Monday, June 24, 2013

All the Feels: Getting Real about Writing Time

I recently had the following conversation at a writer's conference...

Attendee: So what do you do for work?
Me: Well, I'm a therapist for a public school system and I do private practice on the side. And I'm also a freelance editor. How about you?
Attendee: Yeah, I pretty much just write.
Me: Oh, so you're a housewife or...?
Attendee: No...well, I have a cat. But no kids at home. No husband. I just write. Mostly for fun. I'm not pursuing publishing or anything yet. I had some cash to throw around so I thought a conference with other writers might be fun.

Me: ...

Okay, but I really, REALLY wanted to.

To get over my urge to smack the pretty out of her (have I mentioned that her hair was stunning on top of everything else?) I reminded myself that this chick is not the norm. Although if anyone knows where this mythical island is where people can just write and not have to work for a living, please do let me know. I can have my bags packed in under an hour.

I'm working on a revision for my agent, I have three other WIPs on the back and side burners, I blog for myself and for YA Stands, and I freelance edit on the side. And I'm a Mom. And I have a job. Well, right now I don't because my job is awesome in that I get summers off. So now I'm home by myself with a one-year-old all day, which is...yeah...not any less time consuming.

I sometimes forget to breathe.

Most people make time to write between work, family, attempting to have a social life and various obligations that come with, well, being a responsible, upstanding member of society. Writing when you're a parent is a whole 'nother ball game that we will call Advanced Placement Time Management for Writers, and we'll tackle that in a later post. For now, we're going to focus on the basics of managing your time in a way that will work for your writing career.

STEP ONE: Get honest with yourself about how you spend your time.
Since the invention of Myspace I have been a social media whore. In college I would literally spend HOURS looking at the plethora of little GIF badges available to add to my page until it was littered with hundreds of handpick squares of cleverness. And I was baffled by my habit of writing papers the night before they were due at three o'clock in the morning. "I don't have time to study!" I would complain.

Well, I did have time. But LOOK! GIFs!!!

Okay so some things still haven't changed.

But at least I'm honest about it now. And I have self-discipline techniques to manage my addictions like Nanny for Google Chrome and Rescue Time (both of which are free, btw.) By getting real with myself about how I spend my time, I can spend my time more wisely. And that means more time for writing.

I'm also honest with myself about my priorities. Writing for me isn't some dreamland touchy-feely-hippie-dippy world where I am a WRITER!!!!!!! and people grovel at my feet and respect my time behind a closed door to do my writing while the rest of the world waits with baited breath for my words. If I want to be a published, well-respected author, I'm going to bust my patootie to make it happen. No one else is going to make it happen for me. And that means less GIFs and more broken fingernails. I have to make my writing a priority for me if I expect other people to respect my right to spend my time doing it.

STEP TWO: Know your limits and strengths
I legitimately have adult ADD. If you follow me on Twitter or know me IRL, I am sure this is a total shock to you. I embrace this as a part of who I am, and I've found ways to turn it into a strength. Or at least to work around it.

For me, that means knowing I cannot write for more than an hour at a time. I need brain breaks. I need to compulsively check my phone or move around. If I try to force myself to focus for any longer than that, my writing is crap. So I've stopped trying to force myself to be someone I'm not. As much, theoretically speaking, as I'd love to have an eight hour writing work day, I'd probably only spend about three hours of that day doing quality writing. So that's what I try to do on days when I'm planning to write.

For some people, knowing your limits means knowing you write ugly, morbid, dark ish and doing that is taxing on the soul, so you can't write darkness every day. You can write it every other day. So that's how you build your writing time. Maybe you want to really feel like writing is a job so you build yourself a weekend away from your words (even if it's not on Saturday and Sunday.) Everyone has limits, and if you ignore yours, you will burn yourself out in no time.

Related to this is knowing your writing strengths--times of day, days of the week, settings where you are more productive. My creative brain wakes up at around 9pm. So any time I spend before 9pm writing, I spend on things like plotting, revising, etc. because that's not when I'm at my creative best, but my analytical brain does pretty well any time after 10am.

STEP THREE: Plan ahead to take your writing with you.
About fifty percent of the time, the writing I do get done doesn't happen at the house. It happens when my doctor is running late for our appointment (which he always is), or I have an unexpected stretch of time to kill because the traffic gods bless me and my hour long commute to work only takes forty minutes, or I actually have time to take a lunch break. Some of these times are planned, others aren't. Either way, I'm often not at home sitting in front of Barrett II (yes, my lappy has a name.) So I've found ways to take my writing with me.

If you've resisted entering the world of technology or you like to draft longhand, this step is super easy. Bring your notebook with you so you can write on the go.

