Back to Basics, part II: Organizing Your “Writing” Time


Last week I began the “Back to Basics” series with a post on general recommendations for ways to “Be a Writer,” from work habits to convention comportment, to ways of looking at the world.  This week I want to begin to delve more deeply into specific aspects of the creative process.

One of the comments to last week’s post came from New Guy Dave who said  “Lately, Butt in Chair has meant sending out novel queries, subbing short stories, and catching up on critiques for folks I’ve exchanged novels on. All writing-related, but not generating any new words. Time for me to refocus and make BIC = productive writing.”   And recently I have fielded a number of questions on Facebook and in emails from people wondering how much they ought to be trying to get written in a given day or week and how much editing they should be doing along the way, and raising other issues that all boil down to the same issue:  Time Management.

Let me start by saying this:  Butt in Chair does not only mean producing pages for the latest work in progress.  True, that’s what it means most of the time.  And my best days tend to be the ones that are spent creating.  But all the stuff that Dave mentioned in his comment are important parts of being a writer.  Sending out queries?  Preparing submissions?  Networking with beta readers?  Those are crucial activities for any writer, and they absolutely count as “writing.”  Putting your butt in the chair for any and all of them is, in my opinion, a terrific use of your time.  For that matter, so is promotional work, setting up events/appearances, learning about publishing houses and literary agencies to which you want to submit work, reading in genre, researching, brainstorming on plot ideas, inputting character information to Character Keeper or Scrivener, taking notes on your latest worldbuilding ideas, working on maps, and pretty much anything else that contributes to your pursuit of your writing ambitions.

I would love to spend every day of my work week writing, developing characters, worldbuilding, and doing all that other “fun stuff.”  But the fact of the matter is that I am a businessman as well as an artist.  I do a good deal of work every day that has nothing to do with my WIP.  Blogs are a perfect example.  I not only write a MW post once a week; I also read my fellow MWers’ posts and comment on them.  I maintain a blog at LiveJournal and another at WordPress.  Now, I have a blog for D. B. Jackson, too.  Both D.B. and I have Facebook pages, websites, and Twitter accounts.  The upkeep on all of that stuff takes time, but it is very much part of my regular work day — my BIC time is taken up by lots of stuff other than just writing.

How do I balance it all?  Well, that brings us to those other questions I’ve been getting.  I try to write between 2,000 and 2,500 words each day in whichever novel I happen to be writing at the time.  That’s an average.  I might get 1,500 one day and closer to 2,700 another, but I shoot for 10,000 words per work week.  That may sound terribly slow or incredibly fast to you, depending on your own production.  That’s okay.  Each of us has to find his or her own pace independent of what others are doing.  When I started out, 1,000 words was a great day.  I’ve gotten faster.  But then I talk to someone like C.E. Murphy, and I feel like I’m a total slacker.  The bottom line is, this is the pace that works for me given my creative process, my other professional commitments (the ones I listed in the previous paragraph), and my personal time constraints (family time, household chores, etc.)  But that still doesn’t get at the essential question:  How do I get it all done?

First, I pace myself.  Usually I’ll take care of Magical Words stuff first thing in the morning.  I’ll comment on a post or make certain that my own post is up (I try to write it a day or two in advance, because really, I just have to fit it in).  And I might also take care of business stuff early on.  If I need to set up a signing or discuss something with my agent, I’ll do that early in the day.  The rest — the other blogs, the Facebook stuff, the D.B. Jackson stuff — I’ll leave for later.  Because once the business stuff is settled, it’s time to write.  I’m weird in a lot of ways; one of them is that I am much more productive after midday than I am before.  If I can get 750 words before lunch, I know that I’ll have plenty of time to get to 2,000 before the end of the work day.  So, as I work, I hit word count goals.  500 by late morning; 750 by lunch; 1500 by the time I pick up my kids from school; 2,000 by late afternoon.  Only when I have my 2,000 words do I begin to turn to the other online stuff.  Generally I can have it done by dinnertime, when family time generally starts to kick in.  Because….

I also prioritize.  The MW stuff is fairly easy to get done early in the day, but it’s also a priority because it is a commitment I have made to others.  I take that very seriously.  And on days when I have posted, I make an effort to respond to comments throughout the day.  Still, my first priority is my writing.  On days when I haven’t posted, I might let MW slide until I have my pre-lunch words banked.  If I am having a slow day — if I can’t get enough written or I can’t it done as early as I’d like, I’ll skip the posts for my other blogs, I’ll stay away from Facebook, I’ll blow off the promotional stuff.  If I can’t get the books written, none of the rest matters.  That’s my priority.  Until my family time starts.  And then the writing slides, even if I’m not yet at 2,000 words.  Because in the end, nothing I do professionally is as important as my wife and my kids.  Priorities.

