Monday, July 28, 2008

Time to write

by Donna Andrews

Finding time to write is one of the toughest parts of the business. It’s especially hard for aspiring writers, who don’t have the useful pressure of contract deadlines to keep them on the straight and narrow, and who lack the validation of published books and royalty checks to justify to their family and friends—and sometimes to themselves—the time they spend on writing.

The terminology’s part of the problem. We’re writers right? We believe in the power of words, don’t we? So let’s delete "finding time to write" from our phrase book, and replace it with "making time to write."

Finding time to write implies that it’s there, somewhere, if only we could find it. That luck might have something to do with it ("Oooh! Look! I found a spare half hour!") That maybe someone else has the secret key that would help us locate it. That perhaps, alas, it just isn’t there to be found.

Making time to write, on the other hand, makes it clear that this is work—sometimes the hardest kind of work you have to do in your writing career. That it might require sacrifices. But that accomplishing it is ultimately up to each one of us—and within our power.

In the first few years of my life as an aspiring and then a published writer, people asked me how I found time to write while working full time. "I gave up cooking and cleaning," I replied. People would, inevitably, laugh, and assume I was kidding.

I still remember the time, in the middle of writing "Murder with Peacocks," when my parents’ plane got grounded at Dulles Airport and I had to rescue them and take them home for the night—to my apartment, where there were, quite literally, paths between the piles of stuff, and enough dust to choke a camel. I was mortified that they’d seen my apartment in that state—and remember these were the people who raised me, helped me form my packrat personality, and survived the sight of my wrecked teenage room.

But I didn’t die of the embarrassment. And I was getting my writing done. I finished "Peacocks" and submitted it to the St. Martins contest. And that year, finishing and submitting were my priorities.If you’re not finding time to write, you could try doing what I did: taking a look at your life to see what you can cut out to make the time. Giving up cooking and cleaning was easy for me, because I'd never been that keen on them anyway. But I also cut down on my computer game playing, my reading, my first run movie-going—things I loved, but things I could live without if the price of having them meant that I’d never finish my book. Or things that I learned to do a little less and to use as rewards for finishing my quota.

That’s the other thing I found was essential to my effort to make more time to write. If you cut out everything you enjoy and vow to spend every possible moment writing—that way lies burnout. A more sustainable plan is to figure out how you can carve out some time . . . experiment to see how many words you can reasonably expect to write in the time you can make available . . . and set goals and quotas for yourself.

If I want or need to finish a manuscript by a certain date, I calculate how many words I have to write and how many days I have to do it, and then I know how many words I have to write each day if I’m going to finish my project by the deadline. When I finish each day’s quota, I reward myself—with a book, an hour or two of playing a computer game, a chat with a friend, or maybe just a hot soaking bath. Making time day after day for something where the reward is a long way off gets old very soon. But if every day you have a small but real celebration to honor the fact that you made time for your writing and met your goal for the day, it will help sustain you for the long haul.

So what if you can only find a few hours to write on Sunday afternoon and can only produce, say, five pages a week in that time? Yes, it will take you longer to finish a book—maybe a year or two. But if you keep making that time every week, you will finish—and in the meantime, you’ll have had fifty or sixty or a hundred little victory celebrations to make the journey more enjoyable.

And now I’m going to follow my own advice, and reward myself for finishing this blog entry with a game of Sid Meier’s Pirates (Arg, matey!)

Donna Andrews is the Sisters In Crime Chapter Liaison.


Anonymous said...

Great post!

I know that writing time must be spent writing, but what about thinking and planning? What if you are actually wasting time writing because there wasn't enough planning behind it?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What a wonderful post--I burst out laughing..and then you brought tears to my eyes.

When people ask me when I find time--I have a full-time job as a reporter--I say: Sleep was the first to go. Then--exercise. Then--cooking. Then--vacation, movies, fun, television, the Red Sox games wth my husband.

Like you, they think I'm kidding. (I'm not.)

I also make a chart of how many words I have to write per day, and fill in the little box when I do it. Not only does that give me some wonderful instant gratification, it allows me to keep from panicking.

If I'm behind, I know how behind I am. And I can look back at my past books and see I was just as behind then as I am now--and it all worked.

Anonymous--the time for "thinking" is absolutely the key. You're so right. Its so important to let your mind work--and it's a constant juggle to carve out some mulling-it-over time. I usually do it when I'm walking somewhere. Or in that nice alpha-state just before I go to sleep.

When do the rest of you-- just think?

Donna Andrews said...

Thinking and planning are necessary, yes—but you have to make sure that you’re doing them as part of your writing, not INSTEAD of writing.

If you think of writing and planning as something you do BEFORE you can write, and revisions as something you do AFTER you write, you’re hampering yourself. A really productive writing session often goes back and forth seamlessly between all three.

I once heard Barbara Hambly talk about a writer she knew who found it increasingly hard to get anything done. As long as a book was still in his head, in the planning stages, it was going to be the best thing he’d ever written. But as soon as he set pen to paper, the book began drifting farther and farther from his vision of perfection.

