How to be a Writer and Have a Life: or, Livin’ the Dream

by Kelly Swails

Kelly SwailsWriting is a rewarding and fun gig, but finding the time to write can be a challenge. The only commodity an author has are her words, and the only way to produce that commodity is to get some quality butt-in-chair action. Contrary to urban legend, stories don’t write themselves or grow on Novel Trees. So how do you find the time to make the magic happen? Perhaps a few of the strategies outlined below might work for you.

Find your sweet spot.

What time of day are you most productive? All hours in the day are not equal. This will take several rounds of trial and error. Some folks are morning people while others are night owls. One writer can spit out 1500 words per hour at six a.m. while another writer will only produce 250 words during that same time period. If you have the luxury of taking several days off of work, try to find your best writing time. Sleep in and write in the afternoon. Stay up late and write during Conan. Try to get in a few pages as the sun rises. Which time period produces the most usable words? Writing 2000 words every night at midnight means nothing if you consistently have to scrap 1800 of them. Once you find the best time of day for your creativity, exploit it. Get up an hour before everyone else to squeeze in some writing time. Find a quiet spot after dinner and let the words flow. Or fire up the coffeemaker and burn the midnight oil. Once you discover when you produce the most and best words, you’ll need less BIC time to produce the same amount of product. This is crucial to having a life outside of writing.

Whenever you write, be sure you do so consistently.

The definition of “consistency” differs from author to author. Finding your style is as important as finding your writing time. Are you an all-or-nothing sort of person that will write for five hours a day every day and complete a novel in two months? Or are you a write-a-little-here-and-a-little-more-there type? Do you do your best work when you focus on one project at a time? Or would you rather have four or five unfinished works going at once, knowing that if you’re not in the mood to work on the horror short story today you can work on the light-hearted middle grade novel instead? There isn’t one method that works for every writer, but you need to find the one that works for you. You’ll know you’ve found it when you finish most of the projects you start.

Knowing that you do your best writing between eight and ten p.m. every night or one project at a time means absolutely nothing unless you do it. DVR your favorite shows and watch them on the weekends. Negotiate household duties with your family (you’ll do the laundry if they’ll take care of dinner dishes every night). Tell your best friend that as much as you would love to run three miles with her before work, you use that time to write. Write during your lunch hour at the day job. Being a professional writer means making it a priority and doing it consistently. Consistent writers are prolific writers. Sacrifices will have to be made. No matter how supportive your family and friends are, no one cares about your career as much as you do. Make time for it.

But don’t sacrifice too much.

I know I just said that you’ll have to make some tough choices regarding how you spend your time. That doesn’t mean you should give up all those social activities and hobbies you love. While it is crucial you spend plenty of time producing words, it’s equally important to live your life. If you’re going to write about people, you need to learn about people, and you do that by hanging out with people. Every experience you have makes your fiction that much richer. Obviously you don’t need to snort coke in order to write convincingly about an addict, but reading about drug addiction, talking with counselors, watching an episode of Dateline? Yes. While you’re not technically writing when you do those things, those experiences will make the time you do write more productive.

Another facet of getting your butt out of the chair isn’t quite as obvious as research. Writing takes a lot out of you emotionally, physically, and creatively. You need to refill those reservoirs on a regular basis if you hope to produce salable work. Take a weekend off to go on vacation with friends. Take swimming lessons. Leave the computer off one evening and spend the night curled up on the couch with a movie and your honey. Read a book for pleasure. Learn a new craft. Sign up for a rock-climbing course. Living a well-rounded life will make you a better writer in the long run, not to mention that your friends and family will appreciate the time you’re spending with them.

What it ultimately comes down to is this: how important is being a writer to you? If you want to it bad enough, you’ll find the time. You won’t see getting up an hour early or eating lunch at your desk or postponing your annual shopping trip because you’re on a deadline as sacrifices. You see them as a necessary part of realizing your dream.

Kelly Swails has been getting paid to tell lies since 2006. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies from DAW and Walkabout Publishing. When she’s not writing or working her day job, she reads, knits, and watches geeky movies. There’s an internet rumor she sleeps occasionally, but that has yet to be proven. You can find her online at her website, read her blather about writing and life on her blog, and follow her on twitter.