Most of the time, I can't read my own handwriting. And focused time in front of my computer is increasingly hard to come by. To compensate, I'm doing more and more of my "writing" (note taking, brainstorming, scene sketching, character development) on-the-go. Here are some apps I use regularly that help (rather than hinder) my writing. Also, because I'm still an unpaid writer and I'm cheap...erm....frugal, all of the apps I use are free through the iPhone app store (and most are also available for Droid.)

·        Evernote--For note-jotting on the go or even drafting. It's also a great way to store research if you use multiple computers during your brainstorming phase. When I was working on my YA/UF for NaNoWriMo last year, I kept images of settings and characters in Evernote, so that if I was writing longhand or I wanted to reference the pictures without accessing the distraction of the interwebz, I could glance at my phone. It's also a helluva lot easier than scrambling for a flashlight, pen, and paper if an idea hits me in the middle of the night and I don't want to wake the ogre...erm sweet man on the other side of the bed.

·        Werdsmith--I used this during Camp NanoWriMo in April to do most of my writing, since I was traveling for Spring Break and busting my butt at work. You can use the app to set goals for yourself in terms of wordcount, etc and email yourself your stuff so you don't lose track of it

·        Workflowy--An outlining tool that can be a big help to plotters. Like Evernote you can use both an app and online version with a single log in to easily transfer your on-the-go work to your main machine at the end of the day. When I'm working on revisions I like to use this app to make my 'to-do' list of edits I'll need to accomplish. 

I'm sure there are more apps out there that I haven't explored yet. If you know some good ones, please throw them out in the comments below. (See this is where the whole community part of this whole blog thing comes into play.)


We're clear on that, yes? Okay, good. Moving on.

STEP FOUR: Keep things simple. Have to have a simple plan of what you can realistically get done in the time that you have.

For example, you are not going to write an entire chapter of your new novel on your thirty minute lunch break at work. Well, you might, but it probably won't be very good. Also that leaves little time for, ya know, actually eating lunch.

But if thirty minutes is all you have, that's all you have. Stressing over that fact will not help you be creative.

STEP FIVE: Eliminate the distractions you can.

For me that means locking up our enormous, rambunctious black lab who has somehow conditioned herself to go bananas whenever I sit down at my computer to actually get things done. It also means turning off the internet and muting my phone. And beyond that understanding that there is rarely a crisis that's got to be handled during my writing time. My child has another parent, and if there's an emergency, even my muted phone will light up when people call multiple times.

Twitter is not a crisis. Even when the person tweeting you is @realjohngreen. Nor is that emailed question from your boss when you are writing after hours.

It also means knowing when writing is realistic. My daughter's highest energy level is first thing in the morning (how we ended up with a morning person for a child, I have no clue, but we did) and my husband needs to decompress when he gets home from work--which usually includes venting his spleen to his in-home therapist aka moi. Those are not going to be good times for me to try to get writing done.

            Step 5.b. you should not be reading this blog during your writing time.


On writing fantasy island where my buddy with the pretty hair lives, it's possible to go through the ritual. You know, you light the candles, find the right music for the scene you want to write, steep your favorite cup of tea (which you've freshly plucked from the garden in your backyard that you have oodles of time to expertly maintain), go through a few meditative exercises to empty your mind, spend some time on Pinterest looking for the exact setting you are trying to recreate for your story, and prepare and bake a tray of delectable cinnamon rolls to get you through the next eight hours you will spend crafting your glorious words.

Bitch, please. In the thirty seconds it took me to heat up my cup of grocery store generic chai, my kid chewed through the cord on my laptop. Twice.

You have precious few minutes. Spend them writing.

Social media is a blessing and a curse. There will come a point in your writing career when you need to devote time to pimping yourself. But that should be separate from your writing time. You cannot successfully do both simultaneously with one brain. Social media is not writing.

STEP SEVEN: Set a goal and be accountable.
And here I'm not talking about word count goals. I participate in NaNoWriMo every year and I LOVE it. I'm doing Camp NaNoWriMo again this July. But straight up? Word count goals are bullshit. You are not doing yourself any favors by judging the success of your writing by the number of words you are able to vomit onto a page. We do not live in the age of Dickens where we get paid by the word. Quality matters. Not quantity.

Going back to the beginning about being honest with yourself about your writing, be honest about what it is you need to accomplish. For me, a lot of the time that isn't a number of words so much as it is getting to a certain point in the plot I've outline for myself. Or getting through a grueling revision I'm not quite sure where to begin.

You've got to eat that elephant one bite a time. *shudder*. I hate that analogy. But it makes a good point.

