by Maggie James
My book for aspiring novelists, Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft, has now been published and is available from Amazon in Kindle format via this link. The book includes a chapter on how people can carve out time to write from their busy schedules. The tips can, of course, be adapted to fit anything you'd like to make room for, whether it's reading more books, exercising or meditating.
So whether you're a would-be novelist or someone who'd like to claw back some time from their day, I hope you enjoy this blog post. I'm going to reproduce here most of the chapter on finding time from my book. Here goes!
How to fit writing into a busy life
Let's tackle the thorny issue of time, which many people cite as their reason for not writing a novel. It's one I understand. When I worked as an accountant, I got up at 6am, went to the gym and started work by 8.30am. Once home, I had to cook my evening meal and afterwards there were always a thousand things to do. I persuaded myself a balanced life was necessary, that I needed to socialise or relax with a book or by watching television. Time to write a novel seemed an impossibility.
I was wrong. Isn't it fascinating how our minds can blinker us to the truth? I was overlooking several key factors. I didn't work at weekends. I spent hours in Internet forums and on Facebook. Had I examined those two elements, I'd have found plenty of time to write.
Take my Internet addiction. Easy to prune an hour each day from that, given most of it was mindless. Now let's turn to the weekends. I could have spared the afternoons - say three hours at a stretch. That's five hours reclaimed during the week, plus six at the weekends. I'm a snail's pace typist, but even I can churn out 1,800 words hourly. Had I organised myself better, that would be 20,000 words per week. Meaning I could complete the first draft of a novel in five weeks.
Those figures make me wonder why the penny didn't drop sooner. I think I had a fixed idea that writing a novel meant getting up earlier to create the time, and, as a night owl, I considered 6am early enough.
Little and often wins the race
I also overlooked how small and regular stints are better than huge but sporadic efforts. Better to write daily for an hour than for ten hours, then burn out with exhaustion. The latter will persuade you that writing isn't your thing; you'll give up on your dream and maybe damage your health. Don't let that happen. Besides building your novel scene by scene, a consistent writing habit promotes self-discipline, which you can carry over into other areas of your life. A bonus!
Maybe you can spare fifteen minutes during your lunch break, another half an hour in the evenings, but nothing at weekends. That’s forty-five minutes five days a week. In that time, you could achieve 1,300 words daily, 6,500 weekly. Three to four months later you'll have written your novel. Little and often adds up, doesn't it?
Plan and schedule your time in advance, at least for the coming week. Set yourself goals for what day you’ll begin, when to do your research, how many words you'll write each day. Give yourself a proposed finishing date and check it's realistic. Schedule every stage of your novel. If time for your book is allocated in your diary or online calendar, it's more likely to get done. Jim Rohn, a well-known motivational speaker, has a phrase I love - ‘schedule your success.’
What's the secret?
Commitment. It needn't be daunting, although many people dislike the word. If you're one of them, set your writing goals at a modest level, no matter how much time you have available. Commit to 350 words per day, which doesn't take long. You can find half an hour in your day from somewhere. Consider your typical day, both at weekends and during the week. Could you get up earlier? Can you cut down on Internet usage, checking emails, or updating your Facebook status? What about using your lunchtimes at work? Less television in the evenings?
Some people revamp their working life to allow them more opportunity to write. That may not be achievable for many of you, although it worked for Ruth.
‘I switched my daily hours to the afternoon and evening so the morning is available in which to write,’ she told me. ‘I'm a lark, so I'm more creative then. My novel has come on in leaps and bounds!’
Chunks of time
If it’s feasible for you, writing for longer periods has its advantages. You immerse yourself in your story in a way that writing for half an hour doesn’t permit. Besides, you’ll find that once you get going you won’t want to stop. Your characters will take over, demanding expression, and when you’re in full flow, you’ll lose track of everything except what’s pouring from your imagination. If you can, schedule at least one session each week that’s an hour, preferably two, long. That’s enough time to visualise the action and characters, turn on your creative juices and write a couple of thousand words.
For those who work full-time, if you can manage an hour on each of Saturday and Sunday, you could bang out 4,000 words per week. In less than six months, you'll have completed your book.
Real people, real lives - how to make it work
Let's look at a few examples. Take Tom, a novelist friend of mine. He works full-time and has a wife and family. He commutes to his office job every day, battling traffic. Once he's home in the evenings, he's drained from the concentration his work requires. On weekends, he spends time with his family, along with pursuing his other interests in life, which include music, reading and hiking in the nearby mountains.
Sounds familiar? What I've described is the norm for most people - busy, busy, busy! How is it possible to write with such a schedule? What Tom did was squeeze an extra hour into his day. Here’s how he managed it.
‘Each weekday morning, I leave home at around 6am, at which time there's little traffic on the roads,’ Tom says. ‘I drive to work and park my car, then walk for five minutes to a local cafe that opens early. I choose a table at the back, where there’s less noise, away from the coffee machines and the busy counter. I order espresso and toast, plug in my laptop, and work on my novel. Once I begin, I'm in the zone, in which the sounds of the cafe door and other patrons’ conversations don't even reach me. I'm lost in my fictional world, absorbed by my characters and the challenges they face.’
Tom uses the Pomodoro method for his writing stints, doing two twenty-five minute sessions with a five-minute break after each one. During that time, he orders more espresso, does a few neck and shoulder exercises, and recharges his mental batteries ready for his next stint. When he leaves the cafe at half-past seven, he's had breakfast and he's added 1,800 - 2,000 words to his novel. In a week that's 10,000 words, and he still has his weekends and evenings free for his family, hiking, music, etc. See how ‘little and often’ mounts up?
