Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Guest Author Robert Sharenow: I Don’t Know How He Does It

If you write, odds are you've either asked or been asked, "how do you find the time to do it all?" Well, today, YA author Robert Sharenow is going to answer that question--or at least tell us how he manages to do it.

Robert is an award-winning writer and television producer. His first novel, My Mother the Cheerleader, was chosen as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, and a VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers. The book is currently being developed into a feature film by Julia Roberts’ production company, Red Om. His second novel, The Berlin Boxing Club released earlier this year.

Take it away Robert...

Without a doubt, the questions I get asked most frequently about my writing are not about the novels themselves, but about how I find the time to write them at all. Some background: I’ve been married for 17 years. I have two beautiful daughters, and a Havanese puppy. We have a mortgage and monthly car payments. I’m currently employed as the head of programming for Lifetime Network (not a 9-5 job). I’m based in New York, but I travel frequently for work, as some of the departments I oversee are in Los Angeles, while corporate headquarters is based in Manhattan. I value my family above all and I truly love my job, so neither of those roles is in any way taken lightly. Writing time is extremely hard to come by, but I do find it.

The sad truth is, that no matter how sympathetic and supportive your friends and family may be, the world is indifferent to your writing goals. And it is wholly up to you to find the time and place to do the work.

So how I do I get any writing get done? The simple answer is, it ain’t easy. Below, I’ve laid out the top ten most critical elements that allow me to get writing work done. Much of this list has to do with my state of mind or philosophical approach, while some items are quite literal and practical. This exact formula may not work for everyone, but I hope some of these tips will be useful.

It is most important for me to write something that I care about deeply or it won’t get done. Several times I’ve attempted to write projects in bald attempts to make money or write to the market. Most of them were never finished, because I lost interest. The need to get the story told is the prime motivator that gets me to haul my ass out of bed in the morning.

2. 5:00-7:00 AM
Speaking of hauling my ass out of bed, this is truly my writing magic hour. By the time I get home from a long day’s work, have dinner, walk the dog, and kiss my kids goodnight, I have little or no creative energy left. So early morning is the only time that I can get any quality work done. The rest of my family wakes up around 7:00 AM. So, I try to get up between 5:00 and 5:30 AM and work for two hours. In addition to the world being asleep at that hour, my mind is not filled with the stress or clutter of the day and more open to creative flow. Please note: as a younger man, I was a night owl. So embracing an early morning work schedule involved a complete rewiring of my internal clock.

I have a very special relationship with coffee. It is my friend, companion, … and dare I say lover? In addition to literally waking me up and giving me some caffeinated energy, it is something I look forward to as much if not more than the writing. Sometimes I dread returning to a project I’m working on. Yet, I always look forward to the first cup of coffee. My wife is deeply suspicious and envious of my relationship with coffee. But I will never betray or abandon her (the coffee).

While we’re on the subject of my wife, this may be the most important item on the list. I married a woman who is not only beautiful, intelligent, and engaging, but she is also a damn good editor and critic. She is supportive and understanding of my writing goals. Although her involvement in my process can strain our relationship as I impatiently wait for her to read a new draft I’ve written or disagree with her critiques (which usually turn out to be right). If you have a partner who either dominates your time or does not want you to write, you will likely not be able to find success in love or art.

I used to harbor fantasies that my life would roll out like a beat poem, an improvised series of Kerouac-esque adventures that would inspire my art. Yet, when my life was less structured (pre-kids and serious full time job), I got very little writing done. Because my time is so limited, every hour needs to count for something and I try to stick to a strict schedule.

Many novelists have a special place where they feel most inspired (a cabin in the woods, a motel room by the beach, an artist’s colony in the mountains). Long ago, I had to adapt my process to be able to write almost anywhere. For instance, when I’m in a writing groove, I will write and edit in the early morning and revise what I’ve done on my train commute to and from work (approximately 30 minutes each way). I’ve also conditioned myself to write on airplanes and in hotel rooms (as I travel so much). This seriously restricts reading for pleasure. But hey, it’s all about finding sacrifices you can and cannot live with.

On the subject of sacrifices, my time for hobbies or long nights out (or even long phone conversations) with my old friends has become severely curtailed. It sounds harsh, but you have to accept that you will have less time for the people and things you care about.

While I try to strictly adhere to my regimen while working on a novel, I can’t keep up that pace all year. I think of my writing periods like training for a marathon: a long intense drive to get me to the finish line. When I complete a draft, I take time off from the schedule to re-enter the world, reintroduce myself to my friends, etc. I say ‘an out-of-shape marathoner’ because working out at the gym is another thing it is hard to find time for when I’m working on a project.

No matter how tired, grouchy, or uninspired I am, I never allow myself to sit down to a writing session without producing at least one new page, one new paragraph, or even one new sentence. Creating a feeling of forward motion is a critical piece of the puzzle, even if it’s extremely slow.

Most people define ‘completion anxiety’ as the fear of completing or coming to the end of something. I have the opposite condition. I live with the constant fear of not completing projects, so I’m always driving to finish a first draft as quickly as possible. Having a complete draft of something, even if it’s ugly, error ridden, or barely sensible, is critical to my process. For me, stories are all about the endings, and discovering where my characters will end up and how they’ve changed. Once I reach the end of a draft and have clarity of my character’s journey. Then, the really hard part can start: rewriting.

About The Berlin Boxing Club

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Nazi-era Berlin, it doesn’t matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn’t practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn’t accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.

So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl’s father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.

But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max’s fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero’s sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm’s way?


  1. Love this! And Berlin Boxing Club was one of my favorite reads of 2011. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Very pragmatic, but much needed. Thanks for a great post!

  3. I can totally relate as I'm drinking my first cup as I read this. :)

    I need to take a page out of your book and achieve more with my time. I have the procrastinator gene, and I just take too long making decisions as I go--this is why i do so much better when I've got a deadline to meet.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. Great post - very informative - thanks for sharing. Like Angela, I have the procrastination gene :) so I'd do well to adhere to a stricter schedule and make my time count more! I haven't read My Mother The Cheerleader or The Berlin Boxing Club yet, but they both look terrific so onto my TBR list they go :)

  5. "If you have a partner who either dominates your time or does not want you to write, you will likely not be able to find success in love or art."

    Regarding this statement, I have to completely disagree. In my case, this spurs me onward. I love my husband, but he does not read what I write and does not care if I write it or not. Yet I keep writing. Perhaps this author, needs a more circumspect view on this.