Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Living and Dying by Deadlines

True confessions time: When you were in school, were you the kind of student who started writing a paper as soon as it was assigned and made sure you finished it early so you had plenty of time to revise it; or did you wait until about thirty-six hours before it was due and wrote it in a marathon session fueled by Dr. Pepper, Milky Way candy bars, and Doritos?

Today’s June 30. Which means that tomorrow is one of my two manuscript deadlines in 2009. It also means I’ll most likely have to pull an all-nighter to get my edits and revisions finished so that the manuscript, which I didn’t finish until late last week, is in a condition that I—who freelances for this same publishing house—am not embarrassed for my editor to see.

When the month of June started, I’d written about 43,000 words on a manuscript that by contract is supposed to be as close to 100,000 words as I can make it. Yep—one month before deadline, I still had more than half the book to write. But that’s okay, I told myself; I’ve always worked better under pressure. If I wrote between 2,500 and 3,000 words every day—about three or four hours’ work—I could have the manuscript finished by June 20, and still have ten days for edits and revisions. I got all of my freelance work finished and turned in so that there would be nothing competing for my time. I’d be able to focus.

Except, as always happens, distractions kept popping up. . .especially the distraction of having two books releasing on July 1. Suddenly, it was Father’s Day; and I was still sitting on only about 80,000 words with fewer than ten days to get the last 20,000 written. How had I managed to get myself into this situation?

After turning in the manuscript for Menu For Romance on December 1 and taking off the month to enjoy the holidays, I started the year 2009 with a plan. I’d write 1,000 words every day; and by April 15, I would have completed the first draft of A Case for Love; then, I’d have two and a half months to get it out to my beta readers, get their feedback, and work on revisions—and get it turned in early. Plus, I’d be able to start my next manuscript, Ransome’s Crossing, in April and have eight months to get it written, read by beta readers, and revised before its December 1 deadline.

But with seven months to get A Case for Love written, making myself sit down and write those thousand words every day didn’t seem all that pressing—plus I had lots of other stuff to focus on, between freelance work and marketing my first release, Stand-In Groom, as well as preparatory work for the releases of Menu and Ransome’s Honor. Then there was the trip to Michigan with fellow Barbour authors MaryLu Tyndall, Mary Connealy, and Christine Lynxwiler for a week at the end of March. And somehow, the month of April had come and gone, and I wasn’t anywhere near finished with the manuscript. Then there was the seventeen-day trip I took to Louisiana and Arkansas for book signings, family visits, and weddings, which ate up most of May.

And that's how I got to June 1 with 42% of a manuscript and only a month left to complete it—and a deep-seated professionalism and determination which forbade me from even considering asking for a deadline extension. It was MY fault I hadn’t gotten the manuscript finished; therefore, it was MY responsibility to do whatever it took to get the manuscript finished by the contractual deadline.

Now, with another deadline looming on December 1 (for Ransome’s Crossing, the second book of The Ransome Trilogy with Harvest House), I have a decision to make. I can do the same thing I’ve done with my last two manuscripts: procrastinate until I only have a few weeks left and then stress myself out for a month or more to get it finished and then worry about the quality of the manuscript I’ve submitted; or I can call upon that “deep-seated professionalism and determination” to write at least 1,500 words per day and finish the first draft with enough time left to double-check my research, let my beta readers get their feedback to me, and have plenty of time for revisions before turning it in.

In other words, am I going to live by my deadline and make it with plenty of time to spare and have confidence in the quality of the manuscript I'm submitting; or am I going to procrastinate and then have to kill myself just to get the first draft finished by deadline?

Before I was a published author, I would set deadlines for myself—and regularly miss them. After all, it was just some arbitrary date I’d set, and nothing was going to happen if I missed it. No—but it created a really bad pattern of procrastination; and it’s only been since I’ve signed multiple book contracts that I’ve learned an important lesson: If I’d made myself stick to my daily word count goals, and if I’d made it a priority to practice meeting my self-set deadlines, I would have created in myself the habit of getting manuscripts finished in a timely manner and not a habit of waiting until the last minute and “dying by deadline.”

