writing time

School Hols & the writing parent: Week 1

I baked a cake

And what a long week that was!

I want to keep these posts short and I want to be realistic. What is possible when you have four children between the ages of 10 and 3 in the house, one of whom is a night owl, the others who are larks? I’ve had this dream for many years of a continuous span of writing time, a writing retreat perhaps, or a weekend lost in the corridors of my novel. In reality, I work best in shorter bursts with an energetic and engaging activity in between.  I am not a fast writer, even though I wish I was. I do manage to do the 1667 required for the novel writing month by doing odd things like getting up in the middle of the night if I wake up or writing 7000 words in one day when the kids are elsewhere.

But what is the reality of this week since the holidays began?

I am a little adrift to be honest. I have been up early several times (although the children soon joined me) . I have begun to read through my newly stuck together novel and one morning to write a new scene. But I’m too full of thoughts about what my novel might need and all the other projects that are lined up. I have stepped back from Twitter and moved back into life a bit.  I think my novel needs more stewing and I have been giving myself stewing time, taking walks, relaxing (for a change), watching the telly, reading the sunday magazines, listening to the radio.  I have found several ideas along the way. I have written 700 words of a short story or flash about a bug.

No themeparks. The three youngest with Thomas and an ornamental hedgehog at the DIY store

I have been a mother. I have baked a birthday cake for son 2, now 9 and arranged a little  family party with grandparents and cousins. I have run alongside my children on the Wii Fit. I have gone to the local DIY store and bought a sandpit, sand and an ornamental hedgehog.  I have done something interesting. I have taken my three older children on a walk individually, just a circuit from the house, around the local small lane, to the main road and back again. I introduced the idea of observation. I pointed out garden ornaments, poppies, cracks in the pavements, ambiguous painted stencils on walls. I listened to each one of them, noted how they were different. With one it was all about action, leaping up onto walls and gates, running fast and much talk of zombies and codes.  My daughter wanted to gather wild roses, and we did, despite the thorns. The eldest enjoyed discussing scientific fascinations.  Each of them surprised me.



I saw a rainbow in the morning before anyone was up. I enjoy seeing people catching buses in the nick of time.

My second son inspired the story about the bug through an amusing remark.

In my writing I am edging along very slowly. I become frustrated because there is so much to do. I become afraid that, although I love to write, some of the precious time given over to it may be wasted if I can’t make the novel work, if I don’t finish these projects and follow through on them. It matters, and then it doesn’t matter. It matters again.  It is all a muddle.  Sometimes the challenges of parenting (especially a child with Aspergers during less structured holiday time) can be draining.

A beautiful bouquet of roadside flowers from the walk with my daughter

I read a very helpful post lately on writing time, versus writing energy and it really made sense to me.  Especially as writing parents, we need to use the time we have carefully and maintain our energy, to put something back in, to replenish ourselves for the job of being a consistent, stable and comforting entity in our children’s lives. We need to have a life too, a feeling of vitality, a marriage, a means of income, nothing is in isolation.  As Miranda says in this wonderful post on studio mothers, there is no such thing as balance, we might not ever get everything just right.

So then what? A novel to write. A dinner to make. I sit in the early morning at my writing table. My newly nine year old boy arrives sleepy eyed and wants me to look at his Moshi cards, to chose my favourite. This is the same boy who gave me the idea for the bug story, who leaps on walls and gates, thinks of zombies, is writing his own stories about islands and adventures. I put my writing away, for now.


How to do NaNoWrimo when you don’t have the time

I didn't have the time but I was a NaNoWriMo winner last year

Er well….NaNoWriMo. A 50,000 word novel in 30 days? Are we ready, confident, rearing to go? Or are we standing on the edge of a bungee jump saying ‘why did I sign up for this? I really can’t do this and it’s not just the fear of it, it’s actually a physcial impossibility, I don’t have the time.’

None of us do, no really. I have four young kids including a toddler, extended family commitments, my husband runs his own business. I’m building a writing career to (hopefully) include paid gigs. You may be similar, have a full time job or jobs, have a job and a part time college course, be involved in the community, coaching, volunteering, doing all the worthwhile things that make us human.

You’ve got to write, you do it whenever you can. But this Nano thing. I mean 50,000 words in one month, you’re lucky if you do a thousand in a week, let alone in a day.

I did Nano for the first time last year and I made it to the finish line and now have a completed novel to show for it. One of the key things I discovered is that it’s possible to write 1667 words even on the craziest, busiest, pain in the neck kind of days. Here are some ideas of how to expidite and create a decent first draft in 30 days.

