I have a full-time office job, two young children (3 & 5) and I volunteer. Time is a constant challenge. My second book is coming out now, so I’m often asked how I fit in writing. The answer is – with some difficulty. Yet I’m more productive than I was before I had children.
I write in the leftover pockets of my life. Little scraps of time that I used to waste. It started when my oldest was still a baby, and I’d try to write during her naps, never knowing if she was going down for 10 minutes or 3 hours. I had to get myself in front of my computer right away and type, even if I only managed a few lines. And from that, I learned that a few lines were enough. A few lines moved me forward and kept the book fresh in my head. And when I went back to work when my daughter turned one, I had whole hours on my lunch breaks, and evenings started to get more predictable, so I used that time. Eventually, I was able to write a whole book in snatched moments. Now I’m working on my third.
So here are six ways to write when you think you have no time – based on what worked for me (and with the usual EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT AND THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY AND THERE ARE MANY WAYS IN WHICH I AM LUCKY AND NOT EVERYONE IS SO THIS WON’T WORK FOR EVERYONE disclaimer).
1). USE ALL THE LITTLE BITS OF TIME YOU HAVE
I don’t wait for a long period of free time to start writing. My job does allow me a full hour for lunch almost every day (yay!), but once I’ve got to/from a coffee shop and bolted down some lunch, it’s more like 45 minutes. In the evening, once I’ve got the children to sleep and the basic daily domestic tasks done, I can get around another 45 minutes done before I have to wind down myself.
So on good days, I can get 90 minutes of writing done, but it rarely works out that way. Work might be too busy for me to take a full lunch, or there are urgent chores in the evening that take a long time. The children are sick or I am. But even if I only have 10-15 minutes, I’ll take it, and write. Finding enough time to read the last page I wrote helps, because it keeps the story in my mind, and that means my brain is processing it while I’m showering, while I’m at work, and while I’m walking around during the day. I often pull out my phone to make frantic notes on the 10 minute walk from the subway to my job, because something has just clicked into place.
Keeping the story in mind means that when I do have the time to sit down and write, I can get right into it. So I also listen to podcasts when I’m at work – ones on a subject I’m researching for a book, or on the craft of writing itself. On my commute, I read. All of that helps make the little sprints of writing much more productive.
I’d guess I get an average of 9-10 hours of writing time a week (about an hour a day, plus 2-3 hours on my night off). It might not seem much, but over a year, that’s about 500 hours, or the equivalent to three and a half months of full-time work. And of course, I’m far more productive with my scraps of time than I would be if it were my full-time job, since the breaks are built in, and I’m also reading, listening to podcasts and thinking through story issues for probably another 750-1,000 hours a year. Apparently, there was some study that showed that it takes an average of 475 hours to write a book, so I must be really slow, because it takes me about two years to write one.
2). FIND WAYS TO CLEAR SCRAPS OF EXTRA TIME
I used to run errands in my lunchtimes, but I now order online when I can. I bought myself a couple of extra hours a week by having groceries delivered. Several friends have a cleaner, although that’s not an option for us at the moment.
There are compromises to be made. I gave up a load of stuff that I enjoyed, like binge watching new TV, playing video games, having any idea what was happening in the music world and living in a clean house. And I do miss some of that stuff. But I also (mostly) gave up a load of stuff I don’t miss so much. Like wasting time online, watching repeats of old shows I’ve already seen, looking through real estate listings at homes I’ll never afford, staying out too late when I’m not having fun anymore, drinking enough to be hungover and sleeping away the next morning. I am also trying to give up being on Twitter so much.
