“Time Keeps on Slippin’ . . . .Into the Future”
Or: “How to find the time to write”
by Thomas F. Monteleone
If you ask writers to name the most important writing skills to master, most of them will include discipline and time management way up on the list. Because thinking about writing is nice, but actually making the time to sit down and do it is a lot more crucial. You can have all the skills and tricks and sheer talent of any of us, but if you don’t make time in your life to write, your novel is not going to happen.
Whenever I appear at a school or a college or even a convention of readers and fans, and I’m talking about writing, I ask the audience if they think they could write just three pages a day. I usually get a lot of cautious affirmatives, and even some indignant “of-course-I-cans!”
I smile, and I tell them I’ve just given them the Secret of the Universe. If you want to write novels, just write those three pages a day. Figure it out: 3 pages a day (and let’s take off week-ends for whatever else needs attention in your life) works out to 15 pages a week, and around 60 pages a months. In six months, you will have a 360-page manuscript.
Not a large novel . . . but not a small one, either.
When people hear this, they are amazed because they’ve probably never bothered to do, as they say, “the math.” It inspires new writers and aspiring novelists because it reduces the task of creating all those pages into something that at least seems do-able.
And I gotta tell ya: every time I finish a book, and finally print-out all the pages at once, and get a look at that huge stack of pages, bigger than the phone books of most cities, I am still amazed that anybody can write that much about anything. And, hey, I did it!
But then, after I sit there for a few minutes, I get this great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment-yeah, I think, I did that, and it feels good.
You can get that feeling too, and believe me, there’s nothing like it.
Here what another writer said:
“When I start a book, I always think it’s patently absurd that I can write one. No one, certainly not me, can write a book 500 pages long. But I know I can write 15 pages, and if I write 15 pages every day, eventually I will have 500 of them.”– John Saul
But there’s an important corollary to that Secret of the Universe: you have to write those 3 pages every day. Or, you have to write enough over a 5-day period to average 3 pages a day. That requires something all real writers have-discipline. It’s the ability to make yourself do the writing. It’s being so dedicated to a goal, you don’t let anything get in your way of achieving it.
News flash: The only way you’re going make discipline a part of your life is by learning how to manage your time. But don’t worry about it; I’m going to show you some ways to do it. No time like now, so let’s get started . . .
Analyze Your Time and Your Self
Before you can get serious about discipline, you have to take a good, hard, honest look at the hours in your day and your week. If you’re into charts and that kind of thing, then by all means, make one which gives you a picture of your life in terms of the hours and days and who wants a piece of you and when . . .
If you’re like most of us, you have some kind of job, which is taking up a considerable chunk of your time. That is obviously time you need to . . . ah, work around, as they say.
Who Are You and What Do You Do?
These are questions only you can answer, but I can speculate a bit, and maybe anticipate some of the scenarios, which may apply to you and your situation. Right up front, I’m going to tell you finding time to write is not just possible; it’s easy. My experience, and from what I hear from successful writers, tells me that a major source of discipline comes from the desire to write.
If you want to write, you will.
If you want to make excuses for writing, you’ll do that, too. But we don’t need to dwell on that one. You probably know about that all too well.
Time is what it’s all about. Your job is to find the time to do what you want in your life. It’s there, but you might have to work hard to find it.
If you have a full-time job, no matter what you do, you already have anywhere from seven to ten hours of your day already spoken for. I have a friend who drives in and out of Boston each week and spends three hours every day. That is essentially wasted time (if we can discount the vigilance and skill required to keep him from auto accidents and related mayhem).
If that describes you, you might want to think about using that time to dictate stories, journal entries, story plots, character profiles, scenes of dialogue, or even whole chapters. This may be awkward at first, but if you get one of those digital dictation recorders (voice activate), you can give it a shot and see how it feels.
I’m not sure it was true, but I can remember somebody telling me Ellery Queen never wrote a word-he dictated everything, gave it to his secretary, then went over it with a red pencil, before giving it back to her for another run through the typewriter. So, look, it might work for you, too. Sure beats just sitting there staring at the license plate of that Taurus in front of you, don’t you think?
