The Thrill of Deadlines, and How to Meet Them Alive.

(Corrected: eliminated all the bad advice about the two week story)

That race to a deadline is fun and satisfying.  It’s a test to see if you can pull it off, get that story done and out by the time that clock strikes.  But you have to plan ahead, or else you’ll be turning in bad stuff, or stressed so much you miss the deadline.  

Douglas Adams loved deadlines too.  “I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound as they shoot past.”  

New Scientist says your heart attack risk rises six times normal at the approach of a stressful deadline.  

(But they also list sexual activity as a precursor to heart attack, and who wants to cut that out??)

My history has been spotty on deadlines.  I’ll admit, like Adams, I let them reluctantly whoosh past me, relieved at the amount of stress reduction they can have when they do leave—or when the professor gives you another day, or another hour—but this has not been good for me in the long run.  Always hoping that I’ll get an extension on a deadline has made me think that anyone will give an extension.  And this is not the case.  

I remember when I got my story in to an anthology Claude Lalumiere was editing at like 12:40, forty minutes past the deadline.  He said, no!  Holy cow.  I thought that he was a stickler, but I’ve learned this is standard practice.  Not everyone will give you an extension, and no one is obligated to.  There has to be a cutoff time.  Chaos can ensue.

And really, it’s bad form (Jerome!) to ask for extension on deadlines outside of real emergencies.  I’ve done that once in awhile, and I’m very happy for those who accommodate me.  But that puts them at risk.  An editor I know once had a rule about her deadlines: “Never tell the author the REAL deadline.”  She always told me a false deadline, in advance, knowing I would push it.  She actually had three false deadlines (one day I pushed through nearly all of them! eek).  But this was a magazine deadline, not a submission one.  

Submission deadlines are part of life.  They should be hard.  They make you plan better, and I think, increases the thrill without increasing bad stress if you aim accurately for the deadline.  

I can’t wake up two hours before a story deadline and think I’ll be able to pull off a winner: I’ve tried writing stories too close to the deadline, and I get bad stories.   But when I’ve had a story go through revision about six times and then I spot an anthology deadline, it really makes me polish well.  And a polished story, even if you send it in 17 minutes before midnight, still feels great!   

My heartfelt applause goes out to all those who made it by Tesseracts 14’s deadline, and the man who made it by the stroke of midnight!  WOO-HOO!  

How to plan ahead for deadlines.  Okay, I should preface this with the following disclaimer: I don’t write stories in two weeks, not normally.  And so I can’t tell anyone to write a story in two weeks.  A lot of my stories have been through lots of drafts, some over years, to figure out what the dang things are about.  But there are a few tips I have to think about when I’m writing towards a deadline.  

I go backwards from the last thing I have to do and count that as time I need.  So I save enough time for the spell-checking, the last minute editing, the spit-polishing.

I also try to save enough time for multiple drafts.  My worst writing comes out in the first draft, usually.  Bad, stinky writing.  So, you have to save time for yourself to redraft and rethink your story.  How long? I don’t know.  Sometimes, if I’m doing nothing but writing, a few days.  But this doesn’t count the thinking time in between a first draft and the multiple drafts that come after.  I’m working on a story right now that started life in 2002 as a 2500 word short story.   Then it had another incarnation in my dissertation as a 7000 word short story and now, in 2009, well, it’s getting another draft.  Not everything takes this long—but some of ’em do.

A week is only enough time for me to get an adrenaline draft—that first idea that you run on a pretend course to get to some conclusion.  Like a pace car.  But that isn’t time to see all the layers, the themes, etc.  It’s barely time to get the first draft out of your fingers.  

The ideas take longer:  you’ve been mulling over a cool idea, or have a vision of a great scene, so you’ve been jotting notes…this can take as long as it takes before it gels enough into a story.  Normally I won’t count this in the time I need.  If it hasn’t gelled, it’s not ready for a story.  

Your timeline will be different, but know where you are in the course of your writing, and what your normal speed to write your best story, in order to know how to plan for a deadline.  I remember a story not too long ago that I planned too short a time for….. and all I got was a nice first draft out of the story.  Yikes!  So, now I get to go back and give it work and it will shine!  

Thomas Jefferson had his deadlines too.   This quote from the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia:  “Thomas Jefferson wrote the rough draft of the Declaration in only a few days? He spent a period of two weeks refining it and even gave a copy to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin for their review.”  I’m no Thomas Jefferson, but I’m imagining he was under a tough deadline and had to get it right.  

Know your writing speed, and count backwards from the deadline.  Then you’ll be alive when you cross it.  Really, really alive!

2 thoughts on “The Thrill of Deadlines, and How to Meet Them Alive.

  1. Kater December 6, 2009 / 9:59

    You know, I’ve never really done a deadline at all, except the Leonardo Variation (which I met with no trouble.) It takes me so long to write a story and get it ready to send out, that basically any story I submit is a trunk story to some extent.

    Except, of course, for the one I’m writing for Lightspeed. You wanna look that one over for me? Opens for submissions Jan 1. 🙂

  2. jstueart December 6, 2009 / 9:59

    Yes! I’d love to!! Send it over.

    And Yeah, I no longer have any trunk stories that I like…. so I’m either doctoring up the trunk, or writing them new… and then they become trunk stories! haha.

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