Imposing Deadlines on Your Work-In-Progress

One of the challenges of an art-committed life is that to produce quality art, you must meet deadlines. Sometimes those deadlines are self-imposed, with no fatal consequences befalling you if they are not met. I find myself wrestling with that challenge right now, as I look ahead to the finish line with my work-in-progress, a travel memoir about my cross-country U.S. road trip interviewing creatives.

I’m going to share with you the road map–pun intended–I’ve developed for completing my WIP. Doing so feels indulgent, but I was reminded yet again last week that Artist’s Road readers want my personal struggle included here, just as they told me in December.

  1. Fill in the holes in my first draft by April 13th. I wrote here previously about completing the first rough draft of my WIP. In doing so I reached the final scene of the book. But the work had morphed significantly during the 18 months or so of writing it, such that scenes I hadn’t written now needed to be filled in. I’m writing those scenes now. That date is not arbitrary; it is the deadline for my penultimate packet in my low-residency MFA program. If I can meet that deadline, I’ll have my last opportunity for one-on-one packet work with a stellar faculty member wide open for whatever I feel motivated to share with him.
  2. Complete the second draft by June 27th. That date also is not arbitrary. It is the beginning of my final MFA residency; I’m on pace to graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts on July 6th. By “second draft” I mean that I will have gone through all of the chapters–which will have been written and re-written over a two-year period–and ensured that the key story narratives play out as they are now mapped. That means moving scenes, flashbacks and reveals forward and backward, and weaving them in appropriately. When that is done, the WIP is essentially “done.”
  3. Hand over a final manuscript to my agent by September 2nd. Wait, you ask. Why the two-month gap between the book being “done” and the book being done? Well, I want to take my time polishing this work to a gem. One of my role models, Joan Didion, says she reviews her manuscripts before submitting them and forces every single word to justify itself. I like that; it reminds me of my days in magazine journalism (Didion also has that background), where the fact-checker would work through a paper copy of your article, leaving tiny check marks over every single word. (You fact-check “and” and “the”? I would think to myself, but never say aloud, because there is no upside in annoying your fact-checker.) This date also is not arbitrary. It is Labor Day. Many publishers are all but shut down in the summer, in particular August, so the idea is my agent will begin reaching out when the editors are back at their desks.

So none of those dates are arbitrary. Nor are they unreasonable. I can look ahead and see, even with the many other obligations I have in my life, that I can carve out the time to accomplish those tasks. But while the deadlines may make sense, they are purely self-imposed. There will be no consequences whatsoever if I fail to make any of them. Well, there will be consequences, but they will not be externally sourced. They will be internal, my own disappointment in myself.

I write this post in part to hold myself accountable; to contribute to the exabytes of data flooding the interwebs a declaration of goals. As these dates come to pass–April 13, June 27, September 2–I will report back my progress.

Do you find that you must impose artificial deadlines on your own creative projects? Do you find you are good about honoring those deadlines? What techniques have you developed to hold yourself accountable?

42 thoughts on “Imposing Deadlines on Your Work-In-Progress

  1. It’s a great idea to set deadlines for yourself, it teaches you discipline. That’s vital in sustaining a career in writing fiction.

    I also impose deadlines on myself, they help me mobilize my resources and my will even when resistance and laziness build up, as they inevitably do now and then. I’m used to deadlines and working under pressure from my job. It was a logical step to apply that to writing as well.

    Beside monitoring my progress in quantifiable ways, I regularly seek ways to rekindle the passion, to not let the fire turn into a smoldering pile of coal. That and trying to avoid a guilty conscience is what keep me going. 🙂


    1. I’m with you on wanting to avoid a guilty conscience, Vero! And yes, they do teach you discipline. I suspect the deadlines you have with your job often are imposed upon you, but you’ve taken that and learned how to apply them to yourself. That is discipline.


  2. Yes. (I thought about stopping there, but won’t.) This is definitely a must for creatives who are anything like me. 🙂 I have a tendency to drop the loose steps towards my creative goals until I schedule each incremental move towards that finish line.

    I’m especially intrigued and admiring of you putting your deadlines into a blog post! What a great idea. Now, I just have to decide if I have the courage to do the same. (I’ve posted about when I’ll post a subsequent blog post, but not about creative project deadlines.)

    As usual, I’m impressed with your creative process. (And, yes, I include things like goal-setting and deadlines as part of that process.) Keep rockin’ the creative blogosphere, Patrick!


    1. You’re the best, Stan! As to the concrete steps, project management is all about breaking to-do lists into meaningful parts. My to-do lists always start out ridiculously broad, like one line being “write memoir.” That’s not going to get me moving! I want something I can cross off! So what’s above is one step down, and then below that I have each day’s task mapped out on my white-board wall (I just wrote 5 pages this morning, and am one day ahead of schedule). I’m glad you admire my process, Stan, but it’s the only one that works for me!


