Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tips for Beating, Meeting, (and Mincemeating) Deadlines

Time and again in my writing career, I'm grateful for my corporate work background. I learned a great many skills in jobs that weren't necessarily "inspiring", but which have helped make me a more efficient and effective writer.

Every writer working towards publication will have deadlines. Whether you're self-publishing and deadlines are self-induced (*cough*), or working with a publisher to their schedule, each of us will have goals and dates we're striving to meet.

I've spoken with several authors on both sides of the publishing coin, and deadlines are always raised with a groan - and usually with a certain amount of shock.

You'd think self-publishing authors wouldn't share this kind of stress, but I've been surprised to discover that successful self-published authors are often working on such short timeframes between book releases (not to mention balancing screeds of administration and promotional responsibilities that might be at least partially covered by a publishing team), that deadlines are meat and potatoes for them.

So, what do we do to keep on top of deadlines in this always-in-a-rush world?

The following are time-management, professionalism, and practical tips I learned in the training I received in the corporate world. I've found myself drawing on them throughout my writing journey:


Repeat after me: "Deadlines beget deadlines".

Whether you're working under contract to deliver a manuscript to an editor, or self-publishing, it isn't enough to say "I have to have this finished by November 21st." (NOTE: that's an arbitrary date by the way, not my intended release date).

Every major deadline will require several (dozens of?) smaller milestone deadlines, and in most cases no-one will set those milestone deadlines but YOU.

The best way to deal with this is to work backwards - and to review your milestones regularly. If your manuscript has to be delivered (or formatted for self-publishing) by September 21st, what steps have to be achieved for that to happen?

For me that process includes drafting, polishing, getting critiques / editing, doing changes, reader reviews, polishing, proofreading, polishing (again!!!), blogger / reviewer copy distribution, and formatting. (Phew! And that's JUST the basics).

So...working backwards:

a. Release date = November 21st.

b. Reviewers need a minimum of 3 weeks, but preferably as many as 6 for review copies, so the finished manuscript deadline becomes October 10th.

c. Before the manuscript can be ready to send out, I need to finish any changes that have arisen from getting my manuscript proof-read, and ensuring the document is "pretty". If I allow 10 days for that process (probably a short timeframe, but I'm a quick typer / worker), that means I need my proofreading notes back by September 26th - which in turn means:

d. I need to get the polished manuscript to my proofreader by September 5th.

e. If I'm going to have three weeks to make changes and polish the finished manuscript, I'll require receiving critique / editing notes back by August 20th.

f. That means my editors / critiquers need the polished draft by July 27th.

g. So I have to have my current draft complete and self-edited by July 26th.

Do you see how this works?

If you don't take the time to break the process down, your risk being taken by surprise or missing a deadline due to underestimating the steps you needed to take to reach it. And when other people are part of your process, don't forget that they're all working to their own deadlines too. And if they're running late, you may find things spiraling out of your own control.... which is why you can't forget the next point:


"Buffers" or "padding" are probably self-explanatory, but the important point I learned in corporate project management was that professional guidelines would suggest padding your dates (and finances!) by at least 20-30% to allow room for unforeseen obstacles, assistance that arrives late (or not at all!), or to cover for user error. (In other words, I may have forgotten a milestone in my initial planning. Or one of the steps may take far longer than I expect it to).

Regardless, if you want to be sure of hitting a deadline, try to give yourself 20-30% more time than you think you need. You'll be surprised how quickly that extra time becomes "the only thing between me and a strait-jacket".


There's two important reasons for reviewing your dates, milestones, and progress on a regular basis:

a. Sometimes the goalposts change. You may find that you've had to change a date further ahead in the process, so all the others need to be adjusted too. Or you may find out someone else needs more time than initially expected. Or perhaps you're running ahead of schedule and you can pull the other dates back, to allow more of a buffer on a milestone you know will be tricky. Whatever the reason, take a look at your dates and goals every week.

b. The other important reason for keeping in touch with your deadlines regularly is to minimize stress. First and foremost, when you're on track, or running ahead of schedule, you'll feel good. Stress will decrease, and you'll settle into your tasks more easily. Sometimes you'll also discover that you've actually completed tasks or requirements during this stage that weren't needed until later. That means when that milestone appears, you're already ahead of the game. And when things aren't going well, you'll know well ahead of time that you're either going to have to change deadlines, or work more industriously to make the date.


This is actually a professionalism point, crucial for writers working under contract. But it also helps you manage the process with those helping or working for you when you're the one with primary responsibility.

This is the biggest mistake made by people who haven't been trained (or aren't naturally gifted) with time-management. The hope is that I'll meet the deadline, so I'm going to just keep going and do my best. Then on the day the deadline is due, I panic and start running around apologizing and asking for extensions (or worse, just let the deadline pass and wait for the questions to start rolling in).

There are two important reasons you want to anticipate delays or problems for others:

a. FOR WRITERS UNDER CONTRACT: Professionals will find you easy to work with, they'll have confidence in your judgment, and they'll feel less like you're unreliable or difficult. Seriously, folks. If you're working with professionals, I promise you, you won't be the first person who struggled to meet a deadline. But if you let your agent / editor know three weeks (or even one week) ahead that you're not sure you're going to make it, and ask for extensions, or how they'd like you to handle it, they'll perceive your work ethic and judgment with a much more positive sense, than if you throw the deadline out the window at the last minute and just apologize. People want warning for problems.

(My only temper to this point would be, don't go looking for trouble. If you're looking at a deadline and it feels really tight, but doable, keep going. Maybe have a chat with your agent just as a heads-up, but don't start making everyone nervous for no reason - not to mention, losing the time it takes to manage that process when you could be working to meet the deadline).

b. FOR SELF-PUBLISHERS: Anticipating delays or problems for those working with you will allow them to be part of your problem solving process, AND give you a heads-up if you need to change something in your upcoming milestones. It may be that when you let your editor know you can't deliver the manuscript for review until 10 days later than you thought, they are able to move their workload around so that they can take up your work the day it arrives. Or it might be that you find out they won't be able to work with you on that schedule. Either way, you now have more time to find a solution (or another editor). Or perhaps your notes come back from the editor / critiquers and they're going to take longer than you thought to implement. You can get in touch with reviewers and let them know the now later date they'll be receiving the book. It may be that they can read another book earlier and still have time to review yours before the release date. Or it may be that you need to decide to delay your release to give them more time. Either way, you've got time to change your promotional material and notify the interested parties ahead of time  so expectations are managed and met.

Which leads me to the final, and perhaps most important tip:


Sometimes the deadline was set arbitrarily in the beginning and it's no problem to change it. Or maybe the deadline is crucial to your contract payments so you need to look at other areas of your life that can be delayed or let go in order to meet it.

Regardless of the approach you're taking, working with deadlines is the time to put everything on the table. You may have noticed my blog has been a lot less regular this year than in years past. This is because so many other writing and life issues have simply had to be prioritized over my blog. I don't like doing that, particularly when there's a book coming out later this year, but when I put all of my responsibilities on the table and didn't allow myself to say "I can't change that", the blog was the obvious answer. I've also spent a lot less time reading, playing games, and generally relaxing.

If it interests you, deadlines are an issue heavy on my mind because I met a BIG one yesterday: I got my revised draft finished at 2:53pm on the day I'd set as my deadline goal. That was a relief, let me tell you! (And a very close-run thing).

So, with limbs saggy from the release of tension, that's it from me. A long post, I know, but hopefully it's helpful.

Your Turn: Any questions? Do you have any tips or tricks for meeting / managing deadlines?

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