Stealing time to write – Some tricks and techniques

I have a day job that runs 40 hours-50 hours a week and involves travel from time to time. And then there are the other things — conventions and outside activities and responsibilities that often must fill in around that job.

Writing for long periods of time is a luxury that I find perhaps only on weekends. I’m sure most people relate to the complaint that with everything else you have to do there’s simply not enough time to write!

At one point in my graduate career, I was allowed to sit with a writing coach for a few hours.  The coach’s purpose was actually to help students who were struggling with some aspect of working on a thesis or dissertation.  The key point the person drove home was that for most people, the biggest obstacle to writing is ourselves.  Many of us don’t write because we have this concept that we need large spaces of time, need to write perfectly, and then that writing is simply the act of scribing or typing things out.  In other words, we were our own worst enemies!

The coach tried to retrain the way we were thinking about writing.

This is what I recall taking away from the short session.

  • You didn’t have to have hours a day to make progress on your writing.  He tried to say to start with fifteen minutes, but even without that time, 10 or 5 would be fine. The key was committing to something consistent everyday and to not “fall off the writing boat.” 
  • Writing time didn’t have to be at the computer. It could be drafting, outlining, preparing to write.  It could also be done -anywhere- not just at your computer. 
  • When you’re stuck, turn on a timer, just do random word sprints and go type anything.  Don’t edit. Don’t revise. Don’t get up to answer phones, look at IMs, surf the web.  Just let yourself write until that clock runs out. Then fix it later. 

Fast-forwarding a few years, here’s how I applied some of these basic points.

I knew when I started writing a serial that I had to set realistic goals for myself.  First, I worked a lot. Sometimes too much.  Therefore I could not do what the most popular serial writers did and write 2-4 times a week.    There would be no three times a week posting for me if I wanted to make sure I maintained consistency around the schedule.  So I had to relent on that point unless I wanted to fail in my first or second week out, get discouraged, and go down in flames :).

Once a week was all I thought I could do based on my own work schedule and work habits.  After that, I had to acknowledge that I did not feel I could promise more than a few pages a week if I wanted to maintain some feeling of control and quality of the work. (I had also thought I could draw a new illustration once a week but had to drop that after I realized I couldn’t maintain both aspects indefinitely once I had exhausted my initial writing buffer.) 

After establishing my target goal each week and frequency, what I had to learn was to stop trying to write all day, one day to get my installment up. I had to learn to also spread these marathon sessions out into smaller pieces of time, leaving only a few hours I might steal on the weekend to revise and edit work.

Free minutes here and there had to be recruited to do things differently.  For me, I don’t write everything perfectly in one sitting. I approach writing like I do painting or sculpting, working from shapes and outlines to finished pieces. So for me, the actual event of sitting in front of a computer and typing is usually a middle or late step in my entire creative process for that week.  

Therefore

  • 5 minutes before a work meeting allowed me to think about what characters I might use that week or the next.
  • 10 minutes while sitting in a traffic jam gave me time to listen to music and think about what emotional quality I wanted to explore with certain characters.
  • 15-30 minutes of sitting at the computer allowed to drop dialogue onto a page that would serve as the skeleton for an installment. (This would happen probably two times during the week.) 
  • 10-15 fifteen minutes later in the week would allow me to fill around the skeleton. I’d think about emotion or colors or descriptions I felt important to place around the words. Then I’d run around watching TV or doing something ‘normal’ before coming back and “decorating” the text even more. 
  • 20-40 minutes of lying in bed at night before sleeping allowed me to replay something I wrote that day, keeping it in active memory until I slept. The wish was that my brain would keep playing with the idea and that by morning I’d have a new idea, realize how to improve a section, or realize it needed to be trashed entirely :).   

It takes a bit of effort to reinforce with yourself that your writing process can still work when broken into smaller increments. But I think it’s doable just like a lot of other things in life are doable in small increments.

However, tools and other aides can help make sure there is continuity between these separate sessions.  
This is a list of some tools/workarounds I used to draft /write on the go.

  • I learned that I could use a small notebook, normally shoved into my bag, to capture my thoughts.  I have two or three notebooks for my current project. I’d often whip these out while eating on the run. Sometimes I’d be stealing ideas from watching people in a public venue who made me think “ha, I like how they interact.”   These observations would often yield small things that I could give to my characters on their own “to-do” lists/”wish lists.”   
  • I found that building both character and plot “to-do” lists became important to making sure I didn’t sit at the computer too long once I got there, blankly staring at the screen.   I consider these lists my skeletal frame for an installment, sort of a dry-run for the actual time at the computer.  
  • My notebook wasn’t available everywhere, so I learned to use livejournal (accessible on many computers and smartphones).    I set up a writing-only account and when I found a few minutes at the machine, logged in and typed out whatever came out in the next ten-twenty minutes. These word sprints didn’t always help me fulfill my weekly quota, but they helped me grasp a character, or yielded some lines or phrases that I did want to use later.  When I later discovered Google Documents had a bit more functionality and was more accessible on multiple electronic devices, I ended up defecting to that. 
  • Switching to Google Documents(Drive) allowed me to more easily move text from smartphone to the cloud and back. I realized I could use my smartphone to text sentences into either a native note app or (on one of my tablets) into the Google app itself.  This could happen when I was waiting in the airport, sitting in a terribly boring lecture, or lying in bed, and so on and so forth.   What I often cobbled together was terribly mistyped and full of unfortunate typos, but could always be reworked later on my computer at home or on my tablet in bed or re-downloaded to an appliance before I lost internet.  

This is not to say that I can claim to have written whole installments purely on these devices, but that I did get helpful pieces of text down, pieces that often served as a springboard for the text that would need to fall in place around the words prior to the posting of a full installment.

I’m sure people have other tricks or techniques to make sure that your writing isn’t bound by your location or schedule at all.  As always, love to hear what you guys do to make writing happen!

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