02 August 2022

Deadlines, Shmeadlines

One of the many attributes of successful writers and editors is the ability to meet deadlines, and the ability to meet deadlines is one of the ways I have managed to sustain a multi-decade writing and editing career. I try not to over-commit my available time, and I try to plan large projects with built-in buffers in case unexpected events—family emergencies, for example—demand my attention or a high-value project with a tight turn-around drops into my lap.

How do you keep track of projects
and meet deadlines?

On the rare occasions when it looks like I might miss a deadline, I work with my editor, publisher, or client to find a satisfactory solution. Not to be too cocky, but it’s been a long time since I missed a hard deadline.

Until three weeks ago.

Y’all were treated to one of Shifty’s animated adventures on July 12 because I whiffed the ball. I wish I had a great excuse—while on a humanitarian mission to rescue zoo animals from Ukraine, I resuscitated a penguin that had choked on a sardine, midwifed the birth of twin albino Siberian tigers, and taught a malformed baby porpoise to swim with a prosthetic tail I crafted from Mountain Dew bottles—but I don’t.

My excuse is far more mundane: I entered my SleuthSayers deadline on the wrong calendar date.

By the time the secret master of SleuthSayers emailed a reminder that my blog post was due that night, I had already shut down my computer and had shifted my attention elsewhere.


Meeting deadlines means learning to juggle. I edit a bi-monthly consumer magazine and a weekly newsletter, and I’m associate editor for a weekly magazine. These publications all have hard deadlines, as do the anthologies I edit. I also edit a quasi-quarterly mystery magazine, which has spongy deadlines, and I create marketing material (TV, radio, and print ads along with brochures, flyers, social media posts, and more) for a professional orchestra with constantly changing deadlines determined by concert dates and media requirements.

And in the nooks and crannies between all these deadlines I’m also writing new stories, some of which have hard deadlines (when I’m writing to invitation, for example) and some of which don’t.

Once upon a time I was able to keep all these deadlines in my head and remember what I ate for breakfast. No longer. I’ve grown older at the same time I’ve become busier, and I just can’t remember every deadline. I’m now relying on my computer’s calendar and a to-do list I keep next to my computer.

But when I fail to add something to the to-do list or I enter a deadline incorrectly into my computer calendar...well, that’s when I risk missing a deadline.


I have found ways to ensure that I (nearly always) meet my deadlines, but as an editor I find it difficult to ride herd on writers. Professional writers know that editors have deadlines. We can’t publish anthologies, magazines, and newsletters with blank pages. And, unless you’re George R.R. Martin writing the next volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, not many editors are willing to wait until you get around to putting words on paper. We’re going to press with you or without you.

But beginning and early career writers don’t always understand how important it is.

Get a reputation as someone who fails to deliver promised manuscripts on time, fails to approve copyedits and page proofs on time, fails to show up on time for a panel, or fails to meet any of dozens of other deadlines and commitments that are part and parcel of being a professional writer and the opportunities will slowly disappear.

And that once-promising career becomes nothing but memory dust.

I stumbled. I’ll recover. And I’ll turn in this post several days early.

But what about you? How do you keep track of your deadlines?

My story “Sparks” appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Vautrin.

My co-authors’ blog posts for AHMM and EQMM appeared the same week. Read Sandra Murphy’s “Add (Your) Life to Your Writing” at Something is Going to Happen and James A. Hearn’s “A Writer’s Tears” at Trace Evidence.

And I’m moderating a panel at Bouchercon next month. “Groovy Kind of Death: Murders Set in the 60s/70s” is scheduled for 1:45-2:30 p.m., Thursday, and panelists include Lou Berney, Wanda M. Morris, Richie Narvaez, Marcie Rendon, and Gabriel Valjan.


  1. (gasp!) You m-m-mentioned the Secret M-m-mast… er, He (or She) who m-m-must not be seen! Thunder and lightning! Brim and firestone!

    Anyway, word has it Shifty is keen to share the spotlight.