Do you set goals and deadlines for yourself? Do you stick to them? What can you do in the second half of 2009 to start practicing the skill of writing well ahead of deadline so that when you do finally sign those book contracts, meeting deadline is just another tool in your writer’s toolbox?


Kaye Dacus is the author of the Brides of Bonneterre series for Barbour Publishing and The Ransome Trilogy for Harvest House Publishers. She holds a Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and is a former Vice President and long-time member of American Christian Fiction Writers. A Louisiana native, she now calls Nashville, Tennessee, home. She is currently celebrating the release of her two latest titles: Menu for Romance and Ransome’s Honor. To learn more about Kaye and her books, visit her online at kayedacus.com.


  1. LOL. I feel you. At university, if an essay was due at 4pm, I was the girl begging and pleading with the printer at 3.52pm tp print faster and preparing for a mad run across campus to get it in on time!

    Heaven help me, if I'm ever blessed enough to be published, I imagine it will be exactly the same until I'm forced to change :)

  2. It's a difficult pattern to break-I'm working on breaking it in myself.

  3. I loved this inside view of deadlines! You've give us great motivation to start training ourselves to set deadlines as well as goals and stick to them! Thank you!

  4. One of your points hit home with me. Patterns established before we're published will carry over after we're published.

    The time to be faithful is now. Thanks for this powerful lesson.

  5. I'm a procrastinator through and through. BUT, I really want to not be so with my writing, so as an unpublished author, I'm working on trying to meet my goals. It's hard though when, as you learn more, your goals change. It's not that I failed my goal, but that I changed it. *sigh*

    You rocked, though, at getting Case for Love done! I'm so proud of ya! Now... go get them edits done!!!

  6. Kaye,
    Thanks so much for your post. It really hit home with me. I loved reading Stand-In Groom and can't wait to read more of your work.



  7. True confessions time...when I was in college I only pulled one all nighter to finish a paper. I HATED doing that. Usually I'd start papers shortly after they were assigned b/c I figured if I finished a couple of days or weeks early I'd have more time to do whatever I wanted. Gotta say Kaye, that you kick butt when it comes to working under deadlines! :)

  8. My only goal is to get up before everyone else and win the race to the family desk top.

    I write best early in the morning. I know that and need to take advantage of it.

    As far as deadlines, I'm having second thoughts about how I work around contest deadlines. Too last minute.

    Good advice!

  9. Welcome to Seekerville, Kaye, and OUCH ... what a good post!!

    I'm afraid I'm guilty as charged on the deadline offense, at least on my 4th book (Katie O'Connor's story, which is actually book 1 of a new series). I came down to the wire in meeting my 3rd (yes, I said 3rd!!) extended deadline on this book. But in my defense, I did lose two months to an unexpected surgery followed by an unexpected infection and two hospital stays by my 91-year-old aunt for whom I am primary caretaker.

    That said, I have learned a valuable lesson -- LIFE WILL HAPPEN AND IT WILL STEAL YOUR TIME! So what looks like a nice, healthy 6 months to write/edit a 500-page book (the deadline I was stupid enough to give my publisher) is NOT realistic, at least on my planet. That said, I have learned 1.) Set realistic goals, 2.) Work harder at the beginning of those goals rather than at the end and 3.) Get my butt in the chair.

    Thanks for your great post and kick in the butt ...


  10. Kaye, my whole life I've always procrastinated until the last minute. And in college, with that "newfangled" electric typewriter (where you popped out the ink cartriage and popped in the correction tape), I would be up all night typing those papers!! LOL

    Thankfully, having a deadline scares me to death (fear of failing, I guess! LOL) so I tend to keep up my pace. I divide out the word count and know how many I have to do per day.

    But I'm not so good about revisions. I tend to have to stew on the revision letter for a while, planning and re-thinking things in my head. And before I know it, a week has passed! So I need to learn to do better on the revision phase. :)

    Good luck with the next deadline!! And thanks for being with us today. :)

  11. Oh, wow. You're freaking me out, Kaye. I am such a procrastinator! (Like, picking out the piano special for offertory two days before I'm suppose to play) I can see that this is definately something I need to work on now, especially since the initial brainstorming/plotting part takes so long anyway, for me.

