Writing a book is hard. Doing so while holding down a busy full-time job is very hard. But it can be done! Here are 6 things that have helped me complete my manuscripts while also spending 40-50 hours a week working in an office-based editorial job.
Films and TV are often poked at for unrealistic depictions of love and romance - but you know what else they often glamorize? The life of a writer, journalist, or author... and what it's really like to try and write a book.
When most people picture the life of an author - especially if it's based on what we typically see in movies - it's often a romanticized vision of someone who spends their days sitting at a beautiful desk, perhaps looking out upon nature, dreamily tapping away - either on a typewriter or pretty MacBook, depending on the period in history (or the writer's chosen aesthetic) - for what we see as a very brief period of time. Whether they're dressed in comfy clothes or something more polished, they always look pretty fresh. It's as though inspiration follows them like a cloud, or there's an always-on lightbulb of ideas floating above them. If writer's block dares rear its ugly head, it can reliably be vanquished within hours, days, or at most, weeks - during which the writer will likely have a transformative brainwave that serendipitously parallels a glorious life experience they just happened to fall into at the same time. They'll conclude this challenging time by staring at a blank page, pondering for a moment, and then being hit with a wave of inspiration that allows them to begin typing with a profound opening sentence that we hear through a voiceover of their thoughts... and everything flows beautifully from there.
Once they've finished writing - often wrapped up in a brief montage - they will smile thoughtfully, we'll see a close-up of them clicking the "Save" icon, and they'll get up, usually heading out the door to follow up on some other major life revelation that they had while writing this book. A week later, their agent - who also plays the role of their quirky best friend - calls, saying it's become an instant best-seller, and it's time to pack their bags to dash around the world on a grand, exotic book tour. They often live in large beautiful homes or apartments with plenty of space - always with a dedicated writing room - and that is all they do for a living, because the vast amount of money they make from these books is undoubtedly enough to sustain this stunning lifestyle thereafter.
And it couldn't be more wrong when compared to the reality of your everyday, average, hoping-to-be-published aspiring author. Here are some of the numbers that showcase the much more blunt reality around this:
Yikes. With those odds, it can feel like a near-impossible journey, bolstered by the fact that writing is typically such a solitary pursuit that when you do sit down to write, you're often left at the mercy of negative voices in your head telling you things like, "I can't," "It's too hard," or "Maybe I should just give up."
There are multiple reasons why so many people don't finish once they start. Some people lose interest along the way because they get bored or find it too difficult. Some can't come up with an ending. Some struggle with what happens in the dreaded but oh-so-important middle bit between the beginning and end. And for many, it is simply because they don't have enough time. And I can relate to that last one, a lot. Time often seems to be one of the greatest foes and most precious resources in my life: there's never enough of it for all of the things I want to do, in between all of the things I need to do, yet there always seems to be too much of it during the things that I don't want to but am obligated or required to do. Such is life, and this seems to be a painful truth for most people, writer or not.
One pesky issue for many writers is that if writing and editing is what we're good at, then chances are our day job is probably related to that too. And when you spend all day working with words, by the time you're done with work, your "writing brain" feels pretty spent. Many of my writer friends and I have commiserated over this very thing. When we realized we could get paid for our writing skills - and for most of us, this was years before we had the courage and self-belief to attempt becoming an author - we got jobs as journalists, copywriters, editors, teachers, and content creators, working at magazines or publishing houses, agencies, or other corporate organizations where we spend our days churning out line after line of marketing comms in every form, from emailers and blog articles to push notifications and ad copy. I know, it's not the same kind of writing. But it does still draw from the same part of your brain and energy, and it can feel like running a 10km before attempting a marathon (or vice versa, depending on your mood) when we try to sit down and write in the evenings after work.
