Time for writing is limited.
We can’t let ourselves be distracted every few minutes with all those side tangents… questions nagging at the back of our minds. What is the word for that thing? Do they really talk like this? Are there mountains in that area? How far can a healthy person walk each day if the terrain is rough but there’s less gravity? What did I decide to call that ship… that guy… that creature…? On and on and on, sapping the vitality out of those precious hours.
But ignoring distractions within the project is smart, isn’t it?
Actually, no. There’s more to using the time wisely than just spitting out new sentences and disregarding the support work that happens alongside the storytelling.
A short story may not need much characterization or research, but problem-solving the plot and achieving a well-formed story arc takes thought. Thinking is an important part of the creative process.
A novel requires more. Characters don’t usually leap onto the page in 3D without some development to give them depth and dimension. Research is essential for painting vivid scenes, crafting plausible scenarios, and supporting facts and science. Concerted effort is needed to identify and tackle weak spots in a plot. And tracking all the names and threads to keep them straight is just common sense.
Sometimes, I accuse myself of wasting creative hours when what I’m doing is essentially valuable. In those moments, I’ve forgotten that good writing involves a number of key tasks.
After all I’ve invested in getting my mind organized (see the first post in this series), I shouldn’t clutter up the writing process with unattended side work.
The first step to organizing your time is understanding what deserves to be included. Some elements to consider giving status in your routine might be map-making, world building, naming tactics, character development, charting plot threads, outlines, research, thinking, and problem solving.
I always have a file called ‘Stats’ that’s a little different for each book. It can include anything from characterization to invented language, charts of character appearances by chapter, word counts, statistics on gases used in deep sea diving or space, gravity on various planets, nomenclature structures, and more.
Once you’ve figured out the components you plan to incorporate, you’ll be able to make better use of your time.
No matter how you fit writing into your life or how much you can do in one session or what your pace is, never doubt that it matters and it’s worth it. Some authors are able to work every day, and some can cram long hours into marathon blasts that consume all their waking hours until they’ve completed something. Some have to fit it in wherever they can and not let the slower pace discourage them. I fall mostly into the latter category with occasional bursts of intensive writing.
Organizing your mind and writing process frees you up to write full steam ahead when you have the chance. By taking the time to assemble the scaffolding that sustains your creative output, you streamline the work. Five hours of intense writing with separate slots for support tasks, is better than two days of juggling.
~ A week at a glance
One approach to scheduling your time for writing is to make an outline for the week that doesn’t specify when something will happen, but how much. If you’re focused on fitting in six quality hours, it won’t matter if that happens an hour a day or six hours on one day. This gives you flexibility to fit it in when you can and retains the weight of structure—the increasing priority of getting it done by the end of the week.
TIP: Try this for one week. Reevaluate the plan, adjust, and try it for another week. If it works, it becomes a flexible, easy to track habit.
~ Time slots
You can allocate specific blocks in the schedule to wordsmithing. Lunch break at work, commuting, waiting for a child at soccer practice or dance class, early morning, late in the evening.
Even if you can only commit to twenty minutes at a time, it will work if you always do it at the same time of day, making it a routine your body clock recognizes. There’s a decent chance that you won’t need to struggle getting back into the story because your brain will be preparing for that as the hour draws near.
~ Full time
Self-employment as a full-time author is like being the only musician playing all the instruments in an orchestra. Even working with other authors in a small press can be like that.
Someday, once I’ve mastered this process, I’ll be glad to share what I’ve learned. For now, my suggestions are pretty basic.
- Schedule ALL your work hours, not just the creative ones.
- Balance creative tasks with functional ones to avoid burnout.
- Consider moving forward on more than one project at a time so when one hits a snag, you can make headway on the other.
- Rest, nutrition, exercise—take care of yourself as seriously as an athlete would, because your mind doesn’t exist on its own apart from your body and it is your number one, most valuable asset.
- People time. Most authors are introverts and connecting with people requires intentional effort. You need more than just readers and fans in your life.
~ Adding Incentive
Some of us are more productive under pressure. If you’re one of those, here are some suggestions for putting on the heat and squeezing more writing out of your time.
Set some deadlines:
- Commit to an event where you’ll promote your current work in progress.
- Pay for and schedule a promotion campaign for the finished book.
- Enter a competition.
Or, on a more congenial level:
- Team up with another author and update each other regularly.
- Join NaNoWriMo or something similar.
- Put the first chapter of your next book at the end of the one that precedes it and let the expectations of your readers motivate you.
Scheduling is very individual, and it changes as the demands of our lives alter.
Authors aren’t necessarily factories that meet production quotas. We’re word artists that weave mental tapestries with images, ideas, emotion, and action. On the other hand, putting out regular, well-crafted content means training ourselves for the business of writing. The art is honed to perform at the author’s will.
This quote captures what I mean.
When I’m writing I don’t dream much;
it’s like the dreaming gets used in the writing.Ursula K.Le Guin
Keep expectations realistic so you can find satisfaction in what you accomplish. But don’t be afraid to push yourself and train for more.
This is the second of six posts about writing essentials. The next article is Organizing Your Plot.