Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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Thoughts on Writing

#32: Deadlines

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 Town.

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? 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 End."

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 things done.

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 living rooms.

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.

For now.

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.
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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