Writing for Your Supper
If your job requires you do a lot of writing each day, that could have a definite effect on the amount of writing you get done when you’re not at work. If you write for a newspaper, advertising or government agency, a law firm, or even an insurance company, you might be burned-out by the time you get home. The last thing you feel like doing is more writing . . . and that’s lethal.
The worst situation is having a job in which the writing you do there is competing with the writing you want to do on your own. That can be discouraging and depressing and may eventually force you to make a very serious decision. And I’m talking about a life-changing one. Like: quit the job or quit writing.
I think I said in an earlier chapter how important it is to have a job that keeps you from writing. I repeat this point because it also relates to time management and discipline. If you’re doing something all day that has nothing to do with writing, then, all the better. Psychologically, you’re pumped to get home and get a few words down.
Being a Creature of Habit
How are you on deadlines? Repetitive tasks? Routines?
Do you keep your lawn maintained on a regular basis? Change the oil in your car when you’re supposed to. Call your mother, your kids, your friends timely enough for them to not wonder if you stumbled into some fissure in the earth?
What does your basement look like? Your garage, or your workbench? Do you like to hang things on pegboard? How do you feel about filing cabinets? A lot of writers I know feel very comfortable walking around in office supply stores; do you?
Your answers will give you some heads-up on the kind of personality you have, and just how easy or tough it is for you to stay organized enough to create a writing schedule and stick to it. And I don’t mean you have to be some obsessive-compulsive automaton or a loony neat-nik, either. My desk and office gets progressively cluttered and full of paper the deeper I get into a project. Anyone who walks in will think a tornado takes a regular spin through the place-and it does, the tornado of mutant thoughts in my head all day long. But don’t think I’m not organized, because I am. I know what each flung paper is and why I’m keeping it around. When I finish the story, article, column, book, script, or whatever, I pick up everything, file it, or toss it, neaten up the office, and move on to the next project.
Okay, enough about you. The above should get you thinking about the way you work and your work habits you’ll need to cultivate or change to fit the writing regimen you need to create. We all have good habits and bad ones. You need to make writing something (good or bad) a part of your day. You need to make a necessary habit (like brushing your teeth) you’ll feel bad about shirking.
Everybody is different, and everybody has a load of different parameters running through their lives. So, it’s not that important what your schedule actually is . . . only that you have one.
I can’t spend a lot of time on this because a schedule is a personal thing. For instance, unless I have very pressing deadline, I practically never write on weekends, which is reserved for family stuff, but some writers (who have so little time during the week) use their weekends to do all their writing each week.
The other thing about making and keeping to a schedule is that you shouldn’t carve it into a stone tablet. Take it for a given that some days things just aren’t going to work out and you’re going to miss the hours and pages you planned.
Don’t let it bug you. Forget it, and move on to the next day. And don’t try to make up the page tomorrow. You’ll make yourself nuts if you try to crank out double the amount you decided was feasible in the first place. Never look back, only ahead.
Some writers keep one of those erasable plastic schedule-makers on their wall next to the desk. They write in what they need to do for a week or two in advance and they see it each day and they check off how well or poorly they’re doing. If it works for you, keep doing it. But watch it. Some of the wall-chart people I know get carried away with, and start figuring out ways to run statistical analysis on their productivity with time-motion studies and percentage pie-charts and a bunch of other stuff that becomes the reason for its own existence and ends up stealing away writing time or worse, an excuse not to write.
My best advice is to keep experimenting with your schedule until you find one that:
1.) is realistic in terms of pages per day. Three pages is doable for most people. Fifteen is not.
2.) Doesn’t conflict with the needs and schedules of others in your life-such as bosses, spouses, kids, friends, etc.
3.) Is flexible enough to absorb the unexpected changes it will endure.
The important thing about your writing schedule is it feels right to you. It should work well enough that you feel good about sticking to it, and the results you get. A bad schedule is one you look at like a jail sentence of any required repetitive task you don’t like doing (one of mine is mowing a lawn . . .man I hate that!).
