Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Balancing Act: Work Edition

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.
A final thought: why is this post just about balancing work with the day job, as opposed to balancing work with "everything else"? Because I think there are special guilt issues that come into play when balancing writing with kids, especially if writing isn't your day job. I'll think more about it and do a future post on it, for sure.

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...


  1. To win Nano you need 1666 words per day, consistently. I've won twice and tried 4 times. Class and homework plus work just keep getting in my way.
    The first "winner" is really one of my worst stories. It just kept morphing under the word count pressure. MC went from having roommates to living alone, from being an only child to having a sister, the mom went from just plain a spoiled bitch to psycho... and those are just the minor things.
    I know from experience I'd rather write a small chunk every day then race and do as much as possible, because otherwise I get burned out. Getting into a habit, no matter how good it makes you feel is hard though.

    And my word on my computer wigged out. A few days ago it said my "trial" version expired in '06 and wouldn't let me do anything. Even though I've used it up until then with no problems and didn't know it was in trial. Sigh.

  2. One of the most effective exercises for me was the 100 Challenge or whatever it's called. You write 100 words a day for 100 days. If you miss a day, you have to start all over again. 100 words is half a page...most of the time I ended up writing much more than that. But it made me stop, even on those days when I was on vacation or whatever, and make time to at least write a few paragraphs. I learned the value of staying with a story every day. You lose momentum when you stop for a few days and start up again.

  3. Melody, that's why I said it takes about 2K words a day to win NaNo... because very few "Wrimos" (as they are called) manage to get their full word count every day, and if you skip writing during, say, the Thanksgiving weekend, there's suddenly a brutal 6,664 word deficit!

    Stephanie, I like the 100 Challenge idea. It's an attainable goal, and the small size of the word count means its easy to let go of those concerns about having "enough time" or the "right space" in which to write. It's a half page, you can get it done by hand standing up in a subway car if you have to!

    I also like the "start over" philosophy. It's so easy to pretend that you'll "make it up tomorrow" if you miss your word count goals for the day, but then you run the risk of having a word count debt that is intimidating and paralyzing. Fresh day, fresh word count, but start over until you get it right. I think that's just awesome.

  4. I LOVE this post. I had never heard of the NaNo thingo. But now I am going to check it out. I so agree with you about all the things you 'don't need' in order to sit down and do some writing. Procrastination has many creative excuses.

  5. Thanks for posting! Really great suggestions - I esp. like the idea of writing free-hand whenever you have time and then typing up when you're not feeling particularly inspired - I have jst the little notebook for that!

  6. And Nano cemented our friendship too, once we realized that we were both doing it :) I'll never forget that moment when you looked at me, squinted, and said "Are you doing NanoWrimo?"

    I'm trying to remember an old writing story, and can't, and the interwebs are failing me. So I'm going to make it up a little, but if someone has the correct version, please edit accordingly.

    The story goes that one author (Oscar Wilde? F. Scott Fitzgerald?) meets another in a bar at the end of the day and looks utterly gloomy. The second author says, "Why so glum?" The first author says, "I wrote ten words today." The second author replies, "You should celebrate! You wrote ten words!" The first author sighs, tosses back his wine, and shakes his head. "No," he grumbles. "Because only one of them was the *right* word."

    I think that's the beauty of Nano. I stop worrying about the right word...that will show up later, during edits...

    Oh, and I'm not trying to be Anonymous, but it's not letting me post this any other way.

    --Lisa P.