Find a way to be accountable that works for you. Maybe you're good at to-do lists and something as rewarding as crossing off an item is all you need to make it happen. Maybe you've got a kick-ass CP that you can commit to getting pages to by a certain deadline. Or maybe you have a dog that really needs a walk and will lovingly grace your carpet with a special gift if you don't get your thirty minutes of solid writing done in thirty minutes, as opposed to an hour because you stopped to dick around on Twitter every ten minutes and lost track of time.

STEP EIGHT: Accept that into every writing routine, a little writer's block will fall.
Some days your writing will suck. Maybe you've got life happening and you can't get in the groove. Maybe your kid gets sick and you've got to reprioritize for a little while. Or maybe you just deserve a break.

And that's all okay. No, really, it is.

But part of Step Eight is also going back to Step One and getting honest with yourself. Don't make excuses not to write. If you're not going to write today, that's okay. But own it. Your dog isn't eating your writing career. You are.


1. We don't have cable. Or DVR. Seriously.
I have never seen an episode of Jersey Shore. I don't know who Honey Boo-Boo is. And really, I don't think I'm missing anything.

2. I survive on about four hours of sleep a night. Voluntarily.
My husband goes to bed at 10:30 like clockwork. I'm usually up until around 2. And we both get up between 6 and 7 for the kiddo and work. I could go to sleep when he does, but I don't. I like to read instead. It's relaxing and it's something I do for me. And when I don't take the time to do my reading, I am a cranky bitch. I'd rather be a little groggy and relaxed than well-rested and pissed at the world. I catch up a little bit by napping on the weekends when I don't have some kind of writing deadline, but there are weeks when I'm running on a grand total of 28 hours sleep. That said, I don't do any reading prior to that 10:30 time unless by the freezing of hell I have spare time to kill. And usually if such time does magically appear, I try to spend it writing instead. Like when I was at the vet with my cat for three hours on Friday.

3. I wholeheartedly embrace Pavlovian Conditioning.
You know that whole psychology experiment with the dog and the meat tenderizer and the bell and the saliva? Yeah, that ish works for writers, too. If there is something I really want to do--like buy a new album or go out for drinks with my girlfriends, I make myself meet a goal first. And if I don't meet it, I don't get my reward. And I'm a hardass about it because my writing is important to me.

4. We never have people over because our house is a crazy writer's lair.
I am not a neat freak and I never have been. Neither is my husband. We have to do a certain amount of maintenance for the sake of the kid and, ya know, not living like that dude in Silence of the Lambs, but otherwise, we live in Clutterville. We're both okay with that for now because I need to be writing when I could be dusting or seasonally organizing my closet and when he's home, he tries to take the midget off my hands so I can write. Thus, our house is gross, and we rarely have people over.

Like I said, these won't work for a lot of people, but I thought they were worth mentioning.

For those of you going "oh none of this will work, I'm just not wired that way"--around here we call them pantsers--I'll do a future post called Crisis Writing that may work better for you. In the meantime, give this a shot. One of my best friends and CPs is a hardcore pantser and a lot of this works for her anyway.

On July 8th, we're going to focus more on the feels aspect of the writerly journey. Specifically how you help your loved ones understand (and respect) writer weirdness. Then later next month, we'll come back to that AP Time Management stuff I mentioned up top. 

What techniques or tricks do you use to manage your writing time?


  1. Really good advice. I especially like step six ("spend your writing time writing"). It's far too easy to do lots of other things--Twitter, Facebook, watching TV, etc.--during writing time. If you're writing, write. If you're not, fine, but don't say you are.

    1. Exactly! If your family is giving you time to write, don't disrespect them by surfing the intwebz instead.

  2. I just slam damn loved this post. All your steps ring true as well as the other things you do that might make you crazy (they don't!). As odd as this sounds, my house is a huge distraction while I write. I work from home any ways so, in a way, I never leave work. When it comes time to write I sometimes get antsy about still being "on the clock" when I'm not.

    Lately, though, I've gotten around most of this just by taking my laptop to the kitchen and trying my hardest not to eat all of the chocolate in the pantry while I write.

    Also, thanks for the link to Work Flowy! I'd never heard of it before and like what I see so far!

  3. Really good advice!

    When I'm writing on weekdays I reward myself with a mid-afternoon break and an episode of Countdown (word and numbers game in the UK). It's on at ten past three, but I tend to have a late lunch and watch it on catch-up TV an hour later - which also means I can fast forward through the adverts and get through it in precisely 36 minutes! If I haven't written 1,000 words, no Countdown until I've done it. Thank goodness I finished my first draft last week because this week it's off air in favour of horse racing - grrr!

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