Monday, 2 December 2013

Using Deadlines To Get That Story Finished

If you happen to be feeling very motivated and enthusiastic about your story, then sitting down and writing it isn’t going to be a problem. 

When you’re writing as fast as you can and all synapses are firing you really don’t need any particular structure or technique to your process. You write until you can’t write anymore, and then you get up the next day and do it again.

In a perfect world with plenty of free time and no distractions there would be no excuse for not getting those words onto the page. But things don’t always work out that way and most of us find plenty of reasons to give up and watch TV instead.

One method you might find useful if, like me, you’re not always delighted by the prospect of sitting at the computer with no end in sight, is to set yourself deadlines. Not just one, but many. 

Of course, when things are going well and the words are flying out of your fingertips things like deadlines don’t really matter. But when it becomes a bit of a slog or when distractions are leaving you little time or energy, it doesn’t take much to convince you to give up.

In the real world deadlines work on the basis of reward/punishment. If you’re being paid to get work done by a certain date you’ll find that kind of transaction very motivating. Also effective, though maybe not quite as pleasant, is when you have to do get something done to avoid a negative outcome, for example handing in homework on time. 

Both of these approaches rely on the brain’s inclination to want to hit targets put in front of it. And we can use this tendency to fool the brain into doing what we want.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but I’ve found that the brain isn’t always as cooperative as it could be. Sometimes, for no reason, you may find writing a struggle. You have the idea, you like the idea, you want to write the idea, but it just seems such a long process and the end is so very far away...

Setting yourself a deadline, even if it’s completely arbitrary, can actually make a difference. Having a definite goal to aim for tricks the brain into switching into ‘get it done’ mode. And it is a trick. You don’t get a prize for hitting your target, and there are no penalties for failing, but by simply creating an end point you can engage your brain’s natural tendency to want to cross the finish line.

NaNoWriMo is a good example of this sort of thing in action.

However, there are some downsides to this approach.  

While it can certainly give you the motivation to keep going until you hit the finish line, it can also feel like the end, sapping you of any desire to keep going. You push yourself to beat the timer and be a winner, and then you collapse in a heap and the manuscript gets shoved in a drawer to languish.

Alternatively, things might not go as planned and you don’t manage to finish within the allotted time. There’s no reason why you couldn’t keep going, but missing that deadline makes you lose all momentum. You feel like you failed and there’s no point continuing to run when the race is over.
So how can you use deadlines to your advantage and avoid the pitfalls?

The simplest approach I have found is to not have just one deadline. 

That feeling of finality a single deadline can give you is a powerful motivator and feels great when reached, but it isn’t a genuine reflection of where you are in the process. 

If you split up the work into sections you can create multiple deadlines. Those sections can be for chapters or different drafts or for different stages like critique, revisions, submissions, etc. How you break it up will depend on how you work, but the advantage of having a bunch of deadlines is twofold. 

First, you trick the brain into wanting to achieve a goal by a certain date without making it feel final. You get the benefit of hitting your target, but still have the mental attitude necessary to transition from one phase to the next. 

Second, if you don’t hit the deadline you have room to make adjustments. You can extend the deadline for one section and shorten it for another, avoiding the demoralising feeling of the end getting further and further away.

You may be thinking, but how do I know what the right length of time is to set myself, but that’s the beauty of setting your own deadlines, it doesn’t matter. The whole thing is just a way to trick your brain into doing what you want (whether the brain feels inclined to cooperate or not). And like most psychological tricks you don’t really want to think too much about it or the whole thing falls apart. The important thing is to set the goals and then go after them, your brain will fall for it every time and do the rest. Stupid brain! 

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If you have a moment please hop over to Write To Done and vote for your favourite writing blog for 2013. Any nominations for Moody Writing gratefully appreciated. Cheers. 


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Multiple deadlines are a good idea. I'm a lazy writer and need NaNo and BuNo to motivate me. But since I will not finish the story with 50,000 words, I set that deadline for the next month, however many words it takes. So far, it's worked!

Sarah Foster said...

I find that making huge deadlines for myself never work, but I do like your idea of multiple deadlines. I'll give it a try when I'm working on my second draft.

mooderino said...

