Friday, March 9, 2012
The key to being a writer who actually finishes a book is not genius, or inspiration, or even talent. The key to finishing a book is one simple equation:
Butt + Chair + Writing Time² = Book
The problem with this equation. We all have a butt (some of us more than others) and it's easy to source a chair. But where do we find the time?
Here's my simple tricks to finding time.
1) Stop being an artist and be a working writer.
If you consider your writing a hobby, or something you're trying out, or just a lark, you'll never finish a book. Why wouldn't you do laundry or take the kids shopping when the alternative is something that's not real, just fun times? Instead, start thinking of writing as the same sort of thing as laundry, or cleaning the kitchen, or picking up the kids from school: it's something you schedule in every day because it's an important task. When you start thinking of writing as "something you have to get done" rather than "something you'll get to," it changes your whole perception of your daily routine.
2) Be flexible, but be disciplined.
The fact is that very few of us have the luxury of knowing we'll write every day from, say 11:00 AM - 3:00 PM. Most of us have jobs, families, and other types of responsibilities. And then there's Murphy's Law. You're not going to sit down to write at the usual time if your boyfriend just managed to chop off his finger or your toilet has exploded. In other words, life happens, and some of us have more potential for life happening than others.
So be flexible! Don't tell yourself, "I'm going to write at ten every day today, come hell or high water." Maybe at ten, on Tuesday, you realize you forgot a doctor's appointment, and have to rush out. If you're too focused on a certain time or place, you'll feel you've missed that window and won't re-engage.
Instead of being rigid about when you get what done, think in terms of what you want to accomplish in a given day or week. I might tell myself, "I want to write a chapter a day this week." I know how much writing I have to do for each chapter (about 3,000 words), and I can then divvy it up accordingly. Let's say that Monday I'm going to go look at some houses with my real estate agent in the evening (as I am), which means I'll go to the gym in the AM, instead of when I normally go. So I'll be at the gym when I normally write, which means I have two options: write before I go to the gym, write after the gym, or both (write half before and half after). That Monday, I'll do whichever I feel like. If I wake up early and raring to go, maybe I'll get the whole shebang done then. If I wake up grouchy and late, maybe I'll write after I've zumbaed out my crankiness.
But no matter what, that chapter will get written, that's non-negotiable. It's just the when/where/how I don't bother to schedule, knowing that life rarely allows us to be that forward thinking.
3) Don't be precious
This sort of goes with #2, but I'd highly dissuade anyone from getting into the habit of thinking they "have to have" something to be able to work. "I have to be at my kitchen table in complete silence," or "I have to be in a cafe, in that corner by the plugs." The fact is that we do have optimal work habits--those things that help us work at our best and it's great when we can achieve those. But it's rare we get that opportunity, so learn to write like a soldier learns to sleep: wherever and whenever.
4) Try everything
If you're someone who is really struggling with time management, and it has always been an issue for you, read books about this subject or google "time management strategies." There are TONS of resources on time-management strategies out there. Don't only look at books or resources for writers, either. Time management is time management, whether it's for business execs or parents. Look to a number of sources and try out their tricks, cobbling together a variety of strategies that work for you.
5) Rough draft means rough
For those of you who are normally great at time management, but find that you're doing everything and anything to avoid sitting down and writing, the issue probably isn't time, it's nerves. So here are the hard facts: your first draft is going to suck. They ALL suck. That's the point of the rough draft. My rough drafts suck; all the Pens' rough drafts suck; every writer in the world's rough drafts suck.
Repeat it with me: rough drafts suck.
The point of a sucky rough draft is that once you get that sucky rough draft on paper, you can fix it. Make it less sucky. You repeat this process till you have a damned good book. But you will never, ever, start at damned good book. The only way to get to damned good book, is to start with the sucky rough draft. So get that draft out, knowing it's going to suck, knowing it's supposed to suck, as that's part of the process.
I'd highly recommend doing Nanowrimo for those of you who really can't get over this hurdle.
6) Be selfish
This ties up with #1, but it's a lot easier to say "my writing is my work" when you're already published and you don't have a family, like me. The biggest complaint I hear from my students is that friends and/or family get in the way of their writing time, partially because they don't "get it." Young kids aren't going to understand why mommy is there, in her home office, but not playing with them. Lovers might not understand that just because they have the weekend off to play, a writer doesn't. Friends might think it's great you have this fun hobby, but do you have to do it all morning?
This is where communication is key. Writing's not your hobby, it's your job, in the way that being a student is a kind of job. Just like a student has to cut up all those cadavers to become a surgeon, you have to hack at all these shitty rough drafts to become a writer. No, you don't have a contract, but yes, you do have an obligation. You owe it to yourself and your future to do this writing, so that you can have that book, and see where your career takes you.
So tell people no, and explain why it's important to you to have some time, every day, to do your job. Your children might miss out on an hour of extra indulgence on your part, but they'll grow up seeing a parent who pursues his or her goals, a far more important message. And your lover can get over it, as can your friends. They will if they deserve you and support you, just make sure to articulate what it is you need and why.
There are my tips for strategizing time management. None of it's rocket science, it's really about adjusting how you think about yourself, your time, and your writing. Let me know if you have any questions, or feel free to comment on any time management strategies that you have, in comments. :-)