Finding a New Writing Routine

One of the most popular questions I receive as an author is “What’s your writing routine?”

I love asking that question too! Just because I’m published doesn’t mean I have all the answers; in fact, this post is about how I don’t. It’s interesting to hear about other writer’s processes, and learn new approaches I can take. (Secretly, I wonder if I’ve actually been doing it wrong all this time, but I’ve been lucky.) I know every writer and every project is different, but I think one way of avoiding writer’s block is to just try writing another way.

My answer to the question has become more and more complicated over the years. Sometimes I make a distinction between my ideal writing schedule and the one life often allows, or I explain how much my routine varies over the course of a week. “If it’s a weekday, then I write on my lunch break and before I go to bed. If it’s a weekend, and I don’t have any family obligations, I hole up in a coffee shop for 14 hours a day.” That isn’t exactly a routine. For the past year, I was just writing as much as I could, as quickly as I could, wherever and whenever I could. Then again, that’s probably how most of us do it, right?

After five novels (three published) and dozens and dozens of short stories, as well as a lot of blog posts, I’ve built up a good enough discipline as a writer to finish what I start and generally meet deadlines — two major contributors to success. The way most writers develop discipline is by establishing writing as a habit, and that comes from sticking to a routine. I may not “need” to write everyday anymore, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to.

I may have to write as often as possible, but at least I can usually predict when that time will be available: 45 minutes at lunch, an hour or two at night, half an hour before work, 14 hours on Saturday, and so on. The tricky thing is that life has a way of changing, especially when you’re getting comfortable. So let’s switch the previous sentence to the past tense…

In the last five years, I had some pretty big life changes: I moved to a new city, got a new job, got married. I went from writing just before work to writing at night, to writing really early in the morning and at night. Consequently, I have written every one of my novels differently, on a different schedule. Most recently, my wife and I had our first baby — and just like that, everything has changed again! Those two uninterrupted weekend days? Poof! Gone. [Note: I was just interrupted by a wailing baby. Changed a diaper, but it looks like he just wants to sit with me. Say hi, Spud!]

So that’s where I am now. I haven’t written fiction in the three months since the kid was born, and now I need a new routine to get back into it. The trouble is, I can no longer predict when I will have time, so I guess have to be a little more nimble and motivated. My plan so far involves a few tactics:

  • I picked up an Alphasmart Neo word processor, inspired by author Aliette de Bodard’s process for writing with a baby. Even my netbook takes too long to start up these days; by the time I can open Scrivener, my three minutes of peace and quiet could be over. This will really only work for writing a first draft, but I’m willing to give it a try and will blog about the experience.
  • I hate to say it, but I need to limit my use of social media. I’ve notice that I’ve been filling small pockets of free time with Twitter and Facebook — time that could be better spent on my next novel! But of course, I do need those small social interactions, so I’ll have to figure out a good balance.
  • [The Spud is wiggling around in my lap — and is he pooping?! — this is kind of distracting]
  • [Just gave him a pacifier and he calmed down. Whew.]
  • Coordinate with my wife for bigger blocks of time to write — challenging because she works more hours than I do.
  • Set goals and personal deadlines to meet the professional deadlines. Maybe I should get one of those calendars and put stars on it, like people do?
  • Cut back on TV — again. After just a few months with a baby, I’m more caught up on shows than I have been in a decade! Reading, not so much.
  • Sleep less? (That may not actually be possible. I’m already more exhausted than I’ve ever been.)
  • Ask for help…

This is me asking for help. What’s your writing routine? I would especially like to hear from writers juggling day jobs and babies, but I’m happy to hear any advice because you’re all busy people who still make the words happen. How do you stay-at-home parents manage? In the comments, tell me what works for you, point me to helpful articles, trade tips with each other.

[And… The Spud is sleeping! Of course he is, because this post is done and now I have to try to move him to his crib.]


22 Responses to Finding a New Writing Routine

  1. Nancy Tandon Jan 28 2015 at 7:24 am #

    My advice for anyone with children under the age of five is to be very, very kind to yourself. You will be able to read and write full sentences again – someday! Sleep is a priority. You won’t be coherent without it. My other advice can be summed up in one word: BABYSITTER. Bartering with other parent friends works well, too, and is a zero-cost option.

    I appreciate your comments on the fluidity of the writing routine. It is the same with finding quality child care – just when you find something that works, things will change. But as long as you keep writing as a priority, you will find a way.

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 1:56 am #

      Thank you! I’ve been trying to be more forgiving of myself, and I don’t want to miss precious time with the kid. But writing’s important to me too and largely a part of my identity, so I’m going to find a place for that too. I would love to work out shared care with other parent friends and/or find a great babysitter.