      1. Glad to read that you’re ahead of schedule, Patrick. I like your approach and sometimes use it. I would do well to more consistently add the incremental steps, so that my simple to-do list is more of a project plan. So, thanks for the inspiration.


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  5. I’ve given myself a self-imposed deadline for finishing my novel. I have another book (a history of Nebraska’s WW2 POW camps) under contract that I need to start on, but I am determined to get the first draft of my novel finished first. It’s completely doable – I have about 20K left to go and am giving myself a month to do it. But I am also forcing myself just to write and to shun the internal editor.

    Best wishes on all of your writing goals!


    1. Ah yes, shunning the internal editor. Absolutely key. Each morning after writing I tell my wife how many pages, and then say “It’s crap.” But whether it is or isn’t, I know I can improve it in revision. You just have to keep going.

      20,000 words in a month is doable, yes, but ambitious simultaneously. Best of luck, and kudos on your contracted nonfiction book, which sounds fascinating. I had no idea there were POW camps in Nebraska.


  6. I also set deadlines for myself, I use events that are coming to help mark them. For example Emerald City Comic Con is our biggest conventions most years. So I needed a book back from the printer to sell so the penalty of me not having them means the new book is not on the table. So from ECCC being the big deadline, I back track my calendar to make sure I have the book printed and ready to sell.


    1. That’s a pretty good system, using events and the requirements for them as a hook. And yes, it is all about backtracking. As I alluded to with Stan (muz4now) above, once I set the deadline for completing the second draft, I sat down and figured out what that meant day by day. Kudos on your organization!


  7. Anonymous

    Patrick! I find that completing to my own deadline is a matter of preserving and even building my dignity. Especially when I’ve gone and blabbed all over town that “I’ll finish my novel by Christmas,” for example. I feel that deep down, our organizm will make us pay if we reneg on these kind of promises. Some deep part of myself won’t trust what I say. And of course this creative business is a collaboration of who knows how complicated a mystical network of energies. We can’t afford to let ourselves down. Does anyone else have this sort of concern?


    1. PJ! You write: “We can’t afford to let ourselves down.” I think we all have that sort of concern. And speaking for myself, I let myself down every day. Sometimes it’s due to forces beyond my control. But I can control what deadlines I set for myself, and I can control my effort to meet them. I think the problem–for me, anyway–is when I set overly ambitious ones, which I do a lot. When I look at this schedule, I think I’ve been generous in the time I’ve given myself to do the final polish. I did that on purpose, in part because I’ve heard about creative slumps people experience after an MFA, and also because I start teaching a blogging class with The Loft the week of my graduation, so I know I’ll have an extra time conflict. I’ve built in a cushion, but hope I don’t have to use it.


  8. Oh Patrick, how cool you have these specific self-imposed deadlines in place and I’m super excited that the reality of reading your book is not far off!

    I can relate heavily to the popular quote by Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” 😀

    This year, I’ll reach out and get some support and not try and do it all on my own. I don’t have specific dates set up as you do, but I have a few self-imposed deadlines for my work. For example, I’ve given myself until the end of April to finish the first draft of a novel. I have a weekly word count goal expectation. I have shared this with a few people who will hold me gently accountable and encourage me to get to this milestone.


    1. Hello Carole Jane!

      I do love that Adams quote. And it sounds like you do have a specific date, the end of April. How great will that be when you have that completed first draft! And you’ve got a weekly word-count goal to meet that. If you’d like me to be one of those to hold you gently accountable I will volunteer for that!


  9. Great topic, Patrick. I like deadlines, but don’t always keep them. The deadline of submitting to my workshop every month really works well for me. But I continually make deadlines for getting done with a draft or portion of some piece of work, then find myself unable to keep it. So, rather than beat myself up, I try and remain flexable. I set deadlines and aim for them, but can honestly say I rarely hit them.


    1. What I like about those deadlines is that you have tied specific accomplishments to outside events with reasons about why those deadlines are good. I have a horrible time meeting my own deadlines unless they are tied to external events as well.

      I just promised my husband a copy of my complete revision for his birthday at the end of March. It will be the first time I have let him read any of it.

      I have told my son that this is what I am giving my husband, and promised him that he can read it, too.

      Since I care deeply about how good ti is before I show it to them, the pressure to get it into good shape is real.


