Dear Creative Friends:
Having written more than two million published words, you may be surprised to hear that I could easily toss my MacBook Pro out the window and not miss it at all. As opposed to many of my writing colleagues, I do not NEED to write. That’s why, whether from an editor or self-imposed, I have learned to cherish deadlines.
My appreciation for due dates may go back to my days in advertising or radio scriptwriting. Miss a media deadline and there’s a blank page in tomorrow’s newspaper or dead air on a thousand radio stations. Perhaps not literally, but you get the idea.
Or it may go back to my college days. Despite the fact that I wrote almost all my papers the night before they were due, I still typically earned a “B.” Sure, my prose could have been better, but I was just a kid and had other priorities. The act of writing was never an eager pursuit or hobby. I had friends who voluntarily filled eight or ten journals a year, but I only wrote on assignment. What’s more, I don’t think I ever proofread any of my writing until my mid-20s.
Every book contract comes with a deadline, often a year or more before the book actually hits the market. The wise author has all kinds of tricks to make sure they stay on track. It might be keeping a calendar with incremental due dates for certain word counts. It might be keeping a sticky note on your office door with critical deadlines.
My writing friend, Bob Hostetler, lies to himself about deadlines, sometimes convincing his cognitive self the manuscript is due an entire month before it actually is, leaving him plenty of time for final review and revisions.
Self-imposed deadlines may be the million dollar secret to how I work. I am constantly giving myself assignments to finish a proposal or send an email with attachments to my agent. In practice, if something more urgent or profitable comes along, I’ll flex on those dates. I typically juggle a variety of projects, chapters, and manuscripts. If I hit a roadblock, I can easily set one writing project aside because there’s always another one calling my name.
I’ve been doing this for a while, so I know how long it takes to finish most projects. That allows me to practice another productivity trick that might be considered risky. I’ll set aside a project with a pressing deadline in favor of a project that might not be considered urgent at all. I know I won’t allow myself to miss that firm deadline and I also know that works expands to fill the time allotted for it. For example, facing a two-day project due on Friday, I have two choices. I could start on Monday allowing it—very likely—to take up my entire week. Or I could spend Monday and Tuesday making progress on other ideas and projects, and turn my attention to the more urgent project later in the week finishing it just under the wire. As I learned in college, I work better under pressure.
Talking to colleagues, I’ve heard that most authors count on deadlines to ramp up adrenaline to finish a project. So never fear deadlines, they can be great motivators. Even ask clients and publishers for short deadlines. I may work through the night on occasion, but I haven’t missed one yet. Knock on wood.
And hey, if you’re part of writing group, I’d be honored to come divulge 14 axioms that have guided me on my erratic and improbable journey to national speaker and best-selling author. I can confirm nothing compares to holding that first published book in your hands.