How to Balance Writing Time

Every writer will have their own writing routine arising from personal writing goals and what they believe they are capable of in any given time frame. I think we all have our peaks and troughs – sometimes we race on ahead and surprise ourselves with our enthusiasm for the novel we are working on, whilst other times we struggle on desperate just to achieve the minimum we have set ourselves. 

I’ve been in both of these situations before – and everywhere in between. The overwhelming nature of starting out on a novel, the excitement that pushes you on and seeps into every aspect of your life, so much so that unless you’re working directly on your manuscript every other moment feels like a waste. Right through to the procrastination techniques and lengths we will go to in order to avoid just sitting down to do one more edit…Including ‘side missions’ such as ‘research’, and reading ‘comparable titles’, and doing character profiles, or looking on RightMove for your protagonists ‘dream home’ (tell me that last one’s not just me?!).

How to balance your time to write

 

But having experienced all this, it has still taken me a long time to accept that writing itself is not the only worthwhile pursuit of a writer

Instead, I now try to break my writing day up into ‘sessions’. This means that I can pick and choose what I am concentrating on in any given session. Sometimes I spend more time editing and reading than writing itself. Other times I spend the whole session writing out a whole new chapter.

However, what I have found to be vital to my sense of inspiration and motivation is reading other novels and writers’ blogs. I don’t see this as time wasted, because it helps me focus on the craft of writing – learning from others and also building a sense of community at the same time: meaning that I don’t feel so alone as a writer. 

I also break down my writing tasks into realistic, definite chunks. I set myself targets and used the concept of ‘Most Important Actions’ to keep myself on track – each day I have roughly 3 MIA’s to accomplish, and only one of these might be novel-writing. Setting such targets and reviewing them regularly ensures I feel on top of things and allows me the permission to work on different aspects of my writing craft. So, if I begin to feel guilty for reading while I think I should be writing I can reassure myself by saying, ‘But I’m going to do some writing this afternoon‘. Reading is research: I’m learning what works for other writers as I read: Just because it’s enjoyable doesn’t mean it’s not work.

That’s how I keep my routine varied and interesting. It doesn’t leave any scope to get distracted, or become too involved in one aspect of my writing and neglect other – just as important – elements, such as reading or editing. Instead, I spend some time on all of them, meaning I don’t get bored. Not only this, but when I’m really enjoying one area – like researching – it stops me from getting to far into it and can keep me focused: if I know I’ve only got an hour to find something out, then even if I might find something interesting I mark it to read on my next researching session, rather than go off on a tangent.

You can use your most enjoyable task as a reward for attempting something you like less. For me, in the beginning, this was definitely editing. I’d promise myself an hour of writing time if I got through my editing in the morning. Now, I actually enjoy editing because I’ve discovered the best way to approach it: mornings are definitely my most productive editing time. 

crop woman taking notes in diary while sitting in park

Finally, by breaking my writing time down into sessions it keeps my mind fresh, ensuring that I never feel overwhelmed by one part of the process. I might be in the midst of writing a first draft of a short story and then realise that I need to take a break, knowing that I’ll have to switch to something else after my rest. But this just means that I’m more driven to complete other things, buoyed on by my excitement that the writing brought me. It also means that I don’t neglect everything else just because I have a spark of inspiration from the muse. This won’t work for all writers, because some will benefit more by following the muse down the rabbit hole (and on occasion, even I do this). But, for me, I feel more positive if I can see slow, steady progress across the board – rather than racing ahead in one aspect. 

Of course, I should admit that there is one time of year that I suspend most of the routine I have written about so far: November. Every year during NaNoWriMo I set myself a goal to write the first draft of a new novel. In November pretty much all I do is write – but then, I’ve given myself permission to do so and know this for many months in advance: which fits right in with my ethos for writing. Because even though right now I would love to start my next idea (that conveniently popped up right on cue in late-August) I know that I’m going to be dedicating the whole of November to it. 


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What does it take to finish writing your novel?

the end

I remember finishing the first draft of my first ever novel. I’d done it; and that was it. I sat there stunned for a few minutes. Believe it or not, ‘The End’ can be a very anti-climatic moment. There is no spontaneous applause, no balloons suddenly appear and no-one in the world knows what you have just achieved until you share it with them.

Completing a novel is such a personal, private affair that often occurs in silence and seriousness. There is the weight of all that you have done on your shoulders and the fear that it will not live up to what you believe it could be. Yet, there is also pride and satisfaction in knowing that you have done what you set out to do, that you stuck with it through the difficult times and now you have something whole to show for it. Not to mention that now, thanks to the advent of modern technology, you can shout your success from the rooftops and share in your glory with others who know just how it feels to write those final words.

