Time to write

Before I start I want to mention the book I just finished, Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors, and Stories by Nancy Willard, a wonderful collection of essays about writing. It’s not so much a how-to as reflections. I recommend it to anyone high school and above. You can certainly try it if you’re younger, but I think it will have more meaning later on.

On November 23, 2010, Mya wrote, Homework load seems to increase every year through high school, and though I badly want to write, sometimes I can’t seem to find the time. So I was wondering, how do you organize your writing time? And there is also the fact real life can drain so much energy that makes you too tired to type a single word. How do you get inspired once more, and relax into the mood?

I don’t have the tiredness problem. I have lots of energy. For that, my suggestions are mostly general health ones, like getting enough sleep (not always possible), eating sensibly, etc., etc. The only other thought is to journal. If real life is getting in the way, it may be helpful to write about what’s going on. Vent. Scream and rant on the page. Then you may find you’ve cleared space for your creative work.

A few years ago my long-time critique buddy got very sick. She’s better now, but she had a brain injury and isn’t writing the way she used to and can’t evaluate my work anymore either. Aside from the sadness of this, her absence has slowed me down. She and I used to meet weekly, and I always wanted to have work to show her, which was a goad to keep me going. I’ve written several books since she and I stopped sharing, but it’s been harder.

Next week I’m starting with a new critique pal, which I hope will help me the way my friend used to.

So that’s one strategy, to hook up with another writer or join a writing group, which I’ve written about in earlier posts. In order for this to work, your writing partner needs to be someone encouraging, someone who likes your work. There’s no better incentive than thinking, I can’t wait for him to see this. He’s going to love it. But if your critique-mate is hyper-critical and seems not to admire your work, you may actually write less, and you may regard your sessions together as the equivalent of oral surgery.

When I was starting to write, one of the most helpful books I discovered was Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It was written almost a century ago, and the language is dated, but the ideas aren’t. At one point the author instructs the reader to set aside a particular fifteen minutes a day for writing. No matter what may come for a week, a month – I don’t remember which – you have to write during that time. Then she tells you to write for fifteen minutes at different times, random times. The idea is to accustom yourself to writing whenever possible in any circumstance and not to depend on a muse or a mood. If you can write only in your office or only when there’s absolute silence, your opportunities narrow. I write in airports, on planes and trains, in hotel rooms. Sometimes it’s hard, like if someone nearby is talking on a cell phone, but usually I can block out the noise.

Dorothea Brande has another suggestion, which I haven’t followed, but which I offer because it’s probably worthwhile, and that is to write right after waking up, before you’ve had your coffee or changed out of your jammies, and especially before you read anything, preferably before you speak to anyone. The idea here is that your mind will be empty of your conventional way of thinking and surprising ideas will pop up.

Mya, I am not good at organizing my writing time. I write while I eat breakfast and while I eat lunch and at night when I have my snack. That’s an hour or so. And then I write in between, but I’m very distractible. If an email comes in, I look at it. People rarely have to wait long for an answer from me. Phone rings, I pick it up. Right now, in addition to working on my next book, I’m preparing two speeches, and tomorrow I’ll spend most of the day on them. I’m not a role model. Better to follow authors who set a page goal for themselves and stick to it. These admirable folk turn out their quota even if they have to stay up till three in the morning to do it, or if they have a fever of 104, or if their furnace dies. Or follow the authors who write for four hours a day, every day.

A book that’s wonderful on the subject of discipline is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (middle school and above). Lamott is eloquent and funny about staying focused and how hard that is. Besides, her writing is a pleasure to read.

Still, whenever there’s nothing that seems more pressing, which is often, I write. I take my laptop with me when I think I may have down time, like when I have a doctor’s appointment. And in my slow, erratic way I complete books. My publishers and my readers might be happier if I wrote more, and maybe someday I’ll figure out how to do that. Until then, I’m plodding along.

I’m much better at revising. When I’m revising I don’t get up to look out the window every half hour. I stick with it, because I love revising more than I love grinding out a first draft. Revising never lasts long enough; I enjoy it so much I finish it quicker. We’re all different, of course. You may hate revising.

Anyway, the point is to keep writing. If you continue to write, you’ll finish one story and then another and then another, and you’ll build up a body of work, something to be mighty proud of.

Here are some prompts:

∙    Try these exercises based on Dorothea Brande’s book. For the next week, write for fifteen minutes as soon as you wake up. For the week after that, write for fifteen minutes when you get home at the end of your day. And for the following week, write at a variety of times and places for fifteen minutes every day.

∙    There are a zillion books and movies about blocked writers, probably because the authors and screenwriters are writing what they know. It’s your turn. Aster, your main character, is taking a creative writing class and has to write something and can think of nothing. Her failure spills over into other parts of her life: friends, family, pet frog, after-school job, whatever. Write her misery and then decide whether or not to rescue her. Of course you can move this into fantasy, so long as writing is involved. Aster can be a gnome who has to write a book about mining.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you! I'm very worried about writing time because I'm a homeschooler who's expecting to go to school next year, and I'm frightened that all the new schoolwork will cut off my writing work. Of course, that's not really likely to happen to me (I'd write from midnight to three A. M. if I had to, not that I could keep that up for long), but I'm encouraged by hearing about people with short time who still write.

    One thing I found very inspiring – author John Dickinson took seven years to write his book THE CUP OF THE WORLD, even having to dictate it into a voice-recording machine while biking to work sometimes. What I get from that is, even if busy people may take longer to write, their results are by no means inferior and can be better.