The solution? To steal and cleverly utilize our time wherever else we can: Getting up extra-early on weekdays so we can write before the workday begins, so our "freshest" brains are ready to create the worlds and characters in our novels. Writing on weekends - when we struggle to get out of bed early on a Saturday or Sunday morning to write all day after a long workweek, we remind ourselves: "We're lucky to have 2-day weekends, so we can spend one day writing and one day resting and running errands - some people don't get that." We steal time on holidays, designating half of our annual leave allowance to "time off for friends / family / relaxing / travelling" and the rest as "time off for writing". Hey, at least having those leave days means that technically, we already DO have days of getting paid to work on our books! For the ones who have children, that's another commitment requiring their time and attention, and I never cease to be inspired by people like my friend Toyin, who manages to hold down a full-time job, and spend time with her partner, and look after her health and home, and be a great parent to her kids, all while still working on her books. Sheesh. It's a lot, and no matter how many times we fantasize about how it would feel to be able to just work on our novels without having to work full-time at the same time, the fact is, we live in an increasingly expensive world, and our bills need to be paid. We manage to prioritize our writing during all of that scraped and stolen time because we truly love it. But it's important to find a balance, or this can lead to burnout - and it can be a major contributor to why the journey of writing a book can take so long.
But here's the thing: If you really want to write a book, then it all starts with managing expectations. Knowing the reality of what it takes to achieve your goal makes it easier to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze - and if it is, that makes it easier to stick to those goals. I think most writers will agree that it doesn't even feel like a choice sometimes: it's more of a need than a want, where you'll feel unfulfilled if you don't pursue it. No matter how much you want it, however, we are all human, and motivation isn't always available on tap. If your desire to write books feels undeniable, and it's the practical aspects of daily life that seem to always lead you astray, here are a few things that have helped me remain productive and committed through the peaks and troughs of my energy.
Treat your writing sessions like an important, non-negotiable appointment
Much like with getting fit, if you really want time to write, you can't just wait for it to appear - you have to carve it out and create it. I used to struggle with putting my writing time first, even though what I wanted more than anything else was to finish my manuscript. I'd casually tell myself "I'll do it when I get some free time," or even sit down and look at my calendar while promising myself that I'd do it in the chunks of free time that I could see there. But something more important always inevitably came up, whether that was take-home work from my day job (everyone's favorite kind...), seeing friends and family through minor crises, household chores that I'd convinced myself simply couldn't wait, or just not feeling in the mood. I soon realized that it was just like my approach to the gym - the day before, or even the morning-of, I have the best intentions of working out after work. But if I don't specifically book it in - like a fitness class with a penalty fee for skipping, or finding a buddy to keep me accountable - chances are significantly higher that I'll get tired and/or lazy by the time work rolls around. The sneaky part of my brain will convince me that I can do it another day. If there's a serious crisis or you've had an exceptionally long day, then of course it's ok to skip it - but do that too many times and you'll suddenly realize a month has passed with no progress, and only yourself (or your procrastination) to blame.
Now, I treat my writing sessions like a serious appointment. I will literally write them down in my organizer, put them into my Google calendar, and even give them a color-coded assignment - and if friends, family, work, or anyone else asks me if I'm free then, I'll treat it with the same level of respect and importance that I'd give to something as serious as a doctor's appointment, or a business meeting. Because it is that important. My measure for when I skip these appointments is the same one I use for work, the gym, or an important family or social gathering: if I'm genuinely too tired, or ill, or there's a personal emergency or salient need from a loved one, that takes priority. I'll also take a break from the schedule if I feel creatively burnt out. Otherwise, my weekly standing dates with my writing are the norm. I'd also like to reiterate that pushing yourself this hard to commit yourself to a schedule does not mean you're not meant to be a writer. I once grappled with ugly thoughts like, "If I have to work this hard for the time to write, then maybe I'm just not that good, or maybe I don't want it as much as I think I do?", until I realized that plenty of famous writers do the same thing. In fact, when you look at the daily writing routines and habits of famous writers, committing to just showing up and doing it - even when you don't always feel like it - is a common theme.
Learn when your best writing times are, and seize those moments
One of the ways I've managed to maintain that consistent, no-excuses commitment to my writing schedule is also by figuring out the best times, places, and situations for me to write. Personally, on weekdays, I find I write better in the mornings than in the evenings, not least because I spend all day working with words at my day job, and my brain is just too fried when I get home after work. On weekends, however, I'm better writing mid-morning - so I can get more rest than if I'd jumped to it at the crack of dawn, and I won't sit around feeling frustrated and unfocused about being so tired on a weekend. I also write better when I don't exercise immediately before - something to do with the brainwave frequencies ideal for imagination and creation - so I've shifted my workout schedule accordingly. Now, because I'm doing it at more well-suited times for me, each writing session is more productive, and the reward of that progress keeps me coming back consistently.
