Deadlines do funny things to people. They can trigger a wild burst of creativity, or shutdown all power and bring work to a standstill.
Two days ahead of a recent competition deadline, I found myself experiencing the exact same feelings I had as a teenager, sat in my room faced with a weekend's worth of homework. My mind froze and did everything it could to swerve away from doing what it had to. There's the rub. I had cornered my mind in to thinking that this wasn't about choice – I was making it do something entirely against its will. And this was crazy – because I wasn't faced with homework. I was faced with something I really, really wanted to do.
This is precisely why some writers and illustrators claim to hate deadlines – they scare the bejeezus out of their creativity. Too much pressure, it would seem, and we feel our creativity being squeezed, forced to perform to order. We can't think freely. To some, even a self-imposed deadline imbues too much pressure. They would rather allow their muse to bubble up naturally, entirely of its own accord.
But this doesn't take in to account the practical issue of needing to get the words written. A house doesn't get built when left to the whims and moods of the builders. If you want to complete a novel, you need to put in the hours. And if you want to finish before you turn 100, you need to fit a certain number of words in to a certain number of days.
Just the right amount of pressure allows us to focus on the stuff that matters, and at the same time opens our minds to fresh ideas. This is why, perhaps, 'gentle' pressures such as NaNoWriMo (shortly coming up in November, of course) work so well. You willingly enter the excitement of the race, become adrenalin-filled by the daily goal, and run headlong without a second thought as to aches and pains, all the way across the finish-line.
There are also underlying reasons for deadlines. Creating expectations for yourself, by yourself, keeps your writing-self accountable. It gives you a set of objective measures by which to monitor your progress (or otherwise). There's the very necessary sense of taking your writing-life seriously – giving it an official stamp. If you don't, no one else will.
I've come to see my self-imposed daily word count as a gentle guide, rather than as a bellowing order that I will instinctively run from. Small, daily deadlines turn a distant horizon into a reachable one. A little bit achieved today, and tomorrow, and the next day, soon builds up. It becomes habitual, second-nature.
And so the constantly moving train of external deadlines (competition submission dates/conference 1:1's/open submission periods) can then be stepped on to as and when I'm ready – when my work is up to speed. The plan is, if I keep on trying to catch one deadline after another, I will eventually succeed.
Don't forget to check out last week on W&P:
Monday's Ask a Picture Book Editor looks at Bookfairs & why they matter
Tuesday's Ten-Minute Blog Break brings us another perfect pick by Nick
Wednesday's Writers' Minds delves inside that of Sally Nicholls
Thursday's Event Feature is all about finding the hook for your book - with expert advice from the very agents judging The Hook event at this year's conference
Friday's Second part of Open Sketchbook, displays a wonderful and eclectic range of sketches
Nancy Saunders is the Editor of W&P. You can find some of her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders