Divide Your Book Project into Small, Manageable Steps
By Emily Golus
In my last post, I
talked about writer’s
block. In keeping with the theme of “things that make writers sweat,” today
I’m going to talk about meeting deadlines—particularly for book-length works.
Whether you’re working toward a deadline imposed by someone else (as part of a contest you’re entering or a contract you’re bound to honor), or you’ve decided to light a fire under yourself, a deadline can sharpen your focus and get you to, you know, actually finish stuff.
The problem with book-length projects, of course, is that they’re abstract and overwhelming. Finish an entire novel by December? Am I behind already? Is it time to panic yet?
But here’s the thing: if you can break the project down into small, concrete goals, it will help you move forward without completely stressing out. And if you do it right, these smaller milestones can actually grow your confidence as a writer.
The scheduling method I’m about to describe is meant to help you achieve your goals and feel great while you do it. It’s NOT a stick to beat yourself with.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Define your goals
First, determine what exactly you want to achieve and when you want to complete it. Are you just finishing the first draft, or do you also need to leave time for editing? How much polishing do you actually plan to do, and what can wait for later?
Next, nail down the exact date of your deadline. If you’re submitting your work to an editor or contest, that’s fairly straightforward—but make sure you account for any extra required steps for the submission process (such as including a synopsis or marketing plan) that could otherwise take you by surprise.
Step 2: Divvy up your time into short periods
Congratulations! You have a concrete goal with a hard deadline. Now before you panic, let’s break it down into manageable mini-goals.
Get a calendar and count how many weeks you’ve got to work with. Block out vacations, holidays, or other times you know you can’t write. Life happens—the point is to keep this schedule sustainable.
the remaining time into small blocks. You might prefer having goals for each week,
each month, or some interval in between.
Wait! Before you cram each one of these periods with word count goals, reserve the last one for … nothing. This is your safety buffer in case you fall behind. If you’re working with a period of time that’s more than six months or so, set aside two or three weeks as buffers somewhere in the middle for the same reason.
Tada—now you’ve got a neatly divided schedule. Let’s set some goals.
Step 3: Create concrete goals for each period
What your goals look like depends on your personality as a writer. If you’re a pantser or simply like the concreteness of numbers, you might want to assign a word count goal for each time period. If you’re a plotter with an outline, you can use plot point goals (e.g., finish scenes 12, 13, and 14 by November 1,” or the more general “get Megan to the city by February 1).
However you do it, keep your goals specific so you know when you’ve actually completed them.
Here’s my key advice: under-load each period if you can. If you think you can write 5,000 words every two weeks, only schedule 3,000. That way if life throws you a curveball and you can’t get to your keyboard, you won’t get too far off track. If you’re having a great week, you can start working ahead on next week’s goal.
Each time you complete a milestone, you want to feel great so you keep going. And if you do fall behind, the buffer periods can help you catch up so no harm has been done.
The point is to set yourself up for success. You want to come up with a completion schedule that you can ace.
Step 4: Get honest
You know what the opposite of feeling great as you complete goals is? Realizing too late that you’re in over your head.
Don’t rush to your keyboard yet. Look at one of your short-term goals and be honest:
are you really, sustainably going to be able to do this? Will you need to make changes in your lifestyle during this period to make it happen, and are you okay with that?
If you realize this schedule is too much, adjust your self-imposed deadline. Don’t burn yourself out.
If your project is for a contest and the deadline is too close, consider working toward next year’s submission period instead. And if your deadline has been set by an editor, reach out now to ask if anything can be changed. It’s better to have that discussion early on than to stress out for months and miss it at the end anyway.
Bonus step: Share your schedule with an accountability partner
If you want extra motivation, or if you fear you’ll just flake out on completing your book on time, consider sharing your goals with a trusted friend. Ask him or her to check up on you several times throughout the process to keep you on track.
This person can be another writer, but really anyone you trust to encourage you can be a great accountability partner. I once asked my church community group leader to email me on specific dates (e.g., On May 14, ask me if Megan got to the city yet.). Poor Scott had no idea who Megan was or what city I was talking about, but knowing I would have to give an answer to someone kept me from slacking off!
I hope this deadline method not only helps you, writing friend, but keeps you encouraged and empowered. Work hard and give yourself grace. Go get ’em!
A New Englander now living in the
Deep South, Emily Golus is fascinated by how culture shapes the way individuals
see the world. Golus aims to create stories that engage, inspire, and reassure
readers that the small choices of everyday life matter.
Her first novel, Escape to Vindor, debuted in 2017 and won the Selah Award for young adult fiction. Its sequel, Mists of Paracosmia, followed in April 2019.
Golus lives in Taylors, SC with her true love and two active little boys, and they have grand adventures exploring the forests of the Carolinas.
Keep up with Vindor news at WorldofVindor.com and
EmilyGolusBooks.com, or find her on Instagram as WorldOfVindor.