  12. Thanks for the valuable insight, Kaye! I work so much better when I have a deadline. As a currently unpublished author, the struggle has been to set deadlines for my self and keep them. I've enlisted my husband to help me with this as I'm more apt to keep a deadline set by someone else.

    I think for authors without a deadline set by a publisher or agent, we must view our work as important enough to stick to it and see it through.

    It's important to establish good habits now so that when we are published, we will be more faithful to the deadlines given.

    (hope that wasn't redundant!:)


  13. I was never a procrastinator in school. I just can't stand last-minute pressure. And I do tend to set deadlines for myself, because if I don't, it takes me forever to get something done. And once I have a deadline, I'm really driven. Of course, when life starts happening, I just can't concentrate on my writing, so I'm sure I'll have trouble meeting a deadline at some point.

    The one exception is cleaning when company is coming. I hate to clean and I usually wait until I barely have time to get it all done. But then, I have two kids who will mess it up if I DON'T wait till the last minute.

  14. I think I'm motivated most by the consequences of not meeting the deadline. If my grade in school suffered with a later paper, I had it ready early. If my professional reputation is on the line, it'll get done.

    If it's a self-imposed deadline, I give myself extensions for my excuses. Aren't I nice? I've tried the reward system (chocolate, anyone?)but maybe I need a negative consequence instead.

    Get your word count done for the week or else 4 miles on the treadmill. Yikes. That was harsh enough to have me opening my file, BICHOK.

    Thanks for making me get serious about my deadlines.

  15. This is free association right? That's a psychiatric term right?
    No, there's no particular reason I'm familiar with the words psychiatrist use. I've never been around one. Shut up.

    So, here's what this made me think of.

    I'm really a seat of the pants author, seriously. It's what comes naturally to me.

    I'm trying to plot more and I can do it, but it's NOT my first choice.

    I know this has nothing to do with your post, refer to paragraph one above.

    So once upon a time, the teacher in my children's one-room country school house...a very cool experience I'm so delighted my children had...but I digress.

    The teacher, who knew I was an aspiring writer, asked me if I'd write a few skits for the Christmas play she always put on.


    That's what I told her.


    I've got no idea what I'd write about, I have no children's Christmas skits in my head.

    Then I went home and turned on my computer and stared at the blank screen for a while, and I wrote three Christmas skits.
    In a weekend.
    Probably in one sitting, not counting revisions.

    I seriously had no idea what I was going to write when I started.

    The plays were darned cute, too.

    I won't burden you with details.
    I showed up at at school Monday morning and handed her the three skits and said, "Use 'em if you want."

    Huge hit.

    So, planning too much ahead doesn't really exactly work for me and I guess what this has to do with Kaye's post is, this terrifies me.

    I'm on book three of the series AFTER the series Montana Rose (releasing TOMORROW YAY!) is in. So those three books:
    Montana Rose
    The Husband Tree
    Wildflower Bride

    Are all finished and turned in.

    Just yesterday while writing book three of a series I'm calling (in my own fevered head) Sophie's daughters because they're love stories about Sophie (from Petticoat Ranch) daughters all grown up....I came up with a twist on book three, that I spent yesterday setting up in book ONE. I'm so, so, so glad I had the time to do that, just a tweak to Mandy's personality set up in book one that is going to make her own story so much better in book three.

    So I've never really faced a deadline but it really scares me, enough that I don't want to ever HAVE to face one.

    And I just wrote a chapter of a book right here, so I'll quit now and go write the real book.

  16. Hi Kaye:

    Interesting post. You made me think about deadlines again.

    I lived under daily, weekly, and monthly deadlines for years as a copywriter. I never got use to the stress which made it almost impossible to enjoy my job. At the time, I even enjoyed having dental work done just to get away from the office for a couple of hours. Yet everyone thought I had such a fun job.

    Do you think you get the same product by cramming at the last minute than you would have gotten if you spaced out your work over an extended period?

    If you get a better product by cramming, do you think the added stress is worth that improvement?

    Do you have your novel fully outlined from the start or do you fly by the seat of your pants? (If you wait to the last minute to write 40,000 words and you don’t even know how the story is going to end, that would be the mother of all stress!)

    I'm really interested in your "Menu for Romance". I hope it comes out as an eBook.