  2. Kim Graff Jan 28 2015 at 8:37 am #

    I’m lucky. As a freelancer and a student, I have a pretty decent amount of time to devote to writing. I packed all my classes into two days—Wednesday and Thursday—which leaves me Friday-Tuesday to devote to working and writing. I try to pack all my writing into Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and write in the evenings. Then I have the weekends to get the biggest chunk of my stuff done (assuming I don’t have too much work). But I am really grateful for all my time, I know this won’t always have it 🙂

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 1:58 am #

      That sounds like a terrific schedule! And a very disciplined one. I kind of miss being a student sometimes.

      I also feel very lucky that I get to do any of this at all, so there’s that 🙂

  3. Rowenna Jan 28 2015 at 9:02 am #

    Sounds familiar 🙂 Making writing default has been challenging, but it’s the best advice I have–that instead of making Facebook or TV or even picking up a book the default in that few minutes of spare time, it’s writing. I fail at this a lot.

    I’m not sure how old your Spud is, but my daughter loved to be held all.the.time, and babywearing helped me get writing done. I’d put her in in a wrap and she’d happily snuggle in–not realizing I wasn’t devoting my full attention to her. Muwahaha. Now that she’s older she’ll amuse herself for upwards of ten minutes at a time, so it’s write-read Little Golden Book-write-play with Little People-write-give up, which does get some writing done.

    I also arranged a regular writing date with myself, with my husband’s support. Then if I got nothing done the rest of the week, I knew Wednesday afternoon was mine. All mine.

    And I try to “write” all the time–thinking about the next scene, developing characters, general brainstorming–so that I’m making some progress even when I’m doing the dishes or folding laundry.

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:02 am #

      “Making writing default” — I love that! Have to retrain my brain…

      The Spud does like to be held or around people a lot, and sometimes he likes the Mei Tai Sash carrier thing we have. I forgot to mention that using that and working at a standing desk is part of my plan for productivity! I know that as he gets older and needs more engagement, this whole process is going to have to evolve further.

      I am also brainstorming all the time. Thanks for the reminder that this also counts as writing work!

  4. Katie Jan 28 2015 at 10:21 am #

    What a great post. Thanks so much for sharing! Honestly, I’m really interested to see what everyone else has to say as well. My son will be six soon, and I still haven’t found a routine that works for me. Currently I’m a single mom working full time at a job that’s an hour away from home. When all is said and done, I’m lucky to get a half hour to myself in the evenings, and usually I’m too fried to write at that point. Weekends are rough too, because the decision comes down to: do I keep our apartment clean, spend some quality time with my son, visit with friends and family, or just give myself some down time to recuperate. Needless to say, writing doesn’t fit into this schedule very well. So far, the only method I’ve found that really helps to keep me on track is to participate in a weekly critique group. Because the group has “due dates” for both writing excerpts and feedback, and because other people are depending on my participation, it helps me make writing a priority at least once a week. But I’m not so sure how well that actually fits into the “writing routine” discussion. So, like I said, I’m really interested to see what other people have to say! 🙂

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:04 am #

      These are good points! I’m so much more exhausted these days, and craving time to relax and read a book or just do… nothing to catch my breath. There’s a lot of household stuff and family obligations that just need to be met on a daily basis. Deadlines are always great motivation though.

  5. Erin Bartels Jan 28 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Writing with babies is so hard. I found that I didn’t get really productive again until my son was older (and we were getting more sleep) and in daycare. I work from home (full time) and my husband works full time. We’re both writers. So, at least we both understand the needs a writer has. I find that I can’t write when others are in the house (I’m so distractable) unless they are sleeping. I found success getting up to write at 5:30-7:30am, and I can write at night after the boy is in bed (around 8:30–he’s now in 1st grade) IF my husband is also writing at the same time. I also write sometimes during the day and make up the work time at night if I can do a mindless task while life happens around me. My husband and I also take writing vacations together and give the boy to grandma for the weekend while we get away somewhere where there’s no internet (a friend’s cabin on a lake). We can get SO MUCH DONE on a weekend like that. I once wrote 40,000 words on one of these weekend trips. My husband swears by the Alphasmart, so I hope you find success with it!

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:07 am #

      Thanks! It makes such a huge difference to have a supportive family who understands the importance and demands of writing. My wife is very helpful in that regard, but her own schedule is largely inflexible for months at a time, so there’s only so much she can help. But we’ll figure it out.

