The Joy of Deadlines

by Curtis C. Chen

When ShadowSpinners approached me about writing a guest blog post, I readily agreed—then asked for a deadline before I even suggested a topic. Because I love deadlines! No, I’m not crazy. Let me explain…

In 2008, I went to Viable Paradise (VP), a week-long writers’ workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. It was an intense, fun, eye-opening week, during which I pushed myself to write new material faster than I had in a long time. Every day, my fellow students and I had to complete writing exercises while also attending a packed schedule of lectures, critiques, and heavy drinking. (Just kidding about the drinking. Not really.)

When I got home from VP, I wanted to keep that productive momentum going. So I started the 512 Words or Fewer project, wherein I blogged a new piece of flash fiction every Friday. I kept the length requirement short on purpose, so I knew I’d be able to make my word count every week; and I also made the blog public from the start, so I was accountable to the whole world if I didn’t meet my commitment.

I continued doing 512 Words for nearly five years—256 weeks in total—and I learned a lot from it. I learned that my first draft of each scene/story tended to be about 1,000 words. I learned how to find the heart of a piece when cutting it by nearly 50%. Most of all, I learned to stop worrying and love the deadline.

Not every 512 was a masterpiece, but quality wasn’t the point. The point was to produce regularly and consistently: to hit a target, and to get better at shooting for that target each time. You’re not always going to hit the bullseye, but you will improve with practice.

And speaking of arrows, producing a weekly television series is a good encapsulation of this philosophy! (I may be slightly obsessed with TV showrunning. Topic for another time.) The network wants twenty-three episodes a year, you’ve got a matter of days to produce each hour long show, and that content needs to air on time every week, come hell or high water. You can’t wait for inspiration or postpone on a whim. Other people are depending on you.

This principle also holds true for publishing. You may be alone when writing your manuscript, but at some point you’ll need to collaborate—whether it’s with the magazine editor who buys your short, the literary agent who wants to represent your novel, or the Internet artist you’ve hired to design cover art for your indie book. There will be a team of people working together to publish your story, and coordinating between everyone means—you guessed it!—setting and meeting deadlines.

Giving myself an arbitrary deadline for the 512s helped me get used to the idea that a deadline was a deadline, period. External deadlines set by other people may often seem arbitrary. Why did a market close to submissions the day before you finished the perfect story for them? Why does your agent not call for months and then suddenly want you to do a whole bunch of work by tomorrow? The answer, most of the time, is because it’s not about you.

Here’s a #PROTIP: when someone asks you to deliver something by a certain date, never ask why they chose that date. If you need more time on your end, that’s a reasonable request—but you don’t need to explain why you’re busy. (We’re all busy. It is known.) By the same token, don’t question why or how the other person sets their schedule. Respect their process as much as you want them to respect yours.

A popular myth about creative artists is that “having the idea” is the hardest part of the job. Personally, I have too many great ideas and too little time to develop all of them into actual stories. Deadlines help me prioritize my efforts on any given day. Overall, I’m a big believer in constraints fostering creativity: there is some scholarship on this topic, and quite a bit of anecdotal evidence. Knowing how much room I have to build always helps me get started.

Is it possible that forcing yourself to produce on a schedule will dull your creativity, limit your choices, or restrict your growth as an artist? I wouldn’t worry about it. As the saying goes: perfect is the enemy of good. Having a mediocre-but-finished story is always better than a brilliant-but-incomplete piece. You can’t sell it if it’s not finished.

All that said, it’s important to remember that every artist has his or her own creative process. What works for me may not work for you, but I hope hearing a little bit about how I get things done has given you some ideas for how to motivate yourself. Happy writing!

~Curtis

P.S. If you’re interested in Viable Paradise, this year’s workshop takes place October 16th-21st. Applications are open now and close on June 15, 2016. There’s your deadline!

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Deadlines

  1. Pingback: Breaking In: Interview with Curtis C. Chen | stephen geigen-miller

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