@Alex - it's amazing how much more you can get done just by putting a time limit on yourself.

@Sarah - just don't let your brain find out what you're up to.

Al Diaz said...

I must confess I have never been good with deadlines. I put them but I usually don't keep them, at least not in writing. It's like brain says "Ah, the old trick of tricking me." Maybe if I catch it off guard...

Elise Fallson said...

The brain isn’t always cooperative? Shocking. (;

I actually work best under pressure so I have to set deadlines to get anything done. Trouble is I've been slacking off in the 'give yourself deadline' department. The other thing I found to be great help for me, is getting out of the house to write. Tuesdays are my writing at the coffee shop days. so far it's been great at moving forward on my ms. It's still a daunting task of rewriting this bastard, but I seem to forget that as I sip my coffee and eat my buttery croissant. (:

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - it can be hard to fool the brain once it's onto you, but one way of dealing with that is to give yourself actual reward (slice of cake) or punishment (no TV for a week) for hitting/missing your deadline. It has to be something you/your brain consider worthwhile but it can be enough to convince the brain to play along.

mooderino said...

@Elise - life would be so much easier if the brain just did what you wanted it to... sigh.

Unknown said...

I usually set broad goals like "finish this chapter within three days". I don't write fast, so saying I have to complete a novel in a month would be maddening. I can't stand having a deadline looming when I know I can't meet it. For me, that just results in staring at a page and wanting to rip my hair out. Setting several small goals that aren't too specific works for me. I can't go by word counts or pages because that drives me insane as well. I write because I enjoy it, so anything that makes it feel like a chore won't work. For others, a strict deadline will work wonders. It forces them to pay attention and gives them something to work for. I appreciate that you've presented multiple variations here. I definitely fall into your "split the workload" category.

mooderino said...

@Lana - the right approach varies so much depending on the person that most advice tends to be very generic and while true not that useful. I try to be much more specific but hopefully look at things from enough angles to offer something of practical use. Mind you, there's no substitute for getting stuck in and working out what's best for you by just writing a lot however long it takes.

Lydia Kang said...

I almost always set deadlines for myself. I often don't make them, but the worry of getting it all in under the wire helps me not waste time.

Unknown said...

I'm someone who works very well under deadlines -- I never miss them -- but only ones imposed by other people. Ones I've come up with myself I cheerfully wave at as they pass on by...

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

Terrific suggestion here. I like the idea of multiple deadlines. I have been so far behind in my writing because LIFE has certainly got in my way since August and now I am playing end of the year catch up.

Hope you are well…. All the best!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think a deadline is a good way to stay motivated. On the house flipping shows that I watch, renovators use it to stay on budget and get a project completed in time.

mooderino said...

@Lydia - the truth is not making a deadline isn't a big deal at all, just have to make sure the brain doesn't realise that.

@Lexa - you can always get someone else to impose them on you.

@Michael - Hello! You've got a nice cold Chicago winter to contend with no doubt so plenty of time to stay in and get all caught up.

Denise Covey Writer said...

Great tips Moody. I love the motivation of NaNo. Anything is better than nothing.

Rachna Chhabria said...

At times I am a super lazy writer. Those times deadlines do help me, but many times I end up stretching the deadlines. I wish I could have done NaNo. I have never done it (maybe its my fear of not getting those 50,000 words) that's making me avoid it.

Jay Noel said...

YES, deadlines are a necessity for me. Gotta have them. I create little deadlines, or milestones, for my writing so that it's obtainable.

LD Masterson said...

Nope. My stupid brain can tell if I'm working on an arbitrary personal deadline or one involving someone else. It's unimpressed by the former, does pretty well with the latter. Writing challenges work better for me.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Yep, I love breaking a big task down and having multiple deadlines. I work best when I have a deadline.

mooderino said...

@denise - you need something to work with, doesn't matter how you get it on the page to start with.

@Rachna - even if you fail to get to 50k you will still have something, which is all you need. Might not be complete but you'll have a better idea if there's something worth pursuing than if you had written nothing.

@Jay - it definitely works, that or someone standing behind me with a big stick.

@LD - a clever brain is a terrible adversary to have.

@Lynda - me too.

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