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The Dos and Don'ts of Deadlines

We've crossed the halfway mark for October. The leaves have turned, the stores have stocked millions of overpriced pumpkins and bags of candy, and everywhere you turn, writers are talking about NaNoWriMo.

I am not and have never been a fan of NaNoWriMo, for reasons I'll get to in a bit. But, as of last weekend, I have become a fan of deadlines in general. I tried making and sticking to them for the first time this week, and though I'm already one day behind—thanks to an inopportune headache and a couple of necessary shopping trips—I've still been more productive than in past weeks. My current novella, which oughtn't be mentioned in polite company, is only one 3k-word chapter away from completion, and I look forward to starting on a few of the YA short story ideas I've accumulated next week. Here are some reasons I advise setting some writing deadlines for yourself:

1. Deadlines Force You To Organize

There are some who claim to be able to write best "by the seat of their pants," and if that's true, all power to them. But I am not one of them. I don't even write emails and blog posts linearly. Sometimes, when Sweetie is bored, he sneaks into my blog CMS to see drafts before they're finished. In order to read them, he has to sort through a lot of placeholder brackets saying [put intro here]; [talk about such-and-such]; [segue using anecdote of that one time].

I think every writer, including the seat-of-my-pantsers, can benefit from stopping to organize her work. The process of scheduling deadlines is an opportunity to ask yourself, "Which projects do I have in the queue? How are they progressing? How do I want them to progress? What are my top priorities right now?" Even if you don't like deadlines, you should at least weed through those random scribblings of infant story ideas and abandoned half-finished outlines once in a blue moon.

2. Deadlines Give You An Excuse to Write

A lot of writers, including me, don't take their work seriously. Writing isn't a "real" job with a steady paycheck and responsibilities to other people. It's a hobby. A pie-in-the-sky dream. An excuse to sit around and fantasize for hours instead of doing something "productive."

So when it comes time to sit down and churn out books, we come up with "more important" things we should be doing instead. Writing is something we want to do, and things we want to do take the back seat to things we "need" to do. "I need to work out." "I need to prep dinner." "I need to respond to these emails." We can always come up with to-dos that seem like they have higher priority than writing.

Deadlines have the magical ability to make certain things jump ahead in the queue. Suddenly it's not, "Oh, I wish I could write instead of going to the grocery store"; it's, "Oh, I have to write before I go to the grocery store." Then you might actually do it.

Note that this only works as an individual mind trick, and it's probably useless on other people. If you happen to have a wife or husband who thinks of your writing as a simple pastime, she or he will say, "That's not a real deadline. You just made it up. Don't worry about it and watch New Girl with me!" Then you need to have an entirely different conversation about personal time.

3. People Are Less Creative Under Pressure

What happens when people are under stress is that their bodies and brains cut off the peripherals and focus on what's right in front of them. When crowds panic, perfectly reasonable people who know what they should do shut down and follow the most immediate cues presented. Say there's a fire in a movie theater. When you're sitting comfortably at home, thinking about how you would escape a fire in a movie theater, you think it's a simple matter of just getting up and going back out the way you came in. But when someone shouts, "Fire!" no one can remember how they came in. They need the glowing arrows on the floor pointing to the exit. They follow the way everyone else is going. So if the emergency doors are locked but people are going forward, they will keep pushing like lemmings until the ones in the front are crushed to death. Every once in a while you hear of a stampede at a soccer match in South America or Europe that ended in tragedy because some idiotic organizers locked the gate.

The same thing happens on a lesser scale when you're dealing with smaller stressors. Have you ever tried to find your keys when you're late to work, and you can't for the life of you remember where you put them thirty seconds ago? The colloquialism for a person in this situation is "scatterbrained," but it's actually the opposite. Your mind focuses on one thing (e.g. "Must catch the bus! Must catch the bus!") at the expense of everything else. Deadlines can produce a similar phenomenon. When a piece is due the next day, you forget all of the little brilliant things you intended to do with it and just follow the glowing arrows in the outline. And though the examples I've presented so far have been negative, this can actually be a good thing.

"How could this possibly be a 'pro'?" you ask. "Isn't writing all about creativity?"

