HOW TO BEAT THE DEADLINE ( and live to do it again)
Friday, October 23rd, 2015
(All art from INDEH by Ethan Hawke and myself-
on shelves June 2016 from Hachette/grand Central)
We all of us together know all about deadlines. Hell, every kid who has to get dressed in time for the bus knows what one feels like. There’s all sorts of ways to tackle and arise mighty and victorious in the face of one, and many are indeed particular to each person in terms of effectiveness. So today I thought it might be of aid to list some in broader terms.
I just completed the most harrowing deadline of my career in finishing INDEH, and that’s saying a lot. (I’m looking at you Obama book you had only three weeks to do, or that month you agreed to do the last issue of Freaks of the Heartland and the first issue of Conan at the same time. I am looking at YOU.). This was the first time I was absolutely certain I would blow the deadline completely. I never do and almost never really have, but this was going to be the whale that sank my ship. But I didn’t. I made it and it got turned in exactly on time thank sweet mother of pearls. And while doing this ridiculous thing, working upwards of 98 hours a week to make it happen, I did employ some tried and true things, but I also learned and utilized some new tricks. Here’s a few:
Consider the Deadline to be Exactly That: A Line of Death
I repeat this over and over again and it never gets old: Make your deadlines, grow your career. Blow your deadlines, make sure you have a day job, or perhaps find another career before you have to by virtue of not being re-hired. Your artists friends might lean back and blow smoke rings to show how cool they are for not giving a rat’s poopy about a deadline, but don’t fall for it. My entire beginnings come from being the Johnny-On-The-Spot and swooping in when an artist went AWOL on their project. These are prime opportunities to endear yourself to an editor or publisher. And while yes, if you’re friggin amazing at your craft, your people will forgive you for being kind of late, but only up to a point and it will still negatively impact your overall future. They have enough difficult people not hitting their marks, don’t be that guy or gal. Be the one who saves the day by hitting that time right and delivering great work at the same time. We all get reps over the course of our early careers. So, decide… Do you want to be the artist whom everyone suffers for being unreliable and flighty and out of touch, or the one that saves their bacon and brings it home in a surprising way. I’ll decide for you- you want the second one. Publishing is a big tiny world and everyone talks and moves around within the same houses. They will import your rep with them and tell their peers over dinner later. Try to make sure the conversation is positive. Plus there are literally a hundred people graduating every years from school doing amazing new and fresh work, and they’ll work cheap. Give your client a reason to hire you anyway, or they won’t.
Make and Keep a Schedule.
Seems like a dopey and obvious first approach, but it is the most effective and important step. Before you do anything at all, get out your calendar and plan your time. This means knowing how long it takes to do a part and then spread those parts out over the course of the dates you have leading up to your end date. Which means really having a fearless ability to be honest about what you can do and how much over a given time. We all like to set higher goals, but this is not where that impulse goes. Here is where realism is needed. For comics, if you can’t get at least one page done in a day, think about another medium. One page a day at a minimum. The more you can do the better. Having a year sounds like a lot of time to do a project, but trust me it ain’t nothing. Schedule it out and you’ll see. Farting around for the first few months seems fine and dandy but you will pay for that foolishness later. Be diligent, be firm, give yourself a good realistic time to execute the job and then add at least 40% more to it to get it done in time. Life is a complicated ball of crazy and it will conspire against your best intentions to work perfectly well each and evert day. Assume this is B.S. and schedule for it and you’ll thank me later.
Make Time for Life to Get in the Way.
And it will. You can’t guess at what distraction might come down upon you, but you can plan your time to absorb it so it doesn’t put you in a crisis. Pad your time for breaks, days off (if you can), family, etc… and don’t run your calendar right up to the due date. Set that close for at least a week or two prior… because toy never know. Your publisher or whomever is padding your due dates to allow for overages, so you should too. If you have no outside calamity that burns through this buffer, then you’ll want that last week for a final review.
Pace Yourself. Breathe.
This is really important. If you’re on a crunch make good choices about how you blow off steam after work. You need to make time for this kind of thing, whatever that activity is… a walk in the woods around your studio, go to the movies, binge-watch The Six Million Dollar Man box set you just got- whatever. The worse the deadline the more important it is to find places to release the angst of it. Deadlines are marathons not sprints- you want to maintain as close to your maximum self throughout the whole journey, and you want to bank your final burst when the finish line is coming up. So don’t squander that too early. Going to a bar with friends and having five pints is good for now but not for tomorrow. losing too much sleep too early will catch up to you. The older you are the more real this is.
Rethink Working Late into the Night.
