Okay, Amy gets first pick because she posted in the comments first! (Although I'm happy to say that it sounds like more than one person is interested in her chosen topic.) This post is about balancing writing with the day job.
I'm an attorney. Big Firm lawyers are not known for having a whole lot of extra time on their hands, but I am here to tell you that time can be made to write if it's important to you. (If it's not that important to you, then by all means go see what's on your TiVo instead.)
When did I start to make time for my writing? In 2005, when I learned about NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.
The challenge: Write a novel (defined as 50,000 words or more) within one month. Specifically, the month of November. Even more specifically, the month that started about two weeks from when I found out about NaNo. This was ideal. It was definitely a benefit to not have too much time to consider what I was getting into, since I hadn't been writing regularly up to that point. More about "irregular" writing towards the end of this post.
The goal: The end of the "some day" novelist. If not now, when? I loved writing -- writing is my favorite part of my legal work as well -- and I wrote fiction intermittently, and even though I had never said out loud that I wanted to write a novel someday, the second I heard about NaNo, I knew that I had to do it. You wanna write fiction? Then put up or shut up.
The reason it works: Successful NaNo writers are so focused on the time constraints that the internal naysayers ("...it'll never be good enough...") have no choice but to shut up and get out of the way. How good can it be in 30 days, anyway? The point is to get the sheer volume of words down on paper. Don't get it right, get it written. You can't edit a blank page.
The result: Dude. It was awesome.
It is worth mentioning that I did not win. Let me be clear on this -- for me, NaNo was and will probably never be about "winning" in the strictest sense: 50K words in 30 days. My natural writing style apparently tops out at around 1,000 words in a day, and you need nearly twice that to win NaNo (especially since there will probably be at least a day or two where you don't write at all). It's not just that I lose quality when I try to write more than 1,000 words a day, it's that it's not fun for me anymore. And I actually lose the thread of the story by trying to pack something (anything!) into the story just to meet a high word count goal. I need more "down time" for ideas to percolate.
But I absolutely won in the grander scheme of things. In November 2005, I wrote 30,000 words that would not have been written otherwise. And because of the ridiculous time crunch, I abandoned all thoughts of getting a "perfect" writing environment, or a "long enough" span of uninterrupted time.
Admit it, writers, don't you think this? If only I didn't have to work so late, I'd have the whole evening ahead of me. If only I could write somewhere isolated where I could play my music. The if onlys will kill your productivity dead. You must squelch them quickly and ruthlessly. THIS IS THE TIME MANAGEMENT LESSON LEARNED FROM NaNo. It's not just about dumping the idea of perfection in your actual writing (it's called a "first draft" for a reason, people). It's also about dumping your ideas of having the perfect writing environment.
I was working full time at a law firm during my first NaNo, and I wrote during the down times when I was waiting for a senior partner to bring me his edits. (Before NaNo, I probably would have idly surfed the net instead, and then wondered what happened to my one evening break.) I carried a spiral notebook with me everywhere, writing in bed before I fell asleep, and in the morning right when I woke up. When I had a moment alone with my computer but no ideas, I would transcribe those handwritten notes, and often found that the new ideas would bubble up while the old ones were being typed out.
And it wasn't about inspiration. This is also important. I wrote "irregularly" before NaNo, because I basically waited to be inspired. When I was hit with an idea, I would write it (and I think I wrote it well), but in between those times... nothing. What NaNo taught me was how to work despite a lack of inspiration. It taught me how to problem-solve... I mean, something has to happen next, right? And there's a deadline, so I can't just wait a few weeks for the idea to show up on its own. So instead of waiting for that magical bolt of idea-lightning, I would consider all the things that could happen. And the more I did it, the more I would recognize when one scenario was the right one for the story.
And that's how I ended up with 30K words in 30 days despite having never written anything that long before. And I felt like I had more time in my days because I was using the time well.
Bear with me for an analogy: Weight Watchers assigns points to all foods, so you can "budget" what you eat, given the number of points you should eat every week to stay on track. Normally, if you tell me I can't have something, I immediately want it. (Very mature, I realize.) So, when I first joined Weight Watchers, I immediately did the math for one of my junk food favorites, and realized that a single Big Mac (I used to have two in one sitting, oh, how I miss my teenage metabolism!) would use up 80% of the base number of points I had in any given day, although there were extra weekly points I could use up to "pay" for that meal. And boom, like that, I wanted a Big Mac, because it was horrible for me and I "couldn't" have it.
Except, the whole point of WW is that you can have whatever you want, as long as you budget your points properly. So, if I was committed to making it happen, I could have eaten lots of zero-point foods that day to balance out the Big Mac. But every time I walked by a McDonald's, I thought, "Do I really want to spend my points that way? I mean, I could probably get something really exotic and delicious if I'm going to blow that many points in one sitting. A Big Mac isn't that good, when you get right down to it..."
And I'd move on. At this point I honestly can't remember the last time I had a Big Mac, but I used to have them all the time, without really noticing what I was doing. (You know, until that teenage metabolism abandoned me.) But once I thought hard about the trade-offs, I recognized that it wasn't worth it.
I bet you're sitting in front of the t.v. or computer for a decent chunk of every day, without really thinking about it. But this time can be budgeted another way. And I'll admit that my novel sat around mostly untouched for large chunks of 2006 and 2007. But I started noticing how much happier I was when I made the time to write, and I started using the NaNo lessons far more regularly:
- You don't need the perfect writing environment
- You don't need a long chunk of free time
- You don't need to get it right the first time
- You do need to think carefully about how your time is being spent... is it worth it?
- Every word that you write, because you made the time to write it, is a word that would have been lost otherwise. Be proud of every single one. Only got a sentence out? You crafted fiction today, and you didn't have to, but you made it happen. That is AWESOME. Now go write another one.
I also plan to come back to my genre ranting, but from a broader perspective: Mur Lafferty's latest podcast talks about Art vs. Popularity, and I think that debate is very much at the heart of the chick lit vs. women's literature dichotomy. I have to think about this a little more as well before I post...