Monday, March 15, 2010

Protecting Your Writing Time

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The only way to succeed at the writing life is to be able to live according to a schedule that accommodates time to write.” Elizabeth George, best-seller of 20 novels!

It took me a year to start my first novel after quitting my day job. I hadn’t convinced myself that I was a writer, and so, I wasn’t working like a writer. When asked, I was finally able to say that yes I was a writer—without giggling self-consciously—when I dedicated a portion of each day, duh, to writing.

Elizabeth George works five days a week when she’s writing the rough draft and seven days a week for all subsequent drafts. She gets up at 6:00 AM, feeds the dog, takes her vitamins, and exercises for 30 minutes while reading a meditation, something inspirational, and a few pages of a novel. Then she lifts weights for 35 minutes while watching The Today Show. Afterward, she meditates for ten minutes and finally sits down to her desk to—what else?—read a piece of great literature for 15 minutes. Are you tired yet? She’s not! She writes a paragraph or two in her journal before writing a minimum of five pages, even when she is on vacation or touring with a new release.

This is a routine. This is how Elizabeth George accommodates her schedule to write.

Remember, she has twenty—count ‘em, 20!—best-selling novels to her name.

Like Elizabeth George, I’ve discovered the writing life requires sanctifying a time and place for writing. For most of us, such deliberate living doesn’t come naturally. Here are some things that had to happen for me to type “Like a Watered Garden” on the title page and to fill the 320 pages that followed:

Know Thyself I asked myself: When does my creativity peak? What has to happen before I feel free to “play” with a story? What distracts me? I happen to be a morning person who likes to have a devotional time, exercise, and make a dent in the housework before I can play. Everything else is negotiable and everything, absolutely everything, distracts me. (More on distractibility later.) How long can I be involved in a full-on cognitive workout? Old injuries and an even older body limit me to about four hours of sitting at the computer. What motivates me to get a difficult task completed? A party! The minute I finish my writing goal for the day, I’m on the phone or running out the door to see real live people. Sharing a laugh and a cup of tea is my reward for pressing through and staying on my sitting bones. Why do I want to be a writer? Because that’s how God made me. I breathe and I write, not necessarily in that order.

Spread the Word Your friends and family already think you’re crazy to write a novel. Don’t feed their lack of vision by not taking yourself seriously.

There are people in my life who were used to having unlimited access to me. They loved being able to call whenever the fancy struck to chit chat about anything and everything, something I couldn’t do when teaching school. Since I love chit-chatting, no problem, except I wasn’t getting much writing done. And so, I hired myself to work from 10 to 2, Monday through Friday. I called all my frequent gab partners to let them know when I would be working. You will have to remind your mother several times.

Disconnect It’s the rare person (whom I deeply envy) who can write with distractions flying at them. I am NOT one of them. I unplug my landline, close the door, power down my cell phone, and close my e-mail program. My family knows to contact my husband in case of an emergency. He’ll fly home (He’s Superman!) to fill me in. This has never happened in 10 years of writing. This will only work if you are very good at returning phone messages and remember to plug your phone back in at the end of your writing time. I keep a note by my office door: Plug the phone in, silly!

Choose an achievable goal Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World, writes every day, but she only writes two pages a day. She says a day without playing with her children, riding her horses, or tinkering in her garden would mean a rather empty life, not worth the price to be published. But even at this rate, she has a completed novel in less than a year. Another writer I know writes for 15 minutes a day, that’s about three sentences each day or 7.5 hours each month. That doesn’t sound like much, but she accomplishes this goal, and that’s something. FYI: A page a day produces a novel in less than a year, too.

Dabble in routines Lauraine Snelling, who has written about a million novels, says you must choose a routine that fits your level of self-control as well as your personality. This requires some research and experimentation. Authors are frequently asked about their writing routines, so it’s easy to find examples of routines that work for others. Use these as a template, a starting place. Add or subtract elements you know would annoy your muse into rebellion.

Tame the social media monster This is harder than it sounds. It’s incredibly fun to tell people what I’m eating for breakfast. Still, my calling is to write, and personally, that has meant establishing rigid rules for myself about social media (Twitter and Facebook). Because…I. Am. A. Social media-aholic. Usually, I do a quick run-through of my sites early in the morning and don’t return until after my writing goal is met. But lately, the minute I struggle over a word, my mind says: Hey, go see if anyone commented on your breakfast! And I do. I’m considering a limited social-media fast until I complete my rough draft, or is that like an alcoholic saying she can be a social drinker? My throat goes dry just thinking about this fast. FYI: Most mornings I eat vanilla yogurt with wild blueberries and granola

Celebrate the freedom What I love most about my routine is the freedom to leave my office once I’ve completed my goal totally guilt free. Also, I seldom get caught in the panic of a late manuscript. Panic kills my creativity.

Have you developed a writing routine? Share the routines of famous authors! Do routines choke your muse or nurture your muse? Any advice on taming the social media monster?


Latayne C Scott said...

Very good information, Patti. Even though I'm not the kind of person who wants extended conversation (although between my mother, my talkative husband and one other friend, that's almost 1 1/2 hours a day of phone conversation), I too still am constantly tempted to check on how people have responded to my tweets, and FB postings.

So-- I have to either stop posting those two places, or somehow muster up the kind of discipline you have to only check those sites a couple of times a day.