Finally, I honor my creative process.  What does that mean?  As I’ve said, compared with other writers I know (Catie Murphy is only one example) I’m pretty slow.  I do a lot of polishing as I write, and I usually need to write linearly — I can’t jump from section to section as some people can.  This isn’t to say that my way is better — I often wish that I could skip around or that I could leave more of the polishing for the revision stage.   But for better or worse, this is how I work.  And even that is somewhat misleading.  I could get more written if I really had to.  When I wrote Robin Hood, I had no choice.  I had 5 weeks to write 90,000 words, and so I needed to adjust my process.  When it comes down to it, I like my creative process.  I’m comfortable with it.  It might be slow, but it produces the best books I am capable of writing.  And so I respect it, and I allow it to run its course.  I don’t push myself to write more than I normally would any more than I allow myself to slack off and write less.

There is no right way to do any of this.  What works for me might not work for anyone else.   Those are two of the most important MW mantras.  And they pertain to this aspect of what we do more than almost anything else.  Time management and creative process are completely idiosyncratic.  I’m not telling you what I do because I think you should do it.  Rather, I’m trying to explain my thought process to you so that you can make rational choices about your own approach to getting the work done.  Figure out what you have to do to be the writer you aspire to be.  Do you have a blog?  A website?  Are you in the process of sending out queries, submissions?  And how much do you believe you can write each day realistically?  Schedule these activities, work out your priorities, be honest with yourself when determining how much your creative process will allow you to write each day.  It may take some time and tweaking to get your daily schedule just right.  But eventually you will find the right balance, and a rhythm for your production.

I will not be near a computer today, so I might not be able to respond to comments.  I hope my MW colleagues will respond in my stead.  And I’ll look forward to catching up with the discussion as soon as I can.

David B. Coe

18 comments to Back to Basics, part II: Organizing Your “Writing” Time

  • Nice, specific post, David. My own process is very similar. I tend to shoot a little higher on word count per sitting, but that’s because I rarely get to write several days together. For me, three mornings of writing per week is about as good as it gets, so they tend to be furious sessions. That’s OK because I’m used to it, and sometimes find that when I do have more consecutive writing days I don’t actually generate any more than usual because I need time away from the computer to develop what happens next. What that means, I think, is that I’m “writing” in my head at other times, and then getting it down when I have time to actual pound it out at the keyboard. Make sense?

  • *humbly bows to Mr. Coe*

    This elaboration of BIC works great. I guess what I struggle with most is balance. I would love to crank out 2000 words every day and then switch over to critiques and submissions, but it seems that the non-creative stuff comes in waves.

    To keep the creative flow, I’ve been looking at writing in the same way I used to look business. There’s a process called the sales pipeline, which includes lead generation, setting appointments, sales call, proposal, and signing sales. In writing, I liken this to the creative process, including idea generation, story development, drafting, revising, submitting, and (hopefully) sales.

    I find if I spend too much time in the latter part of the pipeline, without paying attention to the earlier stages, the pipeline dries up. I need to ensure that there are always stories or chapters to write, revise, or submit. Otherwise, dead spaces occur, when I don’t have an active story to work on and I stare at my computer, wondering which character or concept to write about.

    If I think about ideas in development while I’m revising, I’ll be and ready to draft when I sub that story off, or I’ll know if there’s enough to start that next novel.

    Speaking of which, I need to dash and get writing.

  • I’m a slow writer, and I tend to write in spurts. I’ll spend a lot of downtime writing in my head, reading, dealing with business issues, and then eventually the story is ready for physical writing which usually comes out in a steady 1000-1500 words a day. Part of that, I’m sure, is a lack of deadlines. If I was under contract, I know I could pump out a lot more per day wordage (I’ve done so on occasion). So, I guess I can’t really say I’m a slow writer. What am I?!?!?!?!

  • The biggest thing that I had to do to get myself to write more words was to shut off the net while I was writing. I checked messages and such in the morning, made some responses, and then unplugged. Otherwise I was tempted to open facebook to see what was going on or check to see who posted on MW, or any other manner of net distraction. Only time I plugged back in was to research. It looks like I’ll have to do that again as I haven’t been very productive the past week.