  17. Good morning, Kaye and welcome to Seekerville!

    LOL! You've just described my life : ) If I try to set goals and deadlines for myself, I just stall out and nothing gets done.

    But, I've learned to overcome. I've taken all my distractions away from my writing area, even to the point where I write on an old laptop with no internet so I won't procrastinate with a quick peek at who's on the loop : )

    Writing chunks of spew works for me. I love to revise, but can't revise unless I write something first. So, a couple of chapters at a time, spew and fix, and soon I've worked my way through an entire book.

    Use what works, right?

    Thanks for sharing your writing life. Hearing how others deal with their own debris in the road is very enlightening : )

    What? No goodies available? Well, I just happen to have a tray of pastries (store bought, sorry) and a special blend of southern pecan coffee. I'll see what I can scrounge up for snacks later : )

    Off to go write : )

  18. Hey, everyone! Thanks for having me back on Seekerville!

    @Vince: Do I outline my stories ahead of time, no. I used to be a seat-of-the-pants writer until I signed contracts for books I hadn't yet written, but that the publisher wanted a synopsis for. I still wouldn't call it an outline---and, as evidenced with Menu for Romance the story can change even from the synopsis that gets turned in.

    The irony with the contemporary romance series is that I've ended up writing the last part of each of the three books in a time-crunch situation: the last 20,000 words of Stand-In Groom in one long weekend (to get it finished for a grad-school deadline), the last 60k of Menu for Romance in five weeks (October through the first week of November) last year to get it finished before the December 1 deadline, and now A Case for Love. With SIG and MFR, some of my favorite parts of the books are what I wrote in those last-minute, panic-laced days.

    So do I end up with the same product by cramming at the last minute? I don't know. But for me, I believe my creativity is greatly influenced by my adrenaline---and panic gives a pretty good flow of adrenaline.

    And you know what they say about coal, pressure, and diamonds!

  19. Mary--I'm so happy you had time to add that extra twist to your first book to help your third!

    Vince--I have the same question. Working under pressure can get the juices flowing, but if there was time, couldn't the manuscript be improved? It seems I'm never done improving mine!

    By nature, I'm the type of person to get important things done ahead of schedule, and I always regret hurrying to finish because I often feel I could have done better with more time.

    On the other hand, in writing (and pretty much anything else of value)I've learned that I can push to prepare but I can't force inspiration. Only God can truly weave a story (or Bible study or speech) together with the beauty and grace that blesses us and others.

    I'm so grateful for Jesus' promise that the Holy Spirit will give us the right words to speak (and write) when we need them! (Matt 10:19) I think the question is--Do we want it to be His words or ours? And do we trust Him to use us in all our frailties?

  20. Mary, your way makes so much sense to me. I love feeling like I'm ahead of the game. I can work behind the eight ball, but I like a backlog of work so that tweaking opportunity comes if necessary.

    Remember Stephen King's Bag of Bones? The award-winning novelist
    lost his wife and made deadlines during his grief by sending in manuscripts he'd finished long before. Bought him necessary time and no lapse in his fictional career.

    How smart is that?

    Books in the hard drive are money in the bank eventually.

    The good ones, anyway, LOL!

    And I've totally messed up my hostess duties yesterday and today. Oh, mylanta, what was I doing????

    No food?

    No drink?


    So, since it's brunch time for most, how about a lovely batch of French Toast, with optional pecans (pronounced Peh-conns I was told in Nashville, by the cutest little bust-your-chops waitress who found my Yankee accent hysterical) New York real maple syrup, fresh strawberries (in season here now and SOOOO very good) and a lovely bowl of freshly whipped cream.

    Cinnamon and nutmeg are to your left and I brought Italian sweet cream for the coffee, not because my derriere NEEDS it, but because it tastes so darned good.


  21. Kaye,

    Thanks for starting this wonderful discussion. Your transparency is amazingly stunning (I can't think of another way to describe it). It's risky to share your methods, warts and all.

    Mary C. came in with another amazing post. Thanks for sharing, Mary.

    I'm published in nonfiction and even "real" deadlines are hard. I really struggle with self-imposed fiction deadlines.

    Accountability seems to be the only thing that helps. For nonfiction magazine articles, in the past I have hired an editor and promised them to have it in by a certain day. It motivates me because if I turn it in late, the comments will come too late to use for the "real" editor.

