On Deadlines (Oh, How I Love a Solid Deadline)


(Just a little reminder to myself, written in my first-draft notebook.)

First off, in case I haven’t been talking about it enough and boring you with it, I have a deadline. You haven’t heard? So it’s November 1, and it’s the deadline to turn in the first official draft of my new novel to my new publisher. The book was sold on proposal, which means I had a lot of pages to write, and quickly, and I’m still not done yet, I feel very far from done, and it’s already October 4, and cue urgency, and cue one-track-deadline-mind, cue a healthy motivational level of panic.

I kind of love deadlines, actually. I love all of the above. This gets me writing.

(And, little psychological interlude I guess: Having a deadline makes me feel wanted. Someone wants to read my book enough that they gave me a deadline! That makes me feel really, really good.)

I’ve run into an interesting phenomenon lately when I mention my deadline. It’s one where I am all gung-ho crazy-serious about this deadline—like, I can go around blaming it for everything (I don’t have time to (a) go to the gym (b) clean (c) eat healthy (d) see friends (e) take that freelance project (f) the list goes on, I’m on deadline blah!). I know I take it too far. I exaggerate. I am very dramatic (was accused of this just last night!).

So, yeah, it’s not the end of the world or anything.

But at the same time, I kept sensing that not all writers take these book deadlines as seriously. Or understood why I was being so serious about mine. And it made me wonder about myself? Why do I?

Here’s why.

Talking to some authors while I was away at my last colony, I explained I was there for an emergency residency and I had this deadline and I didn’t know if I could make it but I was putting my all into trying, and the most common response was…

But why do you have to make the deadline?

Deadlines don’t mean that much.

Publishers move deadlines all the time.

And sure, that happens. I remember. I worked in publishing, and manuscript deadlines rarely held. But here’s the other thing about working in publishing—as the production editor for these books, when those deadlines didn’t hold because the author and the editor needed more time? Not always did the publishing season shift. What shifted was the time the other people in the office had to work on the book—the designer, the typesetter, and last and yes actually least, the production editor, the in-house copyediting person who is supposed to catch every last typo before your book goes to press. I’d be the one losing time. And for someone whose job it was to make sure the books were PERFECT, you can imagine how exasperating and stressful this was. I once spent Thanksgiving weekend working on an enormous book, unpaid because salaried employees don’t get overtime and no freelancer could do the work as quickly as I could, at home, because the production deadline couldn’t move and I was the last round in the shrinking schedule. I’ve made mistakes during rush schedules that have haunted me, because not having enough time is never an excuse. The job could be so overwhelming, often due to the way work piled up and everything was due at the same time, and deadlines weren’t always met… that I stopped in 2009.

Yes I know publishers often have a cushion with their deadlines, to avoid just this problem. I am sure I have a cushion. If I need it.

But why be all blasé at the start? I’d rather take advantage of that cushion later, if I need it, during revisions.

When I don’t make my deadlines as a writer, I can’t help but think of that person at the end of the assembly line at my publisher—that person who was me, a short number of years ago—and I want her to have her Thanksgiving weekend, you know?

I really want to make my writing deadlines.

I take them very seriously.

I don’t always make them—and I hate that—but it is not for lack of trying.

At the same time, if I need more time I want to be as honest about it as possible, and say that as early as possible, so the schedule can be adjusted.

For authors, meeting—truly trying your best to meet—your deadlines is a way of respecting everyone in this process. There are a lot of people whose hands will be on this book, in one way or another, and I am honored and humbled by that. I want them to have the time they need to do their best work, too.

Right now, I am very early in the publishing process of this book, and the schedule can be adjusted—there is still time.

…So why am I working so hard, then, and pushing myself to write a crazy amount of words in such a short amount of time? Why not take as much time as I want to write this book?

Art can’t be rushed, right?

Because time is relative. I find that my time expands to fill the time I have. If I’d been given a year to finish this draft, I would have taken every last day of that year. If I had two years, I’d take the two. I don’t know why, but I always seem to feel like I never have enough time. I want to challenge myself with this draft and finish it by November 1, or as close to that date as I can.

Then I’ll revise. My favorite part of writing is the revising anyway.

There’s also the issue of money, which I know not all writers like to talk about because it’s crass, but, that’s part of it, too: I can’t stretch this out and take my sweet time on this—which would be, oh, from experience I’d guess three-and-a-half years of luxurious discovery and writing only when I am fired up and inspired—because I no longer have a day job to keep me afloat. I signed this contract with full intention to deliver. I want to keep this book on time, because I want the next book on the contract to be on time. It affects advance payouts and later book deals and my career for the foreseeable future.

