Novel Writing Deadlines

My vision, if I was asked to describe the ultimate writer, would probably be a man (shocker) wearing khakis, a button-down shirt, and a cardigan. He’d be older, probably middle aged. He’s in a room facing a big window that looks over the countryside at his big solid desk, where he’s pecking away at an old typewriter for hours every day. After a few weeks, he stacks his completed pages, smiles, and tucks the pages into a big manila envelope.

That’s the writer that lives in my head.

And, (shocker) that’s not how writers really work! Can you believe it?

At least, that’s not how this writer works. This writer wears mostly shorts and t-shirts. This writer is usually barefoot. This writer is not a man. This writer may or may not be middle-aged. This writer doesn’t work at a typewriter, has no stack of completed pages, and most definitely does not get hours a day to work.

And this writer, unlike my prolific imaginary writer, needs to work with deadlines.

setting deadlines

Here’s what I’ve learned about deadlines in the last year of writing:

1. Every month can’t be NaNoWriMo.
I wrote 50,000+ words in November. I wrote 30,000+ words in April for Camp NaNoWriMo. I know I am capable. But the sheer volume of time required is too much to do on a daily basis for me.

Look, I know that there are people that can churn out that volume of words every month. I am not that person and I am here to say it’s okay. It’s okay if your monthly word count doesn’t live up to the record that you set that one NaNo. Life happens, family happens, work happens (because bills…). It’s Okay.

2. Aim high.
When I started this current book in February it looked nothing like what I am writing now. The characters were similar, but the plot has changed tremendously. So, in March, when I stepped back to plan better I set a goal of completing the book (roughly 50,000 words) by June 1, 2015. That was a lofty goal for me. It meant buckling down and writing in the free spaces in my day. I homeschool my kids and that has to come first, so writing has to be a fringe project.

I didn’t make it.

3. Acknowledge your seasons.
The reality is that sometimes you’re going to be busier than other times. You have to acknowledge that and work with it.

During the school year, we’re home most of the day. I can slip into the office and write during lunch or between the end of the school day and the start of dinner prep. It’s easy to get in 1,000 words or more if I’m on a roll (and not procrastinating).

During the summer we are on the go, go, go. It starts in the morning and doesn’t end ’til late at night. The kids have daytime activities and friend dates and so on. I spend a good deal of my day in the car. While it would be great if I could perch the laptop in the dashboard and keep writing, it’s not practical. So, I didn’t write much at all this summer. It’s the sad truth that my calendar took over.

4. Do a post-mortem.
I’m not a crime writer. Yet. Heh. But, seriously, do a post-mortem and figure out why you missed that deadline. This is especially important when you’re new. Stay with me.

I hope to be a professional (read: paid) writer someday. That means there will be deadlines for everything under the sun – draft deadlines, editing deadlines, and so on. And they will be externally imposed deadlines from publishers, editors, and the like. Because of my personality, I know that I will want to hit those deadlines. To do that I need to know my own limitations.

Which is where this post-mortem comes in. Why did I miss that June 1 deadline? What could I have done differently? Will it be different next time? For the record, I’ll be doing my own post-mortem in another post. But, the key is that I can negotiate deadlines in the future from a place of education, rather than a place of cross your fingers and hope for the best.

5. Crunch the numbers.
I wrote 25,000 words on this book in three months. These were 25,000 good, pre-plotted words. If that sounds weird, you have to understand that previous “novels” lacked a crucial element. Plot.

Anyway, if I can reasonably hit 25,000 words in three months (not summer months) then I should reasonably be able to write 50,000 words in six months. Easy. This helps me set a new deadline for this book and can be used as a baseline for future novels.

6. No deadline = no work.
That June 1 deadline passed and I hadn’t finished. But, instead of setting another deadline I just figured I’d write the rest of the book as I had time.

I didn’t.

Even though summer is busy in a way that the rest of the year isn’t, I am positive that I spent way too much time with the Real Housewives and way too little time writing.

7. Planning makes the process easier.
A lot of novelists are planners. A lot of novelists are pantsers.

I like to think that I am a hybrid. Plantser?

This is the first of three attempts that I sat down and really created a framework for the story. I wrote up a 6 line character sketch for everyone. I spent about 2 weeks looking at the big picture. Then I dove in.

I planned, but now I do a lot of pantsing because my plans aren’t super detailed. I have a hit this mark, then hit this mark, then hit this mark kind of sketch. I pants what happens between the marks.

What’s important is knowing that there’s room for both styles in every process.

8. Use all of your tools.
I’m not talking about your word processor of choice. Although that’s important.

Get out your calendar. Paper, electronic. It doesn’t matter.

Now pencil in everything you have to do for the next week, month, quarter, whatever.

I do this weekly. Every Saturday I look at my calendar and see what’s coming up. What obligations do I have out of the house that could affect my writing time? Then I schedule my writing time.

Some days that means I am at my computer bleary-eyed and nursing a mega cup of coffee at 6 a.m. Other days I stay up a little later at night. But I have to plan when I can write. If I wait for “inspiration” to strike then I might as well throw in the towel. It doesn’t work that way for me. (See: writing in the fringe hours).

9. Bribe your inner editor.
You know, there’s super popular advice out there about silencing your inner editor. You know, that little voice that thinks that everything you write is stupid and dumb and you should just quit writing? Yeah, shut him up.

Only, my guy won’t be quiet. Even as I duct taped his mouth shut and tied him to a chair in the corner he thrashed around. Broke a lamp. It was a mess.

I turned him loose, but then we were both miserable.

So, I decided to bribe him instead. If he stays quiet I’ll go back and re-read stuff that I wrote weeks ago. It serves two purposes: First, my inner editor is always surprised at how not awful the writing actually is. I mean, there’s usable stuff in there! Second, I’m able to look for story threads that have been dropped and can bring them forward. Things like a forgotten character quirk, a turn of phrase, etc. It’s a small way to add a bit of continuity without editing a WIP.

10. Treat writing like a job.
This only applies if you want it to be your job. If this is a hobby, something you do for fun, then carry on. I want to write for a living. I’d like to sell a book someday. So, I’m starting now.

What this means is that I have a target word count to hit every week. I know it will vary. I’m not making any money from this right now, so even though I make it as high a priority as I can, sometimes it has to take a back seat. That’s okay. But I no longer will allow myself to shrug about not making targets or missing deadlines. Obviously, I won’t fire myself, but I may have to make myself make double my daily word count if I miss a day.

I don’t know what the next three months hold, but I do hope that by October 31 I can come back here and proudly report that I finished my novel.

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