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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A Letter to My Dearly Departed Dog

Dearest Mac,

I miss you. It’s only been two months since you disappeared over Rainbow Bridge, a journey I sent you out on alone because you were no longer able to enjoy this life as you once had done. It was a difficult decision, but living with the consequences of such a choice has been much harder.

I miss having a reason to get out of bed in the morning and your sleepy little face waking up so pleased to see me; the sound of your paws on the laminate flooring, scraping and tapping away when you got up before I did. I miss the soft depth of your fur as I scratched behind your ears, watching the grin spread across your face and your head tilt further toward me, entranced by the bliss of my fingers massaging your head. I miss your smell; that musty, deep aroma that I used to breathe in whenever I came home after work: to me it meant that the wait was over, that it was time to play, that we were united again.

Jpeg

I remember moaning whenever I was tired and I had to take you out in the rain, except, once we were out braving the weather together – you in your coat and me in mine – it was peaceful and energising. I always came back home feeling better than when we left. I recall your little trot instead of a walk and how you would bound about instead of run; your happy, swaying movements portrayed genuine joy and that could only ever make me smile. I remember coming home from work angry, when things hadn’t gone to plan or someone had let me down, and there you were, waiting to cheer me up, to make me forget the worries of the outside world because when we were together nothing else mattered to you, or to me.

There is a space beneath my desk now, where you used to rest beside my feet as I wrote. The corner where your bed used to be is clear and I don’t believe anything will ever fill that space again, not like you. The hook where your leads and collars and coats used to hang are empty now, the novelty dog tail still – there will be no more wags from you. The house is quiet without your footsteps, tapping along the hall, and no gentle snoring accompanies my daily chores although the silence echoes just as loud.

The largest void remains in my heart when I think of how essential you were to my life. At home you were my shadow and now no companion waits for me outside the bathroom door, as excited to see me after my two minute break than if I had been gone for hours. You were the reason I stopped to talk to people as we walked, and grew to know my neighbours. And when I struggled with my health you expected nothing but my love, and judged me not for the things I could not do but for the simplest gestures of attention that were all I could manage on a bad day. You helped me push through my boundaries and commit to the things I loved to do. In this way you were my inspiration, my muse and my champion; each day marked by those three walks we took that structured each one.

Jpeg

I’ve stopped writing now. It isn’t the same without you here. There will always be something missing whenever I sit down at my desk and prepare to write. There is no impetus to roll out of bed, no thoughtful morning walk or happy playful times. My feet remain cold as I sit here and the room is quiet, and I have no encouraging eyes to look upon when I come to a blank moment. There is no end to the torture of that blank page that I am now to face alone; no hopeful face looking up at me to remind me that it’s time to stop and take a break. And there are no silly celebrations when I do finally find the words; no squeaky toys to watch you chase or treats for you to find. My writing world is ‘blah’ without you in it and I find myself at a loss to continue with it now you’re gone.

Instead I write to you, my faithful rescue dog, who knew how to make me smile when I was down and calm me when I despaired. You gave your whole self to me and I had to let you go. And the pain is still so raw, my home too empty and quiet, and my heart broken.

Yours Forever and More,
Cat x

The long winding road of how to be a writer…

Squeezing in time to write can sometimes be the biggest barrier to actually getting anything written. Most of us have busy lives and a list of priorities that other people can often depend on. Fortunately, right now I am lucky enough to not be in such a category.

Over the past three years I’ve had to rearrange my responsibilities quite drastically thanks to contracting a virus in 2009 that left me with M.E. (more commonly recognised as ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’). Since then I have had to simplify my life. I was off sick for a number of months (and then off sick repeatedly over a number of weeks), and for a short time I could barely leave my apartment because I couldn’t be sure I’d have the energy to get back – even though I might only be considering a journey to the shop around the corner.

It was in this time I came to the realisation that I had always wanted to write, but never actually gotten around to do any real writing. I re-read some of my old journals, during which I digested pages and pages of promises to write, desire to create stories and even ideas that I planned to put down on paper…eventually. But, until 2011, nothing had come of it.

