“So, how is your novel coming along?” someone asked.
“Uhhhh…” I replied, and quickly tried to change the subject.
That was a conversation I had after several years of only writing on and off with no set deadline for completing my novel. I realised that if I was ever going to get it done, I would need to set myself a deadline.
I bought a five-year diary and filled in the dates for when I would need to complete each draft, with the end of the year as the goal for completing my first. It worked. I wrote more in that year than I had in the previous three years combined and felt immensely proud of myself.
The following year I completed the second draft with a month to spare. I was feeling great. I assumed it would be no problem to complete the third and final draft by the end of 2017.
That’s where the problems began.
Thankfully for me, 2017 was the year my financial luck turned around, but it did mean I had a huge load of work, which set my personal writing back several months. By the middle of the year, I had only five finished chapters out of a planned 24.
Once I did get back in the writing groove, I must have stepped in a fairy ring or something, because a near endless stream of illnesses and injuries hit me one after the other, setting me back again. Trying to get back on track with my deadline only resulted in burnout.
It was then that I decided that there was no way I was going to complete the novel by December 31st without causing myself a considerable amount of stress, so I gave up on the deadline and threw out the five-year diary.
Now I am working on the novel bit by bit with no set deadline. It will be finished when it is finished, and I’m fine with that.
If you’ve been in a similar situation and struggled to enforce deadlines, or even to set deadlines in the first place, you might want to consider whether or not a deadline will really work for you.
Where I went wrong was failing to realise that a near-publishable draft takes much more time and effort to write than a first or second draft, which are meant only to get the words down on the page. Trying to complete a near-publishable draft in one year on top of all my other work turned out to be too much.
And yet, I only reached this point because deadlines helped me to complete my first few drafts.
Back when I was working on the first few drafts, I hadn’t yet developed the self-discipline and regular writing habits that I needed to keep writing. I was still working retail, so I lacked the motivation and energy to write regularly. It was only after I moved abroad and began working full-time as a freelance writer that I developed the motivation and time management skills I needed to make novel writing part of my daily routine, without the need for a deadline to keep me going.
Writers aren’t always willing to admit it, but external factors are much greater motivators than internal factors, which is why we can be reluctant to use deadlines to get things done. Our culture seems to expect everyone to be internally motivated to do everything all the time, or always have the self-discipline and drive to do all the things they’re expected to do. Internal motivation can help, of course, but it’s impossible to use it for literally everything, when we all have so much to do.
I did find that there are many advantages to setting a deadline for a large writing project:
But as my third draft proved, there are downsides to deadlines as well. Unexpected setbacks can throw a schedule completely off— it is difficult to realistically predict how long it will take to complete a draft, and they can be highly inflexible. Of course, setbacks can happen even if you aren’t using a deadline, but the deadline only makes them all the more stressful. It could even cause further anxiety due to not completing the project by the due date, which is the opposite of motivation.
Author Wyl Menmuir said that he initially hoped to complete his novel in 124 days at 500 words a day, but it actually took him 671 days, or nearly two years. His deadline didn’t work because the author was new to writing at the time and underestimated what it would take to finish a novel of publishable standard.
Five hundred words a day for five days a week may not sound too difficult, but it doesn’t factor in that some days are better for writing than others, and that sometimes external factors can cause setbacks. Menmuir was set back by procrastination and self doubt and didn’t consider the need to take breaks from writing. It is a similar reason why many NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) authors have a good start at the beginning of the challenge, but soon fall so far behind that they can’t complete the challenge within 30 days.
I have also found that taking time to work on a novel rather than rushing through it can be beneficial, especially for new writers. It gives you time to improve your skills and correct errors in your work rather than rushing a sub-par novel into print and ruining your reputation right out of the gate. Setting your deadline too early, or setting one that doesn’t fit with your lifestyle, might cause you to rush through and forget about editing or rewrites; it becomes all about meeting the deadline, not completing the book to a good standard.
As with most writing tools, your personal deadline will depend on your individual circumstances and how you work. There are several reasons why a deadline might not work for you:
I’ve reached a point that I can still work on the novel almost every day, but without the constant stress of having to complete it to a strict deadline. This arrangement is what works best for me.
If, however, you find it difficult to motivate yourself to write, you want to complete your project before a certain date, or you work better with structure, you will probably need a deadline to complete your novel. It isn’t always easy to figure out what type of writer you are, so some degree of trial and error is necessary. Finding out what works best for you is all part of growing as a writer.
One way to figure it out is to look at how you have completed projects in the past or how you perform at your day job. Did you have the self-discipline you needed to finish it? Do you work best with structure, or do you prefer to be left to your own devices? These can all help you figure out if you should set a deadline for your novel.
If you’ve decided that a deadline will be a good tool to help complete your book, here are a few ways you can set a productive and realistic deadline:
Look at how much time you can devote each week to writing, or how much you can typically write in the average week, and use that as a guide to how much time it will take you to realistically complete your novel. Many authors find time-tracking apps such as Toggl useful in this regard, as the tool records how much time you spend each day on various activities, and helps you to manage your time effectively and become more productive. Trying one out for a week or two can help you determine your ideal deadline without overshooting it and feeling like a failure for not meeting it. It is always best to give yourself a little leeway to allow for unexpected circumstances.
If that sounds too daunting or you are worried about falling behind, you can always set yourself smaller, more manageable deadlines. As I found, the deadline of completing a fully edited manuscript within a year turned out to be too much, but if I had set myself smaller deadlines from the start, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble and stress. You might decide to complete one chapter a week or reach 50,000 words by a certain month. Many authors say that smaller goals such as these are much more productive than a looming long-term deadline.
Even if you don’t have a publisher or agent yet, you could still use the same tactic that they use: setting their authors ‘hard deadlines’ of completing their manuscripts, but with distant goals of maybe two years to complete. The author then sets themselves ‘soft deadlines’ (e.g., I will complete the research by this month) to meet this goal bit by bit, without the stress of a close deadline.
Even if you are strict with keeping your deadline, setbacks may occur — that’s a part of life — but this is okay, as it’s only a self-imposed deadline, which is meant to motivate you. If you do need to set it back a few weeks or months because of circumstances beyond your control, or even throw it out altogether, there is nothing wrong with that, so long as the project is eventually finished.
Now whenever someone asks me how my novel is going, I can reply with, “It’s going great! I’m over halfway through the final draft, and I hope to have it published in a year or two.” I may not have a set deadline anymore, but I can still safely say I am actively working on my novel, something I couldn’t claim a few years ago. It can take authors anywhere from a few weeks to a decade to complete their novel, and there is no magic formula for it. You will likely need to do a little experimenting to find how you work and can best motivate yourself.
While it’s good to be ambitious with your deadlines, you also need to be realistic about how achievable they are. But if a deadline helps, then set one and let it help your novel, rather than hold it back.
Jessica is a British freelance arts and culture writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and now living and working in Finland with her husband, who is also a writer. She has previously had work published in The Bath Chronicle, Fan/Slash Fic, and Blueink Review and is currently a contributing writer for The Culture Trip. You can see more of her work at woodthewriter.com.