    My late aunt was a writer and lived a street away. For awhile, I would have my husband deliver my fiction pages to her doorstep each morning on his way to work. It helped to think of her as my reader and write for her.

    Another aunt loves to travel and I would promise to deliver my nonfiction travel story to her to fact check. Even if I stayed up all night to finish, which I sometimes did, I had that cushion after she turned it back to look it over before sending it in.

    It is such a relief to have an important piece finished before it is actually due!

    For me, procrastination is a byproduct of insecurity about my writing. It's easier for me to finish a piece if I know someone who knows what they are doing will look it over and save me from making a fool of myself in front of the "real" editor.

    I can write faster and try more things if I have someone I trust standing by to catch the problems. I have recently found an in-person crit partner which is helping.

    The downfall with the paid editor method is the expense. :)

    If someone reading this post wants to make a commitment to complete their book by July 7th and send it to me, I will complete mine and send it to you. Even if it just forces us to complete the story and we don't actually critique one another except for major errors, we will be ahead. Mine is 62,000 words and I'm in a deep rewrite that I am procrastinating on.

    E-mail me privately if you are close enough to completion to try this. (cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com)

    Cathy, desperate to complete the book!

  22. Welcome to Seekerville, Kaye! Thanks for the reality check post on meeting deadlines. I've turned in one book under a deadline--fear of missing it kept me writing every week day. I had a page count but three weeks out, I had to plant my butt in the chair morning, noon and night. Five months pushed me and I wanted more time to tweak. Hopefully I'll get that opportunity during revisions.


  23. OH NO!!! LOL
    I was the student who wrote my essay on the bus the day it was due.
    This post sounds scarily like myself. I mean, I have this wordage I like to get in daily, but it's the revisions of a finished story that really get to me.
    I hope yours gets done well. I haven't gotten to read one of your books yet, but I've heard a lot about them. :-)
    Let us know how you do with Ransome's.

  24. I went to Journalism School and worked on a newspaper for a while.
    So I've had some experience with deadlines in that line of work.

    Maybe that's why I fear them. :)

  25. Good Post, Kaye,

    I'm not fond of deadlines myself. In junior high I procrastinated over a report on a historical figure.

    the night before due date, I finally figured out who I wanted to write about. Captain John Paul Jones. Whoo Hoo

    I pulled out the encyclopedia worked up my report. The outline and bibliography were great, the body of the report insightful and most stimulating with visions of battle on the high seas.

    It was a good ten pages from bow to stern.

    Only problem, I had to type the stupid thing. Yes this was before computers. So I sat down with my old remington, (the one where you had to have bionic fingers to press the keys)and typed by life away.


    I was near dead when I lifted my fogged mind from the pillow after a couple hours sleep the next day. I got to school and meandered through my day, wishing I was a kindergartner, they got naps.

    Oh well, I turned it in and got myself a B+ for my effort.
    Proving I can work under pressure.

    Have I raced in the deadline lane since, yep, and do I get things done, yep, but I try not to skirt the deadline edge too closely. I've done assignments and newsletters, but I always try to get started right away.

    Now a days I don't even send out a proposal until the story is finished.

    But who knows, if I ever get that contract, I may have to deal with those deadline issues.

    Oh Lord Please no. :)

  26. OMG, I had no idea we were playing Truth of Dare today. I would have stopped by sooner.

    I love your honesty.

    Kaye, you totally rock.

  27. Hi Kaye,
    Queen of Procrastination here. Thanks for your illuminating candor.
    I'm praying for you as you finish up!

  28. There's nothing funner than having double deadlines stalking you. LOL!

    I start on my work the very day I get the assignment if I can. I'm just OCD like that.

    I was just the opposite in school though. Used to drive my mom nuts because I'd wait until the night before a semester project was due and get it done. And usually get an A. I worked better under pressure.

    But with publishing, I owe it to my publisher and to my editors to not only get stuff in on time but to make sure it's top notch when it arrives.

    Sometimes life happens and unexpected circumstances. That's why it's always better to have cushy deadlines if you can and start on it right away.

    Great post, Kaye. I enjoyed the second book as well as the first.