I’ve completed several manuscripts since that first one. And with each one I’ve learned something new about my writing and my approach to novel constructions. It can take me a long time to be able to read the story back and determine the best route for my characters. So many changes are made on the way, not just in my narrative. I’ve changed too.

Since starting my first novel in 2011 I have written seven others. These include a fun draft for a young adult novel and a first draft intended to be a sequel to that first one; That which is left is lost. In part, writing these made me really question the quality of my first novel and led to me to rewriting the whole thing. I spent 2013 trying unsuccessfully to edit that story, it wasn’t until I sat down to tackle the rewrite that I really discovered all the issues that it had. Half-formed characters, unknown motivations and lapsed story threads plagued my original draft and even the sections I had attempted to edit were lacking the pace and narrative structure to adequately tell the story I wanted to share.

finish novelIn the rewriting of that novel I had more control. I knew what was supposed to happen when, who was integral to the plot and why they were involved to begin with. So many more things were clear to me during the rewrite and I think that is because over the past few years I’ve developed my skill as a writer. I still probably have so much left to learn. But I know this much: writing those two novels in between this draft and my original copy of That which is left is lost, really helped me to understand story structure and to develop character. Now I truly understand why it is so rare for a debut novelist to be published with their inaugural novel – because good writing, storytelling and description take time to develop.

A novel needs nurturing and caring for; the idea needs time to sit and ferment. I think writers can get drunk on the possibility of new ideas and then, when they emerge out of the other side they realise, in a hungover state, that perhaps it wasn’t such a genius plan after all – that they’ve written themselves into a corner or lost the spark that they believed was the glint of literary gold. Ideas need work, and so often that takes longer than we want it to.

The process of writing a novel is not something that can simply be taught. People can advise and suggest ways for you to get started or to keep your motivation going or even how to celebrate when you finish. But they can’t write the book for you, nor can they tell you what is best for the story you are trying to tell. All of that has to come from you.

Even as a Writing Coach I can only make suggestions and help writers navigate the choices they need to make; not give them the answers. What I can do, however, is champion your writing efforts, support you as a writer, and guide you on the way to your particular novelling success. I help writers write their novel, in their own way so that, in ‘the end’ they don’t have to waste months, or even years, trying to figure out what that looks like. I took that route, and now it’s ten years later…!

Wherever you are on your writing journey, know that what it takes to finish writing a novel is, when it comes down to it, pure perseverance. Keep going, keep writing, keep editing, and one day you’ll sit back and realise: “I just wrote my novel”.

totally did it

 


 

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Writing as a Test

No, I don’t mean a test as in a way to quantify the quality of the written word. What I actually mean to do is compare writing to a 5-day cricket match.

http://www.zazzle.co.uk/cricket_hero_t_shirts-235437171820252663

Love this T-shirt from Zazzles

Not many people know that I love test cricket. I not a huge fan of the shorter forms of the game – like 20-20 or one-day matches – but I love the patience, perseverance and skill that it takes to beat a side over the course of five days. Everyone has a part to play because you need excellent batsman to score the runs and then expert bowlers and sharp fielders to take wickets. And it can all turn on the course of the weather or the quality of the pitch. It’s a wonderfully tense, involved game that people often consider boring. But I say it’s a shame for them, because test cricket is really all about the build up of pressure and the slow, but relentless, delivery of ball after ball of determined precision.

And given that the test match has distracted me from my writing for the last few days, it seems apt to try and take a lesson from it. Cricket is about focused persistence – delivering a perfect over time after time, deciding whether to play the ball or not, and waiting for that catch that might be the flicker of a chance. So, in many ways I can see that writing a novel could be seen to be the same.

Delivery of a ‘perfect over’
Writing that ‘perfect scene’ is almost impossible, but when you finally get it right you feel like fist pumping and cheering. And you can often write perfectly good scenes time after time, but they always seem lacking something – as in cricket when the bowler is pounding down the wicket delivering breathlessly spectacular balls that skim the air around the bat but don’t actually make contact.  I find that most of my writing is like this now – good but not quite good enough.
Yet, sometimes, after a dozen rewrites or a deep mining of the motives and conflict required I hit that magic moment when what I read out pings off the page and comes alive. It takes a lot of work but it’s worth it in the end.
Of course, there’s also that fluke ball (occasionally delivered by the all-round Yorkshire-man Joe Root in England’s case) where a scene just comes together the first time around and you can’t quite believe it. That’s when I mimic Stuart Broad’s OMG moment in the Ashes of 2015.

Deciding whether to play (or not)
There is so much of this in writing. Deciding which competitions to enter, which characters to include, which story-lines to follow and so on and so forth. But, for me the one that this particular simile brings to mind is during the editing stage when you are soulfully attempting to make your story sing.