  6. Aliette de Bodard Jan 28 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    Hey Eugene,

    I know the feeling! The first year, I mostly got by on handing the baby over to my husband–we shared downtime, and some of my downtime was writing. Memory is a bit hazy, but I think I wrote one short after the birth (because we were both at home), and then didn’t write at all for 5 months? Only started again when I started commuting. I wrote a lot on my commute; and now I write a lot in the evenings, because the infant is sleeping from 8pm onwards (didn’t actually happen for the first 6 months). It does get better; but the first six months were definitely a time of little to no productivity.

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:10 am #

      Thanks! I’m trying to pack in as much extra time to my big deadlines, knowing that at the very least it will take me much longer to write than usual and there will be periods when I can’t do any at all. I think once we get him to bed a little earlier, I’ll have some more time; he’s been great at sleeping through the night, and I have to capitalize on some of that, though it’s hard for me to forego sleep these days.

  7. Lauren Jan 28 2015 at 1:16 pm #

    My son is three, and I’ve yet to master the “writing in small bursts” trick. I tried it often when he was a baby, but it frustrated me more than helped me, so I had to find other ways.

    Getting the baby into a nighttime routine around 3-ish months is KEY to being able to write in the evenings. The baby will probably still wake several times overnight at that time (mine did, all the way until he was past a year old), but the wakeups get more predictable, so you can plan your writing time and sleep time a little better. Once we could predictably get the baby in bed by 7, I knew I had about two good hours of writing time before I needed to wind down and go to bed so as to sleep enough even with the 2 AM and 4 AM feedings.

    But I also find that I can’t do that every night. Because my day job is so writing-heavy (and therefore screen-heavy and sitting-heavy), I’ve got to take care of myself, and that involves taking a few nights off. I use present tense here because I feel like I have to re-learn this every few months. I’m working on a revision for my agent right now, and I just did three nights in a row of 9 – 11:30 writing sessions. This morning I woke up feeling hungover. Ugh. No. After my son goes to bed tonight, it’s going to be reading and exercise for me.

    And so my best writing for the past few years has happened on Sunday afternoons. I basically wrote a whole book on a series of Sunday afternoons. Like some of the others said above, having that block of time set aside for writing every week keeps me energized about the story. It takes some of the guesswork out of the “when am I going to write next?” problem, and without that stress, my mind is free to meander around the story.

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:14 am #

      This is so great — thank you! Your approach seems to be close to what I’m imagining mine will be for a little while at least. Right now, I stay up later than my wife and put the kid to bed around 11pm. Most nights, he will sleep straight through to morning! Sometimes he needs a quick diaper change (in the dark… shh… please go back to sleep) around 3am. So the options are, try to get him to bed earlier and risk waking up earlier, or stick to this plan and just write for an hour or two after 11pm? I suspect the amount of sleep I get will be about the same, but if I put him to bed at 7pm, there will be many nights where my wife won’t get to spend any time with him because she’s leaving before he wakes up and getting home too late.

  8. Rochelle Jan 28 2015 at 1:27 pm #

    I have a seven-month-old and a husband who works nights, so I don’t know if this schedule will work for you or not, but I write when she sleeps. Since she’s usually in bed by 7, that gives me a few hours a night that I can work. On the weekends, I write during her nap times. Conveniently, she refuses to take long naps at daycare and makes up for it on the weekends, so I get two hours at a time twice a day. It isn’t much, but it helps. If your spud doesn’t go to sleep until much later, I don’t know what to do…

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:17 am #

      Hmm. *ponders* He takes such short naps though 🙁 But I like the idea of “write when he sleeps” though I’m not sure when I will sleep! Still, all the little bits will add up. I do need larger chunks of time when I’m revising, but I won’t be there for a while yet.

      • Rochelle Jan 29 2015 at 11:31 am #

        Last night I wrote from 10:30 to midnight, and the baby woke up at 3:30, 5:15, and 5:45. So I’m obviously doing *great* this morning…

  9. Erin Bowman Jan 28 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    I can relate SO MUCH. My main goal for 2015 is to find a new writing routine. (I think that routine might change week to week, but we shall see.) I did just hire a part-time nanny, so hopefully I can get some writing done on those days, bc yeah… I haven’t written in the last three months either. >.<

    • Eugene Jan 29 2015 at 2:19 am #

      Thank you! It’s so hard not knowing how much writing I can manage. It’s like, I don’t want to be flaky about committing to a hard deadline, but… I have to be flaky. I really hope the nanny works out for you — please report back! Why can’t I just hire Scott Baio to be in charge of my kid’s days and nights?

  10. Sim Jan 29 2015 at 12:40 pm #

    Don’t have a baby, but have you tried recording your voice? It can be relaxing to young children and it’s hands free.

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