If you’re not a full time writer, you have probably found that life often gets in the way of finding time to work on your book. Recently a client dropped us a note:
I've been working on a chapter here and there as much as time allows, but in the process of selling my home, a lot of my research materials were minimally packed. I am trying to find a way to make a writing schedule even if it's short. Any thoughts?
Here is the thing about writing in short segments: it may not produce your best work. You can't expect to just jump in and be creative, or to achieve a consistent tone in your prose after being away for too long.
So the first thing to do is to look at your life and determine a consistent time that you can devote to your writing. It may not be every day, but the more frequent it is the better for producing a persistent outcome. Can you get up a bit early to get in forty-five minutes or an hour of writing before heading off for your day job? How about a block of time in the evening after dinner when the kinds are in bed? Knowing that you have scheduled writing time will make you far more efficient and productive than simply grabbing a random moment when it comes up.
How do you use those precious periods of time? The best things to do in small chunks are the more mechanical ones that you really can't mess up, like sorting and scanning photos, or putting your research into order. That's all logical work. In the same way, small research projects, meant for filling in an unknown piece of the book, can be tackled when you're not really into the book as a whole. So if you brainstorm and make yourself a list of these pesky short-term tasks on one day, then each time you get a chance to do a short session, you don't have to figure out what to do, and you can cross one more thing off the list.
But there are some creative things you can do in the small blocks of time you’ve set aside, too. Think about the process of story development. You begin with a synopsis. You finish with a completed manuscript. What are the intermediary steps? Some people simply believe you should begin drafting recognizing that the initial draft may not be very good. Anne Lamott in her book Bird By Bird has a chapter titled Shitty First Drafts. If that works for you, great! But, I don’t think it’s very efficient for a person working in short periods of time.
Developing a very complete and specific plan before drafting you manuscript will work much better. Albert Zuckerman, a literary agent and book doctor whose clients have included best-selling thriller novelist Ken Follett, scientist Stephen Hawking, and Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame has said, “Every mega-book with which I’ve been involved was planned and replanned and planned again, much the way architectural drawings are continually revised.”
Begin with your synopsis which may be a page or two. Expand the idea by imagining the scenes that will carry your story from the opening to the conclusion. Some authors use the latest software tool and others stick with the old technology like storyboards or index cards which can be manipulated to experiment with the best sequence of scenes. But don’t stop there. Use the ideas you generated for scenes to expand your synopsis to create what a screen writer would call a treatment. It’s a detailed narrative outline of your book.
For each scene consider the components:
- Conflict – What does your character want to accomplish? What obstacle must he / she overcome? What ar the stakes if your character fails? What’s the climax of the scene? Does your character achieve his / her goal? What new problem does your character face as a consequence?
- Setting – Where does the action take place? What details of setting will give the scene verisimilitude rather than reading like a page from a tourist guidebook?
- Dialogue – What will your character’s say during the unfolding of the scene? You don’t have to write the actual dialogue for your treatment, but you should have a good idea of the basic nature of what will be said in the final manuscript.
- Emotional Content – What does your character feel and what do you want your reader to feel?
As you work on these elements of your scenes, your treatment will grow longer. Questions will arise about how things will work most effectively. You can go back and rework what you have to make it better. This kind of thinking lends itself to small chunks of time. But ultimately you’ll have a very well imagined story before you begin to draft.
When you begin to write the actual manuscript longer blocks of time are better. In my own experience, I have tried it both ways - long term, drawn out short-session writing, and intense, focused writing. Focused wins, each time, and not just because I get faster. It's because I start having fun with it, and the ideas start flowing. I find my voice as a writer and am able to maintain it throughout the draft. I have found that it's just much easier to find the time, and to get lost in the work. I hope you get a chance to experience that pleasure, sometime soon!