Here’s another example. Jodie is a busy single mother who works full-time. How does she slot writing into her hectic schedule?
‘I need to be very organised, very disciplined,’ she says. ‘Once I got into a routine, it was easy, as well as addictive. Writing's somewhat of a drug for me - if I don't get my daily fix, I feel off. The knowledge that I'm progressing towards a completed novel gives me an amazing high! I love seeing my book grow longer every day and the word count mount up. It's taken me two months so far and I estimate I'll finish the first draft within a few weeks.’
Here's Jodie's schedule:
5:30 – Get up and write. The twins are in bed and the house is quiet. During her morning writing session, she averages 700 words.
6:15 – Get kids out of bed. Prepare for work.
7:00 – Drop off children at their preschool breakfast club.
7:15 – Commute to employment.
8:00 – Morning at work.
12:00 – Sandwich for lunch. Then she walks in a nearby park. The fresh air clears her mind, ready for the afternoon. During this time, she plans more of her novel in her head.
1:00 – Work again.
4:00 – Leave for the commute home. Buy groceries on the way. Pick up children from Ella’s house. (Jodie’s friend Ella collects them from school along with her own daughter.)
5:45 – Make dinner.
6:30 – Family time. Jodie listens to her children talk about their day, making herself available for whatever they need, as well as loading the washing machine, etc.
8:30 – Put the twins to bed.
9:00 – Writing. The house is quiet again and she manages another 1,300 words. ‘My hourly rate is lower because I'm winding down,’ Jodie says.
10:00 – Pack tomorrow’s lunches.
10:30 – Go to bed.
Through planning and self-discipline, Jodie manages an average of 2,000 words per day during the week. She doesn't write on weekends, preferring to be with her children, catch up with housework and visit her parents. She's still adding 10,000 words a week to her romance novel, however. When we spoke she was at the 80,000-word mark and thrilled at the prospect of finishing her first draft.
‘The strange thing is, it's given me more energy,’ she says. ‘Before I started ‘What the Heart Wants’, I was dubious whether I'd find the mental reserves to write a novel, let alone the time. I have five-year-old twins and a job. But I was wrong. The joy of writing, after so many years when it was just a cherished dream, has infused me with passion, which rubs off onto the rest of my life. I’m not perfect. The house is a mess, I don’t see enough of my friends or exercise as much as I should. But I’m writing my novel at last.’
Other tips and tricks? Read these examples
Mindy: ‘I use voice recognition software because I'm a terrible typist. It's much quicker than typing - I'm told we speak three times faster than we can type. Works for me! I dictate my novel whenever I can - in the car on the way to the office or walking during my lunch hour. It's not ideal, as the microphone picks up any extra sounds, but today I managed 2,000 words.’
Louie: ‘What I did was get Dropbox on my phone and computer and sync them. Then I pump out a few sentences here and there on my phone during the day. At work, I often wait for meetings to start or for downloads to complete. I use that time to write more of my book. Most days I squeeze in 300 words. Over a month, that's 6,000 words.’
Susie uses a similar method, writing as and when she can: ‘My iPad goes everywhere with me, along with a Bluetooth keyboard. My daily schedule is irregular, making writing on a consistent basis difficult during the working week. It's amazing how much I add to my novel each day.’
Michael says he works long hours, often arriving home exhausted at ten pm. He also uses the ‘little and often’ method. Sometimes he only manages a few sentences a day via his tablet, but he loves the knowledge that no matter how hectic his job is, he's still making his dream a reality. In addition, his writing buddies spur him on. ‘I need accountability; it helps me stay on track,’ he says. ‘I'm a member of a writing group that meets every Saturday morning at a local coffee shop. We compare notes on our progress, then we knuckle down to writing, fuelled by cappuccinos. We write for two hours, then discuss our word count. I'm fiercely competitive, which spurs me on. I manage to write for another hour at home on Sundays. In three hours each weekend, plus whatever I rack up between Monday and Friday, I average 5,000 words per week.’
Like Michael, Amelia is competitive and she uses that to her advantage: ‘I joined an online group where people write in sprints and report back how many words they achieved in a half-hour time slot. The challenge really motivates me.’
Devon: ‘What's worked for me is ditching TV. We still own a television because my wife won't hear of giving it up - yet. She's coming round to the idea, though. She's seen me make real progress on my horror novel and commit to an exercise routine once I refused to get drawn into the latest TV drama. I'm now halfway through writing my first book. I couldn't be more pleased.’
Sam: ‘I'm super strict with myself over using the Internet. I've disciplined myself to check my emails and Facebook on the fly via my smartphone, but never at home. During my writing time, I unplug from the Internet and switch off my phone. Before I started this practice, I was only managing 500 words a day, thanks to the temptation to hang out on Facebook. Nowadays I rarely do less than 1,500 words. It's worked well for me.’
1. Read through the above examples again. When can you find time to write? Does it fit with when you're most alert and productive? Will it be free from distractions and interruptions?
2. Can you reduce your television and Internet time to make space for your novel? Write during your lunch break? Get up earlier? Go to bed later?
3. Do you own the tools you need to make use of short spells of downtime? Can you write on the fly using your smartphone? Is voice recognition software an option for your commute? Do you carry a notepad and pen or a tablet with you so you can make the most of train journeys?
4. Schedule next week’s writing sessions in your calendar. Block them out so the time’s unavailable for anything else.
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