    2. Cynthia, just as it’s important to work toward honoring self-imposed deadlines, it’s also important to be able to forgive yourself when you miss them. If you don’t, well, you’re not going to set any new ones, and then you won’t get things done. You’ve talked about your workshop before and it really sounds like a great group. My local group is dissolving a bit. We’re all so busy, and there’s no one person holding us accountable to submit, critique or even meet. I have my monthly MFA packet deadlines, but only four left. If you’re open to it, I’d love a guest post from you on the secrets to maintaining a healthy workshop group.


  10. I’ve found deadlines are part of my goals and without goals, I’m just daydreaming. So when I sit down and write out goals, I add a date to make that goal real and tangible, otherwise, I look at my list and it’s a *shrug* I’ve got time. Nothing gets done that way.


    1. Hi Jennifer! Yes, you do need that date, to convert the daydream into action. I dream every day about this book being done. That daydreamer ain’t writing anything, though; I have to, and I need hard deadlines.


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  12. Corey Barenbrugge

    I enjoy PJ’s comment about deadlines preserving our dignity. I agree; when we meet a deadline its self-actualizing. It creates a positive feedback loop that fosters a cycle of accountability. If we create that loop early in a writing project, the habit of effectiveness that comes with it can help us power through the valleys of the writing process that threaten our ability to continue with the project.

    Another idea for accountability that I came across recently is to appoint a personal “Board of Advisors.” Your Board is two or three people who you trust to provide you the unvarnished truth and whose advice you find valuable. Take them (individually or as a group) to lunch every two to three months; bring them your three top problems right now, which they can help you work through; and make three commitments to them that you will act on by the next time you meet. I’m intrigued by this idea and I plan to ask someone to serve as my “advisor” to give this a trial run. The idea was mentioned in Seth Godin’s Startup School, which is a free podcast series with 15 episodes. I’m not an entrepreneur, but I nonetheless found the content very useful in the context of my own life. I highly recommend it.


    1. Hi Corey! I like the Board of Advisors idea. As a freelancer I realize now I had a bit more informal model of that, other freelancers I would swap ideas with and consult with. I would say I am held accountable to my deadlines in part because I map them out on the massive white board behind my desk, which my wife and kids have to walk by with some frequency. A quick glance at what is crossed out and what isn’t tells them instantly if I’m ahead or behind. They don’t say anything, but it’s important for me for them to see crossed-out lines coinciding with the date. 🙂


    2. Love the trusted *Board of Advisers* … I have a “book mentor” but since his knowledge of my new book’s subject matter is extremely limited, I find myself rejecting many of his content-related suggestions as non-helpful. His focus is extreme practicality where mine is… not. Or not at this point.

      I need to add to my Board of Advisers – someone who’s familiar with the subject and someone who’s a writer to balance out the level-headed businessman side of the mentor.

      Thanks for the great suggestion!


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  14. Thanks for asking, Patrick. You ask good, generous questions! I’m hopeless and abandon all hope of deadlines, arbitrary or otherwise. I settle for having the occasional deadline imposed upon me, and then, I’m surprised at how hard I can work and how I can push myself to make that deadline, no matter if I’m half-dead by the finish.
    Here’s an example. I made it to the deadline of Oct 15th last year, in 6 weeks notice, and by the end of it, I had given myself a muscle spasm in my upper back that laid me out. I honestly thought I was having a heart attack. This is no kidding, I had driven myself to finish that book, and with literally (it’s ok, I can use it) 9 hours to spare, before the Harper Voyager “portal to discovery” was set to close, I just sort of froze up at the computer. As I said, I thought ‘heart attack’ and I laid myself on the couch with 2 hot water bottles, thinking, ‘if this is it, so be it’. It was horribly painful. And two hours later, I felt a bit better. So I went straight back to the computer and finished that book. End of the story is, I did submit my book on time. And my osteo told me off and said I’d driven myself into the wall. Ah, yeah…that’s how I do it. I guess you could say my way of holding myself accountable is to have no mercy when the job needs to get done. It’s not very shiny in this light for some reason. But it is, hand to heart, how I do it. Btw; the old ticker’s fine & dandy


    1. Holy cow! I hate to think health scares have to be part of anyone’s writing routine! But clearly you have a method that works for you, and the ticker is fine and dandy. You know, Yvette, I know a successful novelist who does that with each and every book. (Well, perhaps not muscle spasms, but the right-up-to-the-wire-risking-health approach.) She’s a bestselling author, so it works for her, but it drives her husband crazy. I can’t operate that way, but I can admire people who can.


    2. Yvette… you’re a warrior. My good friend Nikos Kazantzakis would be proud of you. He insisted that most of us lack the ability to really truly and effectively “want” what we want. Here’s what he says:

      “The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired, whatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.”

