Use deadlines to help you

Over the past few months, I’ve returned to study (although when it comes to writing, I feel like that never stops – I’m always learning something new, or sometimes I have to relearn an element of craft that I have “forgotten” about). Along with study come deadlines, for getting to class, completing homework and, most importantly, submitting work for grading.

One of the things that I found so useful while doing my MFAC at Hamline was the monthly deadlines for packets of work – usually an essay and 20-40 pages of writing. Those deadlines kept me focused on writing more and more pages, and revising what I’d done, rather than making excuses about why I hadn’t written that month. There were no excuses!

But even more important than those deadlines was the person at the other end waiting for what I was sending. That person was going to read and give me feedback, and set me new tasks. While some of you might shrink away from such strict expectations, it was a kind of wonderful freedom. Freedom to be able to put aside many of the daily chores and time wasters that I didn’t actually need to be doing, or that I could be speeding through and getting out of the way. Those monthly deadlines gave me permission to focus on my writing first!

Now the deadlines are different. The coursework assignments had to be in by a certain date – no excuses! I managed it but I had an awful lot of new stuff to learn; theory and history and intensive research I’ve never had to do at this level before. At times I thought my brain might explode. But it was worth it, given what I learned. I have regular meetings with my supervisors, but now the rest of my study is up to me. I have to decide how to pace myself, how to keep up, how to organize myself into a schedule that will produce results. Luckily, I think the past 3 years has helped me immensely. I can set my own deadlines to a great extent.

The bottom line, of course, is that the best deadlines – the ones we stick to – are those imposed by someone else. If you have someone waiting on your work, you usually find a way to meet the expectations. If it’s an agent or an editor waiting on a revision, for example, or even a finished draft of your new work, the impetus to get it in on time is enormous.

But what if no one is waiting for your novel? What if you have been working on it for two years or more, and you still haven’t completed a first draft? It can be very hard to keep going when a little voice in the back of your head (or a loud voice from someone unsympathetic in your family!) is saying, “Who cares if you finish it? It probably won’t even get published.” Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you tell yourself you are writing just for the love of it (like all those articles tell you to), there will be lots of days when the feeling of writing into a black hole just plain gets the better of you.

Yes, you can create your own deadlines. You can say, “I will finish three chapters by the end of August.” It may or may not work. What does help a lot is if you can find a fellow writer and set mutual deadlines. “I will finish my three chapters if you finish yours, and then we can swap and read.” Even if you don’t want feedback from your writer friend yet, just the act of sending them your chapters to prove you did it, you met the deadline, can help. Light feedback on a first draft, more critical feedback on a revision, can be energizing and motivating.

One more thought – several writers I know organize weekend writing retreats, either on their own or with a writer friend or two. You book into a cheap hotel (or a nice one if you can afford it) from Friday to Sunday, a room each, and you write as much as you can in those two days. You only meet for dinner to celebrate your writing. It’s a mini-deadline of sorts. Try it sometime!

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