How to write a novel when you don’t have the time

You may have your hands full but you can still find time to write.

Most people’s lives are busy. For me it’s juggling the demands of four children under the age of twelve, and it’s true to say that there’s little time for quiet contemplation or courting the writing muse. But all would be writers are juggling,  whether it’s college, full time work, caring for children, sick or the elderly there are very few that can dedicate full days to the endeavor of writing, especially when starting out.

So how is it possible to fit in writing around our lives? I started writing again when my youngest child was a newborn, I wrote around his naps. Then followed a period when all the children were tiny so I wrote when friends and family offered a babysitting hour. In the last few years in particular though, I’ve been more methodical in how I create writing time and since 2009 I’ve managed to complete a shot story collection, and 2.5 novels as well as many standalone flash fiction pieces.
These are some of the ways you can create opportunities for writing.
1)      Create a quiet, dedicated writing space/time:. Whether it’s in a spare room or shed, the library or a coffee shop, it helps to move away from your normal space and its distractions. In my case I also need to find a time when it’s quiet and I don’t have interruptions from family. I’m an early bird so I choose to get up at 5am and write for 1 or 2 hours then, others prefer to write into the night.
2)      Take part in writing challenges: The bulk of Housewife with a Half-Life was written during Nanowrimo, the 50,000 words in a month writing challenge. It a) allowed me to state my aim to my friends and family and b) claim writing time for this special challenge. They were happy to rally round to help me achieve the word count. I also discovered that by making myself write 1667 words per day no matter what, some of the material (if not all!) was very useable and even on a very busy day I could squeeze in writing time, either with early starts, while waiting for the kids at an activity for example, or even in ten minute bursts through the day.
3)      Join an online or real world writing group. I joined a weekly peer review flash fiction writing hashtag on Twitter called #fridayflash. This is a group who post regular flash fiction and link to it on Fridays. While there’s no obligation to post every week, being part of a community makes me want to participate and keep involved and I’ve produced many pieces that would never otherwise exist, some of which can be developed further. I even won a short story competition by joining up some of the pieces I wrote for this meme. I’m also a member of a Dublin writing group, the feedback on pieces I write is invaluable.
4)      Integrate musing time into your regular schedule. Walking is wonderful. John Boyne discovered the plot to The Absolutionist during a 1 hour walk. Bestselling author Murakami runs every day. Each time I go for a walk I find phrases and ideas arrive naturally without having to search for them. Spending time on other activities  such as reading (of course), movies, art galleries and so on is feeding the imagination & helping make interesting associations that you can use in your writing. The late Ray Bradbury suggested that reading a short story every night and reading an interesting article was a great way of feeding passion and imagination necessary for writing well about the thing you love.
5)      Get away from it all. After I had built up some short story publications and successes I applied to a writing retreat centre and was successful. I had my first uninterrupted week of writing ever in July. The arts council in Ireland and local authorities provide grants for people to go to retreat centres such as the Tyrone Gutherie Centre and Anam Cara once you can show evidence of your writing development.
Finding the time to write is not about finding great swathes of time (although it’s great when it happens). It’s about creating opportunities for inspiration and building up your wordcount consistently and incrementally. A daily wordcount challenge of even 500 words can help you accomplish that. The kind of writing that will come from these endeavours will be more considered and of higher quality.
Related to this article and talking about whether it’s the quantity of time or how you use it that’s important is this one on writing retreats.
Note: my article here originally appeared on Paul Carroll’s blog
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11 comments

  1. A really like this post. As you say many of us have a lot going on a writing time seems to slip down the priority list somewhat.

    I’m lucky enough to have a spare room that I have set up a desk in. I find this incredibly helpful for putting me in the right frame of mind for writing.

    As for space for ideas. The drive and back to my day job is about 45 minutes and this tends to be where my mind ticks over quite well. It just gets frustrating because I can never write any ideas straight down because I’m driving!

  2. Great tips, thank you. I find it very difficult to fit writing in around my 5 children. I do have my own space (summerhouse in the garden) which will come into its own once the children have grown – I can’t lock myself in there and leave my 2 and 4 year olds to their own devices! I love popping out there in the evenings for an hour or two though, but sometimes I’m too tired to write … I find parenting very draining. But I hold onto the thought that once my 2 year old is 3, he can start nursery and I will then have a couple of hours in the morning to write. That’s just 6 months away, so I’m getting quite excited!

    1. Hi Louise, yes I really think when the kids are tiny (and they are tiny at the same time) it’s almost impossible to do anything consistently and it is very draining. Like you I used the preschool morning time to get myself a few hours each day. Now my youngest guy is starting school so I’ll have a longer stretch. It’s hard to believe it will happen but it does. Hope you enjoy your writing hours when they arrive!

  3. Excellent tips! It’s good to be reminded about ways to eek out the time to write. You’ve inspired to join an on-line writing group. Any suggestions for someone who writes mostly memoir and some mystery? Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Cynthia, thanks for coming and reading the post. I’m not aware offhand of any on-line writing groups. This is the site of Elizabeth M. Craig mystery writer who is very active on the web so she might have some information http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.ie Otherwise perhaps other people commenting here might have a suggestion.

  4. This might not be what most people commenting on this great blog want to hear, but it’s not much easier to find pure writing time when you are a fulltime writer. My first kids’ novel was published the year my younger child started school. So now, with both my kids at school, I should have from 9 am to 3.30 pm every day to write, yes? No! Because I’m a kids’ writer, with small publishers, I have to get out there and do lots of events to promote my books. In the next week alone, I’m doing a family storytelling event, an event with an illustrator in school on the other side of Scotland, and a themed workshop to kickstart a writing competition. And that’s a quiet week! By the time I prepare for these events, travel to the events, do the events, and recover afterward from the adrenaline crash, I often have no child-free time at all to write. I write on buses, on trains, and in school staffrooms. Like many of you, I only find peace and quiet at my own desk first thing in the morning and in the middle of the night. And I suffer just as much guilt about balancing the needs of my kids and the writing as I did before I was published, only now I have the expectations of publishers to feel guilty about too! So – being a “full-time” writer doesn’t always mean writing full-time. But it is still absolutely, entirely and totally worth it. So go for it!

    1. Hello Lari, Thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate you giving a realistic picture here of how it is. Once you have a book out you need to spend a lot of time promoting it so that dream of free writing time is never quite achieved. Having gone on the writing retreat recently I realised that by working around my real life I was actually getting quite a bit done and the endless free hours at the retreat didn’t mean more production (though perhaps less juggling guilt). It’s always going to be a question of fitting writing in with life, it can be headwrecking but possible. I guess we need to switch off totally from everything sometimes as well. Your point about having reached the ‘dream’ of publication coming with it’s own challenges is something we often forget.

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