This is perhaps the most important revolution in the way I manage my deadlines now. I owe it all to my artist wife who wakes up at 5 am every morning for a little “me” time before the kids get up and have to be dealt with before she can get in the studio. I used to be the late night guy, proudly staying up until 2-4am and dropping near dead into bed to do it again the next day and the next. Night time is quiet, no one calls you, offices are closed and you can run amok. But early morning is the same exact thing with one major difference: you are at the beginning of your day. The prime of your attention not at its end running on fumes. I am not a morning person by nature so getting up at 5 am is a terrible violence to my being. Coffee is my dear friend at those times, but by 5:30 or 6, I’m awake and rolling along. And here’s the real bonus you have to experience to truly understand: you get up at 5 and work for 7-8 hours and you know what time it is? Lunchtime. That still leaves you a near full 5-6 more hours at least to work. It’s like having two days in one. You actually get to cheat time. This thing is like a miracle for your production rates. I switched to this schedule to finish INDEH- working largely from 5 am to 7-8pm every day, seven days a week for the last two months. It wasn’t pleasant, but if I was staying up late and doing this, I’d likely not be alive right now. I know this because I almost died from this a few years back working on OUR ENDURING SPIRIT for Harper Collins.
Sure it means you’re hungry for lunch at 9-10 am and that’s weird, but the overall effect on your health is impossible to disregard. Even if I had superpowers and stayed up late woking on INDEH I’d still never have turned it in on time. I was producing someday as much as five or seven pages of fully finished lettered and printable pages of art every two days waking up early. It was exhausting, but like the kind of exhaustion a nap can solve, not the bone burning tongue-wagging hellscape you enter when you’ve clocked the same hours late into the night. Humans are daytime animals, even we natural night owls must accept this. Your pals scoff at your crashing out around 10pm where they’re just getting started? Just wink at em and walk away knowing you’re doing it better and in the end, your tortoise will totally crush those obnoxious rabbits at the finish line. Seriously- try this out for a week and see if it doesn’t change your thinking. You don’t like it, switch back. But I think you’ll dig it. Even after I turned in the book, I’m still on this schedule. This is my new schedule now, (though not the seven day a week thing. that sucks and should never happen).
Don’t Eat the Whole Elephant at Once
Look, comics are hard. My book THE LOST BOY was over 130 pages with a 9-panel grid structure and that adds up to about 1200 drawings to make. That’s not even taking in the 70 or so pages that ended up on the cutting room floor. That’s a lot of damned work to do and when you look at it like this, it can scare you so much a little pee can come. Best not to look at it like this until after. Set a goal- 7 pages this week, one or two pages today, two panels an hour… whatever is real and practical makes it so much better. When you meet your mark, give yourself a little present. whether that’s a can of yummy ice cold seltzer, a hershey’s kiss or round of killing undead things on your xbox, reward your hitting your mini-deadlines. you fall behind, no reward, but make sure you make it up the next cycle or it will snowball into a deadline ruining mess. If you’re climbing a mountain- whether metaphoric or real, the key is not to look down. It’s a cliche but it’s a cliche because it’s true. Ignorance and denial are tools you can use, and I say this as a creative that uses both each and everyday, sometimes all day long. Another metaphor I lean on more is the mountain hike: long arduous climbs are made easier by keeping focused on the step just in front of you and the next one after, stopping occasionally to take in the scenery. Sometimes being to focused on the final end can make the current steps to getting there seem impossible. Keeping your head down and digesting the infinite miles by ignoring them for the few feet in front of you is an excellent way to cope and trick yourself into making the whole journey.
Don’t Work Sick.
Look we all get ill sometimes, and yes, you are more likely to catch it while you are stressed about your deadline. This is why you padded your own personal one remember? It’s heroic and nobel and it looks great in a Facetweet to say you have a fever but you’re soldiering on anyway at the drawing table. In the immortal words of of Marcellus Wallace, “F@#( that S#!t”. The only thing this will do is make the sickness last longer, make you less inventive and productive and if you carry one like I did at that time, will land you a nice hospital bed someplace and then you’re really not working. You feel run down, like you’re tipping over a bit, cut out early that day, go to be sooner than you would normally and you could very well wake up fresh as a daisy the next day. If not, take the day, be sick, sleep drink water, get better. You’ll get back on the saddle faster this way then if you deny it. Seriously.
It’s Actually About You, but… It’s About Others Too.
It’s like that line from that guy- nobody goes to war alone. You go absent lost in your studio as you are and you have a wife, husband or even a kid or kids… they’re suffering too. They’re not in the room with you slaving away, but your better half is now taking up your slack int he house, your kids aren’t seeing you to tyell you about their day or have you help them with their homework or throw a frisbee, and when they do you’re likely a zombie or worse, a total dicktoast. This is where lines number 2 and 3 really come in. If you’re in a crisis, you’re bringing them along too. SO. Make sure you remember this when you take this on so you can manage your life as well as your work. You need that balance and that mutual support, not just to keep the demons away, but both feed each other in ways essential to coming up with more ideas that can be turned into a mortgage payment or rent.
It’s Not Always Your Fault, But it’s Always Your Responsibility.