That’s also the reason I wanted to sell on proposal, which is another question I get. I have thought of taking my ideal block of time—three-and-a-half years—and stepping back from all this and going back to a nine-to-five full-time office job so I didn’t have to rush myself and so I could still pay my bills, and selling a book only after I’ve written the whole thing and revised it a few times, too, the idea of which fills me with envy, but I didn’t choose that.

I chose this deadline.

So I’m trying to make it.

I am trying.

I don’t know if I can do it. I may need more time.

If I do, if I can’t complete a good first draft in the time I have allotted, I will be honest. Until then, I guess the production-editor part of me is still alive and kicking. And she really wants me to make November 1.

13 responses to “On Deadlines (Oh, How I Love a Solid Deadline)”

  1. Amen to deadlines. I am thankful to know someone who shares my thoughts on honoring a deadline, or at the very least, trying to honor one. Here’s hoping you make yours.

  2. This is awesome, and I think very important for people to read. Everyone has a different approach to writing, and I don’t think all of these approaches are compatible with deadlines… but for me–they work. I need them. They help me actually get things done. I’ve only worked on one book so far (yay debut author!) but so far I’ve tried very hard to stick to all my deadlines. I beat one by a month’s time. I had to miss two, both due to illness, but in both cases a) I gave advance warning and b) I missed them by… a single day.

    I can live with that. And I’m hoping to stick to this approach in the future. You just gave me another very good reason why. I hate the thought of inconveniencing others!

    Good luck with your deadline! 🙂

  3. Christi says:

    Deadlines are absolutely important, and people who are casual about them have casual careers that bypass bestseller lists. More writers need to read this post. Well said! Good luck on your deadline!

    • Thank you for commenting!

      I should say, though, from experience from when I was working… I’ve seen many a NY Times Best Seller miss a production deadline. The Thanksgiving book I mention in my post was one, as I remember. That’s why it was so urgent and I had to work over a holiday weekend.

      I know my books aren’t as important as all that and no one would care if I missed a planned release, but the point is… I care. 🙂

  4. For me, it’s also about the kind of author I want to be. I want to be an author who meets deadlines and makes her editors happy. I want my editors to say – I would LOVE to work with Lisa again. There are too many reasons out of my control that could prevent that, but being the kind of author an editor likes working with? I feel like that IS in my control and it’s very, very important to me that I be easy to work with and meet deadlines. Good luck Nova – you can do it!!!

  5. Good luck, Nova! I’m still blown away by your residency word count.

    I’m intrigued to know what kind of state the first draft has to be in to make the deadline? Is it more the fact they know you’ve finished this stage and are on to revising or will the editor read through the draft and guide revisions?

  6. Best wishes on making your deadline. It’s nice if there is some flexibility due to life, but I’m a deadline person too. My daughter is as well. It seems we need the outside pressure of a deadline to put some motivation into us for completion of projects.

  7. Camille says:

    I LOVE what you’ve written here about a book project being more than just the person writing it. In publishing and in life in general, the choices we make affect a lot of other people. I know you’ve been on the other end, but you remember and you CARE, and perhaps we couldn’t say that about every published author.

    By definition you can’t do any better than your best, and I know you are doing it. (And don’t get down on yourself for taking some time to watch a movie or tidy up your apartment. Time away from the manuscript is just as necessary!)

    Sending you loads of happy writing juju! You are awesome! xoxoxox

  8. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) says:

    I love you, Nova. I used to be on the other end of a production schedule in TV and it is EXACTLY THE SAME. The people at the end of the line get screwed because the first missed their deadlines (and mostly in a blasé fashion that made me hate them). Deadlines are so important and anyone who thinks otherwise is being selfish. You may not always hit the deadlines, sure. But having respect for them and trying your hardest to meet them is what counts.

  9. […] Nova Ren Suma with a great post on why deadlines matter. […]

  10. andreablythe says:

    Deadline are wonderful things! Even on my own, I try to create regular deadlines, any kind, just something, somehow to be accountable to. I’ve done this by joining a writing group, for which I have to submit a new chapter/story/poem every two weeks or so. My writing group doesn’t really care whether or not I submit something and won’t hassle me, if I don’t — but I feel that it’s important, so I make sure it happens. (I honestly don’t think I would get anything done creatively without deadlines to keep me honest.)

  11. Nova, thank you so much for posting this! My friend is a production editor at a Big Six house, and I’ve heard many a rant from her about the stresses of the job. I’m going to e-mail it to her right now, and keep it in the vault for anyone who poo-poos deadlines in the future!

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