That said, try not to stay so married to your schedule that it becomes punishing. While real writing happens with consistency and dedication, and you can't just sit around waiting for your muse, when you do get those moments of joyous inspiration that fuel creativity, carpe diem! If I planned to spend a day running errands or doing meal prep but I'm suddenly inspired to write, I will absolutely drop the other stuff and shift it to go and write. It reminds me of when I used to surf more frequently - when waves would come, you'd always be ready to jump on that while you could. It's the same with those moments of truly inspired writing.
Find a good support system
Writing is, by nature, a very solitary pursuit, and this makes it far too easy to let the negative voices in your head actually get to you. Self-doubt, insecurity, doubts about your work, or even just writing with no guidance or knowledge or what to do next, are all things that can seriously slow down your progress and make this a much more arduous journey than it needs to be. A good writing buddy - whether that's just one, or a group if you're lucky enough - can be essential to sharing the ups and downs. They can act as a soundboard, people to both commiserate and celebrate with, and help you feel seen, heard, and understood - all of which can help your writing improve, and make this journey feel easier by leaps and bounds. If you don't know anyone else who is a writer, there are plenty of resources out there to help you find some, especially in the digital age - take a writing course, go on a writing retreat, attend literary festivals and events with the intent of mingling, try and join a writing fellowship, or find a good online community. I know it can be hard, especially when most writers are introverts by nature, but it's worth it.
Another aspect of the good support system is your non-writer crew: your journey will be much easier with cheerleaders by your side, like if your partner, family, siblings, children, and friends support your writing aspirations. I know that not everyone has this luxury - I've struggled with it myself - but it starts by trying to help them understand just how important this is to you, and know that their supporting you will only make your relationship with them outside of this stronger. Alas, we can't control other people's reactions and can only manage our own. If you've tried to help your circle understand it and you're still facing a lot of negative resistance, you might have to learn to be stricter with your boundaries, by saying "no" and putting yourself first regardless - even if that might change what your circle looks like. It sounds harsh, but for me at least, that's been true - and I've realized that genuinely positive relationships do tend to support this, since they involve mutual respect for each other's passions, even if they aren't shared passions per se.
Gamifying things is a great way to approach anything in your life that might otherwise run the risk of turning into an overwhelming or tedious task that's hard to commit to. Don't know what it is? It means applying the principles or mechanics of a game in non-game situations through goals and challenges, a system for feedback and/or rewards, the freedom to choose and/or fail, ways to engage with others, and so on. In the case of writing, you could try setting yourself little deadlines - by X date you'll aim to write X words, or you'll hit Chapter Y by mid-September - and generally breaking your novel down into smaller challenges that feel more achievable. You can set yourself goals like entering (legitimate) writing competitions whether or not there is a prize involved, because the real prize is how it'll help keep pushing you to get it done! Joining a writing group or applying for a fellowship won't only give you a support system, it'll also help keep you accountable. For instance, if your group all commits to writing a few chapters to be shared with each other every quarter, you're more likely to get it done on time, rather than show up to that gathering empty-handed. Although finishing the book is the greatest reward, you can also give yourself reward-based incentives to hit certain milestones - like if you finish your first draft, you can buy a new book, or treat yourself to a staycation to relax afterwards, or go get a massage to soothe those tired shoulders, hands, and fingers every time you've finished another 20,000 words. If you like word-counters, there are plenty of apps - many that are free - that can help you track your progress through daily or weekly word counts. Hitting their pretty little visual targets can be as satisfying as closing the rings on your Apple Watch.
