A couple months ago, I was at an event where someone asked how authors — particularly those with day jobs and children and life events — find time to write.
Full disclosure: I write full-time, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do that. I can’t answer as to how writers with all that going on manage to fit it in. Sorcery, as far as I can tell.
But for real, I know authors who get up an hour earlier than their kids so they can fit in their 500 words for the day, and others who write during their lunch breaks at the day job, and still others who write exclusively during the summer because that’s the only time they have enough space to make a book. Everyone has to figure out what works best for them.
Write every day. Or don’t write every day. However you get your book written, that’s okay.
Here’s the thing I want to talk about, though: however you write your book, guard your writing time.
1. Treat your writing like a job so that others will.
Sometimes, in the middle of the day, I’ll get a phone call from — say — my mother-in-law* asking what I’m doing right now. Which is code for “I need a favor” or “I have too much food and I wish to bring some to you.” But I didn’t know that at first, and for a long time, I’d answer, “Oh, nothing,” even though five seconds before I was destroying a fictional person’s entire life.
And when I said “nothing” even though I was definitely doing something, that opened the door for me to potentially lose the next three hours of my day.
When I started saying “I’m writing” or “I’m working,” sure, sometimes she’d still ask whatever she was going to ask to begin with, but it was easier for me to excuse myself to get back to work, and over time, she became more conscious of the fact that I was writing. As in, working. As in, if I worked in an office or a factory or somewhere, she wouldn’t call to interrupt my day.
But I had to treat my writing time like a job first, before I could expect anyone else to take it seriously.
*My mother-in-law is a lovely woman who reads all my books (and now books I recommend to her, yay!). She does respect my writing. Don’t get me wrong. But like many people outside the writing industry, she doesn’t really understand how much time and focus it requires. She simply had to be trained.
2. Say no to things.
Sometimes, people will ask you to do work for them. Blog posts. School visits. Panels. Speeches. Interviews. Whatever. And sometimes they want it for free.
Once upon a time, I said yes to anything I could, even if that meant I did work for free. It took me a while to realize (after several chats with wiser authors!) that free risks devaluing the work (and others’ work!), and . . . it cut into writing time. With preparation. Maybe travel. And actually doing the thing itself. And none of that is doing my actual job: writing books. So if I did an event for free?** That was hours and hours of work I not only didn’t get paid for, but also hours and hours I could have been writing my book but wasn’t.
But even if the work is paid (yay!), sometimes it’s still not worth it. Sometimes it still takes up too much time, or there are other obligations, or it’s just not something I want to spend my time doing.
I’ve had to learn (and I’m still learning!) when to say no.
That means weighing individual requests. Is it for a cause close to my heart? Will it help the community? Do I have time? Will it expose my books to a new audience? Will it advance my career?*** What do my deadlines look like and what are my goals for new stories? Is this an opportunity that won’t come around again?
Every situation is different. Every writer is different.
But I think a lot of us live in fear of missing out if we say no, and I want you to know that it’s okay if you need to say no. Or want to say no. Your time is your time.
**I firmly believe there’s a place for free work. I still say yes to a lot of charity auctions because they’re important to me. And I’ve done free school visits for underfunded schools because that’s important to me. But everyone has to make their own decisions here, based on what they can — or want to — do.
***It’s taken me some time to really believe this for myself, but it’s okay to be calculated here. It’s okay to think of your career and do things to further it. And you should, because if you don’t, who else will?
3. It’s okay to ditch things that suck away your emotional energy.
Sometimes, when it’s time to sit down at the computer and work on my book, it’s just hard to focus. Maybe I’m thinking about politics, or reviews, or the imaginary ways I can make my books sell better. (Oooh the time I’ve lost to imagining how I can make my books sell better!)
But guarding your writing time isn’t just about the fourth dimension, when you sit down to put words on paper. It’s also about being able to ditch the things sucking away your emotional energy and focus and drive to write the book.
In the words of Elsa: let it go.
I mean, I’m not saying to disengage with real life. Just, sometimes it’s important to put it on pause.
A couple years ago, I realized I was devoting a lot of time to imagining how I could sell 50,000 copies of my book in one week (I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out . . .), and I wasn’t spending nearly as much time daydreaming about my book. Whereas before I was published, I daydreamed about my book constantly.
It took some effort to realize that maybe that wasn’t productive, and I had to force myself to recognize when I was doing it — and consciously turn those thoughts back to my book.
Earlier, I said it’s okay to think of your career, and I meant it. It’s okay to think of your career. It’s okay to put your writing higher on the list of priorities and things you devote your emotional energy to.
Again, that’s not disengaging from real life, or dropping the ball on important things like day jobs or feeding children or sleeping. But value your writing. Give it the time and energy it deserves.
Guard your writing time.