Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Balancing Writing and Working Without Losing Your Mind

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing is one of those things we can do at home in our spare time, so it’s a flexible pursuit that fits into our schedules. Unfortunately, it’s also a pursuit that takes a lot of time and energy to do, so it’s common that the little time we have to spare is the time when we least feel like writing.

The key to balancing work and writing is easy. Make writing a priority and then actually write.

It’s the implementation that’s hard.

Since I moved to Florida and threw my own schedule out of whack, I’ve had to re-find that balance myself. I know it’s hard, and I know how frustrating it is when you want to write and can’t. I know how easy it is to say “I can’t do that” when fellow writers office advice and it’s just easier to be unhappy than to make the necessary changes.

But here’s the hard truth…

Unless you make your writing a priority, it never will be. There will always be something that has to be done before you can write. You’ll always be tired when you try to write. You’ll always feel like there’s never enough time to get it all done. And you won’t write.

Look at it this way--the average novel is 80,000 words. All you need to do is write 220 words per day to hit that goal. That’s ONE PAGE. If you can manage 500 words a day, that’s a novel in 160 days, or just under six months.

It can sound daunting, but it’s really not that hard to get a first draft written in six months if we’re willing to make the time to do it.

This is the hardest aspect of balancing work and writing: actually making the changes you need to make to write.

I can give you all the advice I have, but in the end, YOU have to make the commitment to write on a regular schedule. No one can force your butt into that chair and write but you. If nothing changes in how you approach your writing, nothing will change in how it fits into your life.

I know writers who:
  • Get up an hour early (or two) every day to write before work
  • Leave the house a few times a week to write at a coffeeshop
  • Turned their front hall closet into a mini-office to help them focus
  • Dictate scenes into a recorder on the commute to work or while waiting for kids in the carpool lane
  • Write on their lunch hour

There is time in your day to write, I promise you. You just need to find it, and then commit to using it.

One quick note: there are times in our lives when life takes priority, and that’s okay. After I moved, I didn’t write a word of fiction for four months. Even after I got back to writing, there were (and still are) weeks when I needed to cut back and focus on life a little more.

When these things happen to you, it’s okay to let writing simmer for a bit while you do what you need to do. Don’t feel guilty because you can’t write at those times, so when you do get a writing window, you can take advantage of it without a lot of emotional baggage blocking you.

Okay, so here are some tips on making writing a priority and fitting it into your life:

1. Carve Out Your Weekly Writing Time

I say “weekly” because not everyone can write daily. If you have three days a week when kids are at school or daycare, or the house is quiet on Saturdays, or you can spend an hour after dinner every night—do that.

Finding your writing time can be hard, so try to:

Determine your best writing time: Are you a morning writer or an evening writer? If you’re the most creative at a particular time of day, strive to find time during that window to write if you can.

Determine your best writing location: If you need to get out of the house to avoid distracts, go. Kids keeping you home? Try to find a space that lets you focus and still watch the little munchkins.

Prioritize your writing time distractions: Choose a time every day (or few days, or week) and determine what you have to do that might cut into or distract you from your writing. Schedule tasks for after you write when possible, or get the critical things done first (as long as they don’t cut into that writing time). If you know what you have to do each day, you can plan for it and know your writing time is covered.

Be honest and be ruthless. It’s easy to do smaller tasks first because they seem easy, but they often take more time than we think. Or we might feel compelled to do something that feels like a priority but really isn’t, such as a blog post that uses up our writing time but isn’t helping us get that novel written. Many tasks can wait, so let them.

Accept that there will likely be sacrifices: Odds are, things will have to go if there is very little time in your schedule for writing. You might have to cut back on TV, or read fewer books, or skip some personal time. You might have to ask family members to do a little more so you can have that time. Don’t do anything to hurt your health or relationships, but make the hard call about your free time if you have to. Skip one TV show a night and you can hit those 500 words a day.

Avoid the negativity: Finding time in an already busy life is annoying and rough, I know. Some of you will no doubt say no, you can’t do this, you’ll grumble and whine that you can’t possibly do any of the things I suggest. And that’s fine, you don’t have to do them. But you also have to stop grumbling that you never have time for writing. Tough love time: there is no magic button that will create space in your life to write. You have to make it happen.

It might take a few tries to find the right time and place to write, so don’t give up if the first attempts fail. The busier your life, the harder it could be to find space in it for your writing. Keep trying, keep adjusting, until you find the time you need. Then stick with it.

