The Organized Writer: Making Time to Write

by Jeff Abbott on December 4, 2008

So: how do you find time to write (or pursue any creative endeavor) when you have a full-time job and other obligations? Here’s what I did. (Those not interested in writing may want to read this just to appreciate my own stubbornness and to know just how very badly I wanted to inflict my stories on the public.)

I wrote my first published novel from 4 AM to 7 AM weekday mornings. Then I got showered, ate breakfast, and went to my day job. Every weekday, no exceptions. On the weekends I wrote another three hours each day. I did this until I had a book, which was Do Unto Others, my first mystery–a book still in print, winner of two major awards. I don’t often look at that book but when I do, I think “4 AM, every day, ouch”.
That is what it takes. And for anyone who knew me back in my misspent youth, I was NOT a morning person. I am still not a morning person. I needed nuclear-level coffee. I needed an alarm clock that probably woke neighbors up five condos away. I had to force myself out of that nice warm bed. But I did it. And so, the biggest priority in my life–writing my book–that work was done when I started my “normal” day. It was not hanging over my head. It was not preying on my thoughts while I was doing the work that paid the bills (work that I enjoyed a great deal, by the way). I would grab my just-brewed coffee, stagger to the computer, put my hands on the keyboard–and go. Write. For three hours, nothing but writing, vanishing into the small Texas town of Mirabeau and all the intrigue and secrets that lay under its surface. No multitasking (easier back then: this was an ancient PC with only WordPerfect installed on it.). Just writing.
I often got asked how did I find time to write–I had a very demanding job at a high-tech startup, where twelve-hour work days were the norm. Well, first I tried writing at night. I was exhausted from work and trying to write at night completely eliminated my social life. So evening writing wasn’t the solution for me. Patricia Highsmith (author of the brilliant Ripley novels and of the classic Strangers on A Train) did write at night, but she came home, took a brief nap, took a bath, and started a “second work day”. Find what works for you. Then put every excuse on the shelf and do it. There is really no magic here. Only discipline.
The key is carving out time and making it sacred. I found the uninterrupted block of time where no one would compete for my attention. I made that time a priority. When I wrote, I was happy for the rest of the day. Seriously. I’d gotten my work done. I knew I’d taken a forward step. On the few mornings where I ignored the alarm and stayed in bed, I was miserable the rest of the day. I felt guilty. Because I knew I wasn’t doing what made me happiest.
But I confess. I once wrote full time, before I had any book deal. That experience affected the whole way that I looked at writing time.
My stepfather once asked me how long it would take to write a book if I wrote full time. Like an idiot, I said four months. (I had no clue.) My stepfather generously offered to support me for four months. I was working at a job I didn’t care much for, and his offer sounded like manna from heaven. The book I wrote then was unpublishable, and it took six months (I got a job at the end of the four months, but a part-time one. Thank you, Banana Republic). BUT. I had written a book. It was a finished manuscript. I knew then I could see a book project to the end. I did it once; the next book I wrote would be much better.
Not everyone can prove to themselves that they can finish a book by working on it full time. But the important thing is that you find a block of time, and you reserve it for writing. I mentioned in an earlier post that sometimes writing time is staring at the computer screen for a couple of hours; well, I don’t recommend that if you’re trying to prove to yourself that you can finish the damn thing. Daydream during another part of the day if you can. Use that sacred block of time to write. Get the words on the page. Don’t edit overmuch as you write. (If you must, read your previous block of work at some time before your writing time, and edit on the paper then.) But find that chunk of time, and power off of it like a runner exploding from the block.
I was tired a lot during the writing of that book, and the three novels that followed it in short order. But the first time I saw my book in a bookstore, sitting on its little stretch of shelf, all the missed sleep, all the gulped coffee, all the sense of exhaustion vanished. Because every early morning was worth it.
So–sit down, map out your schedule for your typical week. When do you have free time? Can you change or move activities to create a sacred block? If not, where are the slices of time you have? (A friend of mine wrote thirty minutes during her lunch break at a bookstore, and an hour before she went to bed. She gave up watching TV before going to sleep. She is now a published novelist.) Find that time; reserve it for yourself, and defend it as much as you would any critical business or personal appointment. Do not let others poach that time. Put landmines around it, barbed wire, a moat full of sharks, whatever it takes. Then make sure, when that time comes, you write.

    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    C.D. Reimer December 4, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    I work full time as a help desk specialist at a Fortune 500 company. The senior manager for my department did me a favor when he told me that I needed to walk away from work at lunch time. Since I snack through the day and didn’t need to eat lunch, I ended up sitting in my car an hour a day. A virtual cone of silence. I figured out that this was the best time for me to write my first novel in longhand, two to four pages a day. I been doing this for six months and I’m at the halfway mark with the rough draft.
    The evenings are spent on editing or writing short stories. The weekends are spent entering the novel into the computer, keeping two dozen short stories in circulation, and editing/writing whatever else.

