Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Maid of... Deadlines

As a freelance writer by trade, I'm used to deadlines. A client swoops in out of nowhere, with a do-or-die project -- you just get it done. A website blows up for no discernible reason, a project goes south, a speaking opportunity comes up -- you do what you have to do to keep on track. Life is not measured in days and weeks, but in hours and minutes ticking on the clock.

Fiction, however, is an animal of an entirely different stripe. Put most simply, you could continue writing on the same book for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE and it still might never be perfect. You could polish, revise, tweak, reword, rethink, replot, restructure, re-everything... and by the time you're finished, you might still not be sure that the book is the best you could possibly make it, and if ONLY you had a few more days/weeks/months/years, it would be perfect.

But none of us actually have those days/weeks/months/years. Life intrudes, the day job (or clientwork) rears its head, family obligations must be met. And still we have our deadlines to face. How can we get it all done?

That's a trick question - we can't get it ALL done. The key to mastering deadlines is learning not only how to say "no" to certain activities and time-drains, but also learning how to say "I'll do just this much" for the things you really do need or want to do... but which can't consume your life the way perhaps they have in the past. Whether that's Twitter, TV, hanging out with friends, or vegging out on the couch... (or, in my case: laundry, housework, paying bills... eating...) when deadlines loom, hard decisions have to be made.

I've heard lots of different ways authors meet their deadlines:
  • Unplug! For however many hours or days, some authors disconnect from the Internet to get their work done. There are even apps that can virtually "unplug" you. 
  • Time Buckets. "From 8 a.m. to noon every day... all I do is write." This doesn't work in my world, but in some lands of fairies and bunny rabbits, I believe this can work well.
  • KidSwapping. Sort of a "you watch my kids, I'll watch yours" trade-off, this method of recruiting a friend to take on your children so you can get work done (with the promise that you'll do the same) can create an oasis of time in a busy mom's world. (Or so I hear. Fortunately, my cat is generally very respectful of my deadlines.)
  • Checkboxes. Yes, I'm really a first grader at heart, but identifying how many hours (or words) I have to complete in a given day or week on a given project, and then translating that to "check boxes" that I actually check off as I complete each segment of the day's or week's goals has been my A+ Number 1 Lifesaver when it comes to meeting deadlines. I don't have to do it ALL... I just have to get this next box checked.
  • Accountability Partners. As writers, we sometimes live in a lonely world. So having a Writing Partner who keeps you on track with your goals is not unlike that friend you have who forces you to show up at the gym every morning at 5:30 a.m. even when it's raining out and the roads are beginning to ice over because the mother of all snow storms is bearing down on the city but unlike the rest of the sane people who are just turning off their alarms and snuggling back under the covers, you're up and dressed in spandex and running shoes, ready to work out. You know, that friend. Last seen stuffed into a gym locker. (Seriously, though, if you can find an  accountability partner who keeps you on track--do so!)
  • Pain. Okay, this isn't pretty, but it's true: sometimes, the best motivator is that you simply don't have a choice. It's too painful for you personally NOT to do the work. The need to achieve sometimes can come at you like that, feeling less like a gentle voice in your mind than a baseball bat beating you about the head and shoulders. Trust me, you'll feel worse putting off your dreams than just buckling down and working to achieve them... so sometimes you have to Just Do It.

What about you? I LIVE for ways to improve productivity and meet deadlines, and not just because I've received the most awesome (and exhaustively detailed) editorial revision letter in the History of the World, Part I.  So I welcome ANY suggestions or ideas in the comments below!

Jennifer McGowan has been writing fiction since well before she knew any better. A past Romance Writers of America Golden Heart winner and 2011 Golden Heart finalist, Jenn is represented by agent extraordinaire Alexandra Machinist, of Janklow & Nesbit.

Jenn's debut novel, MAID OF SECRETS, will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on May 7, 2013, assuming she gets her revisions done ;). You can find Jenn online and on twitter.


  1. I love the check box idea. I've been using that one for years! Ever since I decided to get serious about my writing.

    Another is to set a small goal such as: write for one hour or one page whichever comes first.

  2. Like you, I find the ability to mark things off a list an incredible motivator. Plus having everything on a list makes me feel in control and reduces the chance that I forget something.

  3. The "Time Buckets" is the only way I get done, and I usually put something really enticing at the end of a bucket. 8 a.m. to noon is writing time, and 12:15 is when I eat ice cream... if I got done. Great post!

  4. OOooo, great idea about using Ice Cream as a motivator. I'd never thought of that! Thank you for the suggestion! And Liz, your list idea is also brilliant--since I'm an inveterate lister, I should have thought of that myself!

    Michele, I think small goals are key. I can't revise the entire book right this second... but I can tackle this page.

    Thanks for posting, you guys!

  5. Great post! I also reward myself after I get a certain word count done. Mine takes the form of TV or chocolate (or both) but it works. And yeah, your article just reminded me to unplug from the internet and get stuff done.... *runs off*

  6. I WISH I could just turn off the internet. BUT, I can't flip off the modem without getting screamed at, and I work on a Chromebook that doesn't have offline typing. ><
    For a while, I was working on a TV reward system. I think it was one minute of TV time for every 250 (or 500? don't remember) words. So I had to write over 10k to merit Merlin. It worked for a while.
    Also, I heard that one writer (maybe Neil Gaiman? I made that up) said to get a huge calendar with twelve months on one page. Every day you write (or, I guess, write your word count goal) you can put a big red X in that box. If you don't meet your goal, you can't cross it off. After a few weeks, you're not going to want to break the chain, and that's an incentive to keep going.

    Great post! =D

    ~Riv Re
    Riv Reads

  7. I've learned estimating the time needed for writing is a lot like estimating the time needed for construction -- always add 20% more time than you think you'll really need. It prevents you from obsessing about the days of negative net progress. (doh!)

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  9. I find the "keep writing even though its cruddy" mantra is extremely helpful when working toward a deadline. I worry about pretty prose later and pound out anything in the moment.

  10. Leah, hello and thanks for your post! I love the idea of a reward system... if it was chocolate though, I'd be doomed. ;)

    Riv Re, isn't crazy to be in such a fully connected world? I do love the calendar idea. I have a page with check boxes, and you're right... once you start checking them off, you hate to fall off the wagon!

    KAK, those are probably brilliant words to live by. Too bad they involve math. ;) Seriously, it's true--there's never time to do it right, but always time to do it over! (even though that takes longer!)

    Jenniferannmann.JAM (sorry, I just had to write that out. *love*) I think your approach to drafting is CRITICAL. so many times, the internal editor shuts down creativity when -- in that moment -- what most matters is to simply get it written.

    Thanks, you guys, for posting!

  11. Ahhh, the Time Bucket - so that's what it's called. I don't think I've ever seen one. But +1 for lists and checkboxes! Also breaking up a task into smaller, manageable chunks. Otherwise I'd never finish anything! Good luck getting the revisions done!