Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Deadlines Are Really More Like Guidelines (If Your Publisher Didn't Set Them)

As most of my regular readers know, I'm no stranger to deadlines. When I started pushing my fiction writing career forward back in 2012, I was mainly submitting stories to anthologies. Each of those projects had a theme, a word count, and a submission date in order for my work to be considered. After two years of that, I got into a comfortable routine. I'd find a project I liked, spend a few weeks writing a short story for it, and while I let it cool, I'd get to work on the next piece. I'd edit the first story, send it to my betas, and have the next story almost done by the time the first one was submitted.

Nothing stops the machine.
It was a pretty sweet strategy, if I do say so myself. While not every story I wrote got accepted, a quick glimpse at my Amazon author page is enough to see I had a pretty good batting average when it came to short stories. However, after two years of publishing shorts, I decided it was time to get down to business. So I rolled up my sleeves, and got to work on a dystopian sci-fi novel.

I finished that manuscript, by the way, and I learned an important lesson while I was writing it. Unless the deadline is given to you by your publisher, or you've promised a really big fan following you'd be done by a certain date, then assigning yourself a deadline is just putting jump leads on your genitals for no reason.

Arbitrary Deadlines Are No Good For You, Or Your Book

I knew, in the front of my mind, that writing a novel was going to be hugely different from the way I'd been writing and submitting short stories. I knew, for example, that there wasn't a specific call for my book, and that I'd be playing publisher roulette when it came time to submit the manuscript. I also knew that, while there are general guides for word count, I had a lot more latitude with how long my novel could be than I ever did with how long one of my short stories could be.

Lastly, and most importantly, I knew in the forefront of my brain that I didn't have a deadline. But because I was so used to writing to a certain date in mind, I didn't feel right about starting until I'd marked out a finishing point.

Three days before the apocalypse ought to be fine.
I noticed as I was working along, though, that I was getting more and more stressed. This became particularly true whenever I hit a plot snag, and I had to delete the past two of three days worth of work in order to take the novel in a completely different direction. I was falling behind, even though it was impossible to fall behind, because there was no penalty if I didn't make the deadline.

Slowly, I began to realize something; books work on their own timetable.

This wasn't my first manuscript, but it was the first one I'd written after years of working as a one-man fiction assembly line. And while there were similarities between the two endeavors, the sheer scale of writing a novel rendered a lot of the hard-and-fast rules I'd been using for shorter projects irrelevant. In the end, I was adding new word count to the project every day, and I was working my way along the blueprint I'd created at the beginning. Did it really matter if I finished my novel in December 2015, or January 2016? Were a few days, or even a few weeks, going to make that big of a difference?

Not really.

Finishing a novel was, in a real sense, like deciding I was going to lose weight. If I went to the gym, changed my diet, and kept making my goals, I'd see the results I wanted. If I set an arbitrary goal to weigh a certain amount by the end of the year, though, then it's possible I would have done some unhealthy stuff just to meet the meaningless deadline. Cut out meals, overworked myself, lost water weight, all so that a number would be at a certain point at a certain date. The same is true with a book as with your body. The closer you get to that date, the harder you crunch, hoping to slide in by the deadline. However, ramming extra word count into your book, and rushing through the closing chapters so you can get to the end isn't going to do you any good. Worse, it's just stuff you're going to have to fix in the editorial phase anyway.

There's No Rush

If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. If you were building a house, you wouldn't just jam some plywood under the eaves, call it a wall, and be done with it. If you were building a car, you wouldn't spin the lug nuts halfway on, and duct tape the headlights in place just so you could finish faster. In much the same way, cramming in word count to reach a deadline that doesn't matter won't help you or your book.

Seriously, take your time.
Think of your writing like a weight lifting routine. Getting through the routine is important, but so is maintaining your form, and your control. If you sacrifice form and control you can get through it faster, but it's just going to hurt you in the long run. So take a breath, relax, and remember that unless your name is already on a contract, you've got all the time you need to get this done.

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