Carving Out Time to Write

In a recent post, I talked about writing every day. Thanks to everyone who responded. But one person followed up with this question:

You know, I would love to write every day, I really would. But real life just keeps getting in the way!
Help. What can I do?

I thought that was a question worth pursuing in its own post (and by the way, I’m writing this early and I’ll be at SpoCon when this posts, so it will take a few days for me to respond).

The easy answer to the question is Nike’s: Just do it. Yeah. And it’s that easy, too, isn’t it? Well, not so much. More like simple–yes; easy–no. First of all, life does interfere. I mean personally, I work a full time job and I also have two kids under the age 8. I have to run errands and clean and drive children to games and lessons, pick them up off buses, feed them, help with homework and blah blah blah blah. Additionally, I like to read and watch TV. And oh, breathe on occasion. So I get it. And that’s with a job that does have flexibility, which many people don’t have.

When I first got out of college and was working on my really bad trunk novel, I would take my lunch hour, drive to Taco Bell and get a soda, and then sit in the parking lot and write longhand in notebooks. I did finish that ugly novel in less than a year and I learned a lot about cramming writing into a small space of time.

I write during naps (kid naps–not mine). I write on weekends and I’ve been known to get up at 5 to write before work (but I’m nocturnal and this is difficult). I will sometimes write after everyone else goes to bed. I have learned to write in 10 minutes or 15. I have learned that I do not need large blocks of time to get some forward progress, though yes, I prefer it. I do not get easily distracted usually (I don’t need silence, but if I did, I’d buy the kind of headphones that you use at the shooting range–actually, I have a pair of those, so I’d just use them).

But I think the things that get in the way of writing and finding time are very individual and as varied as sand on a beach. Everybody’s life is different, as is their writing styles, and how to finesse some writing time can be very tricky. So I invite any writer here–pro or otherwise–to offer their experiences and advice for carving a little time out to write and yet still have a life.

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    I used to think I needed at least 1-2 hours of silent, uninterrupted time to write well. That’s why my first novel took over 5 years to finish.

    Since then I’ve learned something like what you said. I write whenever I can, in stolen moments, early in the morning, late at night, whenever I can get on the computer and not have other responsibilities. At the rate I’m writing now, I can write a novel in about a year and a half, and I hope to get even faster.

    My problem, in addition to finding time to write, is making sure that writing does not overtake other responsibilities, like spending time with my kids or my wife. Mainly, my wife keeps me accountable for that.

  2. 2. Toast

    I am not a writer, but at busy times I take a similar approach to reading. I keep a book in my handbag andif i’m a few minutes early to a meeting I read, at lunch I will grab a coffee curl up in a chair and read, and so on. I get through a lot of books just on stolen minutes and lunchbreaks.

  3. 3. Blain

    I’m with Adam on this. The problem I find is that those stolen moments can add up and make it seem (to the other half) that I spend all my time writing.

    The solution for me is to make sure I make time for my other half and my kids. This needs to be fairly showy, otherwise it just won’t register, and they’ll still think I spend all my time writing!

    One of the benefits of writing in little snatches frequently, rather than a couple of hour blocks infrequently, is that your mind is constantly churning over plot elements and character changes. Your subconscious will eventually fix some of the plot points that your consciousness can’t.

  4. 4. Merrilee Faber

    I was also one of the writers who needed to be “in the zone” to write. Right place, right time, right frame of mind.

    What horseradish.

    Now that I’m older and wiser, I know I can get plenty done in half an hour, if I just sit in front of the keyboard. The secret is making yourself sit there every day, no matter what.

  5. 5. Timmy Mac

    I work TWO jobs and have two kids, plus I maintain a 5-day a week gym schedule, and I managed to write my first novel in a little less than a year, mostly in stolen chunks of time at the desk job and on those rare evenings where I didn’t have to put a kid to bed and the Red Sox weren’t playing.

    I’m working on my second, and I decided I needed a dedicated writing hour for it. The only time I knew for sure I could have a quiet hour was 5:00 am. That lasted for about 3 cranky, sleep-deprived, fairly useless weeks.

