On Writing #12: So You Want to Write, But You Can’t Find the Time

So… You want to write. Maybe you want to write short stories, books, poetry. Maybe you actually want to finish a memoir, or you’re in love with the idea of publishing articles.

If you’re like a lot of us out there, the problem you’re having isn’t finding an IDEA. Ideas are cheap. Once you start writing you’ll be drowning in them.

The real problem you’re having is just WRITING. I don’t mean stringing words together so they make sense (that can be an issue for even the best of us, but it’s not the focus of this article) — let me explain.

Just about everyone I’ve met says they want to write a book one day. Most of them probably could write some astounding stories too.

So I ask them: Why haven’t you written?

That’s when the clearing of throats and mumbled excuses start pouring forth — usually excuses eventually boil down to one common thread: that with kids and work and “everything else” they can’t fit it in. They just never find the time.

The Time Problem – I Have It Too

I get the time problem. I really do. I have a job. I commute 45 mins each way every work day. I have a kid, a wife, several very demanding hobbies other than writing. While the baby was learning to sleep (6 months to 18 months old), no matter what I tried I could NOT find the time. Every spare moment I had had to be dedicated to sleep. Time is an intense problem for me, and sometimes — in very special situations like the one above — there is no solution.

So how is it that I write fiction? that I study writing, and find time to write about writing itself? How do my friends do it, too, with their busy lives?

It’s Hard – And Not for Everyone

It’s HARD. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Evne for the most gifted and natural of writers, fitting their art into a busy modern life is PAINFUL.

We all have to give things up, and some of us have to sacrifice more than others, and for some of us — sometimes — writing does not fit.

The cost of fitting it in for those people is just too high. And there is nothing wrong with that. Priorities have to be set!

There are Things that Should NOT be Given Up

Many of my readers may be shocked — floored, even — to hear me say this, but there are MANY things more important than writing. I might even hazard to say that MOST things in life are more important than writing — among them family and health and, yes, even freinds. These things, I believe, should not be cut back or pared away in an extreme manner. Maybe you have to duck out of a few of your friend’s birthday parties, yeah, but don’t ditch them all together. Life is for the living, people! And definitely don’t make your spouse or your kids suffer for writing. Take what tmie they are willing — and happy — to give you, but listen to them and listen to yourself. There is a limit to how much time it is appropriate to take away from them — and writing time is not worth causing either them or you permanent relationship stress.

I also do not recommend quitting your job or changing to a much simpler job to find time to write. This HAS worked for a few writers, and it might work for you if you have the right bent and the right set of situations – single, no kids, or a spouse with a ton of cash. But I am the sole income for my family unit, and — for someone in my situation — reducing income voluntarily is an impossible decision to make.

So what do you give up then?

Alright, we’ve looked at a few things I do NOT universally recommend: quitting your job, your family, your friends, your health.

But if you want to fit writing into your life, some things do have to budge. This is obvious: it’s a simple fact that the number of seconds in a day is finite, and there are PLENTY of things out there to fill them.

Your job as a writer/aspiring writer is to identify as many spare seconds and as many wasted seconds as you can, and then make a plan to use them to empower your writing.

I’ll warn you, these ideas are nothing new — but perhaps my experiences with them can help you pick which tools will help you.

Step 1) Carry a small notebook with you. It has to be small so it can fit in your back pocket or your purse or somewhere else where it can be convenient, unobtrusive, and omnipresent.

This is the book where you write the random ideas that fall upon you during the day. Some call it a journal. Some call it a writer’s book. Some just call it a scratch pad. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s useful.

Me — I have a tendency to write on whatever paper is at hand, forgetting that I have the journal with me — this gets many of my ideas lost in random notebooks. I end up with piles and piles of notebooks with one page full. But every once in a while I go through them. Collect them all together. Cull out the bad stuff. That, or a stumble randomly across an idea when I’m looking for a shopping list. The juices start flowing right there, right in the middle of everything else. Suddenly, I have an idea, a new persepective on a WIP.

Some say you should journal every day. Maybe they’re right. Me, I just jot ideas down when I am possessed by the muse to do so (maybe that’s why I’m so poorly organized). I go weeks, sometimes months, between notes, then I do ten in one day, every day, for a week. This is the only way I have any hope of capturing the fire.

