First Draft Issue 4: "This highly irrational way of life"
One note of business: I'm giving away an advance reader copy of Endpapers on Twitter. If you want to enter for a chance to win it, go here!
L'Shana Tova to all who celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year! Since it's a time of reflecting on the past year and looking ahead, I've been thinking about my writing goals and resetting intentions. So it seems like a good opportunity to address a question I get asked a lot: How does one find the time and motivation to maintain a regular writing schedule, especially when you’ve got a family and a day job?
[Fair warning: this issue is on the long side, so if you plan to read it all the way through, get yourself a hot beverage and settle in.]
First off, I wish there were a magic answer. In fact, I wish even more that writing time itself was magical, gifted by faeries and elves, never interfering with real life or responsibilities because it’s extra, bonus time!
Alas, it is not.
The real answer is far less satisfying. Even though writing is fun, it’s also a slog. Inevitably there are days when you don’t want to wake up early or stay up late, or you’re afraid to face the page because what if you don’t have anything to say or it’s bad or your friends will laugh at you for ever thinking you could be a writer. Plus, you have all those nonnegotiable responsibilities filling your time.
So how do we do it? The answer is: lots of ways. Ultimately, the things that make writers overcome all these hurdles are different for each one of us.
Despite how grim this may sound though, the good news is that we don’t have to figure it out alone or reinvent the wheel. Which is why I want to share not only what works for me but also strategies from some of the folks in the most committed writing community I know — the #5amWritersClub I write with on Twitter most mornings. I hope seeing all of our answers together will help you form a strategy you feel good about, too.
By the time I started writing seriously, I had a baby, and I knew it was a fantasy to think I could have long stretches of time to do anything. But writing seemed like something I could sneak in, even when I had only a few minutes to myself. So for a couple of years, that’s what I did. Once the baby was sleeping through the night, I began waking up a little earlier than I had to. When I went back to work, I also stole time during lags at my job or when I was sitting in the bleachers while my son took swimming lessons. You get the idea.
Over time I've discovered that early mornings, before work, are my best bet for fitting in a full hour, because once everyone else in the house wakes up, my brain starts to fill with two people’s schedules, needs, meals, etc.: mine and my son’s. There’s no room in there for imagination. At first, I had to trick myself into wanting to wake up early by setting out a candle the night before and making sure I had my favorite tea and jam. Essentially, I had to lure myself out of bed with treats.
But soon enough, the feeling of writing in a dim, quiet house, with the cats snuggled next to me, watching the sun rise as I click away and check in with the #5amWritersClub became its own reward, and I’m a far happier, more balanced person during the rest of the day when I do it. Yes, I’m also tired (very tired). And my eyesight is suffering. But I’m working on those things too!
The other approach that keeps me consistent is to avoid paying close attention to word count. Even though I need concrete goals when I’m drafting a book, I’m not fast, and I’ll never keep up with the folks on social media who write a thousand or more words a day. (Except during Jami Attenberg's #1000WordsOfSummer!) So I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to either. I’ve written three novels at a pace of roughly 500 words a day, with some extra time on weekends and occasional writing retreats. Quantity is not the most important thing when you’re writing a book. You only need to keep showing up.
That said, I believe it's important to reward yourself for milestones along the way. I'm a bit of a chocolate snob, so one thing I do to celebrate is splurge on some really good dark chocolate. But whether fair trade, organic chocolate is your jam or something else, please give yourself a gift for hitting goals — including word count, finished drafts, queries sent, or anything you feel like celebrating.
When it comes to the fear of not having anything to say, my short answer is that I refuse to believe myself. Even when I’m stuck on a project, there’s always something to explore or interrogate further — a character, a place, a theme, a conflict. So instead of giving in to the lie my brain is telling me, I put the novel or story manuscript away and open my notebook and brainstorm on the page. Asking myself questions and answering them, making diagrams, whatever keeps my pen and imagination moving. It may not add to my word count, but it always leads me to new ideas for later writing sessions, so it’s never time wasted.
Last, before I turn it over to the wonderful writers who shared their strategies on Twitter, here are some additional things I like to keep in mind:
Take breaks! You don't have to write every day, and you should take time off whenever you need it to refill the well.
No matter what system you use, you will have to sacrifice something in order to make time. So figure out what you're willing to sacrifice.
Remember that writing is a choice (unless it's your job, of course!). If it's not fulfilling you in some way, you don't have to do it. You can stop for a while and do something else. You may come back to it reinvigorated. Or you may find something that fulfills you more.
Finally, without further ado, as Wiley Reiver (@SFWriter3) responded on Twitter when I asked writers to share their strategies: “Looking forward to seeing how others keep up this highly irrational way of life”:
Protecting your time
Holly M. Wendt (they/them), @hmwendt:
For me, it's making sure I keep this very early time for myself (not replying to work email, etc.). Once the day really begins/the world creeps in, it's almost impossible for me to get back to a creative space. It's not a perfect system, but it has worked for me for years.
But remaining flexible
Dana Goldstein, @DanaGWrites:
My writing time is from 5am-7am. Then I slide into my mom role and then work. The biggest thing for me was to be flexible and forgiving when family/work/life interrupted my time.
Creating on the fly
Jen Popa, @jelopapopa:
I use my phone's notes when waiting at an appt. or whenever. And I had a teacher who said not to underestimate the power of opening a Word doc and placing the cursor on text. You'll inevitably find something to edit.
Kate Oden, @OdenKate:
I “write” most of my poems in my head while walking the dog or driving deserted country roads. Snatch those times you can to let your mind *wander,* observe, create.
Cynthia Yoder, @cynthiastweets:
I had the benefit of only working for pay part-time while parenting. . . . I mostly wrote at night after our son was in bed. My motivation often came from talking to other creatives!
Deanna White, @DeannaWhiteCA:
I’m in marketing so I started building a critical path online, working backwards from launch with a deadline schedule, details on chapters, characters, setting etc and with reminders - I get notification when somethings overdue - it’s my kick in the butt.
Building a habit
Robyn Ryle, @RobynRyle:
I set a timer and do at least three 20-minute blocks of totally uninterrupted writing most days. And I remind myself that I'm forming a habit, a groove in my life that makes it easier to repeat on a daily basis.
Holly S., @GiveMeAnH:
My secret is going to bed at the same time as the children and getting the jump on them at 3 am
M. Browning Vogel, @mbrowning_vogel:
What are the distractions underneath the distraction? What am I willing to forgo or give up that is not really necessary in my life? Writing time may have bigger issues lurking behind it. Long term / large scale / deeper solutions can free up ALOT of time.
If you're still reading, remember that whatever you do, it's a process of trial and error. There's no one right way to build a writing routine, and what works for you today might need rethinking tomorrow.
I wish you success, and, most important, have fun out there.