    The reality is if I want to write, right now it’s got to be in those stolen chunks of time. Maybe when the boys are older or when the night gig really pays off, I can have a dedicated writing time (and maybe even my own writing SPACE, good god), but for now, reality is what it is, and I figure I can fight it or just roll with it, you know?

  6. 6. Scott Marlowe

    You said it. Trying to block off dedicated writing time is hard enough, but to do it in terms of hours and not minutes becomes a real challenge sometimes. I try to snatch what time I can whenever I can, including lunchtime or right before bed (if I haven’t already been writing up to that point).

  7. 7. domynoe

    Back when I was a substitute teacher, I wrote a Meta about writing “between the cracks”–those tiny spaces of time when we’re not focusing on work, but really aren’t all that long to be able to actually immerse ourselves in writing the novel. It’s here, for anyone interested: http://www.alden.nu/meta/000068.shtml

    Now that I’m a homebody, I manage my work (I’m the Senior and Acquisitions Editor for a small press–keeps me very busy) and writing time differently. Because I can manage my own schedule, unless we’re crazy busy with things that need my attention, I only work 4 days and reserve the other 3 days for my own writing stuff. I’m also ADHD and one way for me to manage it is to use “controlled distractions”: I revise while watching TV, for example. I think that actually comes from learning to write between the cracks as a sub.

    As for the kids, right now I do need to keep an eye on them, especially my son who is autistic. But school starts the 11th and I’ll actually get a little peace when I can focus on what I need to do and not need to be aware of what they are doing at the same time. Love my kids, but I am sooooooooo looking forward to school starting! lol

    My biggest obstacle when writing now is when my motivation is at a low or the ADHD is out of control because then I end up spending more time reading LJ and journal posts than doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m so bad. :P

  8. 8. Joe Iriarte

    “Just do it” sounds like impossible advice until you follow it, and then look back and realize that it wasn’t so impossible after all.

    I became a teacher because I thought it would give me lots of time to write. Oops. Big mistake. Twenty hours of take-home work a week during the year, and too burned out to do much of anything during the summer. But this last January I decided to rein in my obsessive compulsive tendencies. In addition to my job I have two special needs kids and a host of other responsibilities. But the time was still there–all I had to do was decide I was going to write every day. Other things suffer a bit, sure–but not my kids. I didn’t do any writing until after they went to bed. But, as the cook in the house, I decided sometimes TV dinners were okay. As the person who does the dishes, I decided sometimes they could sit for a night. And I decided my job could survive if I gave them slightly less. (The real irony there is that I found my work improving. Maybe I became more efficient, or maybe I was just less burnt out from spending so much time on it.) From January to July, I wrote 120,000 words. Most of that was written during the school year.

    I don’t watch much TV (though I do watch sports), I’ve let some things slide, I don’t work out, I don’t post online as much as I used to, I don’t play video games. I didn’t do this, but I bet if an aspiring writer journals where all the time goes for a week, he or she could find a lot of places to carve out some writing time.

  9. 9. Karen Wester Newton

    I think part of the answer is in your title. There are only 24 hours in a day;’ if you want to write during some of them, you need to cut some other less important activity—TV watching, housework, whatever. I rarely cook any more; Costco has lots of prepared meals that you can stick in the oven. Basically, it’s a decision-making process. Weigh your options and decide what goes.

  10. 10. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Adam: Yes, balance is everything. And it’s easy for me to go overboard in stealing little bits of time so that my kids start asking, when can mommy come out to play?

    Toast: Yes! And I’ve mastered the art of not hearing anything else when I’m reading.

    Blain: yes and yes. And you do need time to ruminate for story to happen and so the snatching definitely can fertilize that.

    Merrilee: that’s the way it is for me. And sometimes I have the discipline and sometimes I don’t. Some of my friends always say I am the most disciplined person they know and it makes me want to laugh myself hysterical

  11. 11. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Timmy Mac: Shhhhhh! *looks around* don’t let the boss see you. I tried the early a.m. thing too. Yeah, not so much. Glad I”m not the only one.

