The Art of the Deadline

By Naseem Hrab

Deadlines PHD Comics

Every word I’m typing right now is late. Not a month late, or even a week late, but three days late. And with every tap, tap, tap on my keyboard, I feel a pang. Anxiety. Guilt. Racing thoughts. Why didn’t I start writing this column weeks ago? I have no excuse. Why do I always wait until the last minute? It’s not like this deadline was a surprise. Why do I need everything to be on fire in order to do something? If left to my own devices, I’d spend most of my days sitting on my couch thinking, “I should probably get up and do something. Hmm … Looks like it’s too late to do something. I should do something tomorrow.”

I guess I’m a big procrastinator. I know, I know. Big deal. We all procrastinate in some area of our lives or another; especially, when things feel too hard or scary. Writing, scheduling a physical and re-joining the human race after a lengthy sabbatical, come to mind. I never procrastinate about things that are easy. Eating chocolate cake, for example, comes very naturally to me. It feels easy. I don’t need a deadline for that. Completely unnecessary. I love doing things that feel easy. But I can’t complete challenging, overwhelming tasks without a deadline.

So, when it comes to our writing, how can we see deadlines as gentle wind chimes that kindly wake us up the deep slumber of procrastination, instead of paralyzing, overwhelming doom-mongers? How can we use deadlines to motivate us when things get hard? 

For many of us, it’s hard to set personal deadlines that we stick to. If you’re like me, you’re bad at being accountable to yourself. That first chapter by Friday becomes Saturday becomes next week becomes to hell with it all. We need to think of deadlines a bit differently: Deadlines signify goals. And the more deadlines you meet, the closer you will get to your goals—whether that’s writing a first sentence, a first chapter or a first draft of your manuscript. Small goals and their respective deadlines will bring you closer to making your big dreams a reality.

For those of us who are terrible at being accountable to ourselves, it can be helpful to seek out deadlines imposed by outside forces: a writing group, an editor, mortality. External deadlines work really well for me. So much so that I often request deadlines. “Just give me a deadline,” I’ll say to God. And God will respond with, “101-years-old.”

The best kind of deadline though, in my opinion, is a book deal. Once you get a book deal, your deadlines become a part of your job. Your art is still your art, but now you gotta be a professional about it. You need to rally to meet your deadlines, so that you don’t let your teammates down. And by teammates, I mean the editor; the illustrator; the designer; the copyeditors and proof readers; the sales, marketing and rights teams, etc., etc. The deadlines your publisher gives you exist for a reason. They give everyone working on your book the time that they need to make your book as good as it can be. Now this might seem like a lot of pressure, but remember—everyone is on the same team as you! They’re cheering for you!

Now we all know that delays happen. Life happens. If you truly cannot make a deadline it’s best to communicate that to your editor instead of avoiding them. A short email the moment you know you can’t make your deadline that simply says, “I’m afraid I can’t get this draft/these comments/that headshot to you in time. When’s the latest I can get it to you?” can go a very long way. Burying your head in the sand will get you nowhere fast. 

Ultimately, I like deadlines because they motivate me to create. Sure, it might take me a few days after the deadline to start writing, but, in the end, that feels easier than never writing.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Naseem Hrab is the author of the picture books Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Sometimes Naseem likes to get up on a stage and tell true stories. She loves improv and coffee ice cream.

She worked as a librarian for a time and currently works in children's publishing.