.  That was when my father died.   Since I had to make several trips back and forth to Denver, I asked for (and was given with great compassion) an extension.  I managed to be only six weeks late.

So do authors work better under deadlines?  I guess my answer would be that this one does, but she prefers to inflict deadlines on herself.

I’m curious as to how other people manage to meet this challenge.   Does a deadline help you work?  Or does a deadline create pressure you’d rather not have?

I’m interested!

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9 Responses to “Dealing with Deadlines… Or Not”

  1. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    My feeling about deadlines is that, like any other sort of pain, it’s much more tolerable when self-inflicted. As to the definition of a writer- someone following Heinlein’s first two rules: 1) Write. 2) Finish what you write.

    I’m still working on #2. 🙂

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I find deadlines to be more useful than than not, but it’s not just for me. In our society, money is (for better or worse) the ultimate moral persuader. As a result, the phrase, “I’ve got a (contractual) deadline I’ve got to meet” is one of the best excuses for getting out of other tasks, since it trumps just about everything except family emergency. Personally, I think that money=moral power is problematic in any number of ways, but that’s the way things seem to work right now.

  3. Tori Says:

    I do better with deadlines in general. They create a sense of immediacy that motivates me to Get It Done. On the other hand, they can also cause time-wasting panic attacks when I’m not on track to meet the deadlines. So it’s a double-edged blade for me.

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Well, I’m still only aspiring so I can’t say for sure. But I am fairly confidant that deadlines would not be good for me. I have dysgraphia. It’s a learning disability that of all things, makes it hard to write. It takes more effort for me than most to get thoughts on paper, or uh, keyboard. Thus added pressure to fight through it and get something fully written and ready could make it even harder to get it done.

    Mind you I’m the first to admit I sill have to learn the discipline of writing (or course I a better environment would help a lot, but that’s a long explanation). Not so much writing every day, since in my case that’s just not possible, as making sure I’m always working when I can.

    Maybe when I get better at that, deadlines won’t be an issue. But for now, I fear them greatly.

  5. Alan Robson Says:

    I find it very easy to not write — I love having written, but the act of sitting down and putting words onto paper (or screen) is something I find very easy to postpone. However the knowledge that other people are depending on me to get things done so that *they* can get things done in their turn is a useful spur, and the discipline it enforces is good for me.

    Though having said that I sometimes impose quite artificial deadlines on myself for no very good reason except I can. Sometimes it helps.

    So yes — for me deadlines, whether self-imposed or not, are very important. Without them I’d probably just spend my time watching trees grow…


    -Alan

  6. Michael Wester Says:

    As I told Jane (who notes people prefer to respond to her by email rather than on her blog, so for once I will blog), my question was inspired by another writer friend who works best under deadline. And the reason I asked this friend about deadlines is that I had recently read the book _Predictably Irrational_ by Dan Ariely, who studies the field of behavioral economics.

    One of the chapters, entitled “The Problem of Procrastination and Self Control”, mentions an experiment performed by the author in which he asked the students to write three essays for his class. He also taught three sections of this class, so changed the conditions in each section. In one section, he gave hard deadlines: 4, 8, 12 weeks. In a second section, he allowed the students to turn in the essays whenever they wanted to before the end of the semester. In the third, each student set his or her own deadline for each essay, and was docked 1% of the grade for each day the essay was late. So how did things come out? The quality of the papers in the “dictatorial class” with no flexibility in deadlines was the best. The quality in the class with complete flexibility was the worst—many students waited until the last minute to write their three papers. The class where students imposed their own deadlines was in between. Some students spaced their deadlines out nicely, others crunched them up.

    There is much more in this book, which is a very readable popularization of a variety of published behavioral research performed by the author and others, and is utterly fascinating in the insights into human behavior it provides—highly recommended!

  7. Paul Says:

    Deadlines probably help me. I had a background in newspaper work, and so had daily deadlines. Once (and only once) I let a deadline for a submission to an anthology almost slip by, but met it via an all-nighter. If no deadline existed, a self-imposed one would probably be good for me.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Before I sound horribly superior, I should note that I worked my way into imposing deadlines on myself. I was a terrible procrastinator through grammar school, began to find a little balance in high school, and really began to learn I didn’t like panic in college.

    It didn’t stimulate me, as I’ve heard some people say being up against a deadline does. It made me think less clearly.

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