Thoughts on Writing
by Seanan McGuire
That's even less helpful than our normal short-form thoughts, so here's
our expanded thought for the day:
Deadlines are your friends. Learn how to work to them. If you
ever start publishing, you're going to be getting a lot of deadlines,
and you won't necessarily have any real say in the matter. It's best if
it's not a shock to the system.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the world is full of deadlines, and the world of
the writer is doubly full of deadlines. There are deadlines dictating
when you need to get the words onto the page, when you need to finish
processing editorial changes, when you need to correct any typos, and
when you turn in your manuscript. So how do you maintain your sanity in
the face of a seemingly endless list due dates? How do you meet your
deadlines, how do you handle it when you miss a deadline, and how do
you cope? Let's talk setting deadlines, meeting
deadlines, and living with deadlines. Ready? Good. Let's begin.
Defining the Deadline.
A deadline is a time limit. Full stop; no hidden catch; that's all. A
deadline is a time limit. If I tell you I'm leaving the house at six to
head for the book store, that's your deadline for catching me at home.
If I tell you dinner is going to be ready at eight, that's your
deadline for making it to dinner on time. An appointment to start
something is also a deadline to stop something. We each meet, miss, and
make a hundred deadlines a day. Some of us are more fixated on our
deadlines than others—if you want to make me crazy, make me
late for something—but the truth of the matter is that no one
is ever entirely free of them.
Most of us are schooled to think of deadlines in terms of, well,
school. The word summons up images of late-night cram sessions, essays
fleshed out with as many adjectives as can fit onto a sheet of
wide-ruled paper, bibliographies that are technically works of fiction,
and grades that are lower than we secretly believe they ought to be.
All because of the deadline! If not for the deadline, every paper would
be a work of art, every assignment would be flawless, and the
valedictorian speech would look more like a performance of Our
Except for the part where no, not really. Without the deadline, a lot
of us would still be sitting crammed into our little kindergarten
desks, considering how to best start coloring our very first worksheet.
A deadline is a time limit. Be glad.
Why Do I Need Deadlines?
There are a lot of reasons beyond the example given
above—which is, I will admit, a little bit
extreme—that a writer needs deadlines. Yes, that includes
you, if only because we're pretty much all mortal here, and that means
that we have one deadline we're not allowed to postpone forever. (If
you're immortal, you just have to assume this paragraph is one of those
"my process is not your process" things that doesn't apply to you.
Also, you have to call me and let me know how to swing the whole
"living forever" thing, because that would be keen.)
Are you a perfectionist? You may find that without a deadline, you
never stop tinkering. That word isn't flawless! That sentence doesn't
drip like honey from the tongue! That scene could be better! Without a
deadline, without an artificial limit imposed on
your art, you could keep working until perfection is achieved! Right?
Sadly, wrong. Very little in this world is truly perfect, and most
perfectionists without deadlines will find themselves going over the
same ground over and over again, never gaining ground, and more, never finishing.
I understand the impulse. I'm a perfectionist. If I didn't force myself
to work to deadlines, I'd still be working on the list of fifty
thoughts that started this whole mess. There is a time and a place for
perfectionism, and having a deadline will force you to figure out
exactly when and where they are.
Are you a slacker? You may find that without a deadline, you never
actually get started. There's always tomorrow! The new Jack Black movie
opens this weekend, and yeah, you said you were going to get some
writing done, but it's such a beautiful day! The English language isn't
going to go extinct in your lifetime! There's still time! Right? Right?
Still sadly wrong. While there is still time, and
while it's true that the English language probably won't fall out of
favor in your lifetime (unless you're one of those immortals I
mentioned earlier), your lifetime remains a finite thing. The number of
people who haunt the convention circuit talking about the books they're
"going" to write someday is sort of frightening. Yes, there are real
things that get in the way of sitting down and banging out a novel, but
you shouldn't let your own inertia be one of them.
Are you easily distracted by—hey, look, a
bunny!—shiny things? Do you procrastinate? Do you have a fear
of commitment that prevents you from starting anything longer than a
few thousand words, or a fear of finishing something that causes you to
work more and more slowly the closer you get to that magic "done"
moment? There are as many reasons not to finish a project as there are
writers, and most of us will have some exotic mixture of totally good,
totally understandable reasons that we've never managed to type "The
The deadline is the panacea against all these maladies. It will take
time. It will take effort. You will never be truly cured. But by
suitable application of deadlines, you, too, can finally start getting
How To Set A Deadline.
Once you've decided to set a deadline, you need to take a serious look
at yourself, your life, your circumstances, and the project you're
getting ready to attack. Be honest in this assessment. You don't need
to share it with anybody else. It's for you alone.
Are you a fast or slow writer?
Are you a fast or slow editor?
How much time do you need to spend at the keyboard (or notebook, or...)
before you actually get up to speed?
How easy is it to achieve the circumstances you need to actually write?
How many things are you willing to give up, postpone, or cancel in
order to write?
Once that's done, you can start setting deadlines and goals for
yourself. I recommend starting out small, with things like "I will
write a page a day" and "I will finish a chapter every month." Most
people's chapters aren't going to be thirty pages long, so that gives
you space to edit, revise, and work on your chapter to your heart's
content. Sub-divide those deadlines and goals as much as you need to.
Make them as big or as small as you need them to be. They belong to you,
and only you, at this stage of the game.
Setting small deadlines will teach you a lot, whether you meet or miss
them. For one thing, it's going to teach you what your personal version
of "reasonable" looks like. Maybe you can finish a book every six
months; some people can. Maybe you can finish a book every two years;
that's how some other people work. A six-month person will probably
spend eighteen months doing something else if given a two-year
deadline, and a two year person will have a nervous breakdown and wind
up living in a cardboard box in the middle of the desert if given a six
month deadline. Metaphorically, that is. Cardboard boxes make lousy
Missing deadlines is fine, when they only belong to you. Every time you
miss a deadline, sit back and consider why it was missed. Did you miss
that deadline because you had a medical emergency, or because you had a
hangover? Because you had a crisis, or because you spent the entire
weekend watching Star Trek reruns on the
Science-Fiction Channel? Learn what slows you down, and decide how you
want to deal with it, whether it be setting longer deadlines or
canceling your cable television. It's your call.
Shocking the System.
Okay, here you go:
It may be entirely possible to be a professional writer without facing
deadlines. If so, I have no idea how one goes about it, and strongly
suspect that you'd have to be Stephen King before you could even inch
in that direction. If you miss a deadline, you can lose a contract, you
can lose a contact, and you can lose the faith of the people you most
need to have putting their faith in you. You must make your
deadlines. You can't afford to ignore
your deadlines. They aren't optional, they aren't suggestions, and they
aren't going to change just because you ignore them. Remember how
sometimes you could sweet-talk your teachers into giving you an
extension on your homework? Well, these teachers aren't grading on a
curve, and they aren't always going to give you a second shot.
To personify a bit, the deadline really is your
best friend, because meeting your deadline makes the world an easier
place for you. If you make nine out of ten deadlines with the same
editor, that editor is a lot more likely to be lenient the tenth time.
On the other hand, if you miss one out of one deadlines, that editor
probably isn't even going to read your submission. The
deadline is not the enemy. The deadline is a tool, it is an
ally, and it is the best way for you to prove that you're serious about
being a professional. Quality of writing matters, but if you don't make
that deadline, they'll never know how good you are.
Love your deadlines. Embrace your deadlines. Learn to use the deadlines
to make yourself a better writer—heck, you might even find
that deadlines have applications in the other parts of your life.
Making it to the movies on time could be an exciting change!
So there's your assignment. Set the deadline yourself.