He’s not alone. Perfectionism is one of the most common causes of procrastination, writer’s block, and general unproductivity. I’m an outliner—my informal surveys seem to indicate that we outliners form approximately half of the writing world. So I try to build in a comfortably long period of thinking and planning before I start drafting a book. But you know what happens if that period is short-circuited for some reason, like having a really tight deadline? I manage to do the necessary planning and thinking along the way. Or even after I finish a first draft, in the form of revisions. And consider the many writers who just plunge into a draft and let the story find them as they go.

It’s about finding the right balance. If you've redone your outline ten times and haven't gotten the book itself past the first few chapters . . . if you're planning so much that by the time you start your first draft your story feels like a summer rerun . . . if you’re spending four or five hours planning for every hour you spend scribbling . . . then maybe you need to spend less time thinking and more time drafting.

After writing over a dozen books, I’ve realized that if I find myself about to tell a writing friend that I can’t start the draft until I figure out such-and-such about the book . . . that maybe it’s time to start the draft anyway, and force my brain to think a little harder on the unanswered questions.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently building wooden track layouts for my four-year-old nephews. The most efficient way to do this is to line up all the tracks by size, have a general plan for the shape of the layout you want, and build it before the four-year-olds wake up. But it’s also quite possible—and sometimes more exciting—to lay track just ahead of the four-year-olds’ moving trains. Maybe it takes you longer to get to the layout you had in your head, or maybe you come up with a different layout altogether—possibly a more interesting one. But you can do it. Same with writing.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Donna. I struggle with the time issue every day. I work full-time, but that's not the problem. I feel a lot of guilt when I neglect my family and house in lieu of writing. (I don't have kids, just a needy husband.) I don't have an agent anymore and I don't have a publishing deadline, so convincing myself it's okay to write is difficult. (I do have a critique group, so that helps a little.)

I also suffer from perfectionism-itis: I have a wonderful vision of how my book should be, but when I sit down to write, the words sound horrible. No wonder it takes me an average of three years to write a book!

You've given me a lot to think about.

And Hank, I highly recommend you put exercising back into your schedule. Your health is everything! And working out will give you more energy for writing, I promise. (Yeah, I know you know this but just thought I'd put it out there, mostly to remind myself I need to hit the weights today.)

Sheila Connolly said...

One of the hardest parts of being a full-time, stay-at-home writer, I've found, is to convince other people you're working. Somehow significant others don't take it seriously unless you get in a car and drive to an office somewhere, and sit in front of a computer (just like you're doing at home).

Which makes it doubly hard to take the "me" time you describe, which is just as important a part of the process as tapping out those words. Funny, sitting in the bathtub surrounded by bubbles doesn't look like work--but I've gotten some great ideas there, and worked out tricky plot points.

Kim Smith said...

Great advice Donna!

Holly Y Rechel-Felmlee said...

One thing that has helped me a lot is to evaluate my writing based on time, rather than on words. For one thing, keeping track of words raised a lot of questions for me: How do I know? Which ones count? Do I count the time counting words as writing? Argh?
Secondly, how do I figure editing and planning based on words?
Now I keep track of time, whether its researching, writing, editing, or submitting. I give myself credit for at least half an hour, no matter how much I actually spend, as a way to credit my thinking time.

I've been keeping track of the time I "make" for almost 2 years. Now I set a goal of time: at least 3 hours/day (I have other work also) and also of writing vs. researching. I can research a topic to death, then wonder why I have nothing written on the story. Also, I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out my times at the end of the month. "Oh wow, I spent that much time on that project? It's coming along nicely. Cool!"

Also, like Hank, I do a lot of creative work in that almost asleep alpha state. Didn't Einstein do that also? And doesn't that make us related to him in some way, and therefore geniouses? :) Hm, I guess all thing, even time, are relative.

Hannah Dennison said...

I just loved this post --- such wonderful comments too and I can relate to all of them. I used to feel I was weird keeping "charts" - but I've done them for years now and admit to coloring in the date square with different colors depending if I'm outlining, words-on-paper, shitty first draft etc. It makes me feel I've accomplished something.I don't chart my "thinking" time but I do a lot of it in the shower, car, walking ...I too, work full-time and have just turned in my 3rd book. It's hard getting up at 4.30 am during the week but I've changed my attitude now and actually love that quiet time (even the cat refuses to wake up) - I do have a supportive husband who gets up with me and goes to the gym ... and - if I must say - looks extremely "hot" having done so much exercising ... so I try to make time for him (!) but cleaning, gardening, cooking and my "friends" are casualties. I still feel a fraud when I say I can't do something because "I'm writing."
Donna - at one of my very first signings, one of your fans came up to me and gave me Murder with Peacocks as a gift (she wrapped it up too) and insisted I read it because it's so funny. I have read it and just loved it. She was right.