Talk is Cheap: Making Use of Writer’s Deadlines and Timelines, Part I
Revised draft of a poetry manuscript from William Blake

By Your Salonniere

You’ve heard this before, like flossing, oil changes for the car, or the laundry, the routine and ritual of daily activities shape our lives. Though the dirty work often gets glossed over, if acknowledged at all, our chores won’t go away because the make the architecture of our existence. With that said, we’ve got to have deadlines. Time lines are not sexy or glamorous, but a writer isn’t a writer without them.

From a New York Times article by David Garner, who covers the release of The Paris Review’s digital archives, Garner writes, “Process is, by and large, boring. As the novelist Jonathan Lethem put it in his 2003 interview (which is excellent), ‘You’re interrogating a fish on the nature of water.’ …The abundance of book chat is a situation Larkin would have deplored. About the notion of a writer explaining how he writes, he declared in 1982: ‘It’s like going around explaining how you sleep with your wife.” Then again, Larkin never married.'” Process, deadlines, and time-lines are messy. They require commitment. How unsexy is that?

So what do we mean when we speak of deadlines? All hefty undertakings require laborious, repeated lifting, so the key to deadlines is to break them up into smaller chunks, step by step.  You have to know what you want. Envision the target and keep to a steady path.

  1. Complete first draft
  2. Revise for second draft
  3. Polish third draft.

Even smaller units than the ones listed above would help pinpoint and track progress with laser precision:

  1. Chapter 3 revised in three weeks
  2. Research first setting in a week
  3. Prepare manuscript for submission by the end of the day

With a plethora of devices to choose from, we’re not short of means to remind us of our deadline and keep us on course. We can choose to go old school with Post It Notes, corkboards, dry erase boards, and paper calenders. Then there are the electronic ways, iCalendars, Google Calendars, Blackberry, and the list keeps growing. And, if we need outside help, we can always consider passing a word or two to our colleagues and friends, in the hopes that they’ll hold us to our word, particularly writer friends or artists who share similar ambitions and understand the creative process and the necessity for self-discipline can be especially encouraging.

Keep in mind contest and submission due dates. Many times, we’ll have to work backward. Set a target date in the future, and, in retrograde, set increments from the time ahead to present. Writers are athletes in constant training. We must continually exercise to remain agile and stretch our skills, test our talents. We must have regimens.

Here’s a sample regimen:

  • Finish 1st Draft
  • Revise Story-map with notes (outline chapters, determine how many scenes per chapter)
  • Rewrite second draft according to new story-map with new notes
  • Research major issues
  • Review personal journals for more notes to comb through

The second part of this piece is forthcoming…

How do you practice making deadlines? Do you have a tried and true method you’d like to share with the salon?


  1. hey rashaan, good post here. as you know, i *heart* process talk, for my own sense of organization and progress, but also because i don’t like the prevailing notions that writing a book and seeing it published is mystical.

    i haven’t had the same discipline that saw the last 2 books to completion (grad school certainly helped with this). these days, i’ve been relying on outside stimuli and externally imposed deadlines (interesting calls for submissions, or if editors contact me and ask for work before a certain date).

    for me, it’s generally writing one poem at a time, and hopefully here, a theme emerges as i revise then edit each poem as i’m organizing the poems into a manuscript. or even before the poem, an idea that guides the writing of all of the poems.

    thanks for this post!

  2. Great post, thanks for talking about the nitty-gritty of being a writer. Super appreciated.

    In my own process, I find I work better going backwards. I commit to projects I feel I can handle and then work from there. Committing to editor for work that fits both their projects and my current work.

    For all my chapbooks, I start with a cover image and a poem and from there expand the work to fit the theme.

    Ditto with my manuscript, I saw a great series of photographs of the 70s South Bronx from Mel Rosenthal and thought “How would this look in poetry form?” I’ve been writing towards that goal ever since and using the chapbooks as smaller units, almost like chapters, to flesh out my end goal of a published collection.

    Thanks again for the space to share shop talk.

  3. Much appreciated Barbara! I’ve become more and more obsessed with process and reading your posts on your blog have definitely helped me reflect on my own. I appreciate that you take one poem one step at a time until the theme makes itself known. I find that I just have to throw all my ideas onto the canvas to see what sticks though I fear I’m taking the long route when I could be more strategic. I suppose that’s when deadlines come in handy.

    Your posts on the Pinay narratives have also been most inspiring. I actually have been freewriting responses to “what is your word” but feel what I have is too raw, at the moment, to send to you.

    You’re absolutely right about grad school adding perspective. Its taken me a few years post-grad to understand what “revision” means and what it feels like, and now I’m learning exactly what “deadlines” are. Before these two words were pretty nebulous. Now they’re both very visceral. I can feel them, physically. Does that make sense?

    Many thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re well!

  4. Hi Oscar. I totally agree on working backwards which has been a boon for my current project. I actually wrote the ending first and worked backward though I’d been told by several colleagues that I was crazy. Crazy in a good way, I hope. The cover image is a wonderful starting point. I think visualizations are really crucial. I’ve actually been trying to use some of my dream time to storyboard. I hope that’s not crazy, too. I LOVE how you were inspired by a series of photographs from 1970s South Bronx. I’m absolutely intrigued with ekphrasis. I’d love to read more and hear more about your process with this. And thanks for your posts about Hoagland on your blog, which has been a conversational point here at our Bungalow, thanks to you. Your visit to the salon is very much appreciated. Cheers!

  5. I love this series, Rashaan. (Read Part II first.) I find the accountability (and trust) of a writing group helps me making deadlines. I just surprised myself this week by getting pages to my group that I promised months ago, when I was at the very very beginning of having a sort-of idea. As the deadline neared, I found myself wanting to renege and had even started drafting my apology email in my head. The thing was, I did have *pages,* I just didn’t think they were ready to share. But the commitment I had made was simply to have something and the purpose of this submission was to draw on my group’s wisdom to get going again after being stuck. The deadline was for me, not for them. And so I allowed myself to submit the very very rough work along with–and this was the breakthrough–I sad down to write an explanatory note/outline about where I might be going with my new material. Honoring the deadline rather than letting myself off the hook, enabled me to see that I was further along than I thought I was. I’m still at the very very beginning of a sort-of maybe idea, but that’s *somewhere.* Putting off deadlines is extending your stay in Limbo which, as we know, is Hell-ish.

  6. Rosemary- Thanks so very much for stopping by. I’m tickled pink and totally honored. Your comment makes me reconsider the idea of handing off “very very rough work.” I’ve been going back and forth about passing my first draft to a first reader before I feel comfortable enough but reading your experience about not feeling “ready to share” yet going through with it anyway shows how crucial it is to have another set of eyes even during the early stages. That external force to answer to does wonders for internal motivation. I’m so glad you shared your experience and very grateful for your visit to the salon. Hope you’re well and hope to catch up in person soon!

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