“I don’t need time – what I need is a deadline.”
~ Duke Ellington
For our first eighteen-plus years growing up, we have people—typically teachers—giving us assignments. Including parameters: what the assignment’s about, how long it should be, when it’s due, etc.
In kindergarten you do the “work” under the teacher’s direct guidance. In early elementary school they give you assignments with short but discrete deadlines, like overnight. A few years later you might have stuff due in a week, with gentle reminders during the interim. By high school the deadlines are longer, with occasional guidance along the way. In college they basically present the material and the endpoint and it’s strictly on you to keep up or not—the hard truth doesn’t come out until the final. But even then, there’s an overall goal and an overall due date… both of which are given to you by others.
And then you’re out of school and suddenly… nothing. No one giving you creative writing assignments, complete with word count and deadline. No one checking that you stay on task and complete things on time.
In your adult life, no one’s going to come up to you like a thesis advisor and say, “Here’s the assignment: I want you to spend a lot of your downtime letting your imagination wander freely—thinking about different story ideas—until one grabs you and won’t let you go. Develop it in your mind until you have a real feel for the characters, the theme, the basic story arc… Then start writing. Maybe make some notes if that helps your workflow. Or not. But I want you to work on the manuscript regularly—daily when possible—carving out time from other activities if you have to. And when you’re not writing, think about your story. Think about it when you drive, think about it when you shower, think about it when you wash the dishes. Obsess over it. Use these ‘creative thinking sessions’ (which look a lot like daydreaming to non-writers) to deepen the world you’re creating, solve any plotting issues that come up, and make each scene feel as real as possible. Keep writing until you finish the first draft. Celebrate. Then dive back in and shore up the overall theme of the story (which may have only become clear in the writing of it). Ensure your characters are self-consistent. Revise any structural issues, with the goal of having the story be as clear, concise, and captivating as possible. Re-work dialog until it reads like real people, having real conversations. Then polish the manuscript, making sure every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, and every sentence is as strong as it can be, and says exactly what you want to say. When you’ve done all this, consider letting a few trusted reader-friends look at it, and hear their feedback with an open mind… especially if you hear the same comments from multiple readers. Address any issues they find—assuming they have the smell of truth about them—then give everything one last going-over to tighten any remaining loose screws. I want you to have a finished manuscript of 75,000 to 100,000 words—polished and completely ready to submit to an agent or editor—within 12 months. Ready… go!”
Whew! Trust me, no one is going to do that for you.
So you have to do it for yourself.
And you have to treat it exactly as you would any other important assignment from a teacher or supervisor. Plan it out, set a timetable, and make it a priority until it’s finished. I really believe the concept of the “self-assignment” is one of the secrets to creative success, because without it, it’s just too easy to let your creative endeavors fall off the table as other things intrude. It’s the age-old conundrum of forsaking the “important” for the “urgent.” The completion of your writing may not seem urgent on a day-by-day basis, but don’t you dare try to tell me it’s not important.
6/27/2017 02:08:05 pm
Mark- There is sooooo much truth to this post. Thanks you for spelling it out for us plain and simple. I think about writing non stop, but usually don't get to do something about all that thinking until the kids are in bed. 😆
6/27/2017 07:37:08 pm
Thanks, Amanda - I totally hear you! (Our kids are grown so this is no longer a factor for us, but for several years the only writing we did got done before 6:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m.) Thinking about your story – even when you’re too busy to write – still seems to help somehow. I think it primes your subconscious so when you finally DO get a few precious minutes to write, you know what you want to say instead of staring at the screen.
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