Friday, July 17, 2009

The Joy of Deadlines

When I sold All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, I also was fortunate enough to sell a pitch for my second book at the same time (what's known as a two-book deal in publishing industry parlance). My publishers gave me two and a half years to complete the second novel. It didn't sound like much time to me, especially considering that my first book took almost four years to complete, but then again, I'd learned a lot on the first novel and figured that the second would come more easily.

There are a lot of upsides to two-book deals (including getting paid *while* you write, instead of *after* you write, the book), but for me, the primary upside was the deadline. I work best when I have deadlines. In fact, I can barely work without one.

As a journalist at Salon, I often had to turn in four or five stories a week, and missing a deadline would get me in hot water with my editors. So the reverence for a deadline was already ingrained in me when I quit to try my hand at a novel. But after quitting my job, it took me nearly a year to really start in on the novel-- and I soon realized that this was because I didn't have any deadlines for it. It was all so freeform, my schedule completely up to me, and I found myself floundering about, meeting deadlines for all the freelance journalism pieces I was writing, but hardly ever touching the novel.

This was one part of the reason why I eventually signed up for a novel-writing class at UCLA extensions: It came with deadlines. If I didn't turn in pages on my assigned week, the entire workshop would be sitting around with nothing to discuss. And when the novel-writing class ended, I joined a writer's group, and then another, for similar reasons. The deadlines may not have been strictly enforceable (no one was going to fire me for missing them, for example), but they still existed as a goal to meet: People were expecting to see my pages on a certain date.

So here I am, now, three months away from my final deadline for my second book - and much to my surprise, I am actually ahead of schedule. Part of this may be because I have an even more stressful deadline before me: I'm due to give birth to my first child at the end of next month, so I figure I better have the novel done before then. (From what I've heard, newborn infants aren't very conducive to fiction-writing during the first month or two).

There were moments, with this second book, when I thought I would never finish it on time. Say, the period of writers block when I was beginning the new novel, and found I could barely remember how to compose a sentence. (This lasted about five months). Or the long, three-month period during the publication of my novel, when I was so distracted by the chaos of book tours and interviews and the emotional anxiety of being published that I could barely write. And then, the time when I decided to scrap the first 100 pages of my new novel, because they just weren't working the way I wanted. Each time, I thought I was doomed.

But the deadline always kept me motivated. I found I could even take a few weeks off writing in order to get some creative distance from the novel, or to find new inspiration, or while I waited for feedback -- somehow, the date of August 30 was lurking in the back of my mind, egging me on and keeping me on track. If I really needed time away from the book, it wasn't the end of the world, but the deadline at least kept me from wasting my mornings on the Internet, or watching Real Housewives of Atlanta reruns on BravoTV when I'm just wasn't in the mood to write.

So two and a half years turned out to be just enough time to write the new novel. But I have to wonder - if my editors had only given me two years, or eighteen months, would that have turned out to be just enough time, too? Did I really efficiently use the time I had, or merely fill up the time I was given? The legendarily prolific Joyce Carol Oates, after all, produces a book a year; then again, there's Thomas Pynchon, who takes at least a decade per tome.

What about you? How do you set deadlines for yourself? Or do you have outside forces that set your deadlines for you? Or do you just not worry about them at all?



  1. Hi Janelle,

    I’ve just started reading your book and, I’m enjoying it very much! Having lived in the heart of the Silicon Valley during the IPO and .com bubble years, I have seen many "wave riders" and
    “hot-doggers,” and have experiences a few wipeouts of my own! But, in the end, we all manage to get through!

    I’m a procrastinator by nature, and I love the thrill of a deadline. Maybe it’s the fear and excitement that drives me— or it could just be the Greek/Irish temperament in me.

    I find that when my article “Culinary Road Trip” is coming due for Vine Times magazine, I tend to pull it together in the eleventh hour. Granted, it’s only about 500 words, but this has become the norm. I do have the article on my mind and spend a lot of time researching the piece, but when it comes to the actual writing of it – well, that comes right down to the wire.

    Also, working with someone helps me with my deadlines. I’ve just finished writing my first gardening/cook book that I co-wrote with my friend, Pam Larkin, she and I have managed to keep each other on target. Now, after two years of writing, we are ready to send out our proposal.

    Good luck and congratulations on the upcoming birth of your first child. Motherhood is wonderful, and I'm sure it will come with lots of fun and interesting experiences you can write about!


  2. Hmmm.... I posted earlier and it seems to have disappeared. But anyway - thank you for picking up my book, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    I know the art of procrastination well - which is why the deadlines are so important for me. I would procrastinate forever, if that "eleventh hour" never threatened to turn into the twelfth one!