  2. Great topic and prompts! I appreciate the advice on training yourself to write whenever, wherever whether or not you're in the mood. I am a stay-at-home mom and have a very hard time writing unless it's my son's naptime. However, I plan on having more children, and I plan to keep writing and I know that I cannot always depend on having that time just to myself, at least not at a set time every day. I should be writing now while my son is watching Elmo, but the possibility that I could get interrupted once I've gotten myself into my writing "zone" is enough discouragement to keep me from even starting!
    So thank you for the advice, I absolutely intend to try to condition myself to be able to write wherever, whenever I have a few spare moments (whether or not I have total silence) and be ok with interruptions. I know I always feel better about my day when I've written at least a little, and that will be more easily accomplished when I am not so specific about my writing conditions!

  3. This is encouraging. I always feel pressured to write fast, but I find I do much better at a slower pace–not to mention I am more satisfied with my work. I plan on doing the fifteen-minutes-a-day thing, too. Thanks! 😀

    @Rose I have so much school this year that I can't imagine that it will get much worse. Er…if that helps.

  4. I haven't commented in so long, but this post really resonated with me. I'm a procrastinator. I have time to write, but I can also watch TV, or play on the internet, or work out, or walk the dog, or clean, or… etc. Especially now that I have a job, it's easy to put writing aside. I found that first thing getting up, I have to go to the computer and write. I make myself sit there for half an hour. I might write a lot, I might not, but I sit there for that half hour and get something done. I find I feel much happier the rest of the day when I do!

    And as opposed to you, I much prefer writing the first draft than revising. I don't do so well trying to figure out the issues and rearranging things. I never revised my essays in college and the revision process is what's holding me back right now in my novel.

  5. First of all, good luck with your new critique buddy, Ms. Levine! I hope things work out for you really well. I have some awesome critique friends, which adds incentive for me to meet the goals I set so that they can read what I've written. Also, the feedback along the way is helpful. 🙂

    I find that the first draft is probably my favorite part of writing. I find it a little daunting to figure out where to start on the editing process, looking at that whole manuscript and trying to wrap my head around it. Although, when I just open up one of my documents and putter along, changing words or sentences or paragraphs as I read, I don't mind it so much.
    When I'm writing the first draft, I don't find it too terribly hard to get writing in. I try to be pretty disciplined about it, and I have a sort of routine about it. I'm homeschooled, so I don't have the same homework load that other people might have, because I get the work done throughout the day. But I don't have unlimited writing time, either, so I need to prioritize.

    I like the idea of writing right when you get up, or whenever, wherever. My writing routine is pretty repetitious, even though it works for my creativity and the rest of my life. But it would be good to stretch it out a bit!

  6. I always wondered how I could make more time for writing….now I know…
    When I set my mind to it I can write like mad (the writing may not be any good but I can write it) during NaNoWriMo I could pump out a good 7,000 words after school and homework and still got to bed at a good hour. I get my best inspiration at night so on the Friday and Saturday nights that I am free, from 10:30 pm to 1 am one can find me madly typing away on my laptop…
    Thanks for the post! 🙂

  7. I am a night owl, but I'm slowly realizing that I do my best writing (and in general, have my best ideas) within the first hour or two of waking up. Sounds like I need to implement your 15 minutes of writing in the AM rule!

  8. I combine a couple of ideas for my writing. I have a set place in my evening routine when I write, and I try to write two pages a day. Now I'm trying to expand to fit more writing into more parts of my schedule throughout the day… Thanks for the tips!


  9. I missed this blog so much! And the new post, why do they always arrive at the right time?=) Thank you answering my question, Mrs Levine!=D

    School has drained me so much these past few weeks I've barely been on the internet.=) I'm not a good organiser, I can lay out lists, but don't give them a second look after completing them. So those excercises in Ms Brande's book sound great. To get right into 15 minutes of writing everyday, I definitely think that can be managed.

    Lol, I'd love it if your books came out faster, but the wait makes it all the more satisfying, so as a reader, I don't mind.=) Thank you once again, Mrs Levine!

    @Rose: I did homeschooling for a while, which I'm sure is not the same as your experience, if you've been doing it all your life. I think you definitely will have less time, but the weekends, and all the tips in this week's blog post, it can work out.=)

  10. Hah, hah! Love your description of how your day goes with checking email etc. as it sounds so familiar. Then this morning I set aside 2 hours to write, kept myself off the internet, even managed to ignore the ringing phone, until the neighbor called that our dog was out! Yes, we definitely all have to learn to write with distractions. Now, back to it…

  11. @Rose – as a homeschooler considering school next year, I can sympathize with your concerns. I would hate to loose my writing time. But I think the suggestions here are worth trying out – there's some useful tips. Good luck with your writing!

    Also, I have a quick question . . . Sometimes, when I write a lot in a short period of time, (for example, NaNoWriMo) I feel afterward a little drained of creativity. Like new ideas don't want to come, almost like I've used them all up. I like to write, write, write, but it's hard afterward when I get so stuck. This also happens with littler things, like ideas in stories that I take off with and when I'm done I have no inspiration to write any farther. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to remedy this problem?

  12. Thank you for the story prompt! I had started a short story a few years ago along that line, but it dried up on the second page. After reading the prompt I finished it in about a day. I tend to revise/edit while I write, so the only thing left is to double check the grammer ;P

    @Rose: I went from public schools to homeschooled. One of the hard things is the amount of time that is wasted just walking from one class to the next and waiting for teachers. I'd suggest learning to write while you walk. Good luck!

  13. @ Elizabeth – "Time wasted walking to class and waiting for teachers," so funny because I can relate! I don't want to be more than 5 minutes early for anything because any earlier is a waste of time. So I usually slide in just at the minute.

    My suggestion for a use of that time for a writer – spy on your fellow students in the hall. Who's flirting and how do they do it? Who looks preoccupied with a problem and how do you know? Then write it down – without names! You'll find that a valuable resource when you get to be my age.;)

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