(Here’s more on avoiding procrastination and just write)

2. Set Your Motivational Goals

One of the reasons finding time to write is so hard, is because it can seem like an insurmountable challenge. How can I possibly write an entire novel wen I only have an hour a day (or less) to write? But as I mentioned earlier, that little bit of time will get you there.

Setting goals helps tremendously to keep you focused and motivated. If you can see what you want to accomplish, and break it into smaller, more manageable chunks, then you know what you have to do to reach that goal. Writing 1500 words a week isn’t so tough, and that will get you to that 80,000-word novel.

Some tips on setting the right goals to motivate you:

Make your goals achievable: If you’re struggling to write one novel a year, don’t set a goal to write three. Goals you can’t possibly hit—or will struggle to hit—aren’t helpful and only make things worse. Find a target that you can comfortably reach that will also help you write that novel in the time frame you want to write it in.

Keep track of your goals: Seeing progress helps keep you motivated. You know it’s working and can see that novel developing. And when it isn’t working, you can make adjustments before you’ve wasted too much time and feel like you failed.

Vary your goal by smaller and larger goals: Trying to “write a novel in six months” is a great goal, but there’s nothing to motivate you on a daily or weekly basis. Also set some incremental goals to work toward to make that whole long process easier to manage. Make lists of things you want to do—maybe it’s outlining the story this week, creating characters next week, getting a first draft of act one during the month of June. Break down your novel process in whatever way works for you and motivate yourself to hit those goals.

I use word counts and structure turning points because I’m an outliner, but feel free to use other measurements. Maybe it’s time or days per week—your goal is to spend three hours this week on writing.

(Here’s more on staying motivated with writing goals)

3. Be Prepared to Write

If you have little time per session to write, spending half of it staring at a blank page is only going to frustrate you. I know planning isn’t for everyone, but your writing sessions will be more productive if you know what you’re going to write when you sit down to write.

Maybe start spend the time leading up to your writing session thinking about what you’ll write. Take notes throughout the day so you’re all set when the time comes. You could spend one day a week planning the rest of the week in great detail. Whatever works for your process, work it into your new writing schedule.

Don’t forget about the things that might distract you, either. If you’ll need materials, get them and have them handy. Turn off the phone and email. Stay away from the windows if you find yourself staring off watching the birds. This is your writing time—take advantage of it.

(Here’s more on the difference between a challenge and setting yourself up to fail)

4. Do the Work and Write

When it’s your writing time, write. Easy to say, hard to do, but it will make the most difference in your productivity and help you balance work and writing. Don’t struggle to find four hours a week and then not use it.

(Here’s more on tapping into your writing mode anywhere)

5. Don’t Hurt Yourself Just to Write

I’ve met many a writer who’s pushed themselves too hard for too long and wound up making themselves sick or miserable. Unless you’re on a specific deadline and the push is temporary, the schedule you create for yourself is one you need to be able to maintain. Most writers have day jobs, and it’s a smaller percentage who get to write as a full-time (or even part-time) job.

(Here are more ways to be a more productive writer)

Fit writing into your life, don’t let it sabotage it. Despite what the cliche’s say, healthy and happy writers write the best books.

Balancing work and writing is hard, but you can do it. Writers all over the world do it every day, and so can you.

ETA: Look for a followup on tips on finding that extra time every week this Friday in lieu of my regular Refresher. There's just too much to say on this topic for one day (grin).

What helps you balance work and writing? What are the obstacles you’re facing right now that keep you from writing?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. This was just what I needed. I have commitments and deadline but have had family emergencies. You just have to accept what you can do. The passion is still there and you will get back to it when the other things have moved on.If not it will help you cope.

    1. Glad it helped! And yes, you do. We only have so much we can do in any given day.

  2. I knew I had a meeting I needed to go to at 7:00 tonight, which means that I needed to have the bulk of my (goal 5,000) words done before my evening commute, supper, and homeschooling this evening.

    Discarded my morning run (I am biking later on, so still getting some exercise) to free up some extra time, and did sprints during my early-morning write. 3,200 words down before work, and I have my lunch hour to get the rest in.

    Then I found out the meeting this evening is cancelled, so I have two more hours than I thought I did! Could have done that morning run after all...

    1. Ack! That does happen. You could have turned it into an evening run :) Or get ahead.

  3. It's extremely important to know your creative moments, those windows of time when your brain just clicks and the ideas flow. When you find them, guard them vigorously!

  4. Gosh, Janice, I needed this post. Thank you!