How I Write When There is No Time

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.” — E. L. Doctorow

When I wrote this article in 1985, I’d completed four novels and eleven short stories, four of which sold to professional markets and two to fanzines. At the same time, I’d raised an infant to a six-year-old, managed a household, maintained a part-time practice in an allied health care field, kept the books for two professional practices, studied kung fu (and earned a black belt), taught infant gym and swimming classes and, for the last six months, had been serving on a federal grand jury. I had every excuse not to write. Here’s how I did it.

There are only three rules to  How I Write When There is No Time, and they’re all the same:

1, 2 & 3: I use the time I have.

Now for some corollaries, also known as Good Advice.

A. Keep Writing Fun! Do the juicy parts first. Ideally, all writing time should be spend getting down scenes that are so thrilling and so compelling, you are unaware of anything else. We live for such moments of epiphany, of struggling to keep up with the flood of language and story issuing from our fevered brains. In between miracles, however, I don’t believe in torture. If you really don’t want to write the passage you’re struggling with, then don’t. Chances are it will come out so labored that no one in their right mind will want to read it, either. Go on with what you truly love to write.

Exception: If it absolutely has to be in the story, sketch it out “bare bones,” then go on to the fun stuff. Either it will flow in the next draft or you’ll discover you don’t need it after all.

Get it down on paper (remember, I wrote this in 1985). Especially if you’re a perfectionist, push yourself to complete your first draft as quickly as possible. You can always go back and muck it up later, but you’ll at least have something to muck up. And when dinner’s late, the kids are screaming and the laundry’s a week overdue, you just can’t afford to stare at a blank piece of paper (or screen).  Writer’s block is a luxury, so indulge in it in the distant future.

B. Writing involves a lot of other things besides putting words on paper (or screen). You can do much of your word processing (in your brain!) while you’re doing something else:

… falling asleep (hypnogogic states release “reality” strictures and free creativity)

…washing dishes, doing housework, taking a shower

…walking the dog/baby/to the bus stop

…riding the bus/train/carpool

…waiting, as for kid’s swim class, for a meeting to begin, for the timer to ring…

Yes, you cry, I create these fabulous plots/characters/descriptions, but I forget them before I can write them down! So did I, before I realized that I was daydreaming rather than working in a disciplined manner. Try making a distinction between free association and paperless writing. The former is fun and therapeutic, but professional writing requires focus. While doing the latter, train yourself to work on only one project at a time, and when you hit on an image or sequence that pleases you, go over it again and again, embellishing and integrating. Each time, you’ll be adding richness and detail to your vision, a small fraction of which will end up being useful. You may not be able to remember the exact niceties, but what you reconstruct will have its own merits. (Remember all the generations of bards, including Homer, who composed orally.) You can also keep notepads in convenient places, maybe combined with a dream journal.

C. Learn to use tiny bits of time. Even if you love huge stretches of uninterrupted time, if all you have is 10 minutes, use what you’ve got. Get down the scene you’ve been working on. If it’s already paperless-written, all you have to do is transcribe it.

I haven’t found any substitute for disciple. By discipline, I don’t mean heavy-handed, joyless drudgery or excuses to feel guilty, but a structured framework of habits that help you through the grungies. Playing around with endless beginnings and daydreaming of glorious endings is ego-gratifying but hardly conducive to craftsmanship. When I sit down to write, I spend a few moments leaving everything else behind. If half my mind is on paying the bills, I can’t work effectively. I haven’t got enough time to waste being half-assed at either activity. Think of writing as a Zen exercise in staying totally in the now.

D. Be consistent. You can work on long pieces if you spend time on a regular basis. I can’t write well on less than 5 days out of 7, even if it’s only 5 or 10 minutes per day, just to keep the material fresh in my mind. I can usually “find” two or three 5-10 minute segments per day. If I let 3 or 4 days go by, it takes me a good 15 minutes to get oriented again. Sometimes if I think I’m just too tired to feel creative, I’ll reread the last few pages to encourage new ideas to pop into my brain. Writing slowly and piecemeal may be frustrating, but it can also allow for the slow simmering that makes a rich broth, as well as surprise solutions to problems that arise along the way, simply because I’ve had more time to live with them.

I try to make some weekly consistent writing time, a “date” with my typewriter (computer). Writing isn’t the only important thing in my life but, having allotted it whatever time I can reasonably manage, I regard that commitment as seriously as any other professional appointment.

E. Writing is portable. (Even if you don’t have a laptop or netbook), you can edit while riding the bus or sitting in the laundromat. I’ve written short stories and novel chapters (longhand in a spiral notebook) while waiting for my daughter’s swim or gymnastics classes. Search your day for “wasted” time and you’ll probably find a good hour or two per week that you could be writing.

F. A few words about the care and feeding of writers. I do my best work when I get regular exercise and when my chair and desk are arranged to minimize back and shoulder stress. I’m rarely too tired to write except when I need sleep. In fact, after a hard workout, my body’s grateful to stay put. But if I haven’t gotten enough exercise, I get restless and that interferes with my concentration.

A good chair is one of the best investments I’ve made. Mine is variable in height and supports my lower back firmly. Whether I’m working at a typewriter or my computer, I take the time to adjust it so that my neck and shoulders can stay relaxed.

It’s also important to me to allot quality play time and not feel guilty that I’m not writing when I’m with my family (and vice-versa). One of the nice things about having a framework of good work habits is I don’t constantly worry about losing my momentum. I know I’ll get that 10 minutes after my daughter’s in bed/before dinner/etc. Then I’ll be ready to dive in and write. Training yourself to write is a little like training a spirited horse or a top notch athlete. It’s fine to expect a lot, even demand it, as long as it’s done with consistency and care. Not egotism, just the gentle cultivation of the gift that uniquely yours and surely deserves the best loving guidance you can give yourself.


Afterword: Since I wrote this, I’ve passed through different life rhythms. Sometimes I had more time to write (once the first daughter was joined by a second and both were in school) and sometimes even less (as when I found myself a single working mom of a troubled adolescent). I learned some additional twists to keep writing while working full time.

Using the principle of small, regular amounts of time, I got up 10 minutes early (not so hard if I’ve made my lunch the night before and had my work clothes all laid out) and opened the last scene I’d worked on. All I had to do was read it. Okay, I can do that. Now all I have to do is add one sentence.  Not so hard. Then write one paragraph. The same routine held in the evening. If I did this regularly, I minimized my “start-up” time. Over the weekend, I read what I’d written, tidied up the stutters, and pushed the story forward another 5 or 10 pages.

I was fortunate in having a beautiful wooded road near my workplace, so I could walk and plan out scenes on a daily basis. This helped me to get the most out of those small sessions at home, because I knew exactly what came next. This kind of “double duty” meant that if I came home to a household crisis, at least I had kept the story alive and juicy in my mind (and gotten an hour’s walk).

Finally, I learned the importance of being gentle with myself. I’d been writing long enough to know how productive I can be when the story is “ripe.” I tried to balance the discipline of regular writing with the awareness of when I needed to recharge my emotional and creative batteries and take care of myself. I came to trust that my years of practice had developed habits that I could rely on and that I didn’t need to be harsh with myself. Writing is often hard work, but it must also be joy.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing professionally since 1982. Her most recent book, Hastur Lord, is now available from DAW.

© 1985, 2010 Deborah J. Ross (Deborah Wheeler) First published in the Newsletter of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop



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