On the joy of (self-imposed) impossible deadlines – AKA Magic Deadlines

Last year I wrote a novel. Admittedly, a novel I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to re-read for fear of what I may have written, but I wrote a novel all the same. And I managed to do it because of a deadline.

It was an impossible deadline by all accounts of common sense, but impossible is a challenge worth living up to. The goal was to write a novel (50k+ words) in a month, without putting my life on hold or taking any time off work. I’m still not sure how, but I did it. And I wasn’t the only one to do this, I shared this month of madness with 256,618 people around the world who signed up for the same challenge; and that was part of the fun.

This photo looks a bit like writing a novel

To give this some context, I co-founded and built the short story website Bibliofaction, but despite many efforts over many years I have failed to finish writing a single short story, even without a deadline. But, after signing up for Nanowrimo on a whim, and with just a little reminder and a nudge from their excellent staff, I wrote a 50,000 word novel thanks to their magical deadline. I can’t quite put my finger on why this deadline works when so many deadlines fail, but I’m sure it comes from being opt-in, and without any pressure. Maybe the voluntary aspect increases the likelihood of the complete personal buy-in required to push through to the end of a goal when you start losing faith – which was after about 10,000 words in my case.

There are two points I want to note:
– I didn’t choose the deadline, but I did choose to accept it
– The deadline wasn’t set for me in particular

If I’d taken an expensive creative writing course, and given myself a year to write a novel, even taking a year off work to do it, I’m pretty sure I would have failed. I’d still be agonizing over plots right now, and I’d have written and rewritten the first chapter so many times I couldn’t bear to look at it. But somehow, just somehow, Nanowrimo tapped into the magic of an impossible deadline.

What makes a deadline like this magic?

I’m not sure, but something magic happens. With Nanowrimo, I was even losing sleep near the end. I’d get home from work exhausted, eat some dinner, then, when my brain felt like it was about to collapse, open this computer and write and write and write. Even at the point of complete exhaustion I felt compelled to continue creating. Just to do something. To actually do something rather than talk about doing something. Even though no-one would ever chase me on my deadline. Even though it was entirely optional, I kept going. Even when it was painful and I was sure I was writing rubbish. A deadline that can inspire that can of action is magic in my eyes. I can’t write a formula for it, and I think that even if I tried, the closer I’d get to the perfect formula, the weaker the magic would become. Like any living thing, you can only dissect a magic deadline so far before it stops being what it is. So at best I can write around the subject. And that’s what I offer you here.

After the novel was written and safely stored away, I accepted another deadline.

My in-laws were nearly finished with renovating a huge holiday home, but they needed paintings for the many empty walls. Lots and lots of paintings. And I had about a month until they were coming to stay with us, and bringing their car. And while they didn’t ask for anything, and I didn’t offer them anything, I decided I’d try and help. And without knowing it, they’d set the date of my next magic deadline.

It’s worth noting some background here. The in-laws (or imminent-in-laws as they were at the time) were coming to stay because we were getting married, and because we’d only given ourselves three months between our engagement and the big day we were running around a bit at the time. So by all accounts of common sense, it was not the best time to take on a new creative project that dwarfed everything I had tried and failed to do in the past as an artist. Again however, the deadline proved its magic.

Painting in the garden

For context, I used to paint a lot. I studied fine art and even exhibited and sold a few pictures here and there, but my biggest challenge was consistency. If you’ve ever tried this yourself, you’ll know that galleries value consistency almost as much as they do quality. A consistent theme, at least for a distinguishable period of time, defines the artist and in turn the art. Only the artist who revisits a theme often enough is thought to offer any value.

My paintings were anything but consistent. There were images of buildings in decay, political protests, power plants in Constable landscapes, sculptural paintings of sculptures, geometric deconstructions of the patterns found in nature, abstract experiments with colour, and even a few portraits. In essence I was starting from scratch with almost every image I created. Then my working life took over and the time I made to paint dwindled. My beloved basket of oil paints moved from easy access in the spare room into a drawer, then to the back of a cupboard, and finally out to the shed. So by the time I set myself this deadline, I hadn’t picked up a paint brush or a palette knife for at least a couple of years.

I had two weeks to paint as many pictures as I could physically manage. For the observant reader, that’s two weeks rather than a month because oil paints need a fair amount of time to dry, especially if you scrape them on thick with a knife as I like to do.

I needed a theme, but didn’t have time to worry about how the theme would go on to define me as the artist, I just needed something I could work with. So I thought about the context and the icons of the area where the pictures would live, and settled on Cathar Castles. That would offer some visual link for their guests.

Peyrepertuse © Adam Baker

When I was studying art full time and my skills were in regular use, I’d complete a painting a week at best. But with this new deadline, I had to paint quicker than ever before. Some nights I found myself completing as many as three pictures in one session. And like the novel, this was after a full day’s work. In the rush to output quantity instead of perfection I freed up my style of painting and found resources I didn’t know I had. Instinctive reactions replaced artistic ‘decisions’.

Not only did I get through a quantity of images, but the requirement for speed brought certain stylistic traits to the fore. And though castles had never been part of my repertoire, the images quickly brought together the disconnected themes I had painted in the past. There were landscapes, decaying buildings, sculptural applications of paint, semi-abstract-semi-figurative colours and so on. I saw many old ideas fall into place, though that wasn’t my intention.

Paintings of Cathar Castles

I didn’t paint these castles because I was fascinated with them, but by painting these pictures I became fascinated by them – or at least the image of them. To me these castles now tell a story not just of historical society, but more poignantly man’s interaction with nature. They are made from the mountains, and sit on top of the world, but in time they blend back into the rock and the scrub on which they are made. And as the trees take over and the building blocks slowly crumble, it becomes harder to make out where the castles start and the mountains stop. I have a magical deadline to thank for this thought that may otherwise never have come to me; a deadline that focused on quantity over quality. On doing.

Sometimes, all we need to do is do.

In all, I completed about 25 pictures. To put that into perspective, I once had a single picture on my easel for the best part of a year, which eventually went on the wall unfinished. A deadline that inspires 25 finished pictures is magic to me. And it’s even better when the simple act of doing can teach you something about yourself.

I think there is a truth buried somewhere in here that is key to the artistic process. Do not wait for inspiration before you create. Just create. Do. Make. Act. Action. Something. Anything. If your only cost is time, then invest it wildly. There may be a case for careful planning if you wanted to build a teapot from diamonds, but dangerously expensive things are rarely worth the effort.

Inspiration is waiting, within the act of doing.

And to back-up that concluding thought, I should note it wasn’t on my mind when I started writing this. This was meant to be about deadlines. The thoughts about inspiration happened after I started writing, not before.

P.S. For externally imposed impossible deadlines, I’d still fall back on these wise words:

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams


  1. I came to this blog via Do and I like what you’re saying here. I suppose the essence of the effect you’re feeling with the self-imposed impossible deadline is that initial nudge we all need to get over the inertia of starting a project. It always seems too daunting to start because we want this thing to be the best thing we’ve ever done from start to finish. But in reality what we really need to do is make a start on something, anything and re-draft later. Nice.

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