Writing to a Deadline

This essay was originally posted to the community Supernatural Writers Lounge in 2009.

To introduce myself, I’m MissLucyJane. I’ve been writing since I was about nine, I posted my first online fic in 1996 and I published my first novel in 2007. I am not a fulltime writer. Not yet.

A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all. ~ Rita Mae Brown

I love deadlines. I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by. ~ Douglas Adams

So, you’ve signed up for a challenge or a fic exchange or Nanowrimo. It’s something with a set deadline, like Christmas Day for Yuletide or November 30th for Nanowrimo; and quite often you’ll have a minimum word count as well, like 1000 words for many challenges to 50,000 for Nanowrimo.

First, do a little math. What is the minimum number of words you need to write in order to reach the wordcount? One hundred words a day, or sixteen hundred, or more?

Once you’ve figured out how many days you need to write your rough draft, there’s a few more calculations you need to make: beta-time and editing-time. How many days does your beta need to edit your story, and how many days will you need for editing afterwards (and maybe round two of both?)

The rough draft: getting words on paper.

 Know your limits. Know your abilities.

If you have never written more than 100 words in a day, then a big challenge may not be for you. However, this may also be the chance to find out if you’ve never written more just because you’ve never needed to. 

When I first starting writing fic I worked at a leisurely pace, and novel-length stories would frequently take me six months to a year. Then in 2003 I did my first Nanowrimo, realized I’d have to fit my usual week’s output into a day, and found that if I concentrated, I could do it. Now my daily goal is a 1000 words a day: I don’t always hit it, but I know I can.

Five thousand words a day for a month or longer is probably not a realistic goal, unless you’re Prolific Patty and knock that out all the time. For the rest of us, figure out how many words a day you can realistically write and how many days you have, and plan your time accordingly.

Keep a spreadsheet, and update it every day whether you write 5000 words or none. Watching those numbers stack up is a great motivator, and it’ll help you next time: you can figure out if Mondays are terrible for you, Tuesdays are great, and Fridays are a hopeless cause.

Time management is your friend.

Few of us have unlimited free time, so we have to find ways to fit writing into our other obligations. School, work, caretaking of whomever you take care of–these all come first. You can’t fail out of school due to writing fic. You can’t neglect your children because of fic. (You can neglect the vacuuming in the living room, though. We won’t tell.)

In Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem!, he recommends doing your housework the weekend before November 1st, and then forget about it throughout November. I heartily recommend this: if you’ve got a looming deadline, a whirlwind housecleaning will ease your conscience into letting you take time to write. (I also do housework when I’m blocked: if I can’t think of what happens next, my house is spotless. Physical activity is great for thinking time.)

School and work hours are dictated for us; with the rest, divide your free time into blocks and work accordingly. You’ll have a homework block, a family time block, a me-time block, for instance. If you need an hour to write 200 words, find that hour when you have nothing else demanding your attention and designate it Writing Time. Yes, sometimes this will be the hour before bed, or the hour before you leave for work, but it’s there. 

There are things that can be jettisoned. Tape your shows and watch them in a marathon later, if you can’t write and watch TV at the same time. Put off your movie night. Take what’s superfluous and put it away: now you’ve got even more writing time.

However, this does not mean neglect yourself. Eat properly. Sleep. Allow yourself enough time to do things that you enjoy and de-stress you. You won’t write well when you’re hungry, exhausted or stressed out. 

Editing and beta.

Before I send a draft to a beta reader, I ask them first if they can have it back to me by a certain date. If they can, they get the draft. Most of the time they’re good about it getting it back to me by the time I asked — if not, a few reminders are not out of place. If, as has happened a time or two, they still don’t get back to me, I find another beta.

I usually give myself a week for editing a big piece post-beta. What I like to do is print out the story and go through it with a red pen. Editing in a different format helps me catch typos and misused words.

Know how much time your beta needs, but also let them know how much time you can give them. How much time you need for editing is something you can only learn as you go, but allow yourself more than a day if it’s a long piece.

It’s also good to let a story sit for a day or longer before you go back and give it one more read-through. If you’re reading it with fresh eyes, you’ll catch problems you might not see otherwise.

Writer’s block and other catastrophes. 

Real life will get in the way.

Your kid will get measles, your computer will crash, your writer’s block will make you hate every word you write.

Some things can be worked around. Computers can be repaired or borrowed. Kids nap. 

The more personal stuff is harder. Writer’s block is real and it sucks. In a lot of ways, the only way to get through it is to keep writing even if you want to erase every word. The thing to remember is that you can save it in editing, and you can’t edit a rough draft that doesn’t exist.

Ask for extensions when you can, but if you can’t, let the organizer know as soon as possible that you won’t make the deadline. Offer to pitch-hit if you can. Tell yourself there’s always next year.

Otherwise, keep on pushing through. Focus on your big shiny goal and how good it will feel to reach it.

Deadline day.

So, you’ve managed to get through the 30 days or three months or whatever, with your twelve thousand or twenty thousand or hundred thousand words. It’s been beta-read, edited, spit-polished. It’s ready.

Send it in. Take a deep breath. Eat some chocolate.

Look what you did!