Just remember: the longer you do something, the more likely it will become ingrained and easier to do the next time. Kind of like the muscle-memory thing with a golf swing. It takes while to kick-in, but when it does, you stop thinking about it so much, and just do it.
Rules of the Game
Now, in order to make the schedule easier to maintain, I’m going to lay out a few tips, which are actually rules. Not titanium-clad, but you better pay attention.
Very crucial. Don’t set yourself up to be interrupted. So tell yourself, and mean it, you’re not going to answer the door or the phone. If you don’t have an answering machine, get one. At the least, get caller ID so you can answer if it’s urgent or an emergency.
If you are a computer person, don’t schedule your time on the Internet and email as the same time for your writing. The Internet is great and so is email, but they can be huge timesinks for writers. Peter Straub once told me he added up the amount of email he wrote over an average six-month period and he said the wordage equaled a small novel(!), which made him think twice about responding so dutifully to all his correspondents.
Make a general announcement to the rest of the family or roommates that you CANNOT be interrupted when you’re writing. At first, nobody will take you seriously, but if you establish up front that repeated distractions will make you very cranky, you will get the respect you need. Be insistent. Nobody will take it seriously unless you do.
Lastly, if something is distracting you on a consistent basis. . . and messing with your output, you need to isolate it and REMOVE it from your writing environment. Don’t ignore the problem. It’s only going to make things worse.
Hide the Remote
One of worst time-eaters in our lives is the television. True, it has been a fantastic invention, but I don’t think I being hyperbolic when I say that even with 200+ channels of all-digital cable TV, there are many occasions when there isn’t a thing worth watching.
Stop watching so much TV. If you add up the number of hours you watch in a week, you’ll get depressed because it’s time you can’t get back, time you could have spent writing.
Tell yourself you’re not one of the watchers; you’re one of the creators. You are one of the people who create the stories the herd of sheeple want to watch.
Years ago, when I was still in graduate school, the only time I had to write was late at night–between 10:00 p.m. and midnight. The lateness didn’t really bother me. I was younger and it wasn’t that big a deal to subsist on 4-5 hours sleep just about every night. What did present a problem was the lack of continuous hours in which to write.
I remember one evening I had gone over to the University of Maryland campus to listen to a friend of mine, the late Roger Zelazny, who was scheduled to do a reading to the college science fiction society. He was an established writer and he did this sort of thing a lot. Afterwards, we went out for coffee and talked writing. I guess I’d been complaining, because I recall Roger telling me his solution to short windows of opportunity: faster writing.
At first, I figured he was kidding around, but he shook his head. He meant it. He said it was all in the way you looked at it; and the best way was to pretend you were giving yourself an “essay exam” like the ones in college. You remember them–you had 45 minutes to fill as many “bluebooks” as possible; and therefore, convince your professor you were brimming over with information and knowledge.
And that’s the point of this particular advice. I know it sounds silly, but write faster. (And yeah, I can hear some of you yelling and screaming, but I already told you how I feel about the “one good sentence” phonies, right?)
If you can teach yourself to write as fast as possible, the results will be obvious-you’ll have more material to work with. And with computers playing so heavily in writer’s lives these days, the idea of typing so fast you’re manuscript is full of mistakes is not so terrible. (But don’t forget: Roger was telling me this before the computer age. So, he wasn’t being glib about not worrying about how easy it would be to fix typos.)
Okay, bear with me for a second here, while I wax metaphorical–by using sculpture as our example. If you’re trying to create a statue, and you have to mix your materials from scratch, the idea would be to get the clay or mud or plaster (or whatever your glop might be . . .) into some kind of recognizable shape as quickly as you can. Then, you can take a more leisurely time shaping and sculpting your basic form. The idea is to achieve an elementary shape, which can be tweaked and fine-tuned later.
The value in writing fast is you end up getting something on paper. I’m tempted to say get anything on paper because the biggest stack of bad writing is infinitely better than no writing.
