When It Absolutely, Positively Isn’t Ready

DeadlineswebPosted on the file cabinet next to my desk is a refrigerator magnet someone bought me with a quote from Douglas Adams that reads: “I love deadlines. I love the wooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

I only wish that sentiment was mine. The fact is, I hate deadlines. Though I understand the benefits, they weigh upon my soul. The thought of NaNoWriMo fills me with dread. I wish the best of luck to all of you who are working so hard this month. I see the benefits, but I will probably never participate. For me, deadlines are the stuff of nightmares. Growing up, I was the kind of girl who couldn’t enjoy a bit of fun until all my homework was finished. That’s not to say that I always did my homework before going out, just that I could never really let go if I knew I had assignments waiting. I still have dreams that I had to relinquish my high school diploma because they found out I had not turned in a social studies paper in tenth grade.  I know, some sort of therapy might help, but, most of the time, my obsessive nature works for me. Especially when it comes to deadlines.

Until recently, I have never missed a deadline, self-imposed or publisher mandated. That doesn’t mean I get things done early. I will hold a manuscript until the last minute, rereading and polishing until it is torn from my hands. I made the two-year deadline to my last book by only forty minutes.

But, on August 31st, I missed a deadline. There, I’ve admitted it. I didn’t hear the wooshing sound it made as it flew by because I was too busy listening to the scolding voices in my head telling me my career was over, that I’d never see publication again. Still, in those final hours of August, I could not hit the send button. The book just wasn’t ready.

Subconsciously, I believe that most of us writers know when our work isn’t ready. It’s a nagging feeling that something is wrong. We may believe it’s something else: our families, the state of the world. Usually it’s the state of the art that’s the problem. So why do we send a manuscript in too early and risk rejection? Are we so anxious to be read that we risk our future careers on the misguided notion that someone will be able to see through the flaws and discover the hidden genius in a project? Whether we’re working on a self-imposed deadline (those can actually be worse), or something the publisher requires, we know when we shouldn’t be sending something into the world. So why do we do it?

I think a big part of the problem is pressure. Not necessarily from a publisher, but from ourselves. We need to prove that what we have been spending so much time doing is really worthwhile. We’ve neglected, friends, family, and sometimes our day jobs, and we need to show results.

In my case, the pressure to meet the deadline was the same pressure that ultimately kept me from turning in the book. It was an offhanded remark, made by someone I trust, who just wasn’t thinking. “This third book has to be a blockbuster. That’s what they’re looking for. If not, your career’s probably over.”

Really?  No pressure.

I didn’t answer this right away. It wasn’t a question. It was an opinion. And as soon as I heard those words, the imp of the perverse in me wanted to tear the manuscript to pieces and set it on fire, just to get things over with quickly. Instead, my reply was “not helping.”

Things got a little dicey after my deadline came and went. In fact, I finally ended up showing my editor the manuscript along with a two-page outline detailing what I wanted to do to complete it. Instead of saying anything discouraging, she affirmed my vision by responding with: “Go for it. Take the time you need. We think this is going to be a terrific book.”  I exhaled for the first time in almost a month.

How do you feel about deadlines, self imposed or mandated? Have you ever missed one? Do you think you send things out too early, or are you the kind of writer who holds onto them for too long?

I do believe a manuscript can be overwritten. I think it happens often. If you never let go, you can write the life right out of something and end up with a work you don’t even recognize. But that certainly wasn’t the case with my recent book. That’s a post for another day. Meanwhile, I am thrilled to have been granted a new deadline. This time the manuscript absolutely, positively will be ready.


About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.


  1. says

    I, too, hate deadlines. The make me overly anxious, yet without them I would probably never get any real work done.

    Though I’m a nonfiction writer, I’ve missed deadlines in the past. You’re right when you say that you know when your work isn’t ready. I was writing weekly reviews of Dr. Who for a website and my editor got so frustrated with me on one occasion because I was a day late with my review. I tried explaining to him that the first review I wrote was horrible, and he kept reiterating to me that surely “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.” Ha.

    This is the first time I’ve visited your site, but I’ll surely be back. I’m hoping to start writing fiction soon (once my freelance writing goes from a full-time job to a part-time job, and I have more time for fun writing), so I’ll need all the tips I can get!


