This is the (very long) third installment to my “Best Writing Advice” series.
Click here for My Best Writing Advice Part 1: “Riding” Like a Professional
Click here for My Best Writing Advice Part 2: The Three Keys to a Professional Routine
Without further ado, Part 3:
In August of 2017, I had a little bit of a meltdown. I had finished the novel I’d been working on since my childhood, and had decided to shelve it. While I’d planned for the book to be the first in a series, I realized it would work much better as a sequel, and the new “first book” had yet to be written. I even pitched the idea for the new “first book” to an editor at a writing conference (something you are really not supposed to do), and received a request for it when it was done.
So here I was at a precipice. I had a 200-thousand word novel at my back, and it had taken me a childhood + about ten years of dedicated writing. I didn’t want to take another ten years to write a novel. I wanted to see if I could do it in one or two.
Now, ten years of consistent writing meant I knew how to get things done eventually. It just wasn’t very predictable. I would start with a large goal and then break it down into smaller parts. I’d have a goal for the year broken down into what I’d need to get done monthly, then weekly, then daily.
The problem was, meeting these goals meant squeezing time in, constantly feeling pressure to keep up so I didn’t fall behind. Writing time felt like something I needed to snatch up before it got away from me. “Making the time” felt like a constant battle. All of my responsibilities weighed on me during every moment of every day, which meant I had to choose, at every moment, what I wanted to do.
Whatever I didn’t do, I had to suppress my guilt about. When I was writing, I felt guilty about how much screen time my kids were getting, or the mess in the kitchen, or the fact that I had no idea what my family would do for dinner in the evenings. When I set aside time to clean my house, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I hadn’t written anything that day.
What was most frustrating, was that I couldn’t count on any sort of schedule. My writing felt constantly interrupted. I once wrote down every time I was interrupted by my children from writing in a single day. My longest uninterrupted stretch was ten minutes. The average was every five minutes. In a sense, I was never NOT multitasking. Every hour of every day was spent doing more than one thing at once, carrying every responsibility in my brain all at the same time.
I wondered if dropping writing altogether would make everyone happier, including me. I wondered if it would make me a better mother and wife. I reminded myself that writing was my passion, that water can’t be drawn from an empty well, and writing filled my well. Or, at least it was supposed to.
In the meantime, I had it in my head that great writers (especially male writers), often talked about how much time they spent writing every day. I heard, somewhere, that Brandon Sanderson (my favorite author), writes for six hours a day. (Some sources say as much as 8 or 10, but I was stuck on the number 6.) Many of these writers have spouses who watch their kids during those work hours. But in my family, my husband is the provider, and I’m the spouse tending to the kids and the house during the day. I felt constantly split between worlds.
Which led me to August 2018, when I sat at my desk and wrote out a plan to draft my novel in two years, and sat back and realized with growing dread…I had no idea how I was going to do it. What was worse, even if I managed to finish the new book and get it published, I was completely incapable of sustaining any kind of career unless 1: I made so much money my husband could quit his job and be the stay-at-home parent, or 2: I made so much money I could afford to hire a nanny. And frankly, neither of us really wanted to do either of those.
I needed six hours a day. If I wanted to be like Brandon Sanderson, I needed to work like Brandon Sanderson. But how could I when I simply couldn’t find the time? My husband sat down on the floor next to me and asked if I needed to wake up earlier. Of course I’d tried that many times, but I spent my mornings helping my son get off to school. Waking up early would, at maximum, give me two hours, and that was only if I wasn’t asked to get up and make breakfast or pack a lunch. My husband said he might be able to do that before going to work, so there was two hours, but two hours wasn’t enough. What if I wrote in the mornings AND the evenings? He’d put the kids down at eight, and I could write until ten. And then what if I gave my daughter Rosebud two hours of screen time in the afternoon?
6 to 8
1 to 3
8 to 10.
Six hours. It looked good, maybe too good. What about everything else? We penciled it in.
6:00-8:00 Writing Time
8:00-12:00 Run errands, keep commitments, clean house
3:00-5:00 Prepare dinner
6:00-8:00 Family Time
In short, I started time blocking. Things were a little rocky at first. I insisted on only making appointments during my “commitment hours” and sometimes the sheer effort of staying so structured felt overwhelming. Sometimes I wasn’t able to keep to the schedule at all. My husband Nathan felt a little cramped, since my time had previously been so flexible, and now, overnight, it was not. Mornings were never really easy, I’ll admit. But we could feel something changing, and we felt the changes were good, and every day was a new opportunity to try “The Schedule” again. And day after day, week after week, the schedule became second-nature. And it worked.
The biggest immediate change was that I no longer had the sense that I was fighting within myself. There were no longer conflicting responsibilities pressing at me from every angle at the same time. If I missed my cleaning time, I had to wait until the next day. If I missed some writing time, I had to wait until the next writing block. When every task had a designated time, I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day thinking about all of them. I could look at the clock and ask myself, “What am I supposed to be doing RIGHT NOW?” and then I could just think about THAT ONE THING. It was a miracle.
Another weird-yet-awesome effect was that my family started eating way healthier. And earlier. With two hours to plan and cook meals every day, I had time to focus on making really good meals.
You might wonder how all this worked if my kids were used to interrupting me every five minutes. Well, before I had designated time to spend with them, I felt like I needed to respond to their every whim, or it would feel like I was neglecting them. I felt bad about being at the computer when they needed me. But now that we had time together, running errands and cleaning house, cooking meals together and sitting down for an hour to eat lunch and dinner, spending time as a family in the evening and taking our time to read books and play games before bed? I didn’t feel bad at all about saying no, pointing to the clock, and telling them when I’d be available. I didn’t have to get up and get snacks for them, because I could tell them what time lunch was, and I’d feed them then. Pretty soon, my kids actually learned to stop interrupting me during writing time.
A year passed, and the schedule had somehow become an entirely new way to live my life. And then, my husband got called as a seminary teacher, which meant my writing time in the morning was shot, and late-night writing wasn’t going to work either. So we sat down and wrote up an entirely new schedule. And you know what? Adapting has been pretty easy. We realized that it wasn’t “The Schedule” itself that had changed everything, but the habit and skill of living by it, of thinking of our day in blocks, of thinking of tasks one at a time. Which meant we could actually change the schedule all we wanted, and things would still turn out pretty great.
We were even able to make some improvements. I added a daily word-quota, for one thing. I keep goal charts and submission charts to track my progress. So now I’m not only spending the time writing, I’m tracking how much I get written. My schedule now includes morning exercise, which I think would have been too much last year when we were still figuring things out. Nathan cooks on Sundays to give me a break (before The Schedule we both cooked, randomly), and we decided to start eating out on Saturdays so we can both kick back at least once a week.
So there you have it. That’s the story of how I found a predictable, productive, and sustainable schedule–that included writing time. For me, the key wasn’t scheduling my writing, it was also scheduling everything else.
Now I know when I get published, I’ll be ready for it. At least when it comes to balancing my time between writing, family and making a house a home. It makes me feel like a professional, even though I’ve yet to publish a single thing. And that’s a good feeling.
Thanks for coming on this journey with me.