Space versus Time
Finding a space where you can do your writing is a major factor of time management. Ideally, you can sequester yourself in a spare bedroom, a “sewing” room, a den, or even a little cubicle in the basement. If you have to invent a new space in the attic or over the garage, well, maybe you better grab your toolbox and your measuring tape.
Having a special, writing space set aside can have a great impact on the amount of real writing time you get done. If you have a desk where you can spread out your papers, your reference materials, notebooks, disks, etc., and leave them there all the time, you have just gained many writing hours over the course of a year. Think about it. If you’re forced to write in a space, where you must set up each time you want to write, you waste time doing that.
One of the other things you want in your writing space is a door to keep yourself in and everybody else out. There’s nothing worse than getting interrupted repeatedly when you only have limited amounts of time at your disposal. And if the door has a lock on it, even better.
And if your space has a phone in it, unplug it. Leave it out in the hall. The worst habit to get into, when you’re locked away, is to let the world in with you . . . when you’re supposed to be letting out the world inside you. Same goes for a window-you don’t need one. But if you have one, make sure you have curtains, or that it looks out on something essentially bland and not very distracting. A brick wall would be great.
And lastly, if you don’t have a spare room, a basement, or garage loft, then set up and start typing in the bedroom or the kitchen table. Plenty of great books have been written in both locations. I used to write on the dining room table in my graduate school apartment. I wrote maybe 20 short stories with that set-up. Then, I moved to this really tiny townhouse and my desk was in the living room–a space that held my big-assed IBM Selectric on a desk . . . but no television. I wrote a couple of novels in that wide-open, high traffic area.
If you have a laptop computer, you can write no matter where you go. In the car on long trips (when you’re not the driver), in planes and airports, and even doctors and dentists’ offices. In fact, I’m sitting at my car dealership as I write this sentence, waiting for my 35,000-mile check-up to be finished. (Everybody else in here with me is sitting around with kind of slack expressions on their faces. But me, hey, I’m being my usual creative self.)
The point is clear: you find whatever space you can, and you put it to the best use you can.
c) Final Considerations
Okay, everything I’ve been talking about is all well and good, but what do you do if none of it’s working?
In other words, your job and you commitments to family friends, organizations, etc. is so great (at least for the present) that there’s no way you can write three pages a day. No way you can even write anything each day. You’ve looked at things realistically, and you don’t see a regular schedule-the schedule needed to produce a novel–available until some wholesale changes can be made or planned that will take some time into the future (like a new baby gets older, a different job is found, a new roommate, a change in your relationship with spouse or otherwise special person, etc.)
So what do you do?
Couple of things:
1.) Start writing other kinds of things. If all you have time for is a journal entry, do it. Even if you hate poetry, try you hand at it. Or write a quick essay in which you express an opinion about something that really pisses you off (they’re the easiest ones to do . . . . Try your hand at short stories. The idea is to take on projects that you know can be completed within the parameters of your daily routine. 2.)
3.) Keep the novel as your primary project. Write scenes, character sketches and biographies, plot outlines, and other parts of the process that are short enough to be adapted to your fractured, or non-existent, schedule. 4.)
5.) Don’t give up. No matter how hard it is for you to find time and maintain discipline, tell yourself you’re not giving up-ever. That’s why selecting projects with finite, close-at-hand end-points (suggestion #1)is so important. If you can create a psychological atmosphere in which the time you do spend results in some finished projects, you will be in better shape to persevere. 6.)
Just get used to it, like this guy once said:
“Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life.” — Lawrence Kasdan
So, if you forget most of what I just told you. At least remember this stuff:
(1) Time Management and Discipline are two of the most important skills a writer can develop. If you don’t spend the time writing, nothing gets done.
(2) You will be able to create a realistic, workable writing schedule only after making a realistic assessment of your habits, personality traits, obligations, and daily routine.
(3) Train yourself to be disciplined and follow your schedule. There will be many things in your life, which will intrude on your writing. Do whatever it takes to remove them.
(4) Don’t be discouraged. Writing takes time. Your time. Whatever time you can invest will be rewarded.
Okay, that’s it for today.