Over the course of my writing life there have been wondrous times where I’ve had the luxury of being a full-time writer without having to do anything else for a living. Unfortunately this isn’t one of those times.
The silver lining of this little fun fact however, is that I haven’t had to sell burglar alarms or tend bar, or do any of the many other things that I’ve done in the past in order to survive. No, lately, I’ve had the privilege of working as a Creative Director on some innovative edutainment games that are being developed for use in public schools. A very worthy undertaking of course, but one that still leaves me with one problem: when to write?
Now, for any of my writer brethren out there who may think that this is only a problem that confronts “unsuccessful writers,” think again. Did you know that T.S. Elliot worked as a publishing executive for most of his life, promoting the work of other poets? Or that Joseph Heller worked as a teacher and a copywriter for a small ad agency while he was writing Catch 22? How about Kurt Vonnegut? He managed a Saab dealership and worked in PR throughout his early career.
If you have a story that you’re burning to tell, you simply have to make the time to write. The best way that I know to solve this dilemma is to create a schedule for yourself that allows you to make steady progress, even if it’s slower progress then you would like.
Recently, I wrote a spec television pilot in about seven weeks (not counting the outline phase). Normally writing a 60-page script like this would take me about half that amount of time, but with my day job requiring my full attention between the hours of 10am and 7pm the process was stretched out quite a bit. I’m also not at my best at night after being creatively focused on something else all day, so that eliminated evening writing.
Given all these limitations, here’s the schedule I put together for myself to get the script written:
Monday – wake up at 5am, work from 6-9am before leaving for work.
Thursday – wake up at 5am, work from 6-9am before leaving for work.
Saturday – wake up at 7am, work from 8am-midnight
Sunday – wake up at 5am, work from 6am-10am
Total writing time per week = 26 hours
The reason this schedule worked for me is that (a) I’m far more focused early in the morning than I am at night; (b) I’ve always had great “writing stamina,” that is, once I’ve gotten a story “cracked,” it’s pretty easy for me to stay focused on it for long periods of time, hence the Saturday writing marathons when most of the work was accomplished; and (c) I simply stayed committed to it.
Is this the ideal situation? No. Not by a long shot. But can it work? Absolutely. In fact, I just finished this script about a week ago. Now, every writer is different. You may be better at night than I am. Or you may be the type of writer who can take an hour during your lunch break and be very productive. Unfortunately that’s not me. Whatever your process though, the key is to figure out what works, devise a plan, and then stick with it.
Finally, here’s one last bit of advice if you find yourself in this type of situation. Because your time is limited, try and force yourself not to edit your previous work when you sit down each time to write. It’s difficult, because as we all know, it’s easier to tweak and polish then it is to plow forward through raw earth. But if you don’t put your head down and grind through each session, by the time you look up at the clock you’ll have to stop and won’t have gotten very far. So do the best you can to simply sit down and tackle the unwritten scenes without looking back. If you’ve taken the proper time to outline and think your story through you should be able to at least stumble through the bare bones of each scene. Of course there will be times when you’ve become so disconnected from the core drive of the story that you’ll have no choice but to go back and solidify a few things so that you have a sounder foundation to work with, but for the most part, you will make better headway by withstanding the pain of leaving things a mess for as long as possible.
Once you’ve gotten that first draft out of you, you’ll find the entire process will start to get a bit easier, and it will be all downhill from there. Just set that schedule for yourself and be religious about it. That’s the best way that I know to find the time to write while managing other work, especially if the other work is also creative in nature.