The other day, I listened to Episode 2 of Yuvi Zalkow’s The Creative Turn podcasts in which he had a discussion with author Scott Sparling, author of the novel Wire to Wire. This was mostly going on in the background while I was doing the whole “make sense of your workspace” thing, but somewhere in the mix of Jimi Hendrix and masterbation (and poop jokes), I heard Scott say…
I remember talking to someone recently who was saying, “Don’t give yourself a deadline. Just don’t do that. That’s the worst thing you can do.” And as soon as she said that to me, I thought…’Cause I had told people September 2. But I believed it. I said, “No, it’s got to be September 1 because…”, and then I would trot out this reason. And as soon as I heard this person say “Don’t do that”, I realized it’s kind of like that stone on the beach. The world doesn’t really care whether I get this thing done by September 1 or not, so why don’t I take that deadline away and give myself the time I need, and just doing that made it so much more enjoyable to write.
It might seem weird hearing me vouch for this piece of advice given my hard-on for deadlines fueled by my fear of death and knowing that I’ve got a limited time (hopefully a long limit). For me, it’s been, “Hey, you’re almost thirty, so you’ve got to get shit done, or else you’re going to end up as that guy styling himself as a writer without getting anything done.” And, boy, does that suck.
I think there’s a sort of trade-off when it comes to following deadlines and ignoring them, and I think a writer’s decision to go either way depends on this question: “Is a publisher waiting for this?”
For example, I’m working on Undead and Inhuman for Blank Fiction, right? I haven’t touched it in days. Do I feel a little embarrassed by that? Yes, of course. Are the editors at Blank Fiction emailing me daily asking if it’s done? No. There is a submission deadline, yes, but that’s a no strings attached kind of deal. If I don’t get it done, there are no contractual or professional repercussions from it. As a staff writer for Carpe Nocturne, however, I do have deadlines that need to be met, or, voluntary as the position is, I could be let go from the magazine.
Yuvi pointed out this notion of working on a piece of writing for ten years, similar to the fear I have that the writing will go nowhere without a deadline. This is the other side of that coin, and I think you should self-impose a deadline on first drafts, but it’s more like a probationary period to see if something does have staying power. My rule of thumb is based on the size of the story in question…
The first draft of a 100,000-word novel should take six months.
The first draft of a 40,000-word novella should take two and a half months.
The first draft of a 17,000-word novelette should take one month.
The first draft of a 7,500-word short story should take two weeks.
The first draft of a 1,000-word flash fiction piece should take two days.
This is assuming there are no external factors getting in the way (relative dying, dealing with a prolonged illness, putting in overtime at your day job, watching your dog roll around on the floor, etc.). If everything is going fairly smoothly, I don’t think a first draft should run longer than the above allotments. A failed novel killed at six months is less shameful than a failed novel killed at ten years.
Also, these are ONLY for first drafts. Don’t worry about a novel getting published in six months, because it simply won’t. That’s another thing that Sparling said. “Publishing is out of your control. The only thing you can really control is getting to the end of the manuscript.”