Prepare the structure in advance

You have an idea, right? You have themes, so you know what it’s about. But what’s going to happen in your novel? I’m a panster (a seat of the pants writer rather than a meticulous planner) but I still need to know the main thrust of the journey so I can set out on a path to somewhere. The snowflaking model is highly popular and has the beauty of going from the very high level overview (a one line summary) down to what the characterst like to eat for breakfast. You may want to save the breakfast details as an expose in your novel but an overall ‘scaffolding’ will save you time in those frantic nano days. You can place yourself in an overall picture to which you add fine detail later. What I have found personally useful is jotting down the titles of ‘episodes’ that occur to me as I think about the story. These titles alone will serve as triggers and help ensure that I can get writing straight away. Ideally I would have 30 or so of these episodes so it would be like a flash  fiction and a bit, each day. This is less daunting and will guard against the paralysis of panic/block.

Get in character

There are probably going to be people in your novel, right? Do you know who they are? Are there enough of them? Why are they together, how do they know each other, what do they really think of each other? What do they like for breakfast or are they just pretending. Who do they look like? The woman who works at your corner shop? The bus driver? The striking self-possessed girl walking down the main street? While there is time left, while you travel to work, bring the kids to school, go to the football match or the  nursing home, take notice of those around you, the little quirks of behaviour that interest you, the blast of white hairy eyebrows, the way the businessman examines his shoes. Think about the past and future of your characters. Knowing your characters gives you more to go on.

Schedule in a swim in the subconscious

We’re worried about not having time to complete 50,000 words in the available time and now I’m going to ask you to schedule time out of Nano, perhaps a whole day off along the way, or a day when you write just 500 words instead of 1667. There comes a time later in the month when you slip behind, so you need to be aiming for the 1800 mark in the early stages just to give you a breather later on. Musing on your story and characters before you begin is creating a well of associations and references on which you can draw whi le writing. This will help save time because the details and relationships between place, object and people will come thick and fast when you go to write, you won’t have to spend time making things up, you will be tapping in to associations already made. Later in the month though the well will begin to run dry, you will begin to burn out. So you need to make space for the subconscious to beaver away again whether its a day out walking or a cultural event, you need to take a relaxed swim in the subconscious and refill with further associations you can draw on.

Don’t be afraid of mushrooms

Getting to the practical aspect of writing; getting the required words down each day, you need, in my opinion, to leave your hang ups about chronology and linearity behind. You can always keep an overall structure scribbled or printed in front of you and you will surely have big decisions to make about chronology and reveal when you go to revise. But Nano isn’t about that, its  about getting it down as quickly as possible. So you take one of your core scene ideas, explore and write out all the details you associate with it, how the characters are involved. Lke accessing memory, it will trigger connections with objects people, time or space. So a story element or idea emerges out of the subconcious, like a mushroom out of the dark. Let these mushrooms emerge, singularly or in clusters and when you’ve delved all you can in that area, move onto another. There may be gaps between scenes or the chronology may be all over the place but those connecting details will emerge later. Don’t waste times on trying to fill the gaps, just concentrate on the mushrooms.

Attack in short bursts and forget grammar

Today, for example has been a madly busy day and I’ve been writing this post in tiny increments whenever I had the chance. When doing Nano it’s probably better if  you don’t set yourself up for a 1667 stint in one go. Try doing 15-30mins three or four times a day and really going for it. It’s possible to write (at a very fast pace) 500 words in 15 mins, so if you are really stuck for time you could have your wordcount wrapped in 1 hour throughout the day. If you have to go that fast you can’t think about spelling or grammar but you have plenty of revising time when Nano is over. And you know what will help you if you really need to fly? – your scene headings, you can even think about a scene while you make the dinner or walk to the office, record your thought or phrases and type them out later.

Get up early, stay up late,  be prepared

Of course there are plenty of practical things you can do now, make stacks of pre-cooked meals for the freezer, enthuse family and friends about this challenge that is, after all, only for 30days. And it does have an impact on your nearest and dearest, so if possible get up early and do an hour of writing before the day begins or night owls get cracking when it’s quiet. You don’t want to be guilty and frantic but you want to give yourself the best chance possible to nail this remarkable achievement. Good luck!

Update: This post is from last year. I subsequently went on to ‘win’ Nanowrimo again in 2010, completing the 50,000 words. I am currently working on last years Nanowrimo novel. It’s not easy but it’s a major achievement and a fantastic learning experience. I have an idea for this year and if I have come to a satisfactory stage in my current WIP I will jump in to Nanowrimo again this time. Is this your first time or have you done Nanowrimo before? If you are a veteran, what are your experiences?

Related: NaNoWriMo Feel the fear and do it anyway