If we were having coffee, I’d tell you that it’s much too late in the day (er, night) to have caffeinated beverages. But then again, I’ve always been terrible at making good choices and managing my sleep schedule, so yes, I’ll take coffee anyway. The sleepless night and the compulsion to write something reminds me of my senior year in high school when I would do just this—drink coffee and stay up spinning tales. And lately, I’ve been thinking about my hometown.
There is a split in my life, a “Before” and “After”, but I’ve been thinking lately that I’ve been categorizing it incorrectly. It is not “Before Moving to New York” and “After Moving to New York”, but rather, “Before I Started Writing” and “After I started Writing”. Writing has always been part of my list of hobbies, but it wasn’t until I started journaling with some regularity during high school that my inner life really kicked off.
My best friend since middle school was in town this week, and she is the type of person I can pick up with right away. She has known me through my quietest moments, has seen me lose my cool, and is the type to correct my memory while dispensing with unnecessary niceties. The things I remember are either rose-tinted idylls or turbid voids, and not much else in between. She one of the few people I know who fills in the spectrum.
And I’ve been thinking about my hometown because of my friend, but also because I’ve been thinking about writing. Tomorrow I’ll be getting comments back from my writing class on a short story, and I’ve been nervous ever since I gave them the story. While I’m proud of that piece, it’s not as “mission statement”-y as I like. The story isn’t really representative of what I write about.
Ever since I figured out that this was the reason for my discomfort, I’ve been trying to describe, with as much precision as possible, what it is I write about. If the story I sent in isn’t it, then what is it? I used to think that not having a defined focus would allow me to explore all topics, would allow me to write anything and everything I want without fear of being boxed into a genre. I’m seeing now that there must be some underlying and narrow motivation. After all, I can’t major in “The Universe.”
I’m still figuring it out, though I can feel myself circling around something. My writing topic—the Major Dramatic Question that drives not just a particular story, but all of my creative work—is elusive, but lurking just out of the corner of my eye. Still, I feel like I’ll lock onto it soon, and then…well, we’ll see how it goes.
As a young/novice/aspiring author, I have a lot of other things on my plate that aren’t strictly writing-related. I work full-time at a job I really care about and want to do well in. I’m trying to get my stuff together to apply to grad school at the end of this year to start attending next fall. I have reading goals, and fitness goals, and savings goals. I’m in a long-term relationship. I’m trying to be a better friend.
A lot of young/novice/aspiring authors like me have the same or similar strains on their time.
So where does writing fit in? How are we expected to make progress in our careers if we have all of these other things we have to balance? And how are we supposed to get better at writing at all?
There are lots of books and methods and theories on time management, and it can take a long time to find the right one for you. What follows is a list of what I do to make time for writing and all the things surrounding it. Take what you need, and feel free to leave a comment on what you do to manage your time!
The way I manage my time is by establishing a routine.
One of my favorite things on the internet is an infographic1 showing the daily routines of famous creatives. While I don’t believe they followed these routines to the hour for every day of their adult life (or even when they were at their most prolific in their creative work), they probably followed these patterns to a close enough approximation.
Looking at these charts, many of these famous creatives had the benefit of long, uninterrupted time to work on their creative pursuits. After all, for many of them, it was their career. They were professional creative people. Young/novice/aspiring authors often don’t have that benefit, unless they have the resources to go to a writing retreat for an extended period of time or are in an MFA program. (And even in an MFA program, teaching and classes can quickly eat up time.)
But there are no excuses: A writer has to take (or make) the time to write.
There isn’t a magical formula. As you can see from these charts, these famous creatives had very different ways of living. Franz Kafka kept weird hours and did most of his creative work at night. Charles Dickens took long walks around London. Maya Angelou blocked off her afternoons and evenings with her husband. A decent number of these people had day jobs (and many of them did some kind of teaching).
But they all have a chart. They all have a basic outline for how a day would go and stuck to it.
Data gathering is an important step to putting together a routine that will work.
I had a Passion Planner2 for a while, and though it ultimately ended up not meshing well with my organization style, I did make use of the hour-by-hour breakdown for each day. It was useful to block off the time I had to spend at my full-time job, and then figure out how the rest of my goals fit in around it.
At the beginning of the week I would write in my expected time commitments for each day. Every time something changed, I changed it in my Passion Planner, but I would still keep what the original expectation was. Did I expect to work 10-6 but instead worked from 9:30 to 7? Did I take my lunch break at 1pm like I planned, or at 2 instead? Did I exercise that day? If I did, was it at the time I slotted for it?
After a few weeks of this, I was able to see some general patterns emerge. I can pretty reliably get up to work out in the morning, but if I’m not out the door by 5:30am then I’m probably not going to exercise that day. Most days I prefer taking my lunch at 1:30 or 2, and I’ll typically take a longer lunch break so that I can have a solid chunk of writing time. As a result, I’ll stay at the office a little bit longer. My commute is the longest part of my day, and also the most variable. Some days I’ll spend 20 minutes door-to-door, and other days the trains will be delayed and it’ll take me 40 minutes.
Once I figured out my natural inclinations, I was able to create a pretty solid routine that I could stick to.
But still, that initial routine I created a few months ago doesn’t actually apply anymore.
It’s important to build in flexibility and allow the routine to change.
My routine now looks something like this:
My exercise happens a bit later in the day now because I’m running with my boyfriend, who is definitely not a morning person. I’m still writing during my lunch break, but since the weather has been nicer I can write in one of the many outdoor seating areas around my office. I no longer have to walk to the Barnes & Noble several blocks away, so I don’t have to take quite as long of a break.
And I’m sure this schedule will change once again. It’s all a matter regularly reviewing what my expectations are for my time and examining what the reality is.
Time tracking can be a great motivator.
One thing I struggle with is actually taking the time to write and edit fiction. I write a lot, and fill in every crack and crevice of my day with writing, but a lot of that is journaling or planning, and not actually putting effort into fiction writing.
So I appealed to the data nerd aspect of my personality.
For several months I’ve been tracking my time with Gleeo Time Tracker3 on my phone. I started using a time tracker when I switched jobs last year and needed a way to keep track of how many hours I worked in a day. Because the tool itself is quite flexible, I decided to use it to keep track of my writing as well.
I created categories for the five kinds of writing I do: Journaling, Blogging, Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry. Then I broke these down into even simpler tasks, i.e. Planning, Editing, Writing.
From there it was a matter of being rigorous with actually tracking the time. I kept my phone screen on throughout my writing sessions and anytime I would switch tasks (from editing a short story to starting in on a new draft of a story, for example), I would switch my time tracker. I also have a category for administrative tasks, like submitting to journals, organizing the writing on my computer, and compiling my time charts themselves.
At the end of each month I plug the data into Google Sheets and make some charts:
Did I actually spend enough time writing and editing fiction? How does that compare to my other types of writing? And do I feel satisfied with the amount of work that I’ve put in?
What it ultimately comes down to is rigorously and honestly examining my writing life, and how it fits into the rest of life.
My system isn’t perfect yet. Hell, it’s hardly a system, really, and more an amalgam of time tracking, productivity, and data-gathering techniques I’ve learned over the (very short) years of my life. But every month I can answer, with solid evidence, two questions:
Did I write?
Was it enough?
And I solemnly swear that the answers go pretty far.
This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.