There’s never enough time. This seems to be a universal truth, whether you work for a living, attend school full-time, or are a primary caregiver to a child or family member. All of your responsibilities may leave you wondering how you can possibly complete your novel
And yet, there’s also no shortage of stories about writers getting published despite hectic schedules. Stephen King is a great example. He moonlighted as a janitor and gas pump attendant for years to make ends meet, on top of teaching high school English, writing in what little time he had left after work and parenting responsibilities.
So, how do you make time to write? I’m afraid I don’t have the be-all, end-all answer to this question, but I will tell you what worked for me.
Identifying My Blocks
I’ve been writing fiction for over a decade, but it’s always been a secondary pursuit after my full-time job (usually other obligations, too). Even when I had free time, I’d find excuses not to write: the house was too messy, I was tired from a long work-week, I hadn’t been to the gym in a while and what better time to exercise than now?
I built up this idea that writing had to happen when I was feeling inspired, on a perfectly tidy desk, with zero distractions. If I had so much as a bill that was due within the next week, I’d shift gears and it’d derail my writing plans entirely.
My reluctance to sit down and write may have also stemmed from a secondary, more internal source: I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. Countless times, I’d come up with what felt like a great idea for a story, but I could never get past the initial pages, or I’d draft like the wind, only to get stuck a couple chapters in. Once I learned that I write best with an outline, that changed a lot for me. It eliminated one of the obstacles that kept me from progressing.
Time was another factor. I worked a more than full-time job on top of being a very active member of my figure skating club. This didn’t leave me a whole lot of time to write.
Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is
Last year, a new story idea formed. This isn’t unusual; I get ideas all the time. What was different this time was that I decided to take an online craft class to develop it further. I had to earmark some of my own hard-earned money to take this class. Despite my hectic schedule, I was determined to make it worth my while.
(N.B. I am definitely not saying you have to spend money to write effectively, just that the cost was a motivator for me to ensure I completed the work and learned something—which in turn led me to develop a better writing process. This is something you can absolutely learn on your own!)
Enter: 5a.m. wake-up calls each weekday. I’d also writing over my lunch break and declined invites to go out with friends so I had more writing time. Looking back, I didn’t set out to stick to a strict schedule but that’s what happened, and it kept me on track with my class assignments. By the end of the course, I had a loose outline and about 10 pages of my story written.
That could have been the end of it, but the class had a WIP pitch contest associated with it. Much like Twitter’s PitMad event, students could submit a 1-3 line novel pitch. A handful of agents and editors would review them, then request more materials, if desired.
I sent in my pitch and assumed that would be it. You can probably guess what happened next. Two weeks later, I was notified I had interest. Could I please send along my query letter, a one-page synopsis, and my first 10-25 pages?
Identifying What Drives Me
I’ll cop to the fact that I hadn’t written a single word in the weeks between the end of class and when I got my first request. I also didn’t have a solid sense of what a query letter was. Knowing it was probably best not to wait months after the requests before sending anything in, I gave myself a self-imposed deadline of 10 days to submit my materials, then got to work filling the gaps in my knowledge. Welcome back, 5a.m. wake-up calls.
I met my deadline, then lapsed with writing again. A few weeks later, the agent emailed me back. She loved my opening pages and wondered when my full manuscript might be ready to send her. A week later, an editor sent a similar message.
It was at this point that I knew my on-again, off-again writing schedule wasn’t going to cut it. This was an incredible opportunity, one that I didn’t want to let slip by. That’s when I realized something about myself that I could use to my advantage: I will move mountains to ensure I meet deadlines because I don’t like letting people down.
I also get motivated actively tracking my progress:
My outline gave me a rough idea of the number of chapters I’d need to complete in my rough draft. I created a formula in a Google Sheet based on it and filled in a row every time I completed a new chapter.
I can’t say finishing my draft and revising it was simple after coming to this realization, but it did force me to optimize my schedule. Back to 5a.m. writing sessions, but this time I stuck with them. I treated writing like the job I wanted it to become.
Defining an effective writing process was only half the battle for me. It wasn’t until I identified what motivated me to write consistently that I started making strides. For me, that involved imposing deadlines because it felt like people were counting on me (whether that was real or perceived is irrelevant since it got me to write regardless!).
If that sounds simple, I promise it wasn’t. There were so many times I questioned what I was doing, and whether I could pull it off. Writing a novel can be an intense experience under the best of circumstances, and frequently isolating, so I sought out other writers online. The #WriteMentor community provided a wonderful support system as I revised all summer. I also met other writers via Twitter and exchanged pages with some of them. These smaller critique deadlines kept me on track and ensured I hit the one that mattered. Once done, I sent the agent and editor the requested full, then began cold querying, right on schedule.
Applying This to Your Own Situation
I truly believe that there’s no one right way to meet your writing goals; what motivated me to stay on task may do nothing for you. However, I do feel it’s important to identify any obstacles that may stand in the way of achieving what you want with your writing. It may be that your current writing process isn’t working or that something in your life needs to take a temporary backseat to give you more time to write.
Whatever the case, take a deep and honest look at what’s currently on your plate. Find what drives you. Make the necessary changes.
Let’s Get Scientific:
AJ. Sass is a fiction-writing figure skater, inclined toward adventures of a traveling nature. He is autistic, non-binary, and keen on exploring how gender identity and neurodiversity impact character narratives.
A.J. is represented by Jordan Hamessley at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. His middle grade debut, ANA ON THE EDGE, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in Fall 2020. You can add it on Goodreads here.