    Rebecca Cantrell December 4, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    See, I thought I was the only one! I also wrote a good bit of my last novel at ungodly hours. And when my life got too busy a few months ago, I went to bed at 9, and wrote from 2-4 in the morning. Not something I’d like to do forever, but it kept me going those few critical weeks and I was happier than I would have been with the extra sleep. TV I gave up years ago, movies and reading I still try to fit in, but only after MY work is done. Novels are many more things, of course, but they are also an accretion of hours.

    Jeremy December 5, 2008 at 3:47 am

    Great post, Jeff, and I’m looking forward to more in this series.
    I don’t have anything as gruesome as a 4 o’clock alarm call or even Rebecca’s waking for two hours in the middle of the night, but I held down a full-time job and wrote after my wife and kids had gone to bed, usually from around 10pm to 1 or 2 in the morning, three times a week if I could make it, until I had my first novel done. It took me seven years. I also cut back a lot on TV and reading anything that wasn’t research. I think you have to be fairly obsessed with making it happen or it just won’t.
    Another tip I would give is: if you’re not inspired, just write whatever comes into your head. Blurt it out. When you were 14 and you were writing pirate stories or whatever in your exercise books… do that. Pretend you’re 14 again, and just write as it comes, accepting that you’re writing something terrible and 14-year-old-ish. Nobody will read this! At some point, a spark will fly and you’ll have something you can work off. Get as many words down as you can as fast as you can – then you’re not staring at a blank screen anymore, but a bad story someone wrote that you’re going to fix. It’s a lot more appealing, I find!

    Debra Moore aka Moira Reid December 6, 2008 at 9:49 am

    I swear, reading the post was like reading the story of my life. This year, I wrote over 450,000 words on various stories, most of them long before the sun came up. This post sounds exactly like me with the possible exception that I had to switch to 3 a.m. because it takes me almost an hour to get all the fog out of my head and enough coffee down to get the stories going.
    And going to bed earlier has become mandatory. I’m a zombie by nine o’clock. I had the same problems you did…I was too tired from the day job to be able to focus (read: stay awake) and work at night. Besides, everybody was coming in and bothering me. LOL At 3 a.m., not even my dogs want to get up to go outside.
    And yeah, the more time I have, the less productive I am. Nothing like no time and lots to get done to get a fire burning under me.
    People may think it’s crazy, but the early hours are PERFECT for writing. You’re fresh, it’s quiet, and nobody else fights you for the coffee. There’s a real serenity to it, too, that I’d never imagined while snuggled in my warm bed. Get some warm socks, the comfortable pj’s, and rock the puter.
    I do have to crash and burn on Saturdays and Sundays though…gotta sleep in until 5 or 6. Best of luck with all your writing!

    Jeff Abbott December 6, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for the comments, all.
    Jeremy, I cannot agree with you more about writing whatever comes into your head. I do that when I get stuck–it may be just into a notebook, not in the manuscript, but it’s a chance to let your subconscious surprise you. Nothing stimulates the mind like that hand moving across paper, casting for a strong idea.
    I say this even when I often think the cure to writer’s block is to get up and away from the computer. Sometimes that does work if the problem is fatigue. But other times, just getting words, any words, on paper can help. That might be a good topic for another blog entry. . .

    otherlisa December 6, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Jeff – YEP. I am lazy, I am disorganized, I am all kinds of less than workaholic things, but I’ve managed to write a few novels (and get representation, even. Fingers crossed on the selling part). How? I wrote every night from 10 PM to 12 AM. Two hours, two pages. Sometimes I did better, sometimes I didn’t make that goal. But I was consistent. I treated it like a job. This is really the only way to succeed. Consistent effort, obtainable goals.

    Jean December 7, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I was beginning to think I was being extreme the way I had carved out my own writing time–2.5 hours, four days a week–and placed barbed wire and fierce, growling animals around it. Your post reinforces to me that it is the right thing to do, even though other’s don’t understand why I can’t use that time for them. It’s my time and it is sacred. I need it. My writing needs it.
    Thank you!

    Jeanne Ketterer December 8, 2008 at 10:53 am

    If I’m staring at the screen and nothing’s coming I do short prompts and it gets me back. Sometimes the freewriting shakes whatever’s been buzzing and that aha light goes on. I’ve also used the prompt writing (timed) to start a session bec it seems to quiet all that other fun life stuff.

    Kristan December 8, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    This I what I’m working on, on finding my own time and rhythm and making it sacred. Really the only person stopping me is ME, because I seek out distractions. :(
    After a year of working full-time and always being too drained to write at night, I am now writing most-time (I have a part-time job Thurs/Fri) and still feel disappointed with my results, or lack thereof. But your anecdote is very encouraging. Thank you. :)

    Sue February 20, 2009 at 10:46 am

    I work full time at a market research firm in India. I’m also a freelance writer providing content for Times of India’s mainly. I started writing short stories recently and am trying to follow you all and fix specific times to write. I’m facing a bit of a block – I start writing and get all worried that I’ll never be able to churn out enough for a whole novel…do i really have enough to write to fill at least 100 pages?

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