I’m the stay-at-home mom of two kids: a preschooler and a toddler. If you know anything about the stay-at-home parent gig, then you might be wondering how in the world I find the time to scratch my nose, let alone write anything. Between diaper changes, meals for kids who digest food at an unnaturally rapid rate, playground visits, cleaning, book readings, playdates, disaster management, and sorry attempts to teach the alphabet, there is really not much time in the day.
So – how do I make it happen?
Honestly, sometimes I don’t. I definitely don’t get to write as much as I would like. But I decided a long time ago that writing was an important part of my life, and something I needed to make space for. Getting words on paper is how I process the world. Without writing, I start to feel unmoored, uncertain of what I think or how I feel.
For a year after my oldest was born, I didn’t write at all. Instead, I tried to relax by watching TV and roaming around on the internet. These were dark times.
I learned how important it was to prioritize writing. I learned just how much I needed it in my life. And I learned how to wedge it in to my very full days. Not just every now and then when I had a lot of time to commit to it. Every day.
One: The Importance of Accessibility
I started keeping my notebook out on the kitchen counter, or a bookshelf in the living room. When I had a spare moment, I could jot down a few words. Admittedly, this took a huge mental shift. Before kids, it took me a while to settle in and work, develop a rhythm. I thought that it wasn’t worth it to write unless I had an hour or more to commit to it. Now I focus on getting words on paper. Any words to move the story I’m telling forward. I don’t wring my hands anymore over getting that first draft just right, because half of it is going to be viciously chopped out when I edit, anyway.
I write during pauses in meal preparation. I write while the kids are playing together. I write in dentist offices, waiting rooms, and coffee shops. I write when I’m inspired and when I’m not.
Sometimes this means there’s a mess. I have several notebooks, a laptop, and reference books out on the kitchen counter almost every day. To me, it’s worth it, and my family has learned to tolerate my nest of writing materials.
Two: Pantser Reformed
Then I made an outline of the manuscript I was working on. This was not easy. I’ve always considered it part of my process to let a story unfold as I go along. I was a deeply entrenched pantser. But when I began editing my first book, I discovered that I had wandered far and wide from the core of the story. I had to cut away and rewrite so much that it took me a year just to put everything back together in a way that made sense.
Now I have a chapter-by-chapter outline, which not only keeps my story on track, it also helps me figure out where I am if I have to walk away from my writing for a while. I can pull out my outline, glance at it to see what I need to accomplish, what state of mind my characters are in, even what the antagonists are up to. I thought that having a guide like this would leave me feeling restricted, but really it holds the chaos at bay, because I can get off course so quickly.
What outlining method do I use? After looking at and dismissing many methods, I stumbled across a photo of JK Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. That chart made so much sense to me. I immediately opened up a new spreadsheet, and I filled in all the events in the piece I was working on, and then I bridged the gaps. For the first time I had an overhead view of my plot and all the characters’ machinations, and instead of feeling like I’d lost the organic feeling of the story, I felt inspired.
The image of JK Rowling’s outline that inspired my own method, from this website.
Three: The Heartless Editor
I rely heavily on editing to make my work better once I’ve written it. Because I have about as much time to edit as I do to write, I’ve learned to be vicious about what stays and what goes.
An awkward sentence? Gone. Stilted dialogue? Rewritten. A beautiful scene that doesn’t contribute to the plot? Snip, snip.
I combine characters, change names, take out paragraphs, and criticize dialogue relentlessly. At first this approach was disheartening. I watched entire scenes drop out of my first novel at an alarming rate, and then I had to stitch it all back together. But the manuscript I have now is so much stronger, and something I feel really proud of. If I had stuck to my original vision, believed every word was perfect, and refused to make those painful cuts, I wouldn’t have made room for the infinitely better ideas to come.
Other writers have a lot to say about this process. I love this quote from Shannon Hale, which aptly summarizes first drafts and the work that comes after them: “. . . I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
I don’t get too attached to my ideas. If something isn’t working, I don’t waste time, I let it go.
Four: All Big Things are Made of Many Little Things
The one-hundred-foot-long great blue whale is a monumental creature. It seems impossible that something so large can even exist. It’s even more incredible to remember that a whale, and everything else for that matter, is built out of minuscule atoms.
I try to look at my writing the same way, and this gives me the motivation to keep going. My progress might be painfully slow. I might have hours, days, even weeks between opportunities to write. And yet each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word that does make it onto paper is contributing to the whole.
There, four of my most essential keys to writing even when I don’t have time to write. There are many, many more, which I hope to cover later, but these are some of the core ideas that get me in front of the paper or the keyboard, putting words to paper. The most important thing about all of these is that they are adaptable no matter what’s going on around me. I have many more specific tactics that I would love to talk about in a later post.
So, how do you write even when life is busy? I’d love to hear about your ways of making time for the things you like to do.