Writing with a Full-Time Job

I am a little bit of a productivity addict. I love to make lengthy checklists–at work and at home. It’s partly practical, to keep myself on task, to sort out some sort of priority system when there’s a mountain of stuff to do and I have no idea where to start, but I also really love to admire all the things crossed out, proof of what I’ve accomplished in my day.

To that end, I used to try to keep records of how many words I wrote a day. But as someone who squeezes in moments of inspiration and butt-in-chair time on the half-hour train commute, the narrow window of time between all the daily adulting requirements and bedtime, and on busy weekends, as someone who just cannot, for the life of her, accomplish 50,000 words no matter how hard she tries in November, it became a pretty depressing record. “Only five hundred words today!” I’d scold myself. “Pathetic. You need to do better! You need to prioritize your writing more if you love it as much as you say you do!”

It was a real bummer, to be honest. I felt so unproductive, so unaccomplished. It started to mess with my enthusiasm to sit down and write at all. I felt like a constant failure. And I started sacrificing other important things–going to the gym, cooking healthy meals, hanging out with friends–so I could stack up bigger and bigger word counts, in the hopes I would finally feel productive enough.

After a year or so of just feeling guilty all the time, I stepped back to reframe how I looked at my writing time. I started the one star = one hour system of record keeping. I finally accepted that I honestly have no control over how many words I eek out in a writing session and I needed to stop beating myself for something I couldn’t control. For my process, the only thing I have control over is how many hours I put my butt in the chair and write.

As a result, instead of constantly being disappointed in my progress, I now get to celebrate all the silver stars that stud my calendar, and be so incredibly proud of myself and my dedication.

It was great, until I started critically reviewing the calendar at the end of each month and seeing long empty stretches in-between writing stars. “What were you doing with your time last Tuesday!?” I’d scold. “How could you have just SKIPPED writing four days in a row the second week of the month?! Lazy. Unacceptable.” (We writers are so kind to ourselves, aren’t we?)

Logically, I knew it was ridiculous. I work a full-time job and adulting, as mentioned earlier, has a lot of requirements! Doctors appointments and grocery shopping. Pets and plants to keep alive and happy. Relationships with friends and family and loved ones that need attention. Sleep!

I stepped back to reframe again. Other little symbols got added in to illustrate how I was spending big chunks of my time. Hearts for a workout. Little arrows to indicate travel out of town. Quotation marks for local hangouts with friends. A little camping tent to illustrate overnight-guests. Little skulls and cross-bones for days I was down and out with a head cold. And those “blank” squares M-F? Not for nothing, but those days I still worked a full day at a job I love.

I had to remind myself of this–and maybe, somewhere out there in the Internet, you do too–but it’s okay that I’m not a full-time writer. I’m allowed to have a day-job career I love and dedicate a lot of my energy to which, some days, doesn’t leave any left for writing.

This is the full-picture of a person who works full time and writes on the side. Someone who finally has balance in her life. And at the end of the month, before I flip to a fresh page, I’m pretty darn proud.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re accomplishing, however many hours you manage to dedicate to your stories, I’m pretty darn proud of you too.

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Keeping a Writing Schedule

Over the summer I blogged about making a writing schedule and designed one in Excel that set aside 14 hours a week for writing. At the time, a lot of you wrote in the comments section that this was an impressive, amazing, unbelievable goal, but I didn’t heed your warnings. I kept looking at the Excel sheet and thinking, but it fits. I have four hours of free time every day after work. If I just cut out TV time and doing the dishes a few times a week…

In reality, it ended up being an ideal writing schedule, not a practical one. I dreamed of regularly waking up at 6:00 am to write for an hour or two (yeah right), didn’t take into account all the hours of research I still needed to do for my Byberry book, which cut into fiction writing time, and I didn’t allow room or flexibility for anything to go wrong (for example, I wanted to  write on my lunch break every day, but a lot of lunch breaks I ended up needing to call repair men, schedule doctors appointments, etc.). I’m not saying writing 14 hours a week is impossible (though it definitely was for me at the time last year), but the schedule didn’t fit into my real life schedule, so it didn’t work for me.

