It goes without saying that holidays and writing deadlines mix as well as oil and water. Although most of the time I make some Herculean effort to avoid having any deadline hovering over the end of the year, occasionally it happens. Then, instead of shopping, decorating, or enjoying family fun, I’m hunched over my keyboard and muttering resentfully.
For much of my life, the highlight of Christmastime was the l-o-n-g drive to grandma’s house. It was only about 1,900 miles away, so after my parents worked all day we would load the car and head out about 9 p.m., driving through the night and all the next day until we got there. Then it was an explosion of good times and laughter, stoking a blazing fireplace to ward off the crisp cold of desert nights, eating T-bone steaks and delicious slabs of homemade pie or soup-bone soup with steaming hot cornbread.
Probably the worst such Christmas was when I had a tight January book deadline hanging over me. I arrived with my computer, and although I explained to my grandmother that I had to work during at least part of my visit , she was disappointed and upset every time I shut myself away to put in a few hours of writing. The only quiet place in which to work was my unheated bedroom. So I shivered, ostracized and lonely, slaving away over the next chapter while the rest of my family chatted and played games.
So–as the violins play–the point of this journey into nostalgia is that deadlines happen. We hate them. We moan about them. We sometimes resent them.
We also need them.
Because deadlines get the job done.
Writers without firm deadlines tend to procrastinate. They dream. They mull over their intended prose. They imagine a scene one way and then another. They putter. They mean to sit down and work a little, but somehow the week goes by without fingers ever tapping across that keyboard.
A long time ago, I learned that whether I have a legal, signed book contract or not, I must set deadlines if I’m to accomplish the writing tasks I’ve set for myself.
I organize backwards from the point of the contract deadline. For example, if I have a September 2014 delivery date, then I calculate the word count of my project and tabulate how many words per day or how many pages per week I have to produce.
The September deadline is what I call the hard deadline.
It’s the one I will meet. Failure is not an option for professionals. I have signed a legal contract, and my reputation is on the line.
You might be thinking that’s three-quarters of a year away. Plenty of time! Right?
Well, maybe not.
I next estimate how much time I’ll need for revision and polishing. Generally I allow four to six weeks. So a September delivery means I need to have an entire draft completed no later than the end of July. If I intend for the manuscript to be read by a trusted friend for feedback before I submit it to my editor, then I need to reduce my available writing time by two more weeks.
Now, I have a soft deadline of mid-July. I consider it soft because I’ve got some play there. I might complete a satisfactory draft earlier or I might need an extra week. But I have plenty of padding to allow for the latter situation.
Once again, I calculate how much I’ll have to produce per day.
Depending on the type of project, I may or may not have to factor in plot development time.
For example, these days I usually sell on a proposal, which means I submit a plot outline and sample chapters in order to land a contract. That way, as soon as a deal is struck and my signature is scrawled on the contract, I can start working. The entire story has already been worked out.
However, sometimes I contract for a series. In that situation, I will pitch a series concept, but the individual plots of each book may be sketchy. It depends on the editor and how familiar that individual is with my work. I’ve had book deals that specified only “a fantasy novel of 100,000 words.”
Such a deal is flattering to the ego, but it means I have to again reduce my available writing time by allowing a month for idea development and plotting. I have friends who can plot quicker than that, but I’m slow at working a story out.
Again, with more compression of actual writing time, I can devise a reasonable, realistic working quota.
Do I have a year to write a 100,000-word manuscript based on characters and a setting I’ve written about before? That gives me about 10 months of actual writing time. That’s 300 days, unless I take the weekends off. So, let’s say 280 days. The math says that I only have to write 357 words per day IF I write every single one of those 280 days. Less than two pages a day.
If I flitter off to chase rainbows or browse the local Barnes & Noble instead of writing, then the next day I’ll have to write four pages to catch up.
But if I tell myself that I have lots of time and I set no quotas, no page production demands, on myself, the days will slip by faster than I realize. Like some lotus-eater, I will lose track of time until I suddenly wake up to the hard deadline looming huge. Do I want to find myself desperately sweating to finish? No, I do not.
We each devise our own methods, our own little rituals. One writer I knew printed out his pages each day and took satisfaction in watching the manuscript grow physically in size, week by week.
Another writer friend of mine used to determine his daily page quota, then stack that number of pennies next to his computer screen. As he completed a page, he would shift a penny to the opposite side of the screen. It was a method of increasing his stamina and developing the professional discipline necessary to get jobs done.
As writers and creative types, we tend to hate knobby, unfriendly words such as discipline, production, deadline, and quota. Their connotations seem to contradict those lovely concepts of freedom, imagination, and joy.
But experience has taught me that professionalism and discipline are the harness I must put on in order to finish the stories teeming in my brain.
Even when I lack a contract, I set my own hard and soft deadlines for my writing projects.
Case in point: Currently I’m working on something that I want to show my agent. My soft deadline was to get it to him before Christmas. But the holidays arrived, and my Christmas company arrived a few days earlier than expected. I am perhaps one day’s work shy of finishing the project. It hangs, suspended and frozen, in my mind, in my computer, on my desk.
I could have shooed my guests out of the house for several hours or lined them up in front of the television like children glued to the Teletubbies program on PBS, but it was Christmas; it was a soft deadline; and New York tends to shut down this time of year.
However, all such excuses have melted like the ice that coated my world last week. If my agent has departed New York for warmer climes, so be it. The email umbilical cord remains uncut.
Another project looms now. And the more I dawdle with Project One, the less time I have to spend with Projects Two and Three.
Which means, I’m setting a new deadline for myself: Project One has to be wrapped up by Monday. That’s it. No matter how many post-Christmas sales are beckoning. No matter how much I yearn to take down the tree and put the poinsettias away. The most magical time of the year is over, and there are stories to be written.
After all, September is getting closer every minute.