Not necessarily. Creativity, meaning the ability to draw many different ideas from many different sources, is great during the planning stages of writing. You want to think outside of the box when you're coming up with premises, outlining stories, and designing innovative ways to tell them. But there are many times when you need to rope in your brain and focus on simple task completion. Sometimes you just need to write. You've outlined a story to death, you've circled it in your head a dozen times and attacked it from different angles, you've come up with entire new books in the meantime...it's time to just sit down and hit the keys. And this is where a stressor like a deadline can come in useful to cut out all of those extraneous ideas and let you get the first draft on paper.

My father used to tell me I perform best under pressure. What he really meant, whether he meant to mean it or not, is that I tend to pull through when I shut down and focus 100% on a single task, to the point that there's no room for even saving things to memory. When I was six years old, I went to a national baton twirling competition in South Bend. I somehow made it to the final round. I remember being in the gigantic gym, and my mother and teacher fussing over my makeup, and going through the heavy black curtain to face the judges. Then, all of a sudden, I was back on the other side and my teacher was hugging me so tight that my lipstick smeared all over her white dress, and everyone was saying the word, "No-drop." I had apparently executed the routine flawlessly. And my little six-year-old brain was so confused, because I couldn't remember a second of it.

I imagine athletes in high-pressure competitions experience the same thing. Olympic track and fielders probably can't remember anything past the signal to "go." They just do it. The turn-of-the-twentieth-century American Chess Champion Harry Nelson Pillsbury, who held the title from 1897 to 1906, wrote:

"I frequently play sixteen games blindfolded, and tho [sic] the strain at the time is very severe, the whole matter is cast off my mind five minutes after the match is over. If you then asked me to name the opening on Board No. 9, for instance, I would have to stop and think about it." (The Independent, May 1900)

This is the plus side of tunnel vision. Writing a story is a far cry from playing sixteen simultaneous games of chess blindfolded, but it still benefits from cutting out the distractions of extraneous ideas. Some people call this being "in the zone." Others just call it "concentration." Whatever you call it, if the stress of a self-imposed deadline helps you focus and get your writing done, do go for it.

Still, I don't think NaNoWriMo is a good idea.

"What?" you exclaim. "But you just outlined all these great things about how deadlines can make you focus and work! NaNoWriMo is a great idea!"

No, it's not. Using a deadline to make yourself sit down and finish a short story or book chapter is one thing. Barreling through a 50,000 word novel with your eyes closed is quite another. I've posted my opinions before, but they can bear repetition.

First of all, unless you've written many novels before, if you try to finish one in a single month on your very first (or second, or even tenth) time out, you are guaranteed to crash and burn. It's like trying to run a marathon when your daily training regimen is the stretch between the parking lot and Starbucks. Professional writers with illustrious careers can do it. Nora Roberts does it regularly. But are you Nora Roberts? Likely not. (Though if you are, hi Nora!)

Secondly, you'll only create more work for yourself later by rushing through now. Say you get a few chapters into your Great American Novel and something isn't working. (And I guarantee you that something will not be working). The NaNoWriMo folks will tell you that you should just ignore it and keep on going; it's all about the daily word count. You can go back and edit later. But I don't know of any other profession that believes if you're doing something wrong, your best chance of success is to ignore the warning signs and keep plowing on through. Imagine a builder who's determined to finish a house in a month, no matter what problems he spots along the way. The foundation settled askew? The walls don't quite line up? There are gaping holes in the roof? Don't worry about it! We'll finish the house first, and then go back in to tidy up those little things. That'll save a lot of time and effort down the line!

Being inspired to finally pen that novel that's been kicking around in your head for years is great. But like all big goals, it pays to approach it right. NaNoWriMo is to your novel-writing dreams as a fad diet is to a resolution to lose weight. You think that if you just suffer for a short period, you'll see quick payoffs, and that will be the end of it. But the complications from doing too much, too fast, can quickly come back to bite you. People who cycle through fad diets just gain the weight back and then some after each bout of starvation, plus they heap on new health problems from off-kilter metabolisms, malnutrition, muscle loss, etc. They try them anyway because the thought of working to make small, permanent changes to their lifestyles over a long period of time is disagreeable and intimidating. It's the same with embarking on a writing career. You can't expect to just hunker down for four weeks and "get it done." You need to work steadily—take baby steps and improve over time.

The key to using deadlines effectively is to make them realistic. Finishing a short story in one or two weeks, for a practiced writer, is realistic. Finishing an entire novel in one month is not, unless you have zero competing obligations, many years of practice, and low expectations for the quality of the final result.

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