  2. says

    The deadlines for books actually scare me quite a bit. I grew up in a family where we were raised that you had to be on time because it was inconsiderate on other people’s time if you weren’t. Then I was in the military, where you had to be 10 minutes early. But in writing, I’m a pantser. It’s not something I can change to make the writing process faster — I’ve tried — and it takes me so long to revise. With short stories, I’ve never missed a deadline, but if I’m too close to it, it’s a lot harder for me to get the story to overcome the deal-breaking flaws that come in. With novels, it takes so much longer to revise and fix everything. I vowed that I would have my novel done in a year, and I’m on year three. I’m just hoping this one has been at true learning experience, where I can cut some of that time on the revision side.

    • says

      My first novel took me seven years, though I was working full time. Now they only give me two years per novel, which obviously wasn’t enough this time out. Three years so far is very good, I think. I’ll look forward to reading the finished book.

  3. says

    I believe a writer is never really finished writing a novel, but at some point the writer needs to let go. The wisdom comes in knowing when that time has come. I made some late revisions to my first novel, after many round of review, that made all the difference in the world. A novel is never going to be perfect, but it sounds as though you made the right decision to let the deadline pass while you continued to work on it. You have to trust your gut. If you are not happy with your MS you cannot submit it. Thanks for a great post.

    • says

      I have a few projects that will never see the light of day because I worked on them too long. This manuscript is the opposite. I think a publisher imposed deadline does help along those lines. I’ll have to let go in April no matter what.

  4. says

    Most of my writing experience, thus far, has been as a freelance writer for magazines. I highly respect their deadlines and in fact, try to turn in my assignments early. I know the editors are under pressure with their deadlines, and I certainly don’t want to add to their stress. The self-imposed deadlines of NaNoWriMo or NaNoReviMo are more like goals to shoot for. The issue here is producing a quality work you can publish. In that case, haste can impede the goal. A situational evaluation can perhaps best determine the need for Goal Anxiety.

    • says

      Good point, Julie. I have so much respect for those participating in NaNoWriMo. I think it’s an amazing undertaking. It might be the perfect way to do a first draft.

  5. says

    I spent fifteen-plus years managing a production/distribution facility, so every day was a deadline. Heck, every hour of every day involved some sort of deadline. It took me several years to ‘settle in’ to a normal life-pace afterward. But when I started writing, my old habits of estiablishing routines and deadlines returned. I’ve put a lot of (mostly needless) pressure on myself over the years.

    And I know the gut-feeling of it not being right, too. This last rewrite felt pretty good while I worked on it. Now I’m back to the nagging gut-feeling. So I guess my question is: Does it ever go away?

    Glad I’m not alone. Good luck with your third book, Brunonia!

    • says

      Thanks, Vaughn. I don’t thing the feeling ever goes away completely. But this gut feeling woke me up almost every night. The problem was, I didn’t know then what I wanted to change. A few weeks away from the manuscript clarified everything.

  6. says

    Ack! Just reading your post makes my creative fairies (fairies?) start quivering. And, as you likely know, a quivering fairy can’t write to save her life. Even if she could write, no one would be able to read her quivery hand writing.

    The longer I consider myself a writer, the more I see that we writers need to cultivate our gut feelings. And then we need to learn when to trust those gut feelings, knowing when the gut feeling is trying to make our work better, or, of course, when the gut feeling is really just Fear or Insecurity. Or I Need to Eat More Fiber.

    Thanks, Brunonia, for this post. It certainly resonates!

  7. says

    (1) How do you feel about deadlines, self imposed or mandated?

    If I don’t have them, I will procrastinate endlessly. Writing is WORK & it takes self-discipline, two words that don’t always go together because work is often something we JUST DO to get a paycheck.

    (2) Have you ever missed one? uh, duh.

    (3) Do you think you send things out too early, or are you the kind of writer who holds onto them for too long? Interesting query. I am learning to be both, SEND EARLY and HOLD, for the eloquent reasons you stated (& will state in a subsequent post). I am a firm believer that ART is never done & if we hold it until it is, it will not make it into the stream. There is NO MASTERPIECE that is flawless. Not one. Having said that, even the deadline you missed, made you MAKE the deadline of realizing it wasn’t ready; it needed to be reworked. So YOU did make a deadline. Make you feel any better?

    (4) A manuscript can be overwritten. I know this is happening when I am changing sentences then changing them back. Thanks for the post.

    • says

      You did make me feel better, Diana. And I agree, no work is flawless, and you do have to get it out there. As a reader, I often find the flaws both interesting and compelling.