Make it a ritual
What is it about a sense of ceremony that makes it easier for us to commit the same sequence of acts at set times again and again? Humans seem to be hardwired to follow and find meaning in rituals, and while the desire to do so may be innate, here's the thing: rituals are created. So you can create your own, around your writing habits. This can be done by curating your writing habits around the different core aspects of establishing a ritual:
• Environment: My writing spaces are sacred. The cafes and coworking spaces that I work on my novel from are only for my novel. If I ever work remotely on my day job, I do it from elsewhere. So my brain knows that when I set foot in that novel-writing place, I am calling upon my author self - the one who can pull up that mindset. I also use music to do this, through specific soundtracks and, essentially conditioning myself to switch on my writer's brain through music. You could also do this by utilizing the concept of symbols and talismans, like a lucky charm.
• Structure: Every ritual has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn't need to be anything fancy - it could just be making yourself a cup of tea before you sit down to write, or taking a 10-minute walk each time you're 2 hours into a 4-hour writing session, or watching an episode of your favorite TV show when you've finished. Think of the way, for many people, a typical workday doesn't feel like it's properly begun until that hot cup of coffee is in hand - it's like that.
• Intention: Why do you write? What am I hoping to achieve with this specific writing session - and with my book, and my writing career as a whole? I remind myself of this quite often, pretty much each time I sit down for a solid few hours to write.
• Presence: Mindfulness and presence are extremely powerful tools for multiple things, like reducing stress and anxiety or increasing productivity. Whenever my mind is distracted or feeling scattered, I struggle to write well. If I manage to get some words down, they usually aren't my best work. When I allow myself to be fully immersed in the activity, however, not only is my writing better, but this also tends to be when I have the most breakthroughs around the parts I've been stuck on. There are multiple ways to find presence, and it can pretty individual. If you're sensitive to outside noise, finding a quiet place that helps you focus can help. If you like nature, perhaps choose somewhere that lets you look out a window. If you're feeling full of pent-up energy, maybe talk a walk to burn it off first. If you have pressing errands, get those done first so they're out of the way instead of in the back of your mind. Maybe putting your phone away, or switching it onto Airplane Mode is the key.
Give time time
No, that's not a typo. What I mean is, even when you know that the journey from starting a novel to hopefully holding a finished book in your hands will take a long time, it might be worth delving deeper what your idea of "long" is in this case. I knew it wasn't going to be a quick and easy process, but it was only when I started learning more about the process of everything from pitching agents to them trying to land you a deal with a publisher - and all of the edits in between - that I realized it would take even longer than I thought. There's also the matter of getting that manuscript ready and polished: while I knew that I'd never send out a first draft, or even the second, I had underestimated just how many times I'd wind up rewriting my first novel. Perhaps this was because while I was writing it, I was still learning how to write a novel for the first time - but it was also because sometimes, it's just part of the process. I had to get to the end of what I thought was my final "ready to pitch" draft to realize that something at the start wasn't working. Twice. Although I hope that these insights will come more smoothly and quickly with experience, I hear that sometimes it's just unavoidable because each story will have a mind of its own, and sometimes that involves a more complicated road.
The same goes for an attempt to make writing books your full-time focus. Unlike the fantasy life we're shown for authors in movies, the truth is that most writers earn less than the majority of people think, and very few manage to earn enough to quit their day job and just pursue writing long-term without other financial support. I know, ouch. That doesn't mean we can't give it our best shot, though! And in the meantime, what you can do is try and find a job that doesn't drain you of all of your creative energy and time, so that you can still use some of it to write. And then apply these tips, hah!
There is also something to be said for not rushing the creative process. Yes, we should sit ourselves down and just get the work done - only waiting for the muse to come means I'll never get anything done. But on the flipside, if I don't step away from my book for long enough to gain a fresh perspective (whether that's between each draft, or when I'm trying to finish a challenging scene), I will most likely have to redo it later - at which point I'll be in a negative cycle of frustration and burnout. Balance is important, and as with all creative pursuits, sometimes you need to give your brain some space to breathe for it to be able to come up with your best, most inspired ideas.
Don't forget the bottom line
No matter what tricks and techniques you use to get it done, or how up-and-down the path might feel at times, there is one thing that motivates me above all else: to never, ever, ever forget what I'm doing it for. That's the core and the heart of it all. If you stick with that, and maintain the pleasure of creating a great story, you'll never give up, and it'll always be worth it no matter what happens. Remember: ultimately, you're telling the story to yourself, for yourself, first and foremost. The rest comes after.