In 2011 I started to get better. Now, this disability isn’t one that has a typical course of treatment followed by a recovery time. M.E. can plague people for a lifetime, or it can slowly fade away only to reappear at another time. Here, again, I am one of the lucky ones. The methods I was advised to put in place to aid my body in the healing process worked for me. For others, this is not the case. As such, I was able to get back to work (and fortunately I had a workplace that had decent Occupational Health support and a Disability Office to advise me), and get my life back on track for the most part.

Now, that’s not to say I resumed my old life and picked up where things had left off. It was my old life that had gotten me into the mess in the first place. I was a high achiever, a perfectionist, a people-pleaser. I rarely said ‘No’ to anything asked of me and I thrived on deadlines and challenges. As it was, I also enjoyed the pride of a job well done and the glow of recognition and congratulation it brought me. But I didn’t have time to write. What do you know – pride does come before a fall!

So, when I started to recover from the overwhelming tirade of symptoms that characterised M.E. (surprisingly, it’s not just being tired all the time, there are a whole host of other doozies that just serve to tire you out even more!), I promised myself that I wouldn’t repeat history. This time I would try; not for everyone else, not for the adulation, but for me. I consistently wrote that I wanted to write – well, that I would.

And so the blog was born! I threw myself into writing, even though I hated what I wrote. It was sloppy, it didn’t read well, it was full of clichés and stereotypes: but I was writing! Then I discovered NaNoWriMo and I set to the challenge with cautious gusto. I struggled through it and got my ‘win’ – and also one third of a first draft novel that it would take me a whole year to complete. But I had done it.

And you know how? By keeping that promise to myself and by putting into practice all the things I learned when I was recovering from my M.E.:

  1. Pace Yourself
  2. Plan Ahead
  3. Moderation
  4. Delegation
  5. Only give 80% (actually, this was 10% when I first started recovering – I had to work up to this slowly!)
  6. Maintain Hope
  7. Ask for Help

Advice for those with M.E. is to relinquish control. Stop doing all those things that people expect of you and just do the things that are important. For me, for a while, that meant being signed off sick rather than struggling into work. This also meant that I had to ask for help and share out what needed doing to other people. It was the same at home, I wasn’t capable of most of the household chores, so they were delegated to my partner. Even now I have only done the washing up a handful of times this year because it is one of the tasks I abhor and it used to set off my ME symptoms.

Number 5. also gave me a lot of trouble. I was used to throwing myself into things at 120% – in fact, that is what people expected of me, so it was even harder to give that up. But I discovered that I could still do much of what was needed without having to exhaust myself in the process. I held back. I stopped when I was tired. I started to say ‘No’ when I knew I couldn’t commit to something. I was forced to plan ahead and schedule my time wisely – not for other people, but for myself.

Hence, I created more time for my writing. I re-prioritised my entire life. I changed the way people reacted to me because I clearly stated what my boundaries were. I did what I knew I could, when I knew I could do it. And it’s the same with writing.

For those without M.E. who perhaps have better reserves of energy, writing might be something that they feel they have to fit in around their busy life. They might slot it in sometime between waking up and getting to work, or getting home and going to bed. They might start to question whether or not it’s worth it to write because they can’t give it their full attention, or because what they write doesn’t seem very good.

Well…if that’s the case: do what I did and change the way you approach it. I’m not advising that you should shrug off all your responsibilities and go wild with your word count, but it needs to be prioritised higher than some other things sometimes.

I know that every day I must write…not because I ‘should’ but because I want to dedicate some time to that which I love doing. To ensure that I get to do this I schedule my responsibilities around it. I give an hour to this task, twenty minutes to that task. I plan my days off as much as I would plan my work day – assigning time frames and task lists to ensure that I don’t go overboard and forget to accomplish my priorities and meet my targets. But I only do what I need to…because I also need to write.

I guess the point to my long rambling here is that I have learnt that writing is something to be taken seriously. In order to be a writer then I had to commit to it just like anything else. I had to practice and prioritise it. This doesn’t always mean giving more time to it – because time is a limiting factor that you can’t change – but it does mean that when you do give it time, you focus on writing and nothing else.

Don’t think of it as squeezing writing between waking up and getting to work; be proud that you are prioritising your writing time, and classify it as such. Label it your writing time – and don’t let anything get in the way of it. Don’t relegate it to the bottom of the list.

If it’s important to you, it’s important

If you want to be a writer. BE a writer. Don’t ever apologise for wanting to follow your dreams.