  8. Linda Pennell says

    Thank goodness – finally a kindred spirit! I avoid NaNoWriMo also. I just can’t wrap my mind around how to make it fit with my writing process. While my first drafts are certainly far from perfect, I can’t seem to move forward from one paragraph, page, chapter to the next until I’ve chewed on it for awhile, a habit that doesn’t exactly lend itself to 50,000 words in 30 days.

    As for deadlines, they are a reality everyone deals with in all walks of life, but that doesn’t improve their fun factor. Ax poised to fall comes to mind. As writers, our projects are rather like our children. We give birth to them, nurture them, and then must send those sweet babies out into the cold cruel world. Who could blame you for wanting your baby to be the best it can be even if it means missing the occasional deadline?

  9. says

    I loved this post. I love all posts that show working writers, published authors, those who have “made it” still have hurdles to jump. It’s a gift to all the rest of us who haven’t been on the NY Times list. So thanks! And that comment from your friend! Eeek! I have that voice in my head but to have someone else verbalize it….

    I recently had to send an email to an editor saying I wasn’t going to make a deadline and it was one of the hardest emails I ever had to send. I was terrified. But I honestly told why I wasn’t going to meet the deadline and the editor understood and assured me we were still ok. Whew!

    Looking forward to your 3rd one! Thanks again!

    • says

      I think, ultimately, our editors want the same thing we want, the best work possible. If they can grant us time, they will.

      My friend’s comment was harsh, but I don’t think it would have gotten to me so much if the voices in my head hadn’t been telling me the same thing. If I’d known I had a finished project, I probably would have just ignored her.

      Good luck with your deadline. Glad to know I’m not alone.

  10. says

    I’m exactly the same about letting go when I have work to accomplish, unless I’m confident that it’s under control.

    I work well to external deadlines, at least insofar as submitting short fiction and non-fiction. If it’s humanly possible to get it done and I’ve promised it to another person, I will make it happen. But since I don’t have an external deadline for my novels, and I probably hang onto things too long, and those external deadlines are recurrent and take priority, my fiction-writing speed is “of sloth.” If you have a solution, other than a personality transplant, I’m all ears. ;)

    • says

      Good point, Jan. I do try to meet deadlines when I’ve made a promise to someone else. That’s probably why I was so upset to miss this one. “Of sloth,” is probably where I’d be without one, but I’d call it the research phase.

  11. says

    I get those feelings, too – deep in the gut – that something has gone terribly awry with a project and that nothing can go forward unless I figure out what it is. It’s a bit nauseous. As a student, I know I over obsessed over papers etc, and that anxiety will always be with me as I continue on my writing career. I can’t ignore the instincts – they must be appeased. Even if it puts publication at risk. I’m so glad you had an understanding editor.

    No two novels will be the same, I realize. Sometimes they are easy babies. Sometimes they are late bloomers who take FOREVER to learn to speak to you. Sometimes, for seemingly no reason at all, they are just plain difficult – too difficult for even deadlines to tackle. It’s like what Neil Gaiman said about a cake that refuses to rise – when it finally does, there is no greater joy.

    I did make myself set a deadline back in August. And for the first time, it actually helped me bring the novel to its final form. there have been subsequent tweaks and tugs here and there but a deadline was a way of pushing myself over the Sisyphean hill, so to speak, of constantly rewriting and redrafting and never getting the novel DONE.

    Thanks for sharing! It helps to know I’m not alone in the struggle!

  12. Ray Pace says

    Then there are those self-imposed “deadlines” that are easy to put off because “the time isn’t perfect.” For years, I had been meaning to write about my friendship with Leicester Hemingway, author of MY BROTHER, ERNEST HEMINGWAY, but there was always an excuse that got in the way.
    The remedy came to me at our Unitarian church, when on the first service of the new year the Rev. Leland Bond-Upson urged congregants to write down a resolution of something they had been meaning to do, put it in an envelope and toward the end of the year he would mail it to them and they would be confronted by their own promises.
    Refusing to be embarrassed by my own failed promise resulted in my book, HEMINGWAY, MEMORIES OF LES, currently out on Amazon.com.

  13. Ronda Roaring says

    Thanks for Adams’ quote–very poetic.

