Friday, June 22, 2018

Balancing Real Life with Writing Fiction

By Patricia Caliskan, @Caliskaniverse_

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Balancing real life and writing is hard for almost everyone (even full-time authors like me). Patricia Caliskan returns to the lecture hall today to give us a few tips on how to juggle our busy writing lives. 

Patricia Caliskan began her writing career as an entertainment journalist, before joining Trinity Mirror Newsgroup. She likes a nice, flouncy scarf, a good pair of boots, and laughter. Lots of laughter. Otherwise life feels far too grown-up for her liking.

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Take it away Patricia...

Full-time employee by day, aspiring novelist by night? Then you’ve come to the right article, my friend! That’s how every author who ever nabbed themselves a publishing deal started out. Yup, even your absolute favorites. I’m talking the real heavyweights.

Charles Dickens? Former factory worker. Douglas Adams cleaned chicken sheds. JD Salinger became Director of Entertainment onboard a luxury cruise liner. Stephen King worked as a High School Janitor. J.K. Rowling, unemployed.

The one thing they have in common, aside from a craving to escape into writing, is how these experiences became invaluable research. And research becomes stories. Even cleaning chicken sheds. (Probably).

Not necessarily literally, I admit, but factory conditions informed Dickens’ work. Adams’ Dimension-quenching thirst would’ve found plenty of scope in the coop, and I’m guessing Salinger met a lot of Phonies in Showbiz. While Stephen King occasionally gave himself goosebumps, patrolling empty school corridors, J.K. daydreamed her way out of what she described as, "being as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless," when she created Harry Potter, traveling by train from Manchester to King’s Cross Station.

The good news is, fictional life can fit around practical demands. Think about how much time you’ve got to play with, and it comes down to choice. If you want to write, it might skip the To-Do list. When you need to write, you’ll be fully onboard. There’s always going to be a thousand matters baying for your attention. Let’s say you catch up with the TV after you’ve written your first chapter? Pass up a few after-office-hours invitations to spend more time with your characters?

So, if you’re still in with this whole writing thing, you either take a seat and do the work, or pick up someone else’s bestseller. And if that last option weighs heavily on your story-telling heart, let’s make this happen, at once!

You’ll need determination long before you can dream of attracting a literary agent to initially work for nothing, except sheer belief in your work. And it requires discipline to offer a beginning, middle and satisfying ending, to a story still waiting to be told. So, let’s do what all dreamers do, and make a list:

Be Prepared.

Dib-dib-dib, as the Boy Scouts say. Be prepared to make your first priority a notepad and a pen. Don’t leave home, work, or bed, without them. Inspiration is all around. That punch-line you blurted out. The way someone pronounces, "Yugoslavia". The color of Boredom. Get as ephemeral or literal as you like, but write it down. Because you’re a writer, remember? It’s not 9-to5. It’s stride-in-your-step, adrenalin-jolting devotion!

Between You and Me:
Check that notepad is tantalizingly empty, and the pen actually works before you get too attached to a brainwave. Ahem.

Time on your Side.

Writers tend to fall into either early-morning or late-night camps. That’s because our brains rather wonderfully surrender all traces of reality when we’re pre- or post-dreaming. Marian Keyes set her alarm a couple hours ahead of the office to complete work on her first novel. Jay McInerney kept cozying up to the keyboard way past the midnight hour. No matter which option hits the mark, make it a date.

Friendly Advice:
When circumstances don’t allow, don’t beat yourself up. Keep jotting down ideas as casually as you like, and know you’ll make it up to your manuscript with a ream of words waiting in the wings.

Plan, plan, plan!

I’d like to be one of those streamlined, linear-types, writing at stealth from beginning to end, but guess what? It doesn’t happen. I know where I’m going. I’ve a pretty good idea why we’re going there, but midway is about as far as I get, plot-wise. Then it’s time to iron-out the initial plan. If you’re armed with a water-tight synopsis, I look on in awe, but I need to submerge in the writing before emerging with a first draft.

Lesson Learned: If something isn’t working, it’s because it doesn’t work. Move on. Re-think. Re-write. No Re-grets.


As nice it would be to flounce off into the nearest vestibule and announce an early retirement from all daily responsibility, it’s first things first. Your mind can’t wander into fiction beneath a cloud of household chores or office deadlines. Pin them down. Get them done. Then consider yourself free to focus.

Working Lunch: Make the most of any break. Walk. Think. Be alone. Listen to your characters. Trust your instincts. Jot those thoughts down in that notepad you carry these days.

Bite into the Best Bits

There’s no point setting aside time, staring at a screen, wondering where to find a word count. Sometimes you have to take it by surprise. Don’t think of it as a book. Start with that ending you can’t wait to write, or the big reveal you know has to happen. Hit the highlights. Pick out the praline, and throw away the toffees! Why not? It’s your work. Kill off that character before they’re introduced in chapter eight, you absolute maverick! Look in the rearview, and you’ll find a picnic trail of plot development.

Novel Navigation:
Make sure there’s batteries in the torch. In other words, map each scene in a working synopsis as you go along. See that shard of light up ahead? That’s the ending, compadre.

About Girlfriend, Interrupted

What do you do when the love of your life is already somebody else’s dad…?

Brown-eyed, brunette, 25.

Enjoys walking barefoot across shards of broken home. Likes loaded silences, resentment and insomnia. Dislikes romantic weekends, lie-ins and any chance of future happiness.

Former GSOH. Developing PTSD.

Ella Shawe was undomesticated, unattached and uninhibited.

Until she met Dan.

Sexy, charming and funny, Dan ticked all the right boxes and Ella threw herself head-first into the whirlwind romance.

But now she’s moved into his family home, complete with two demanding children and a hyperactive dog.

Throw in Dan’s impossibly perfect ex-wife, Ella’s interfering sex therapist mother and the snooty and dismissive mother-in-law from Hell, and Ella is almost ready to throw in the towel.

But, ready or not, Ella is part of the family now, and getting it right for Dan’s kids means getting it right for everyone. She just needs to figure out how to include herself in the mix…

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  1. Nice insights, Patricia. I wrote my first rough draft in snippets of best bits. I'm trying to sketch out the next book as a guide, but I'm guessing I'll be bopping around with this one too. Thanks for the "Time on Your Side" since that's my biggest issue right now.

  2. Really enjoyed this post, probably because it resembles my own process. I'm sick of seeing articles imperiously proclaiming what all writers 'must' do. (Get up at an ungodly hour; write every day--even if it's 'happy birthday' 1000 times; ignore chores; expect family to live on take-out...) Personally, I have difficulty concentrating when there's 6 IKEA bags of clean laundry to be folded, a messy kitchen, and dust lions the size of an average rodent. Though, when the weather's nice, I often escape to the backyard with my laptop. Sometimes, those are the most productive times.