How To Stay On Track With Non-Deadlined Writing Projects

By Devon Ellington

It’s easy to stay on track for a contracted, deadlined project. You know when it has to be finished and to the client/publisher/editor/agent. You have a fixed date, and, whether you break it down into do-able bits or wait until the last moment for that adrenalin rush. it’s out the door on time if you expect to work for that particular person again.

But what about the pieces you write just for you? The novel you always wanted to start and finally “got around to?” How do you stay on track if a project isn’t under someone else’s deadline?

You have to apply some of the same tools, but modify them a bit. You have to make the stakes high enough to actually do it. And, most importantly, you have to want it enough.

For the purposes of this piece, let’s use a novel as an example. You want to try something new, it’s not contracted, it’s not deadlined. You might not yet know how long it’s going to be, what genre it’s in, or where it’s headed. That’s fine. You just have to really want to write this novel.

  • Figure out what a comfortable daily pace is for your work. Something that makes you feel that you’ve accomplished something. I prefer to use word count or page count rather than time count. It’s easy to sit and stare at the screen for two hours and say, “Oh, that was my two hour session. Done.” And there’s not a word on the page. With a word count or a page count, you don’t get to end your session until you’ve hit your quota.I write my first 1,000 of fiction first thing in the morning, before I am “tainted by the day.” I get up, feed the cats, put on the coffee, do my yoga/meditation, and then write my first 1,000. If it’s going well, I keep going as long as possible. If it’s a slog to get through that first 1,000 words, at least, no matter how frustrating the rest of the day gets, I know I’ve written 1,000 that day. It takes off a huge amount of pressure from the rest of the day. Sometimes, it’s a deadlined project, such as my next Jain Lazarus adventure. Often, it’s a project with which I’m playing, where I’m still unclear as to what it will be when it grows up.Carolyn See suggests 1,000 of fiction “every day for the rest of your life” in her wonderful book Making a Literary Life. It’s four pages. Doable in most situations. But if two pages (500 words) makes more sense in the scheme of your life, then that’s your daily quota. What matters is doing them. Every day. If you miss a day because you’re sick or life gets in the way, get back to it as fast as possible. Don’t give up.Also, remember that every novel has its own innate rhythm. Some will have a quicker natural flow than others. It’ll take you a few chapters to figure out the book’s natural rhythm. Once you’ve found it, work with it, not against it.
  • Set yourself a loose deadline. Novels are generally 75,000 to 100,000 words. That’s 75 to 100 days. Build in 20 percent wiggle room, so give yourself 120 days from your start date and put it in your calendar. That is your deadline to finish the first draft. If you finish early, you’ll feel extra good about yourself.
  • Now, for accountability. Most people need an outside source for accountability, someone to urge them on. If you pick a person, make sure it’s a positive person, not a negative person. Do daily check-ins with a writer buddy. Post your updates on your blog, if you have one. Even Twitter about it. If I’m feeling sluggish, I find announcing on Twitter that I plan to do “X” amount of words/pages and then Tweeting again when I hit the goal make me accountable to my fellow followers.
  • Build a muse. You can pick a doll or a teddy bear or a statue. Dress it up. Give it a place of honor near your desk. Christen your muse. Talk to your muse. Brainstorm. Whine, moan, beg, plead—do whatever it takes to get those words on the page.
  • Give yourself treats. Whether it’s at the end of every day’s session or every chapter, whatever, set out regular carrots on your route: 20 pages, I go out for ice cream. 50 pages, I buy those new shoes. 100 pages and I get an afternoon off to spend at the beach. Incentives help. Go ahead, call them bribes if you want. They work.
  • Try not to edit as you write. You want to keep moving forward. If you get ideas for previously written sections, make notes and keep them handy. It gives you a jump when you start revisions.
  • Print out your pages at the end of each day’s work. The most dedicated conservationists will argue with this, but watching your pages stack up every day works as a motivator. And then you have your draft ready for revisions when you’re done, instead of going back and printing it all at once. It’s also a hard copy backup in case your computer fails.
  • Treat it as though it’s a contracted project. In a way, it is. It’s a contract with the most important person in your writing life: You.

Use some or all of these tips and watch your pages progress. You CAN finish work that’s not on other people’s deadlines by using techniques that work for you when you ARE on deadline.


About the Author: Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Her work appears in publications as varied as New Myths, Espresso Fiction, The Rose and Thorn, Femme Fan, The Crafty Traveler, Hampton Family Life, The Armchair Detective and Elle. She writes “The Literary Athlete” for The Scruffy Dog Review. Her Jain Lazarus Adventures are published by FireDrakes Weyr Publishing, and the YA horse racing mystery, Dixie Dust Rumors, will be published under the Jenny Storm name by eTreasures in late summer 2008. Her plays are produced in New York, London, Edinburgh, and Australia. Visit her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee, the site for the Jain Lazarus Adventures, and her websites: and

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