However, there is a time to set deadlines—and a time to avoid setting deadlines. Until we understand this distinction, the deadlines we set are likely to be 1) arbitrary and 2) a source of suffering.
What makes setting deadlines so hard?
Estimating the amount of time that a book project will take is the toughest part of my job. I’ve been known to screw up here. Man, that stings, because estimating time is the basis of budgeting as well.
There are many factors at work:
- Almost every book is an unknown. Your freshly minted manuscript is as unique as a newborn baby. Nothing like it has ever existed before. It presents unique problems and that call for unique solutions. As much as I want to apply a template to book development, it never works.
- Ideas are fragile. They break easily. Push on them and they might just scurry back into that hole in the floor. Translating ideas into words and images exposes them to the harsh glare of objectivity. I’ve seen reams of pages disappear under this light. Sometimes you even discover that you have nothing to say. Has it happened to you yet? It will.
- Your collaborators are fragile. Are you writing with a co-author? Yikes! That person differs from you. He or she has a different schedule, a different way of thinking, and a different writing process. Giving each other feedback on your writing is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Bruised feelings can slow down your progress or grind the project to a halt.
The above mean that you’re in for surprises. Any of these factors can throw a wrench into your schedule.
Ask three questions first
If you answer to any of the following is no, then don’t set deadlines yet:
- Can I pass the “one day test”? This comes from John Butman: Could you talk about your idea for an entire day and keep an audience’s interest and attention? If so, you probably have enough material for a book.
- Can I pass the “one page test”? Stating the essence of your book in page tests your understanding of your material. I’ve written about how to do this in The Message Hierarchy—A Power Tool for Describing the Essence of Your Book and Three Ways to Understand Your Book’s Big Idea.
- Do I have time to write? When you’re too busy to write, deadlines are meaningless. If you want to make time, here’s one thing that actually works.
Write a proposal first
Beyond the one day test and one page test is the book proposal. A good proposal makes the business case for your book, articulates the major ideas in a compelling way, and states your plan for fleshing them out into a full manuscript. With a proposal in hand, you’re in much better shape to set deadlines.
Still, it never gets easy. As David Foster Wallace said at the end of this speech, “I wish you way more than luck.”