The only way I've been able to handle the extended phone conversations (for me, mainly listening) that come my way is by using a headphone and doing laundry, making the bed, dusting, straightening up rooms and doing other quiet tasks at the same time.

You also hit the nail on the head with another issue: Even after all these years of writing, I am not yet comfortable telling anyone not to call me because I've set aside blocks of time that are just devoted to writing.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Quiet time (the chunk of time my children are asked to play quietly in their rooms) is a guarded time in my house.

~ Wendy

Jan Cline said...

I admit I have been lazy at setting a solid routine. I recently moved my desk away from my husbands desk into another room. So what does he do...he brings his lap top to sit with me in my office. Agh! So I'll need to rectify that situation.

I enjoyed this post very much - it inspires me to take my routine more seriously. I also need to take my writing more seriously so that others will respect my time and space.


Lori Benton said...

I was telling my husband yesterday, as we drove out to the lake for a short hike with our dog, that I've purposefully kept my schedule sparse for the past twenty years... just in case a publishing contract comes along and fills it up.

Except for a season of dealing with serious health issues, my writing time has been 9am to noon (sometimes 1pm-3pm in addition) for nearly two decades. I accomplish much more writing during those hours if I close any application that gives me an alert when someone has communicated with me. Hard to do though. I feel a severing in my soul each time I turn them off. Guess that makes me an addict too!

Patti Hill said...

Latayne: I wear a headset too! I call my mom every morning to talk while I do household duties. That way I don't feel so mean or self-involved when I unplugged the phone at the beginning of my writing time.
Wendy: Thanks for sharing about writing with children in the house. It can be done, but I suspect more flexibility and teamwork are required. Good for you!
Jan: It's tough to set boundaries with those we love. Maybe you can trade side-by-side work time for something more one-on-one. If his presence is distracting, that is.
Lori: You are amazing! It's one thing to impose a routine once you have a contract with a DEADLINE. It's quite another to do so to accomplish a dream. I'm so impressed with you as a person and a writer. Your day is coming, sweetie.

Bonnie Grove said...

I write Monday to Friday 9:00 to 5:00. I take time when my kiddos come home for lunch, and when they come home from school. Then I make dinner.

I decided from the start: writers write. There is no one but myself to blame if I don't get the work done.

This may sound wonderful, but the truth is, I'm a slow learner. I need the time to figure out what I'm doing, how to do it. I need lots of time to make lots of mistakes and then teach myself how to fix them.

The learning curve in this industry, at least for me, has been vertical.

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie: I must say a hearty "amen!" to your comment. Writing takes time because learning takes time. My WIP is neuroscience compared to my previous works. oh boy.

Let me throw another piece into this. Busyness beyond my writing hours, meaning every moment is spoken for with good things or bad, adversely affects my writing. I need time outside my "writing time" to mull, dream, ruminate. These are the very times a flaw in my story gets corrected or a problem is resolved. If we allow it, our brains will continue to play with the story after hours. This doesn't mean I'm in a vegetative state. It means I am not always preoccupied by what comes next.

You guessed it. This isn't always possible. Life digs in her spurs and off I go. But having undedicated hours is always my goal.

word verification for awfin: I awfin wonder where I left my brain.

Ariel Allison said...

Time is my Achilles heel. I have the usual struggles of a writer navigating life with many small children. But I've never met an industry professional interested in hearing my excuses. So I write. Whenever I can. This has meant getting up at 5:00 and writing until my boys wake up. Late nights. Weekends. Nap time. And somehow, by the grace of God, I've written and published three books amidst that chaos.

A friend once told me that spare moments are the gold dust of time. Fifteen minutes here and there doesn't seem like much, but added up they become a valuable commodity.

I suppose that doesn't amount to much of an actual routine, but there's something to be said for persistence.

Patti Hill said...

Ariel: Thanks so much for commenting. Yes, yes, yes! Persistence trumps a routine every time. Here's the quote I kept in plain view of my computer in the early days...

Press On

Nothing in the world
can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not;
Nothing is more common
than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not;
Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education alone will not;
The world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination
alone are omnipotent.

Calvin Coolidge

Another quote I like for days when my writing is constipated:

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow."

Mary Anne Radmacher

Anonymous said...

Patti, I love Mary Anne Radmacher's quote. That's going on my computer where I've taped other inspirational things -- like my Snoopy cartoon my husband gave me years ago. Snoopy is typing a letter to his publisher. "Gentlemen," it says, "I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, I am not even going to send it to you. Why don't you just come and get it?" Love that!

Marti Pieper said...

I love these tips. Thanks for sharing!

As far as the social media or Internet time: I use some of that as "reward" time. When I've been working a while and need a break or reach a certain word count, I allow myself a few minutes of Facebook, blog-reading, or CFOM (Christian Fiction Online Magazine) time.

Also, my name is Marti, and I am an email-aholic. After all, writers are readers, aren't they? When I REALLY know I need focus on my writing work, the email goes off for a few hours or more.

Ooops, my blog-reading break is over. Time to get back to real writing. Thanks again.

Marybeth Whalen said...

I write 1000 words a day every day except Sunday. This has become my sweet spot-- the challenge was to find it. More than 1000 words and I am taxed and uncreative. Less than 1000 words and I am not living up to my potential. At 1000 words a day, I can complete a book (rough draft) in about 4 months' time. That means a book a year is within my grasp as long as I stick with my routine. If a day comes along where I absolutely can NOT write, I make it up somewhere else. So far that's worked well.