Or, “How I ‘Find’ the Time to Write”
A friend of mine recently heard that I’m only three or four chapters away from completing my current novel, and immediately asked, “Where do you find time to write a novel during grad school? I swear it’s like you’re hiding a time vortex from me.”
No, I’m not hiding it. I’ve got it parked at the meter. 😉
Obscure Doctor Who references aside, this is a pretty good question. Most writers I know personally — pretty much all of them, in fact — have to prioritize school or work or both. Many, like me, are working toward their Master’s degrees. At one point I was a full-time grad student, working 27 hours a week as a teacher and a tutor, AND the president of a student organization. This also happened to be the time I was applying for the JET Program and the Fulbright ETA, as well as learning how to maintain a long distance relationship across thirteen time zones.
Yeah, looking back on it, that wasn’t much fun.
But did it stop me from writing? Admittedly, it did, occasionally for a week or more at a time; nonetheless, writing did get done, without too much sacrifice to my other priorities.
Some of the following suggestions overlap a bit with an earlier post (How I (usually) Manage Not to Procrastinate), but some new additions and a bit more detail make this list a bit more useful than the other, in my opinion.
Anyway, before I ramble any more, it’s time to present May’s 5 Tips for Time Travel!
1. Make an outline.
This one I’ve said before, and will say again. If you want to save time in the writing process, know where your story and characters are going.
Yes, some write better by pantsing; the thrill of writing without a plan can allow a writer to tap into vats of inspiration which might be lost when following a more familiar road. To be honest, I always start new projects this way, and don’t really see any other way to go for that initial spark. HOWEVER, I don’t think pantsing is conducive to writing on a tight schedule. Let’s say you finally get an hour to be creative in the middle of a busy day. It’s all going well the first twenty minutes — your characters do their thing, it’s interesting and unique and poetic. You finish a paragraph and hit “enter” to start the next one — and can’t think of what to write. The scene that had flowed so perfectly until now just dries up.
No big deal; you make it a new scene. But of what? More dialogue? Or is it time to jump into the action? What would work best here? Now you get sidetracked thinking about all the possible things that could happen. Which is more likely for your characters? Maybe you feel that option A is more natural for your hero. But are you sure? Who is your hero, anyway? Beyond “brash, stubborn, and fatally clever,” you don’t really know much about him. In fact, up til now he’s basically done nothing but be an ass to everyone he encounters. How do you turn that into plot?
And just like that, your hour’s up. Lunch break is over, the customers are waiting, the kids need to be picked up from school.
An outline, contrary to popular opinion, does not need to have a lot of detail. Sometimes just knowing how you want the story to end can help a great deal. Of course, filling in the gaps little by little until you do have a lot of detail works wonders.
2. Have a writing tool (paper, laptop, phone, napkin) with you at all times.
And I mean ALL times. Minds tend to wander as we go about our daily routines, to the point where ideas pop up when we’re in the shower, brushing our teeth, eating, walking/driving to school, sitting in important staff meetings… It’s only recently that I’ve started remembering to carry an actual notepad around that is specifically dedicated to my current WiP. Before that, and actually even now sometimes, my notes would wind up in all sorts of places: on class notes, handouts, restaurant napkins, the back of my hand, sometimes even on my laptop or cellphone (go figure). I also carry a thumb drive so I can use a school computer if I have to. Unfortunately, though, I can’t really trust those any more because my last one suddenly died, taking about five chapters worth of outline with it. After that happened, I started using a program/app called My Writing Spot. I’ll admit that the interface isn’t that great; it’s kind of like Wordpad in its simplicity. But it’s convenient because I can sync everything I type between my laptop and my iPhone with the touch of a button, meaning all of my data is backed up on multiple platforms.
3. Make every minute count.
It’s easy enough to say “I’m going to write a thousand words every day this week” and then barely write ten because of a busy or unpredictable schedule. For me it’s now an unconscious habit to take out my notes when it looks like I won’t need more than 50% of my concentration on something. Even if I end up writing nothing, I have triggered a mental state of preparation — which we all know is half the battle. For example, when I need to attend a staff meeting:
(My notebook and pen are out and turned to my most recent page of notes.)
Boss: Blah blah blah students blah blah policy blah blah final exams.
Me: *I wonder how Character A feels about staff meetings. She’d probably bring in her code-cracking stuff and get wrapped up in it. Character B would… Actually, B would never get invited to a staff meeting. Too many documents he might set fire to.*
Boss: And these kids from Country A are ridiculous! They go around saying “Teacher, you please raise my grade!”
Me: *I should totally have a character from Country A.* (cackles)
And so on. Often I come up with ideas entirely unrelated to my focal WiP.
4. Learn to Deal with Distractions.
I know the trauma of wanting (or needing) to be creative and just not being able to focus. Maybe the A/C is too cold and you can’t control it, or your workspace is crowded and noisy, or your chair is too hard. Maybe you’re annoyed because the waiter brought you oolong when you asked for pu erh…
Letting these things get to you can kill your writing time. Granted, sometimes it’s just impossible to get past a certain distraction and it must be rectified before any progress can be made. But if we keep focusing on this and then that and then the other thing, we may feel better at the end of it all but our novel/story/poem feels neglected.
Over the past ten years, I’ve learned to work in noisy public places because sometimes, there’s just nowhere else to go or not enough free time to get there. “But May, you have an office now! You don’t have to work in those other places any more.” Actually, I have prioritized even my distractions: since I’m used to noise, I’d rather have to put up with that than the icicles hanging in my office! 😉
5. Screw inspiration.
I’m sure everyone’s heard the saying “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.” Out of everything on this list, I think this is the most important factor to keep in mind: sometimes, you will be able to write pages and pages without pause or effort, the words leaping from your fingertips as though by their own will.
And sometimes, everything you force out will feel wrong, look trite, and sound like literary nails on a chalkboard.
But the sad fact is that those awful, awful words and passages must be written. A writer who works only when inspiration strikes will likely find themselves going for days with little or no productivity, especially when life is hectic. As long as you make the effort to squeeze out at least a few words during those precious few moments you get, you’ll have at least a starting point that you can go back and edit any time you want.
Essentially, just get the words on the paper (or on the screen). Fix the crappy ones later, and don’t risk losing a good idea because of a misbehaving lexicon.