A few weeks ago, when I was the Featured Speaker at the UNM Writer’s Conference, part of my talk was about how important it is to establish writing habits. I went out of my way to explain that there isn’t one way to do this. I then supplied examples from several professional writers (including myself, from back when I was getting started) who manage to produce a regular flow of novels and short fiction despite holding down full-time jobs.
Afterwards, one of the people who stopped to chat made an interesting comment: “I really enjoyed your talk, and all the examples you gave. But isn’t it easier for professional writers to write—even if they have jobs? After all, they have deadlines to meet.”
I thought this was a really interesting comment because, of course, not all professional writers make their deadlines. Indeed, a couple of writers have become almost as famous for not making deadlines as for what they produce when they finally deliver the manuscripts in question.
Those writers who do meet their deadlines take into account that life is not predictable and try to set deadlines that allow not only for time to write, but for when the unpredictable happens. One of my favorite examples was from Ian Tregillis, who not only schedules time to write, but also allows time for life’s ups and downs. Here’s how Ian put it:
“I also anticipate two non-productive months, so that I have time for revision prior to submission, and also to account for the inevitable month where travel, work deadlines, pets, taxes, and household emergencies conspire to make writing impossible for several weeks. I’ve found that every single book comes with at least one of those months.”
(Ian Tregillis is the author of the critically acclaimed “Milkweed Triology.” His current new release is The Rising, book two in his “Alchemy Wars” series from Orbit. When he’s not writing, Ian holds down a light-weight, full-time job as a physicist at Los Alamos National Labs.)
When I started writing full-time, I also allowed for time for things to go wrong. I have bittersweet memories of talking with John Douglas at Avon who was my editor both for several of my own books and for the two books I completed for Roger Zelazny: Donnerjack and Lord Demon. We were trying to work out a schedule for my turning in first Donnerjack, then the book that would become Changer. I remember saying something along the lines of, “And then it’s going to be around the anniversary of Roger’s death, so I’d better allow time for my breaking down.” John understood.
In fact, the only time I’ve missed a deadline was when my father died, and even then I was only a few weeks late.
My feeling is that externally imposed deadlines may indeed help some people make time to write. They might even thrive under pressure, like those people who, in high school and college, leave their term papers to the last minute. (I always wondered how good those papers turned out and what sort of grades they received, but I never could make myself ask.)
Most people think of deadlines as something imposed from the outside. This is probably part of the appeal of National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). Not only is there a deadline imposed, but also there is the sense of belonging to a community of other people all striving to meet that goal.
However, I think that the best deadlines are those imposed by writers themselves. November would not be the month I’d pick to try to write a novel. By the end of the month, both Thanksgiving and the build-up to the Christmas holiday season are already cutting into my free time then.
Some people resist setting up deadlines because they can’t bear the sense of failure when they don’t meet them. However, would these people write more if they didn’t have any reason to push forward, despite the myriad distractions imposed by daily life? Only they know, but – based on my experience both as a writer and as an English professor (and thus subject to myriad excuses as to why the paper was late, despite the student having known the deadline from the first week of class), I doubt it.
Maybe we need to change the term. Maybe “deadline” – with the implication of complete failure and death if the goal is not met – needs to be changed to something more inspiring. How about finishing line?
I’d love to know what you think about deadlines. Have they helped you? Hurt you? Inspired you? Distracted you?