The Importance of Deadlines

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

– Lao-Tzu

So last week I finished and submitted my short story “Arboromancy” to the Writers of the Future contest. Not all that impressive or glamorous, I know, but the important thing (in my mind) was that I finished the story. And submitted it.

Still, you say, what’s the point? I think that submitting the story allowed me to prove a few points to myself.

“Arboromancy” is a story that I’ve written at least six times in different incarnations. Each time I wrote it there was something wrong with the plotting or the narrative or the idea. The latest effort was one with which I was mostly happy. In the end, I can’t keep revising the same stories over and over and over ad infinitum. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that its deceptively easy to continually fine tune a story, to agonize over descriptions, adverbs, and other minutiae. But, that’s not how you get better. Following the advice of Tobias Buckell and others, the best way to improve at writing is to finish stories, then move on to the next one.

I decided to submit to Writers of the Future so that I would have a hard deadline to meet each quarter. At a minimum, I can finish four short stories this way while I work on my novel.  I’m not saying that this method will work for everyone, as there is always the exception that breaks the rule. But, as a few professional writers have pointed out, each story you complete teaches you incrementally more about different aspects of fiction, while allowing you to experiment with different narrative methods.

If I had held on to the story, revising and endlessly polishing it, I would have never gotten an accurate measure of my writing skill. Now, granted, the story I submitted was a little rough around the edges and could have done with more revision. But submitting it, puts it out there with everyone else’s material. If it doesn’t win, well, what have I really lost?

Writing to a deadline wasn’t all that different from all the writing I did in school. For “Arboromancy” it meant that instead of coming home from work and following my usual routine (eat, walk dogs, waste time on internet, write a few hundred words), I compressed all of my non-writing activity into a shorter time frame and dedicated a bigger chunk of my time to writing. When the writing was good I did nearly 1,500 words a night. Doing this allowed me to finish the story in ten days. Add revision time to that, and I probably spent the better part of three weeks to finish that story. If I can do it once, I can certainly replicate my efforts on my next few writing projects. Because that’s what deadlines do best. They beat procrastination. Based on a few back of the envelope calculations:

– If I finish on average, between 8,000 and 12,000 words a month, I can write around 96,000 – 144,000 words in a year. That’s most of a novel or a half dozen short stories.  Even allowing for 10-20% editing cuts for concision, meeting my monthly goal and my quarterly submission quota will mean that I finish my projects, if nothing else.

It comes back to being professional. Wanting to write is well intentioned, but to get further than that, you have to meet your goals.

On Being Professional

I write almost every day. 90% of that is usually crap, as evidenced by Sturgeon’s Law, and more often than not its not fiction. If I stretched this writing pattern out over the next five years, I may sporadically finish the odd short story or blog post or chapter of novel, but…I wont be professional. I came across a listener comment on an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. The commenter posted these words on being professional:

If I’m going to be a professional, then I need to act professionally.

So what does it mean to be professional? Obviously, getting published would be a strong vote of confidence in that direction, but while I’m at the struggling unpublished writer phase, I think the most important thing I can do right now is to build habits to cultivate discipline so I can increase my chances of going pro one day.

I thought about this topic recently when I decided whether I wanted to take lessons in Indian Classical Music. I’m already taking piano and tae kwon do, each with their own demands on time;  learning another instrument would only serve to take away from what little time I have left for writing. I’ll also be starting my CA articling in January, which will keep me busy full-time.  Between that and everything else, I’m going to make time every day to start and finish my fiction projects.

My plan is to meet a monthly deadline and enter a story every quarter into the Writers of the Future contest. And I’ll post my progress here to keep things honest and commit myself to these goals.

Thanks to Tobias Buckell, whose post on Habits was the initial inspiration for this post.