Even for the poorly organized like myself, journalling is a valuable tool.

Step 2) Find the spare seconds I was talking about — and schedule them.

One book I read (I do not remember the title) recommended that you write every time you take a bathroom break or coffee break at work. Just one, two lines. This is extreme, but I have tried it. It does work, but only for certain stories and only when I am in a certain mood. Perhaps it will work for you — it certainly cannot hurt — even if all you write is junk, you will be getting better, you will be practicing. Just don’t be discouraged if the quality isn’t as high as you were hoping.

But, seriously, you do have to fit writing into your life. Some of my frieds get up at 5:00am every day and write for an hour before commuting an hour to work.

Others write every night, 10:00pm to 11:00pm.

Me, I write at lunch for about 45 minutes. I reread the previos days work and fine-tune it lightly, then I proceed to write the next bit. Sometimes I get 0 new words, soemtimes 250, and on a few rare and wonderful days I get lucky and get 2500.

As little as 15 minutes a day can keep you going, but you really need 30 minutes to an hour on a regular basis. Move things around. Make that one, scheudled writing space. It’s okay if it’s only on weekdays. The schedule is the important part here.

3) Think about making writing a ritual.

This is the “sacred space” concept, and is tied intimately with the idea of scheduling the same time of day.

This is idea that if you make a special place or a series of things you always do before you write, writing will become a habit and you will always fit writing in because otherwise you will not feel right.

Go to the same restaurant every day (I do Schlotsky’s) and write there. Or maybe build something more elaborate — always ride the stationary bike ten minutes, take your shower, and then write. or light a couple of candles. Maybe play the same song before you start, listen to it deeply. Maybe, like Stephen King used to, Write in a small utility room so your family will not come out to bother you.

There is a danger to this, though. I now write nowhere but this one Schlotsky’s. What happens if it closes? What happens if I need to write on the weekend and I don’t feel like driving across town?

Jay Lake can write anywhere, in any sitting or prone or standing position. This is a decison you have to be careful of making, because it can limit you — but it can also keep you writing when nothing else will.

4) Cut back on TV, Video games

You don’t have to give them up. But you probably will have to cut back.

Most of an American’s day is filled with TV. I don’t even have cable, and I still watch an hour or two of it per day.

This can be hard to do. Prime Time TV is essentially it’s own ritual, it’s own sacred space (the same concept we just discussed). Video games give you instantaneous positive feedback – the same type of feedback most of us are hoping to get from our writing.

Your writing is in direct competition with these two time sinks. Writing takes work — unlike TV. Writing is slow and takes a LOT of time to get feedback on — unlike video games.

It’s amazing anyone breaks away long enough to write, really, considering how powerful TV and Video Games can be, emotionally.

But, really, here’s my experiences cutting back:

For video games, I’ve had two different things work:

1) Play your video games only AFTER you’ve written your minimum time or word count. If you don’t write, you don’t get to play. This worked for a while for me, but eventually I gave up.

2) What’s working right now: I play video games only in a certain time window every day. I am allowed to play in that time window — one hour, right after work. I set an alarm, or my wife does, and when teh alarm goes off I have to leave. Period. Slowly this has become a sacred space, and I just don’t feel right playing at any other time of day.

For TV:

Same things as above work for TV.

I also cancelled my cable, and I only watch the shows I want to watch on Hulu, or I use the money I would have spent on cable and buy an entire season of a show.

The real key here has been: I have 2 shows, maybe three, that I watch, and I tend to watch a whole season at a time — two weeks, one episode a night, or one weekend with most of them piled all together. No waiting for the next episode, no wondering what happens next, and entire series are out of the way in a relatively small amount of time.

Maybe it’s bad, but I binge on TV. But then for days and weeks I don’t care about it anymore.

I keep up, but it’s not central to my life, or my evening, and this frees up time for me to do writing drills or just to THINK about my stories — and that, in iteslf, s an imporant activity.

There are Many More Ideas Out There

Like I always say, you have one of the most powerful research tools in the known universe at your fingertips — the internet. The problem with it is that half the stuff you read will be wrong — but when you’re looking for time saving tips, you can usually sort the wheat from the chaff pretty easy.

So go, find more ways to save time, apply them. And then share with me, so I can find more time too!

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