    I wonder about deadlines. Are they a human condition or do many animals experience deadlines? Do ants and chipmunks, who gather food to store for the long winter, view themselves as being on deadline? Do caribou migrating across the tundra consider themselves to be on deadline? In the case of other animals, missing a deadline can be the difference between life and death. Putting it into that type of perspective, our writing deadlines seem rather trivial. Perhaps we shouldn’t take them so seriously.

    • says

      That’s a great image, Ronda. I know my seventeen year old Golden Retriever has never had a deadline, but I know several squirrels in our yard who have been working very hard this fall. A perfect way to look at things, I think. Thanks.

  14. Denise Willson says

    I am a perfectionist. Which is a problem, since there is no such thing as perfect. You see where this is headed, right?

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  15. says

    While I’m not a fan of deadlines, I think they are important to keep us on our toes. I agree with not sending in your manuscript if your gut thinks it’s not ready though.

  16. says

    Wow, Brunonia, have you been eavesdropping inside my mind? ;) Deadlines freak me out and guilt me up, too.

    I’ve worked for news organizations where watching a deadline pass isn’t an option. The whole book-a-year expectation of readers out there frightens me to no end. I hear big time authors tell us it takes ten years to train with workshops, critiques and re-writes, but when I say that I agree and am doing it, they tease me about being pokey. I tell myself what I’m doing is right for me, but it’s difficult when I feel the world is passing me by.

    Got a whiff of some whine in my words, so I’ll stop. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone in this feeling.

    • says

      Thanks, Rhonda. It’s nice to know there’s a kindred spirit out there. The book a year thing seems ridiculous (at least for me). I could probably do it, but I don’t think it would be a very good book. And a good book, no matter how long it takes, is always the goal.

  17. says

    As I am looking at a deadline on Thursday (!), I hear you. My book is finished, but not ready for publication. I’ll keep, polishing until the very last minute, then send to my editor an agent, who will offer feedback. I hate deadlines, but am not sure I would finish without them.

    Good luck, Brunonia.

  18. says

    We had a self-imposed deadline for our—surprise—comic book! Yes, DZ Posca created, wrote, drew, and colored DZ Comics Ink. (Don’t worry, we know now how to spell inc., but at the time of that misnomer we were young and unincorporated, which gave our family something to laugh at). That deadline did creep up on us unawares, so we spent several hours on the final day drawing, inking, writing, and coloring until our fingers hurt. Even though it was tough and painful, we were able to victoriously present our family with our very own comic book story! Sure, we’ve since missed all other self-imposed deadlines, but that day, when we finished writing the cryptic phrase “…to be continued” on the last page of our comic, we felt it was a success and a learning experience.

  19. says

    I am a very slow writer. I find deadlines incredibly stressful, and since I don’t work well under stress, they tend to be counter-productive for me. I’ve always been a fairly organized person–the kind of college student who got my papers done a week early so I’d have time to revise–and even though I’ve become more procrastinatory as I’ve gotten older, I do better with a self-imposed deadline–one that I know is reasonable and that I can achieve–than with deadline pressure imposed from outside.

    I have missed deadlines on occasion. One publisher gave me a deadline that I absolutely knew I couldn’t achieve. I told the publisher that I couldn’t achieve it; I was absolutely explicit about it: “I will not be able to give you the book by that date.” They wouldn’t budge, but they told me “This is just for the bean counters, request an extension when you need it and all will be fine.” Perhaps that’s the way it would have gone down had my original editor stayed with the imprint, but she didn’t, and my new editor was not happy with my extension request. It did get granted, but at the price of some ill will.

    I think the key is not to commit to something you know you can’t deliver, even if it means turning down an offer.

  20. says

    You’re going to hate me, but I love deadlines! I know that makes me sound like such a goody-goody, but I come from a journalism background, and when I don’t have a deadline my time management goes out the window. I think especially with fiction, I need that structure to help me get over any creative fears and hesitation and just write. So I guess I completely understand the pressure you describe, but the frustration comes out in different ways?

    I just received my first edit letter from my editor and my gut reaction to keep from getting nervous was to ask, “When do you need these revisions by?” I think it’s my way of keeping from dwelling on what I have to do and just dive in.

  21. says

    Oh, say it isn’t so, Natalia!

    Seriously, I like your attitude. I think, considering my deadline pressure, it would be wise to adopt your way of thinking. Maybe I can reframe the whole experience. By book #4, I could grow to love the process. If so, I will have you to thank.