Every single sentence, every single word, counts. Just like for a batsman at the crease who has to determine how to move his feet, whether to play at a shot or leave it to fly past the stumps. Even the most tentative of movements can upset the balance – that split second they decide to play a shot, only to realise that it’s the out-swinger and it should be left well alone. Too late – it’s edged and caught at slip and they’re out!
In the publishing world even the smallest jarring of language or misspelled word can be an excuse for an agent or publisher to stop reading. The flow of the writing is just as important as the content in this context, and so you have to know when to hit big and when to be cautious. On a grand scale, this can be the difference between hitting a six/getting that agent or taking that long walk back to the pavilion/being rejected. But sometimes, you also have to know that – in cricket – the bowling was just that good and there was nothing you could have done to change the outcome; and sometimes, we have a lapse in concentration and go for those silly, high shots and get, deservedly, caught out.

Waiting for that catch
It doesn’t take a genius to work out how this analogy applies to writing. As a fielder during the match you stand there and wait, and wait, and wait. Sometimes there’s a bit of chasing the ball but mostly what you’re training your muscles to do is react quickly when the ball comes flying at you. If you’re ready and you catch it, celebrations ensue! Of course, most of the time this is short-lived, because then out comes the next batsman and it starts all over again – and if not the next batsman in this match, the one in the next. Catches are short-lived glory: staying on the team is what matters.
a-general-view-of-the-sli-007How long the wait can be when you submit writing…occasionally a response might never come. Sometimes there is a trickle of possibility, but then it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted (the review system in cricket emphasises this heartily). The point is, all cricketers have to wait for the catch just like we have to wait for that chance to prove our writing can entertain others. Some days you get lots of catches, other days not so many and then still, others where there are none at all. In test cricket this is just how it is – you are playing the long game and most of that is about hard work, perseverance and patience.

 

Writing that dreaded Synopsis

I think putting together a synopsis for a novel is one of the most challenging aspects of writing for ‘new’ writers. I am certainly finding it very difficult. How am I expected to sum up a story that it has already taken me around 90,000 words to tell in only a page or two?

There are numerous methods and techniques out in the either of the web that can help you write a synopsis, and most of these are centred around the various basic story structures that should come together to form a novel.

The basics of a good story...

The basics of a good story…

Here are a few that I’ve been finding useful*:

  • If you need to be taken through every step – maybe because you aren’t clear on your plot, or like to be thorough – try How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel by Glen C. Strathy. This is a Seven Step Programme that will help you identify all of the key points for both the emotional aspects and main arc of your plot
  • If you feel that you have a good grasp of your story and characters, Synopsis Writing Made Easy by James Scott Bell might be better for you. This is a good paragraph by paragraph guide to synopsis writing that starts out with the premise of your novel in just one sentence!
  • I also really like How to Write a One-Page Synopsis, written by Amanda Patterson. This is a great, quick reference to the synopsis writing process – providing you know your main plot points.
  • Finally, I had an excellent recommendation from a friend – actually, my new critique partner, – who has been struggling with a synopsis herself recently. She suggested I check out Dan Wells’ Seven Point Story Structure, recommended by the Self Publishing Toolkit. Not only do they offer worksheets to get you started, but Dan also has some awesome videos on YouTube (Part 1/5 here).
    Having read my friend’s brilliant synopsis yesterday this technique most definitely works.

* It should be noted that if you’re writing a synopsis for querying always check the submission guidelines to see what the agent/publisher expects. 

The biggest issue I have is that my novel doesn’t conform to the standard story structure. The story does – but the novel itself does not. Whilst I have my main story arc (written in 3rd person) between this there are three instances of 1st person story flashbacks from different characters – all of which also have their own story structure included.

Therefore, as it stands, I officially have four stories in one. Writing a standard synopsis, therefore, doesn’t really sum up my novel as a whole. In order to get around this, I’m going to have to play around a little longer with different techniques and see what works best. I suppose I can take solace in the fact that at least it’s not as complex as Cloud Atlas – for which I discovered this basic synopsis.

Once I’ve got a version I’m happy with I’ll be sharing my new synopsis here so you can see how I got on. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the plot of my novel, check out my current ‘book blurb’ on my Novel’s Page.

~~~

Have you struggled writing a synopsis, or did you breeze though it? Any tips or links would be gratefully received via comments. Or, alternatively, Tweet something for my attention @CatLumb


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One thought on “How do you ‘make’ time to write?”

  1. Very well written. We usually spend time without management. Prioritising things are important when it comes to time, because it never waits for anyone. Thanks for sharing thoughts ❤️

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