    Scott: Writing for bed for me is awful. I tend to then not sleep because the story keeps me awake. Dang it.

    Domynoe: yes to school! And the distractions–good and bad. Sigh. Sometimes I just don’t have discipline at all.

    Joe: I don’t have a clean house. That’s one thing I’ve given up. And I totally get trying to find a balance with the teaching. That’s a job that’s so easy to give everything to and also to start questioning whether you do a good job if you don’t give everything to it (being a teacher, too and having those sorts of issues). I’m very pleased for you that you’ve found balance. I’m hoping to find one this year as things start heating up in some ways for me.

    Karen: yeah, there’s so many things I feel guilty about not doing (cleaning house anyone?) but really, it doesn’t matter so much and I’m actually starting to believe that more and more.

  12. 12. Andrea

    I’ve only published short fiction and essays so far so take this for what it’s worth:

    I’m a single mom with a time-consuming chronic illness (type 1 diabetes). I have a full-time job. My little girl has an undiagnosable genetic syndrome that means I have to give her a bit more help than most kids her age would need. I have a boyfriend. I work out five or six days a week. And there’s cleaning and car maintenance and a few crafty hobbies–and I write every day (except Friday), 500 words minimum. I can replace that with 30-60 minutes of revision or editing if it’s appropriate.

    I know there are people out there with more restrictive schedules than I have, but probably not many. I’m not rich, I can’t hire help, I don’t have sitters, the apartment is not filthy. I just realized that no one else was ever going to make my writing a priority for me, or give me permission to take time away from other things to write, so I’d just have to bite down and do it.

  13. 13. Steve Buchheit

    Ah this topic is near and dear. Like all of the above I have several jobs before getting to the writing, day job (no lunch, 2hrs of commute time a day), village council (meetings, reports, emails, phone calls), freelance design, chores, paying attention to my wife, family, etc, and I still find some time to write. It isn’t regular, it isn’t undisturbed, and it most certainly isn’t highly productive. I still get the words out (to finish a few short stories a year). You have to take time back from all the other stuff to do it.

    I’ve also developed the ability to ignore just about everything when I actually am writing creating my own”Writer’s Space” wherever I’m at. You’re never going to have enough time to write unless you carve it out yourself. Then you may only get a few hundred words down. You take a notes when you can’t write things out, which translates to a flock of small pieces of paper. Those notes are also a great way to jump start the writing. When you get the time you have two or three things you have to key in and that gets the juices flowing.

  14. 14. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Andrea: you are my hero. You are amazing.

    Steve: I like that–creating your “Writer’s Space” wherever you’re at.

  15. 15. Ann Wilkes

    Diana,
    Thanks for the nudge! I’m at the library, having just finished nearly a thousand words on chapter two of my sequel to Awesome Lavratt. I missed you at SpoCon! Imagine meeting you here in cyberspace AFTER I was at the same convention with you! Better luck next time, I guess.

    I find that carving the time out isn’t nearly as hard as carving out the headroom. Remember Max Headroom? Anyway, coming to the library helps because there’s no phone or doorbell ringing, no dirty dishes or dirty laundry begging to be washed, etc. Then there’s the problem of what seems like all my creative juices going towards other things. It’s like the fluorescent lights on Joe vs. the Volcano: suck, suck, suck…

    But by far the best advise is: insert butt in chair on a REGULAR basis. If I miss a few days it’s an uphill battle to get the rhythm again.

    That’s my two cents for what it’s worth. See you at SpoCon 2009?

  16. 16. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Anne: Wow! Too bad we didn’t meet up in person. I plan to go to SpoCon next year again, all things being equal. And there’s always Miscon over Memorial day . . .

    I do remember good ole Max. heh. Liked him.yep. Butt in chair is the real key. So long as the only thing you’re doing is staring at your blank screen and not surfing, which is so very easy to do . . . Sigh. Come visit me on my lj too: http://difrancis.livejournal.com/

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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