    And besides, we all love you, Michael.

  2. Great post, Michael, as usual. Is there a possible story in the animal rescue excuse?

    My parents were super organized and I grew up assuming that it was part of being an adult. I learned how rare it was in college and when I taught. I had a dry-marker calendar in my classroom and wrote the major assignments several weeks ahead, different colors for different classes so everyone knew when the major papers and tests were due. Some kids never looked at it. The bright side is that nobody ever messed with it.
    I still use that dry-marker board, along with the paper calendar next to the refrigerator for all appointments, story deadlines, and music gigs. Now I look at it automatically every morning.
    When I was teaching and doing theater simultaneously, I often directed and (unofficially) assistant produced a play that would open during exams week or the first two weeks of school in September. People were amazed, but I just took it for granted because my parents brought me up that way.
    I still try to plan ahead, but there are unforseen obstacles. This morning, I received a voicemail that a doctor's appointment has to be rescheduled because the office has been exposed to Covid. this stuff happens.
    For what it's worth, my daughter and son-in-law are as organized as I am (I suspect that's one of many reasons Jennifer married Tim ;-). And my ex-wife was almost never ready to leave for any appointment on time...

    1. Steve, I once had a friend like your ex. I started telling him we had to be places or do things half an hour before the actual time, and we stopped being late for things. He never caught on.

  3. My days as a project manager taught me to live by a notebook - keep it with you always, update it, and check it every day. I still have one for all my writing projects.

    1. You were a PM? I recently wrote a story (for Michael, no less) in which I employed PM tools and principles to map historical timelines. I'm thinking of writing a SleuthSayers article about it.

  4. Excellent advice and witty discourse. As far as keeping things straight and meeting deadlines, I do calendars: 1 at home, 2 in my office and 1 on cell phone. It's a lot of jotting down and cross checking but it works for me (until it doesn't). So far, I haven't confused myself. At the end of the year, I back track and see who did what and when, cross off all the closed issues and then, I move on. This coming year I hope to have so many deadlines that I can compare notes with Michael Bracken...(I do not keep track of my dreams and whims.)
    Cheers, Wil

  5. I can and do meet deadlines. Where I screwed up (and you know this all too well, Michael), is on the software for editing. It took that major screw up for me to realize that there's a world of difference between LOOKING at an edited MS, and downloading it and finding the notes. Lesson learned. Deep apologies. Will not happen again.

  6. Chuck Brownman02 August, 2022 11:19

    Excellent perspectives, Michael - as usual.

    I've always found that the busiest people are the ones who get things done, and are often the most organized. And I have found that personally, too ... as a lawyer / adjunct professor / writer / husband / father etc., when I'm really crammed with deadlines (short, urgent, hard, competing), that's when I accomplish many things; and when there are fewer deadlines, the time expands to meet them.

    Like you, I have never totally missed a deadline (but if there's a problem, I do make sure and let the other person know as far in advance as I can, so that we can work it out). But as I get older, it takes more effort and more lists to keep up!

    Thanks for a great article today!

  7. My secret weapon is the Reminders feature on my iPhone and Mac computers. I don't have to remember to look at it. I write what I need to remember, eg "BCMM submission period" (hint hint, Michael) for 9 am on the appropriate date, which may be a due date or something I need to set as a daily reminder for a period, eg "Estimated tax due" starting a week before the due date or every four weeks for a SleuthSayers post. It pops up on my phone and computer desktop screens at 9 am sharp all by itself, and if I don't click "Complete" until I've done it, I can forget it as many times during the day as I like, but it'll still be there to remind me.

  8. I'm with Liz, relying upon the Mac's calendar and any tools available. Blessed are wives and girlfriends for they keepeth their man on the path of timely righteousness. And usually don't receive enough credit.

    I'm seriously ADD and absent-minded to boot, so much so my teacher's 4th grade nickname for me was Absent-Minded Professor. What usually forces me to focus a moment on real-world events is this: a deadline commitment is a promise, and I'm tortured if I break a promise.


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