Deadlines

When I was a senior in high school, I realized how truly horrible I am at time management.

I was editor of the yearbook, thanks to the urging of the yearbook advisor, who was also my junior-year English teacher. (He liked me because I could write, and because I had the nerve to write him an essay on why I hated The Grapes of Wrath.) It was not a job I should have taken. I am not a natural leader. I’m a decent negotiator, and I can diffuse minor conflicts – I make a good team member, but I’m not the sort of person people naturally rally around.

Plus when you’re in high school, you end up surrounded by a lot of people who want to be able to put “yearbook committee” on their college applications, but aren’t all that interested in putting in the hours. In addition I was bad at delegating. I’m sure a lot of people who actually wanted to work drifted off because they never had anything to do.

As it happened, the day before our first big deadline, there were two of us left: me, and the layout editor. We stayed up all night matching pictures with pages and stuffing envelopes. I’d never stayed up all night before. I remember thinking around dawn that I would have sold major organs for ten minutes of sleep. Instead we just blindly stuffed photographs and pages into envelopes, and when the sun came up we went to the post office to mail it all.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized we had stopped worrying about whether or not the photographs matched up with the pages, and we’d likely just mailed a whole bunch of stuff that was completely wrong.

I managed to communicate this – with some hysteria – to my mother, who called the yearbook advisor on the phone. He invited me into his office the next day and told me kindly that a) it was fine, so don’t worry about it; and b) maybe next time I ought to ask for help before it got to the point of staying up all night.

There are two important characteristics that deadlines must have to work for me:

  1. They must be reasonable.
  2. Other people need to know about them.

The first probably goes without saying. Unrealistic deadlines are worse than useless: they are frustrating and discouraging, and actually make me move more slowly.

The second is important mainly because it provides accountability. Accountability started for me a few months ago, when I began sharing chapters with my mother. I have written here before about how motivating and liberating that has been. The next step in the journey of my novel is beta readers, but I need to get through one full editing pass (probably two, actually) before I’m willing to give up the manuscript for more rigorous criticism.

The other day at work I ran into a friend of mine; I don’t see her in the office that often (it’s a big place), but she lurks around Facebook and has been aware of my progress. She mentioned, in passing, that she had once worked for a publishing house as a fiction editor, editing for continuity and pacing. That I have someone like this in my circle is a piece of serendipity I can’t pass up. I told her I’d be looking for beta readers in November, and she said she’s looking forward to reading my book.

I’ve no idea if she’ll actually like the book – but I have now had someone with actual formal editing experience offer enthusiastically to help me out. To give up this opportunity would be foolish beyond belief.

I love my novel. I love my characters, and my story. At the moment it is still full of flaws and rough areas, and needs a huge amount of work – but I love it. At the same time…it is work. I have come to look at it much as I look at my day job: something I must attend to and take seriously. It means working on the editing, pushing through the hard parts, writing new sections, ripping out and refactoring and reshaping. It means moving forward, even as I know I will have to go through it all again.

It means deadlines.

November is a motivating choice for a number of reasons. First, I think it’s not unreasonable; it’s ambitious, at the rate I’m going, but it’s doable. Second, it’s a reward. If I really finish by November, I’ll hand this manuscript off to my beta readers and spend November drafting the sequel for NaNoWriMo. The sequel is still new in my head, and not written down; it’s shiny and perfect, as things always are before they have to be concrete. It will be a treat to work on something new.

What deadline I set after that depends on what kind of shape the book is in at that point. I can guess at what a lot of the feedback will be; but the more interesting bits of it will be the ones I would not have anticipated. Those are the ones that will make me sit back and look at my novel in a way I never would have if left to myself. Those are the ones that will allow me to grow it up.

After that, I am going to pay a total stranger to hurt my feelings give it a thorough professional editing pass, and then one way or another it goes to press. 2013 is the goal, but that probably depends on whether or not I take some time to try to sell it to someone, or just publish it myself.

It’s only taken me 30 years to learn to ask for help. I think my yearbook advisor would be proud.

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