But there are some things I won’t give up. I can’t write if I’m not well, mentally and physically. So, I resist the urge to clear time by cutting into the time I need for sleep, exercise, seeing friends and making healthy meals. And of course, the children come first. Which leads me to:
3). SHARE THE LOAD
I wouldn’t be able to write if I had to do most of the parenting and housework alone. My husband and I try to get as close to sharing domestic responsibility equally as we can manage. This is a tough one, and needs constant re-calibration. We give each other one night off a week – completely free of parental and domestic responsibilities – from when we finish work to when we go to bed. I usually see friends or do something fun later in the evening, but can fit in a good 2-3 hours on a work-in-progress as well. I find the fun time to be essential for relaxing and recharging, and the uninterrupted writing helps with big-picture stuff and brainstorming. If I’m at a crucial point in a manuscript I dedicate the whole evening to writing.
I know this isn’t possible for everyone. I was raised by a low-income single mother with sole custody of two children and no family support, and frankly, anyone in that (or a similar) situation deserves a nightly parade thrown in their honour.
4). HAVE A (SIMPLE) PLAN
Whenever I have a major writing project, I break it down into smaller pieces. It’s easy enough to work out what to do if I’m writing a first draft, or working through a polish – just pick up where I left off, and keep moving forward. But when I’m playing with ideas, or am at the very start of a major rewrite, I quickly break the job up into smaller pieces (examining a character, thinking about one of the themes, brainstorming openings or a solution to a plot problem, etc) and make a quick list of them (but I’m careful not to slip into the trap of procrastinating by over-planning. Productivity apps/books/systems often eat up time and get in the way of doing the actual work).
Having a simple plan means I don’t spend precious time remembering what I was meant to be doing. It also means I can choose the right task for the right writing session, depending on how much time and energy I have.
This really helps when I’m faced with the massive task of a major rewrite. Because since I only have scraps of time, it can be utterly overwhelming, like having to dig a subway tunnel with a teaspoon. Feeling like I’m getting nowhere is so disheartening. But if I have a clear plan, I can tick things off as I go, and when I look back at the end of a month, I see just how much I really got done.
5). DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP WHEN LIFE GETS IN THE WAY
It does. All the time. One of my kids gets sick, or someone comes to visit, or everything decides to go wrong at once and there’s no time for writing. I try not to let a bad week or two discourage me – it’s part of the process. The flip side of those lows is taking full advantage of unexpected time. Like being in a long line-up – if there’s a tricky plot question I’ve been stuck on, or a character who isn’t fully formed, I’ll brainstorm it. Boring meeting? I observe people, watch for the little tics and characteristic movements that betray emotion and take notes. I can use those to replace all the shrugging, nodding and smiling that sneaks into my first drafts. Writing is about using life in your work – not blaming it for getting in the way. Sometimes a week off lets me get a fresh look at my work-in-progress. For me, the trick is to get back to writing as soon as I can, and use what I’ve learned in the meantime.
Don’t compare yourself to those who have more time/money. I’m always seeing courses I want to take, books I want to read, conferences I want to attend. There’s always more promotion I could be doing, more story ideas I could be working on and other steps I could be taking to further my career. It can be depressing to see how much work other writers get done. But I just have to do what I have time for, and forget the rest.
I’ve also gone through extended periods where writing simply wasn’t possible. During both of my first trimesters, I was constantly exhausted and sick. It was brutal. Getting through the most basic parts of my day felt like a close-to-impossible struggle. I got no writing done – and I know people now who are in a similar (and more long-term) position due to ongoing health issues. If you are in that situation, don’t feel bad about what you’re not getting done because, once again, you deserve nightly parades for just getting by.
6). JUST DO IT
Some full-time writers and others with lots of free time may be able to wait for ‘the muse’ (although in my experience, that’s not how most writers operate). But if your life is already ridiculously full, you don’t have time to procrastinate. Don’t ‘just check Twitter’ before you get started, or get distracted with complicated to-do lists. Don’t set up your desk perfectly. Don’t wait until you are at home. Don’t put off writing until you have an a whole hour free. If you have ten minutes, sit down. Write. That’s how it gets done.
Now I should go do that, instead of blogging. Excuse me.