On timelines and “I don’t know”

Sometimes I crack myself up. Like in this post, from July of 2011, when I predicted that I would be ready to query agents in September. Of 2011. HAHAHAHAHA! HAHA! HA!

Ha…

Well, that was before my “no timelines” rule, obviously. Before I realized that I am not very good at estimating how long it will take me to do things.* Before I admitted to myself and accepted that I have NEVER been very good at estimating how long it will take me to do things.** For example, in high school, 1 hour of calculus homework usually took 3. In college, a quick trip to the library for research could last all weekend.

So now? Now I just say, “I don’t know.”

When are you going to finish editing your manuscript, Kristan? I don’t know. When are you going to query agents? Dunno. When is your book coming out? No idea. When are you and Andy getting married? Eh, sometime. When are you planning on having kids? In the future!

Not a very satisfying answer, I’m aware. But it’s honest.

“I don’t know” also prevents me from feeling bad about myself for setting up an expectation and then not delivering. I think that’s important. Because otherwise you can get caught up in a cycle of self-defeat, and that’s vicious. Trust me, I’ve had to escape it many times.

Footnotes (which are almost as long as the post itself):

* Sometimes I worry about publicly admitting that I’m bad at predicting timelines for my writing. Like, what if an agent or editor reads this and doesn’t want to work with me? I could ruin my career before it even starts! I could be added to that giant blacklist they all pass around in a manila folder marked CONFIDENTIAL.

** But it’s important to note: I always get my shit done in the end. And on time, if there’s a real deadline. (Meaning, one that I did not create for myself and/or one that has actual consequences.) For proof, you can ask any of my former coworkers or bosses. I was NEVER the one holding up the line or dropping the balls.***

*** For whatever reason, my brain prioritizes things that I “owe” to other people. (Even if there’s no literal payment/debt involved.) Of course, that means MY stuff always get pushed off for “later.” That’s no good for an aspiring writer — because my manuscript will never belong to anyone except me**** if I never get it finished and out into the world! But that’s a whole other rant for a whole other post…

**** This is where crit partners help. Or at least, mine do. They’ve read my manuscript; they’ve grown attached to my characters. I “owe” them to a degree.

Addendum: To be clear, I am not excusing myself from ever being able to estimate timelines for my work. This is a skill that I need to develop. And I’m working on it. But just like you wouldn’t book a second year piano student for a concert at Carnegie Hall, I’m not going to aim too high too soon. So when will I be able to give more accurate predictions on my progress? I don’t know.

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14 Comments

  1. I’ve gotten to the point where I cringe when someone asks me how the writing’s going. It’s so hard to measure progress, but I know you’ll get there when you get there, and so will I :)

  2. You know, I’ve really come to believe that sometimes deadlines can be so counter-productive. For me, it applies more to writing than editing (with that, it actually helps me to set a goal each day for how many words to delete), but I truly feel like it’s a process that has to happen naturally and organically. Putting that much added pressure on ourselves feels like a roadblock. I’m also a big believer that things happen how and when they’re supposed to, even if it’s not on the timetable we want. I think your “in the future” answer is such a good one. Because it WILL happen … you WILL get there … and it’ll be beautiful :)

  3. Yep, I’ve come to realize timelines are totally useless to me. I also feel you on the whole prioritizing what you owe to other people thing, I get so guilty about working on my own stuff when I know I could be finishing up work for someone else. So hard!

  4. LOL this totally happened to me, too. Like I was supposed to finish my WIP this summer but didn’t. Sigh. I suck at self-imposed deadlines.

  5. Yeah, I don’t make deadlines for myself. I don’t count the words I write each day. However, I do make sure I work on something of my own every day in the hopes that words will accumulate, goals will be met.
    Here’s the thing, though. Editing is a different stage where quality (not quantity) is the thing that counts. You’re teaching me all the time about this. Don’t “look down,” just keep going.

  6. I’m the same way. Even when I’mposting a serial, I don’t give a definite schedule. Sometimes there’s an update a week, sometimes it’s two weeks.

    As you say, it’s a skill that develops over time, but there are always little surprises.

  7. Ooops. Just realized that the “it” in my second paragraph has no clear antecedent. I was referring to the ability to estimate timelines for writing projects.

    Also, I wanted to link to Laura Stanfill’s blog, where she apologizes to her protagonist for taking so long to write his story: http://laurastanfill.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/a-letter-to-my-protagonist/

    I told her not to apologize — it just means he has more to look forward to. :-)

  8. It was actually your comment on my writing blog that helped me to see that self-imposed deadlines are just a thing that can hurt more than anything else. It can inhibit the creative process and, like Sarah, now I’m more concerned that I write *something* every day, even if I have to try hard to turn off my inner-editor and just let it go.

    You don’t know what you don’t know and you’ll finish when it feels right. And it doesn’t matter when your book is published because in my head it’s already pre-ordered. <3

  9. Trisha

    I guess I see this as somewhat of a generational thing. I am an ‘X’er. We kept score. And I know this is likely to stir the pot with some gen ‘Y’s. Maybe it is just a mom-thing.

  10. Great post. I’m glad you’;re not being so hard on yourself, but especially liked the ***footnote. Why is it that we prioritise our work for others more highly than the work we’re doing for ourselves? I’m glad you brought this issue forward. I’m going to think about that as I re-assess some things in the coming month.

  11. Thanks for the votes of confidence, all! :)

    T.S.-
    Yup, I cringe too. I try to keep it inside, though, and then I try to say something confident/eloquent. Key words being TRY.

    Shari-
    I completely agree that the process has to be natural/organic, in the sense that it has to work for YOU, and what works for YOU might not work for ME or HIM or HER, you know? We all have to find what works (or what doesn’t). So deadlines/timelines/quotas might help other people focus — in fact, I know they do. But they are mostly — to use your word — counterproductive for me.

    linda-
    As long as you get past the “ugh” feeling, you’ll be fine. :) There’s no expiration date on writing.

    Sarah-
    The idea of “something of my own every day” is a good one. May have to steal that. ;)

    Trisha-
    Actually, I think that article and me can peacefully coexist. :) As he says, it’s important to set realistic goals — because if you set unrealistic ones and fail, you’ll end up in a bad headspace. Same as what I’ve said here. For me right now, “sometime in the future” is the most realistic goal I have. (I mean, I could say, “In the next ten years,” but that’s hardly any more helpful.) That’s just for right now, though. I have faith that my estimation skills will improve.

    I do think there’s an element of maturity/generational difference. But someday I’ll be the mom generation looking back and saying, “Tsk, those kids.” ;)

    kaye-
    Oh I heart you!! Also, I’m glad something I said could help. :)

    Juliann-
    Good question. I don’t think *everyone* prioritizes others first. And I don’t think *everyone* does it to a fault. So there’s a balance to learn. At least, I’m trying to learn it…

  12. Julia

    I live on deadlines. And I always underestimate the time it will take to finish something. Even when I double the amount of time, I’m still off. I tried all kinds of scheduling gimmicks and tools until I finally came to understand that my timeline is like a purse, no matter how large it is, I will fill it up and still have something left over that I have to stuff in my pocket to carry. I think it’s just how I’m hardwired. In fact, I think it’s how most human’s are hardwired and those that are able to schedule and finish their projects in a timely manner should be viewed with suspicion.

  13. “my timeline is like a purse, no matter how large it is, I will fill it up and still have something left over that I have to stuff in my pocket to carry”

    Lol I love that.

    Andy is one of those we should be suspicious of. So is my mother. And 3 of my best friends… Apparently I surround myself with shady characters!

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