      It seems that your desires are hell-bent on crossing that threshold no matter the price on your body. Godspeed! And take care.


      1. PJ…thank you for your bracing words. I feel your friendship. Thanks for that. 🙂 I am ever a work-in-progress, and naturally hope that one day I shall take it all in stride like a pro (well, not like the pro Patrick mentioned, but you know).
        I want to see my books in print. There I said it. Digital release alone, when the day comes (not if, but when), will not suffice to soothe the savage beast.
        However, having said that, for the last 30 years, I have written stories for young people, without publication, but just out of a need to write. That’s what I came here to do. We all have a gift, yours and mine, and Patrick’s and all the other wonderful writers here have the gift of writing. Aren’t we lucky?


  15. Michele K.

    Wow, I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s responses to this post! I am a terrible procrastinator. It’s almost like I am playing an elaborate game with myself–ok, see if you can work yourself out of this one! I also require major massage to undo the damage I do to myself, so I feel your pain, Yvette, quite literally! I usually manage to make the important deadlines, but self-imposed unsubstantiated deadlines are some of those whooshing noises you hear in the dead of night…LOL!

    I also am such a “no strings on me” kind of person, that the minute I commit to something I don’t want to actually do it anymore. So I have to psych myself out by joining a collaborative group where someone else needs me to have met the goal. Otherwise, I need lots of positive and negative feedback along the way.

    NaNoWriMo has this great graph that show what your goal is for the day and each day for the month, and then what your performance is, and whether you are on track, ahead or behind. I tend to work in spurts and do lots at one time, so I would get ahead, then slack off. But if I fell at all behind, I stressed until I got that bar back where it needed to be, and I would take a break in writing just to update that word count!. I am competitive even with myself! I think I need one of those meters for my own goals to help keep me motivated…and to help me write the second 50,000 words of that novel!


    1. Love this comment, Michele! Interesting you cited NaNoWriMo. That sounds like the type of program that would work for someone like you. I’ve been really impressed by what it’s done for people I know who have tried it, and there’s something to be said for borrowing from the quantifiable measuring tools that other industries use in motivating us to write. Of course, what separates great writing from all other prose is qualitative in nature, but you can’t polish the gem until it’s been extracted from the ground, so page counts and schedules are essential.

      Kudos for your persistence, and your self-awareness.


      1. Michele

        RE: “Of course, what separates great writing from all other prose is qualitative in nature, but you can’t polish the gem until it’s been extracted from the ground, so page counts and schedules are essential.”

        Absolutely! And I have to say, one part of NaNo I failed miserably at was turning off the internal editor. I have to reread and polish (and sometimes, perish the thought, even DELETE!) the previous work each day before I can continue. Otherwise I can’t keep the story on track. Revision is a multi-step process. I put away what I did in November until January to give myself a fresh look at what I had already written to make sure I wanted to continue in the direction I was headed.

        Now it’s time to start writing again…still waiting for the kick in the rear that will come at the end of the month when Year of Continuous Writing starts holding me accountable to word counts again. Seems ridiculous to be such a child about it, but there you have it. At least there are support groups for people like me! 😉


  16. Great stuff, Patrick, as usual. Reading the post, I thought of all kinds of interesting/important contributions I could make in comments, but of course found – as usual – that your army of commentors are already there. Which is great… one of my favorite parts about reading your blog!

    Love your unarbitrary reasons for choosing your deadline dates. I found it helped immensely with one of my books to have a production calendar (essentially a whole bunch of deadlines) – but since many of them were interdependent (this had to be completed before *that* could happen) what I REALLY learned from it all was that I do, after all, have the ability to be flexible. I didn’t abandon deadlines, but I did adjust them… and as I went along in the process (research, writing, self-publishing) I understood the interaction needed among all the pieces of the puzzle. And all that is helping me on the current book.

    [Can I get an award for mixing the greatest number of metaphors in that last paragraph?]

    All best, as you drive your project to the finish line.


    1. Thanks, Martha! I liked your other comment above, and appreciate this one as well. Yes, as I write in the blog’s description: “The Artist’s Road is, put simply, an ongoing conversation among the blog’s author and its readers regarding the challenges and rewards of pursuing an art-committed life.” That’s a fancy way of saying I let my readers do a lot of the heavy lifting!

      I’m all about adjusting deadlines. On my white board I map out each day of my next MFA packet period. Fortunately, dry-erase marker can in fact be erased, because as I progress in each packet period, what I find I need to do changes, so what is in those boxes change. And, of course, with the completion of each packet, what I had anticipated doing with the next packet period has now changed. A creative needs to be flexible both with the content and the dates of their to-do lists, while still holding oneself accountable to the overall mission of completing a lasting work of art.


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