Time. It’s in short supply. It’s always precious. We’re often up against it, especially when there’s a deadline looming. We never have enough of it and other people want us to give them ours. Family, friends, net buddies, the day job, editors – they all demand more of it.
First up let me say that I have no magic solution to managing time. But I can mention a few things I’ve discovered to help us to cope better. Perhaps there are points here that strike a chord with you. Better yet, from my point of view, maybe you have a hint that you’d like to share with the rest of us!
Here, in no particular order are some lessons I’ve learned about time. Some seem contradictory but I make no apology – we need different tactics at different times.
Time can be your friend. When you’ve finished your manuscript, let time pass. Don’t send your story off to an editor/agent straight away. If you have no deadline then wait. Start your next project or catch up on the things you neglected while you wrote. Come back to your ‘finished’ manuscript after weeks or, if you can manage it, months. You’ll see your story in a fresh light and notice ways to tighten the writing. Inconsistencies will leap out at you, as they would at an editor. This makes polishing the story so much easier. Take the time to make the story the best you can.
Think about the times of the day when you write best. When do you feel the creative juices flowing? When are you most alert? For many it’s early in the morning and mid to late afternoon. For some it’s the midnight hours. Being perverse, I often find it’s when I’m supposed to be doing something else, like cooking dinner! If it’s possible to set aside those most productive times for your writing, then do it! Grab any natural advantage you can.
On the other hand… remember most of us can’t afford to give up if inspiration doesn’t strike. If this is your writing time, use it to write, even if it feels like you’re pulling teeth rather than writing scintillating prose. If you don’t make the effort to write in the time you’ve set aside for it, you will not produce that book. If you persevere it will usually get easier.
If you know that certain activities stimulate your imagination – like a hot shower or a long walk or even weeding the garden, try to schedule your time so you do that before you sit down to write.
Write often. Some people swear they must write every day or they get out of the habit. Others find it easier to allow a couple of days a week when it’s OK not to write if there are other things pressing on their time. Experiment and find what works for you, but write often. If you go a few weeks then say you just didn’t seem to find the time or you were so tired or life’s just too busy or (horror) you weren’t inspired, then stop and listen to the warning bells. You’re making excuses. It’s time to ask yourself how serious you are about writing.
How long should you write? I’ve heard the advice that if you sit down for 15 minutes a day then you’ll have a book in … days. That works for some people. Alternatively I’ve heard people (who me?) bemoan the fact that if only they could get a solid couple of hours they could finish the chapter/scene. There’s no right answer. It’s a combination of what your schedule will allow and how motivated you are. BUT, it’s easier if you commit to putting aside a certain amount of writing time. If twenty minutes at lunchtime is all you have, then go for it. If you can afford a block of several hours or days (heaven!) then grab it. Beware if you hear yourself say again and again ‘I just can’t get started on this because I need x hours alone on this’. X hours may be what you’d like but it may be a luxury you don’t have. Be realistic about what time is available to you and make the most of it.
Don’t think that the only time you have to write is when you are alone, without background noise, at your desk. (Sighing wistfully here at that delightful picture). Many of us have dead time in our day. Time commuting by train or bus, sitting waiting for children at sport or music lessons, or in waiting rooms with outdated magazines. Use those times to write. You might continue working on the text or jot down some sparkling dialogue. Even points on where the next scene ends, or a character description is time well spent.
Beware of the internet! Sorry, but it has to be said. If you’re not producing but you’re up to date on the latest market trends, news about other writers and how to tips, you need to examine how much time you actually spend writing. How much do you spend on ‘research’ and ‘professional networking’? Limit your time on email or browsing sites. You may have to make a rule that you only enter the web after you’ve written. It sounds desperate, but may make the difference between being a writer and talking about being a writer.
Which brings us to time and bribery. If you have trouble sticking at the writing, try a timer. Set it for a reasonable length of time (try 45 minutes) and make yourself work on your project (without wandering off to watch the kettle boil) until the timer rings. When you’ve done that give yourself a treat (a couple of pages of a book you’re dying to read, chocolate, a walk in the sun, whatever). Or save up your treats till you’ve written like this for a week or two and then celebrate. Acknowledging that time spent with your manuscript can be difficult is not a sin and if the “time writing = I deserve a treat” system works, then go for it! The up side is that in the process you will have got into the habit of writing and will have produced words on the page.
How much research do you need before you start writing your book? Many books need research but remember, some research can be done as you write or even after you have a draft down. If you’ve put off starting the story for a few months or even a year while you research (yes, I’ve seen it happen) then decide whether it’s the research you really want to do or the writing.
Take breaks! Don’t sit at the computer for long stints without getting up and moving about. Not unless you want RSI, a sore back, blurred vision and regular visits to the chiropractor. Take time for regular exercise too – you’ll feel better and more energetic.
Plan your time. Some people love detailed plans with targets for every day or hour, others cringe from it. But if you don’t have a writing plan with an idea of what you can reasonably achieve in the next few months/year, do it now. Be practical. Don’t set goals you have no hope of reaching. Think about the goals you’d like to include (eg. Finish the next 4 chapters and write an outline for a linked story) and how much time it will take to achieve those goals. This process will make you think how badly you want to achieve those goals and how you’re going to make time to achieve them.
Allow yourself time out from your writing, after a project is complete, or throughout the writing process. Time away from your writing is necessary to give your brain a chance to catch up, and to refill the imaginative well. Don’t feel guilty about this time. (But make sure your well refilling isn’t more time consuming than your writing!).
Create a deadline. If that’s what it takes to get you moving, but you don’t have an editor breathing down your neck, make your own deadline. An easy way to do this is to find a contest you want to enter and aim to finish by the due date.
Remember to factor in time for your ‘other life’. We all get absorbed in our current story, but remember to come out of the cave from time to time and smile nicely at those who’ve (hopefully) let you work.
First published on the Pink Heart Society website and Hearts Talk (magazine of Romance Writers of Australia)