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The Power of Arbitrary Deadlines

May 30, 2012 by Kiersi

An open book

I'm getting back into making 3D art in Photoshop. Like I need more distractions right now.

Arbitrary deadlines are, in all likelihood, the only way I ever get anything done.

I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), you’re probably familiar with the power of an arbitrary deadline. There’s no monetary reward for finishing on time, but there is a subconscious reward: I did it! I got it done! And in only one month!

I apply the same principle to my daily writing, my weekly writing, and occasionally, even to a particular novel as a whole. As an example, many of you know I’ve been working on a novel called The Aeronauts, a sort of Waterworld-meets-steampunk YA fantasy. Some time ago, I told myself I wouldn’t let it drag on for more than four months; once I reached that point, I could safely say I’d lost the thread of the novel and it was time to wrap it up.

Well, we’re coming to the end of May and, of course, the end of my first arbitrary deadline. It came so fast and so suddenly (what with traveling all spring-long) that I was completely unprepared for it.

In order to tackle this challenge, I’ve made myself another sort of arbitrary deadline: Finish the book by the end of the week. Nose-to-the-grindstone style, forsaking all other obligations, I will finish this thing. Word count hovers at somewhere around 97,000, which, as anyone in the YA industry will be happy to tell me, is far too long for a YA book. OH WELL. Too bad, so sad. And there’s still about 15,000 more to go before the story finally wraps up. That’s epic fantasy for you.

I’ve made great progress so far. Yesterday I put down somewhere around 5,000 words–and boy, did I forget how producing a lot of quantity in a single day can produce a high-quality piece of work! There’s some kind of unity I find in writing whole sequences all at once, some kind of power in the emotions and the scene transitions that I might otherwise miss.

I forgot how much I loved hard, arbitrary deadlines. A few years ago, when I was writing the second book in The Devil’s Throne series, I had a friend who was waiting (im)patiently for the sequel to be finished so she could read it. There was some kind of event at the end of the summer–a trip, maybe–and I’d agreed to have the book ready in time.

I had a four-day weekend, and over the course of that weekend I churned out the last 20,000 words of the novel. It was a total blast, I worked hard but still had time to party, and that last section of the novel was better than anything I’d written yet to date.

Accomplishing anything large-scale is about playing the subconscious game with yourself. Knowing the things that make you tick (for me, it’s deadlines) and utilizing those holes in the armor to get something done. As an individual I respond well to certain kinds of stress, to knowing that the finish line is imminent and I need to be ready for it.

Even if there’s no punishment for not completing a novel in time for an arbitrary deadline, there is a sense of failure, that I wish to avoid. It’s one thing to say to a boss, “Sorry, I need a few more days.”

It’s quite another to have to say that to yourself. That would be the ultimate disappointment.


  1. I agree! Writing quickly makes the story flow so much better and more naturally. Good luck! You’re almost there!

  2. Deadlines do help, a lot. I find with no deadline, I tend to flop and flounder a bit. (Which I do sometimes even WITH a deadline, lol!)

    On the other hand… sometimes life does get in the way, and it’s important not to beat up on ourselves if we or someone we love gets sick, or some other “thing” happens that throws us off course.

    I do love being able to devote a big chunk of time to JUST WRITE. The words do begin to flow, better and better.

    • Kiersi says:

      I definitely agree with you on flopping and floundering. And, unfortunately, life gets in the way a lot! I’m going to have to push this deadline back because I got some freelance copywriting work that’s on a very short turnaround. I guess we’re never free to just be writers, huh?

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