Look sometimes you’re on a crunch because you’re the third person to tackle this cover and they have run out of time and money. You know this going in so you can’t blame the poor schlub that came before you for missing your mark. You take it on you own it, even if it came in too late because the writer was too slow, or the editor was away or whatever. Those are reasons but not excuses. If you agree to slay the dragon, you have married that goal as your own. Sometimes an editor will take overlong to get back to you with notes, and that’s not on you. If they do this enough and blow past their own deadline, that’s on them and they should and likely will accommodate for that. You are doing a cover for an author who has no idea what he wants but he knows when he will see it… well that sucks but again, your job is to make him or her see it. It’s not always possible and sometimes it takes too long… I have a cover job I am STILL in on a trilogy that we started almost a year ago now, and could easily go another six or eight months beyond before seeing its end though my actual work time has barely amounted to a single day or two at most. This is an extreme and particularly weird case, but sometimes things get extreme and weird and you must roll with it. A good publisher will cover your butt and make you whole as much as possible. They’ll be managing things on their side in ways that will make your hair stand up, so let them do that. But when the light goes green, it’s back to you. Missing the mark when you have your marching orders is your boomy hot potato. You pull this off, stay professional, you’ll get another assignment later. Remember, It’s not really about the job in front of you…
… It’s About the One that Comes Next.
This isn’t to say you hack out the current job for the sweeter one tomorrow- exactly the opposite in fact. Perform and do your best once you agree to the job. Make it the best thing you have ever done and if you do it right chances are you’ll get another chance to top yourself later. We all take on work that isn’t our heart’s desire when we make art for a living, and that makes those jobs harder sure, but it in no way lessens their importance. I’ve done work for silly and laughable things and others for the serious and high minded too… the impetus to do them both right and well is the same. You start poo-pooing your task because it’s a short comic for the Teletubbies, then you’re being a jerk and shouldn’t have taken the job. Once you agree to do a thing, your client expects you to bring your a game, and you should or you could well not get a chance to play again. Always bring you A game no matter what game you’re playing. The other side of it builds resentment, bitterness and a lack of self moral that will burn through your creative energy like alien blood on a steel floor. This is the difference between building a career and doing a job.
Know the Three Furies, As They Will Know You.
1.) The Delicious first bite of excitement.
This is that first week, when you’re all fire and vinegar and hopping to get going. It’s all blue skies and potential right now where what you imagine will be still can be. This is also known as the Honeymoon Period, or The Day’s First Cigarette. Enjoy this delicate and lovely time. Sure you have the whole gaping maw of the job in front of you. But temper this fire because you will need to bank this joy for when it gets long and hard. You are after all making a journey, not the the corner shop but across the long undiscovered country and you must make certain you have supplies to see the other coast.
2.) The Dark Forest
Contrary to popular myth, this is the longest and most dominate aspect of long form deadlines. This begins when the Honeymoon period ends and while there are moments of true joy and majesty, those like joy itself, are inherently fleeting. A cool stream to refresh yourself before trudging back through the deep snow to other side- but never a place to live. Thing is though, this will end whether you bail on the project or see it through to completion. So remember that. This also is when the axis of potential and reality collide. Your dreams are getting laid out on paper now, becoming practical reality. Like those Disney princesses leaping from the cartoon world into our own, the 2-dimensional fantasy of the thing you’re doing becomes a less glamourous 3-dimensional reality. The trick here is to see past the imperfections and dashed hopes of what might have been and learn to love what is before you. You will never achieve your mind’s eye dream, but sometimes you can come close, and if you’re really clever you will make something that is new and different from either dream or expected reality. It will be what it is and what it will live as, so learn to love it, hug the flaws because true love is an adoration of imperfection, not an affection for its opposite.
3.) The Moment of Sweet Victory.
This is the most fleeting of the three stages, but the most delicious. These bits harken forward to this final great gasp with the completion of the occasional excellent page of work. It is the final long form orchestra of those little songs of joy when you see what you have done and approve. But this stage carries a greater more ineffable joy- this has the song of victory to it. You have survived the long slog and made your deadline. Like the sight of your newborn baby and its first fresh cries against the world, the love and exaltation you will feel here is nearly impossible to match, contain or codify. All who go through this cycle have our ceremonial garb to go with this. I know a fellow who goes to see a move in the middle of the day, another who buys an exceptionally expensive bottle of scotch, champagne, a nice meal, a week off to play hooky… whatever it is I encourage this ritual. We all need our ceremonies and to bring it down to a night out with loved ones to celebrate the completion of your task is an important catharsis to honor. Whatever now happens, (and if you’re doing a book there is a great deal more to happen before you hold a copy in your hands, trust me on this), no one can rob you of the incredible and earned huzzah! of this moment. So get out there and Huzzah the s#!t out of it. And get ready to do it again, only this time…. better.
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.
He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.
He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.
Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.