To create a more practical and realistic–but still challenging–writing schedule, I decided to do some research on myself and my habits, so I could create a more catered-to-me plan. The reason I was really inspired to do this was that 2013 Business Plan I mentioned before. The first week of January, I set end-week word goals for myself, but I’ve been consistently behind schedule. I wasn’t really expecting too much of myself, I thought–just 5,000 words a week–but still I wasn’t meeting that quota. And it was so frustrating, because I wanted to finish my WIP so I could rewrite the first draft and actually have a finished manuscript I could be proud of. One that I could share with my critique partners and get that pins and needles feeling you get when someone is reading your book and you need them to finish and then fangirl with you over it. I’m dying to stop thinking of myself as a writer in theory and actually be a writer in practice.

To do this, I started keeping track of when I was naturally putting my butt in the chair, for how many hours, and how many words were produced in each session. From this, I was hoping to develop a routine.

So that’s what I’ve done for the past three months.

Week 1 (January 14-January 20):

Total Writing Time: 2.5 hours

Total Weeks Word Count: 2,550

Week 2 (January 21-January 27, aka the week of archive research for Byberry):

Total Hours Spent Writing: 0

Total Week’s Word Count: 0

Week 3 (January 28-February 3):

Total Writing Time: 3 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 3,352

Week 4 (February 4-February 10):

Total Writing Time: 3.5 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 7,851

Week 5 (February 11-February 17, aka the week of the Death Cold):

Total Writing Time: 0

Total Week’s Word Count: 0

Week 6 (February 18-February 24):

Total Writing Time: 0.5 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 1,071

Week 7 (February 25-March 3):

Total Writing Time: 2 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 4,000

Week 8 (March 4-March 10):

Total Writing Time: 3.5 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 4,389

Week 9 (March 11-March 17):

Total Writing Time: 3 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 4,237

Week 10 (March 18-present):

Total Writing Time: 4 hours

Total Week’s Word Count: 6,413

TOTAL WRITING TIME (3 Months): 22 hours

TOTAL WORD COUNT (3 Months): 33,863

I was averaging about three hours of writing time a week, with about four thousand words a week. Not a stellar writing schedule, but it was consistent enough that the WIP was steadily growing, little by little. (For the revision process, which is more about time than word count, I’d like to boost it to a regular 5-6 hours of writing a week. We’ll see how that goes.)

I found that just keeping myself accountable, by writing down how much time I was actually dedicating to writing, and how many words I was producing, it helped me stay on track. It kept me from wandering off for a week or two at a time, distracted by other activities.

I’m happy to announce that as of midnight last night, I have a 54,000 word complete manuscript! All total, it probably took about four and a half months to write. It’s YA, post-apocalyptic, set in an abandoned hospital, and plague-ridden. It’s a mess of a first draft and needs a lot of work. But it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has characters that are really taking form and who I like. I’m so excited about it! It’s taking all my willpower not to tear into a revision right now, but I’m going to let it sit and simmer for exactly two weeks, so I can get some distance before rereading it and evaluating all its shortcomings.

Until that time, I can just admire how pretty and shiny and hefty the manuscript is on my hard drive. :]

Burrowing

When I write, I have to burrow. I burrow in my condo, at my desk, or in my room, or on my couch; usually, literally, burrowing under blankets. I can’t be distracted by TV noise or other people’s conversations or music (I seriously don’t understand how some people can have playlists for their books. I would never be able to focus on my own words).

In college, the biggest project I ever undertook was a huge research paper on Joan of Arc for my combined history capstone and honors program thesis. I had well over one hundred sources; this included entire seasons of Joan of Arcadia, some great old movies starring Frank Sinatra and Ingrid Bergman (not in the same film, mind you), and dozens and dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction. And I only had one semester to do it. Not only did I only have one semester, but that was on top of a full course load and working at the library fifteen hours a week. It was just too much and something had to give. It ended up being my deadline.

