The Muzzle of a Deadline

James Scott Bell

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. –– Douglas Adams
Sometime last year TKZ’s own John Gilstrap tweeted this: “Staring down the muzzle of a deadline, I’m beginning to panic.”
All of us who write under contract know that feeling. Right now I’m on deadline for two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. Through some inscrutable machination of Murphy’s Law (or as a punishment from God) both manuscripts are due about the same time. Add to that galley proofs that I have to get done by next week, and you have a prescription for rubber room admittance. I find myself walking around the house with my hand in my shirt crying, “Josephine! Josephine!”
My author colleagues know what I’m talking about.
But if you backed us up against the wall at a party, and forced us to elaborate further, we’d probably admit there’s a certain “high” in staring down that muzzle. Our nerve endings are on edge, we know deep inside that’s motivation to get cranking, that we’re on full alert, all our senses at the ready, like a hunter who knows the lion (if I may be Hemingway-esque for a moment) is silently watching from the bush.
Does that make any sense? Or shall we just accept the fact that the writing life is a  strange hybrid of joy and misery which, when mixed together, intoxicates with a seductive allure?
For those of you still awaiting publication, this is what you’re in for.
And while you are waiting, may I suggest you train yourselves now and create your own muzzles?
First, finish your book. Finish it! Give yourself a completion date. There are many reasons people have for not completing a book, most of them bad. Fear of failure might be one. Fear of hard work another (it’s fun to keep creating, less so get critiqued and fix things).
But you learn so much from completing a novel it’s best to do it as fast as you comfortably can.
Which brings us to the quota. I know there are some writers who reject the idea of a consistent production of words. But most, I think, see the absolute value of it.
This was one of the earliest pieces of advice I got, and helped me at just the right time in my career. It’s also allowed me to see published 25 books in a little over 15 years. Not a bad output. In fact, I look back with some astonishment at the record, and owe it to the quota.
I know there are other authors much more prolific than I, but I found just the right number to please my desire for production and my standards for the craft. I’m right where I want to be.
My suggestion is that you set a weekly quota. This is so you can break it down into days, and should you miss a day (which you will) you can make it up on the others.
Anthony Trollope was working for the British postal service and trying to become accepted as a novelist, when he began a quota system for is writing. In his autobiography he wrote:
There was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office.  I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind it to undertake this second profession I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws. When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if, at any time, I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face and demanding of me increased labor so that the deficiency might be supplied.
You want to make it in this racket, you produce the words. You don’t need the muzzle of a contract deadline to do it. You can set your own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go correct some pages. 

Josephine!

25 thoughts on “The Muzzle of a Deadline

  1. Jim, setting a daily word quota is excellent advice for any writer at any level. And for many, the only thing more scary than a looming deadline is the stark white expanse of page one, chapter one.

  2. When I bought your book PLOT & STRUCTURE that was the first thing that slapped me in the face. I had one false start after another before that. It was frustrating, and although I had always spoken about “one day I’ll write the great American novel” I began to wonder if I’ll ever finish one.

    After your book, when the idea for my first novel stared at me in the face, I set a word quote of 1,500 a day. I can only write at nights from 9 PM to midnight. I averaged 2,500 instead. 7 weeks later I was done with my 90k word novel. Three months of editing later, I started querying.

    Not wanting to dwell, I started my second book. This time my quote was set at 2,500. I averaged just around 3,000. Six weeks later I was done with my second novel. The quality of the stories will be for others to decide, but one thing is a fact: the quota forced me to stay true. The quote system works.

    One other thing: The only quote I’ve read from Stephen King on minimum quotas was in his book “On Writing” where he says he recommends 2k, because if a book takes longer than 3 months to finish, the story world begins to break apart. He feels that you should write fast a furious (with an attitude to boot). He then says that we should not drop below 1k per day.

    Best of luck — your readers are counting on you to deliver on time! 😉

    – Ara

  3. Thanks Kathryn!

    Ara, thank YOU for the kind word about Plot & Structure, and congratulations on finishing two novels. That is tremendous.

    Fletch, as Ara indicated, I’m not sure how hard core King would be about saying it that way. Most people have to write while holding other jobs. Some, like Ara, can really wail for a few hours at night. Others may have to set more modest goals.

    My rule of thumb is, set a weekly quota you can do comfortably. Then up it by 10%. For some, that might be only 2400 words a WEEK. That’s fine, as long as you stick to it. In 8 – 9 months you’ll have a novel. You can write a book a year that way.

  4. Ara, your quota system is impressive, and puts me to shame! I just try to get to the next page number. But now you’ve inspired me to try for more!

  5. I can do this while on NaNo or NovelTrack. I have a harder time the rest of the time… Perhaps because my family is more understanding of my Panera marathons during those months ;). Once I’m under an official deadline from a publisher, hopefully that will continue.

    That said, I have one MS ready to query [going out this week], the rough draft of the sequel done [though remaining unpolished until someone wants it since it’s the sequel and all and that way I can focus on…], another MS that’s 2/3 done and my goal for this month’s NovelTrack.

    The accountability is great and finding great CPs and other friends to help hold me accountable has been fabulous as well :).

    Carol

  6. Carol, I’m all for the NaNo experience, as I posted here.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, and congrats on finishing a project and, even more important, getting on with others. Keep writing.

  7. I have to say, this post came at the right time. I’ve always been good at making myself work everyday no matter what. I used to impose deadlines for myself to meet, and I almost always stuck with them.

    But now I have REAL deadlines, and, um, it’s a totally new kind of stress. Contract deadlines loom in a way self-imposed ones do not. Slacking off is simply not an option. On top of that, I now I have to work on more than one book at a time–something I certainly never did in my pre-sale days.

