Realistic Deadlines: How To Set Them

by | October 1, 2019 |

Realistic deadlines.

First, what’s a deadline?

A deadline is akin to a baby’s due date. It’s a commitment to make manifest in the world the vision in your head.

Second, do realistic ones exist?

Yes, as long as you know a lot about yourself as a creative writer.

My take:

One: Deadlines are good. I’m a big believer in them. Despite the rather, gulp, menacing nature of the word.

Two: I’m talking about the internal deadlines creative writers set for themselves. I’m not talking about deadlines imposed on employees in the workplace.

Three: Setting a deadline for a creative endeavor is different than setting one for a mechanical task. Writing a novel is not the same thing as getting the spreadsheets ready for a business pitch.

Realistic Deadlines #1: Know Your Motivation as a Creative Writer

If you think you’re in it for the money, think again. Sure, we all need to have a roof over our heads and food on the table. But beyond these basics, we don’t need a multi-million dollar contract from a major publisher to do our work.

I know, I know, last week I wrote that all writers have The Dream of New York Times Bestsellerdom and a book-to-movie Hollywood deal. But this week I want to focus on motivation. And how understanding your motivation can inform not some dream of fame and fortune but how you live your day-to-day writing life. (Fame and fortune can always follow.)

In his TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” Daniel Pink makes a distinction between extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic motivators are If-Then rewards, Carrots & Sticks. In other words: Money and External Deadlines. Do X work in Y time to receive Z pay. Extrinsic motivators work well for left-brain, routine work. When the solution is in front of you, and the person who gets to the solution the fastest earns the highest reward.

Intrinsic motivators are completely different. They work for right-brain, conceptual, creative work. Where the solution is not in front of you, and you’re not even sure where it is. But wherever it is, it will be unexpected. Speed is not of the essence. Instead, autonomy, mastery and purpose are.

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Check out Pink’s TED talk:

I take it as axiomatic that creative writers crave both autonomy and mastery. Otherwise they wouldn’t get into this horrible, often soul-crushing profession.

So, in starting to think in terms of setting realistic deadlines for yourself, the real question is: What is your purpose?

Realistic Deadlines #2: Know Your Purpose as a Creative Writer

My purpose is to engage in the multi-generational and multi-cultural conversation that unfolds within the space of the romance novel. I have something to say, and I want my place in the dialogue. I want my voice heard. Because I am in a multi-faceted dialogue, I believe I am part of something larger than myself. I also believe it is important.

I notice, furthermore, that in order to participate actively in this dialogue, writing a novel a year is a reasonable goal. This means an output of an average of a page a day. The math: 250 words/day x 365 days = 91,250 words. A full-length novel is about 85K.

Note: Epic- or saga-type novels can be 120 – 150K.

So, for my purpose, I would call a year to produce a novel a realistic deadline. I keep myself on track by maintaining a writing calendar. This is the record of my daily output once I have begun a particular project.

Realistic Deadlines #3: Know Your Stamina as a Creative Writer

After several decades of writing, here is what I know about my writing stamina:

I can realistically write two 700-word blogs a week. My deadlines are every Tuesday and Friday afternoon.

I can realistically write the first draft of a 40K-word novella in 2 – 3 months. This draft will sit for a good month before I look at it again and do whatever I can to improve it. Then I will send it out to an editor. A few months later the editor will send me a revision letter. Usually cringe-worthy. (Jeez … I missed *that* much stuff?!) And I will let that letter sit on my desk (face down) anywhere from a month to a year and a half before I deal with the revisions.

I cannot realistically say how long it will take me to write my next big writing project, namely, Book #2 in my shapeshifter Buy Me Love trilogy. I have already been thinking about it for at least two years. My track record would suggest it will take me a year from when I begin writing it. Hopefully, this month. Nevertheless, given that it is a creative project whose exact shape is not yet clear to me, the time frame ‘a year’ is imprecise.

Final Note

Take the case of a 40K-word novella I mention, above. You see that there is a big difference between the active writing time and the revising time. I put no deadline on how long a project sits before I attend to the revisions. When I was writing under contract for the mass market I did not have this revising luxury.

Title image: Ben Jackson Music


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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