It was the most humbling and embarrassing experience to have to go to my adviser, about three weeks before the semester ended, and explained that no matter how I crunched the numbers, I simply wouldn’t have enough time to finish researching and writing the paper before the semester’s end. I hadn’t slacked off. I had done TONS of research, I just hadn’t gotten around to actually constructing my argument on paper yet. And it was destined to be a twenty-plus-page paper with some hefty footnotes, so it was no quick all-nighter. This was because I had designed a schedule that only allowed me about five hours of research/writing time for this particular project a week. And trust me, I had already long ago cut out sleeping, socializing, and TV time. There was just no more room in the schedule. Thankfully, my adviser gave me an extension–the second week of school the following semester. Which meant that I spent the month-long winter break pumping out pages and rewriting them, formatting my references and organizing my thoughts, all squeezed in the margins of Christmas shopping and wrapping and baking and family time.

As you all know I have this book I’m writing about Byberry State Hospital. It’s already under contract with Arcadia Publishing and the final manuscript is due November 11. And this deadline is non-negotiable. I’ve done a TON of research so far. I feel like I really know my topic–which I wasn’t feeling so confident about a few months ago–and I’m starting to organize all the photographs in InDesign (it’s like digital scrapbooking and I’m loving it!) and write down the captions. Technically, there’s going to be between 180-240 photographs, with each caption being a maximum of 70 words each. Then there’s an introduction and acknowledgement page and slightly longer 350-word chapter openings. When you break it down like that, 70 words is nothing. It’s laughable. I can get those done no problem. But in total, it’s probably going to be a 18,000-word book, which is a lot more formidable. And I haven’t written it down yet. And the deadline’s in less than two months. If I write 1,000 words a day, I can get it done in 18 days. But last night, it took me an hour to write two captions, a total of 140 words (I have to cross-reference a lot of notes and sources, to make sure each caption is historically accurate). So it’s looking like I’m going to have to dedicate a lot more time every.single.day to get this done.

So, somethings gotta give. And this time, it’s not going to be my deadline. Instead, unfortunately, I’m going to have to give up this blog until the deadline is done. And all other social media. And a slew of other personal responsibilities I took on that are just too impractical and time consuming at the moment. I have so many blog posts jumping around in my head, ready to write, but it just wouldn’t be responsible to take an hour away from time that should really be spent writing this first draft. So before it’s too late, I’m shaving down my schedule and adding as much writing time as possible.

I’m looking forward to providing the final update on this book: Done. Wish me luck!

(Image: Flickr Creative Commons, Nationaal Archief)

Making a Writing Schedule

Since I graduated from college a year ago, I haven’t really been able to settle into a routine. Too many things are always up in the air, half-baked plans for new adventures sprout mid-afternoon, spoiling my plans for a writing night in, and for awhile I was commuting three hours a day which consumed any writing time I could possibly squeeze in. When I moved into my new condo, thereby cutting my commute in half and finally being able to organize my very own writing space, I thought I’d be able to get in a routine similar to college, where entire blocks of time were strictly dedicated to each activity–how else would everything get done??–but instead of classes and library time, I’d have hours available to write every day. But still, I’m just writing “when I have time,” squeezing it in randomly.

I thought this whole write-when-I-can plan was working well until I really sat down and budgeted out my time–being as realistic and honest as possible–on a spreadsheet. I was faced with the hard facts that I was really only writing maybe two or three hours a week. Inspired by Lindsey’s recent blog post about finding time to write and her suggestion that you draw up an official writing schedule, I’m going to start doing that. It’ll force me to wake up earlier a few days a week to get an hour of writing in. It’ll force me to adhere to the schedule as soon as I walk in the door after work, rather than plopping down on the couch and letting time slip away, telling myself I’ll get around to it in a few minutes.

With my new schedule, I’ll be writing 14 hours a week. Let’s see if I can stick to it!

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