    I’ve been assigning myself daily quotas (of 3K), but it gets exhausting. Not to mention, some days the words just don’t flow. As silly as it sounds, the idea of a weekly quota never even occurred to me–but it makes so much sense! And it seems so much less daunting that way.

    So thanks for this post. It’s made me smack my forehead and go, “Duh! That’s what I should be doing!”

    And good luck with all your own looming deadlines!

  8. Susan, that’s great to hear. Glad it helped.

    Here’s another thing about the weekly quota (for me at least). I try to take one day off a week. Usually Sunday. This “sabbath rest” really recharges my batteries and keeps the brain from getting fried.

    Happy writing to you.

  9. I know I’m joining late to the NaNo thing but…

    Very interesting. I guess I’ve not followed the ‘controversy’ over NaNo – but then it’s only been 6mos or so since I started getting involved in the publishing community. I’ve done NaNo for 4 years and ‘won’ every year. The first two years were drivel meant only for friends and family. The third year is now a full fleshed out novel of 85K that I spent over a year polishing. The still incomplete MS is last year’s NaNo.

    I know lots of people who participate for fun – just to prove they can do it, to write fanfic, to do ‘real’ manuscripts – rough drafts and the like. Of course, I’m not an agent or editor who may have to deal with slush pile additions from those who truly believe what they write in 30 days is ready for publication.

    The only think you can’t edit is a blank page. For me, that’s the point of NaNo and NovelTrack. Edits come during the other months.

    Of course, right now my 8100ish for the month needs to bump up quick if I’m gonna hit my 50k goal with a subgoal of finishing this MS [guessing 25K on it] and getting a good start on something else while it ‘breathes’.

    Maybe I can convince DH Panera needs me to hold down one of their booths this afternoon… 😉

    Thank you for the encouragement. It’s always nice to hear =D.

  10. I suppose the motivation behind one’s quota depends on whether we approach it as a job or as a vocation more on terms as a hobby. I wonder how many of us “aspiring writers” (God, I hate that term) would continue to pursue the dream of publication if they knew–really knew–how much work & pressure lay in wait while under contract. Agent Rachelle Gardner had a great blog post on just that issue last week, more or less stating, “Be careful what you wish for!”

    I cranked out 85,000 words in 6 weeks & felt no pressure because I just wanted to see if I could write a novel. Then I fell in love with the process & now feel compelled to see it through, but nothing gives me more pleasure than the writing. I fear all the rest might spoil it for me. Still, I will see it through. Thanks, JSB. You are a recent discovery for me & I now find myself in love with something else: your books.

  11. Nancy, thanks for the kind word about my books.

    There is a sense in which I was “happiest” writing before I was published. But I got “what I wished for” and learned about those crazy deadlines and such. But keeping productive at least gives me certain days when I sort of recapture that initial feeling.

    Glad to hear about your own productivity. Keep writing.

  12. I wish I could churn out 85,000 words in 6 weeks like Nancy Thompson did. Incredible!

    Speaking of deadlines,Jim. I turned in my second novel last Monday. Now I’m kind of stuck. Worrying that my editor will hate it, that it will be everything I don’t want it to be, etc. It’s the first one I’ve written from scratch under deadline.

    What do you all do right after you’ve turned something in? I’m thinking I should read it again and start looking for anything I missed before I get my revision letter. Or do I start writing the next one? HELP.

    I’m marketing book one, waiting for revisions on book two and wondering if should completey turn into a plotter and not a pantser for the writing of book three due October 1st. And I prayed for this opportunity.

    Writers really must be a bit nuts to put ourselves through this. And I’m just getting warmed up. But there’s some kind of strange attraction to the whole thing. Very weird.

    Go Jim go! Write those books. I’ll work on quota.

  13. Jillian, I know exactly how you feel. My advice is forget all about the book until you get the editor’s notes, and be working on your next project.

    Way to go, BTW!

  14. I try to set deadlines within deadlines to keep me on track but I usually use chapters rather than a word quota ( get to chapter 5 by end of week, that sort of thing) but this only works because I am an outliner…so I know where I need to get. It works for me but I have to be really strict about adhering to it…deadlines have a way of running away from you when you’re not looking:)

  15. “Deadline” sound so lethal…”Finish by this day or Ivan the Reaper will be stopping by with his axe and basket.”

    I wish it could be called something like “Git’r Done Line”

    Then again, the specter of Ivan and his shiny axe does make me move more dilligently I guess.

    Even if it is only an image in my own imagination.

  16. I admire you to face down two deadlines at nearly the same time. I’m happy with just one deadline, thanks. I do set a weekly page quota and stick to it pretty well, as long as I allow for weekend breaks and unexpected events. The best advice I can give is to be realistic in setting deadlines and allow time for life getting in the way.

  17. Mine is 10,000 words/week until I’ve produced a rough draft. Ideally I aim for 2500/day, knowing that realistically at some point I’ll need to bench the writing for research, or that other life events will intercede. But 10,000 words on average seems to be manageable for me. That puts me on track to finish two books a year, considering the time that the various editing stages will require. I could do more, but as you said, Jim, for me at least the quality seems to slide. And I find editing to be far more time consuming than the original writing process.

  18. Wow! What a great post. I tried doing a daily quota for years and could never quite fulfill it. I always ended up coming up short (not writing a couple of days a week) and feeling terribly guilty. I never thought of a weekly quota but I think that would work for me. I’m just about to get heavily into my third novel. (I started it but took a break to do a revision of my second book for my agent. I have a full-time job and a three year old so I have to steal my writing time.) But now I want to crank it out. I like the idea of a weekly quota because it is completely feasible for me and I think having a goal would keep me on track! Thanks for the great advice. Good luck to you!

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