    And I’m sort of the same. I seem to get more words typed in the afternoon than the morning. It’s like my head has to wake up enough to focus on the story.

  • Great post David, it made me analyze my process and habits.

    I am usually able to write on average 1000 to 1500 words a day. I have a somewhat demanding career that eats up quite a bit of time, but I am able to work through plotting issues and so forth at various times throughout my workday. When I am home I have about 2 hours every night to get everything writing related done.

    I do have a blog, website, facebook, twitter, etc. But, if I tend to those things then I won’t write. So, those internet activities are things I’ve pretty much given up during the week. I save those for the weekend when I have more time. The same goes for queries, submissions, etc. The most important thing for me to get done is the writing itself–the social aspects just have to take a back seat and get handled once a week (of course, I do check the MW blog every day at work). 😉

  • In October, I attended a workshop by James Scott Bell on “The Art of War for Writers”. He recommended setting a weekly goal rather than a daily one just because life gets in the way.

    Balance is the key word here. I’ve been getting a bit better at it. But it’s not just about BIC. It’s about making BIC a priority.

    My NaNo group has write-ins at nearby coffee shop twice a week now, on Mondays and Fridays. They make great bookends to the week. That’s been helping me get stuff done.

    And as I’ve said elsewhere, I make sure that I get any MW response done before I start work, if I have time. Then I use my lunch break and coffee breaks to get stuff done, whether it’s work on my own stuff or read a short story, or MW stuff.

    I have a LJ blog and Twitter, but I’ve made it clear on both that my participation will not be 100% because I have to put writing first.

  • David, I hope you are having a blast. AJ is back from the UK. The gang’s not all here, yet, but it feels good.

    My priorties are about the same as yours, and my daily schedule is a lot like yours in terms of output and strategy. Like you, I’ve learned to pace myself. When I hit a snag in something — the characters are having a spat and not speaking to me, or a plot nexus won’t come together, I’ll check email and then get up from the computer and (gasp) cook or clean house. The mundane (okay, boring) stuff seems to free my mind from the problem, and I can see my way through it. And getting the floors vacuumed means a lot too!

  • Thanks for the post David. I feel better now. Your process is similar to what mine has been evolving into.

    When I first started writing my first fiction novel a couple of months ago, I kept thinking I needed to meet some arbitrary word count goal, which added stress to my writing time. After about a week of that, I realized I was just making myself crazy for no reason. I also realized that I need percolation time for ideas to develop. I came to the conclusion that any BIC time I spent furthering my goal of publishing my book was time well spent. I’m learning what that means as I go.

    After a couple of months, I only have 10,000 words, but I feel pretty good about it since I’m just getting started. I’ve probably written that many words again as world-building and character-building notes (I’m writing fantasy). Those words won’t directly be added to the story, but they WILL help make the story happen.

    I’m also keeping a blog of my efforts, which has my perspectives on learning to write fiction and includes some of the background information for the world I’m building. Even the blog has morphed as I’ve learned more. I started with posts that would mainly appeal to other newbie writers, but I’m moving to posts that will appeal to my eventual readers.

    One of the most valuable uses of my BIC time has turned out to be reading blogs like MW and reading books on fiction writing, although I keep those efforts separate from my “creative” time. I tend to write in the early morning before “day job time,” and read in the evening afterward during what is really BOC (Butt on Couch) time.

    Faith: I’m like you in that I get a great deal of clarity by walking away and doing something menial for a while. I believe that makes us both kinesthetic thinkers.

  • Razziecat

    For me, the day job is the biggest obstacle. I end up with only about three hours every evening to write. Weekends are better, but it’s hard to maintain the flow of words this way. My biggest problem right now is deciding what to concentrate on. How does one decide which of several projects to focus on? Dividing my time between them is not working out so well; my energies are scattered all over instead of moving me forward.

  • As always, thank you for the insights! My process is a little scattered, but I’m hoping that eventually I’ll be able to get a regular rhythm going. Like Razzie, my day job gets in the way, but I end up with even less time, usually an hour on the train and maybe another hour after dinner, if I’m not too tired. Weekends are supposed to be devoted to writing, but it often doesn’t work out that way (I have to get my garden in the ground, and it seems there’s always a family or social event that creeps in there). But like AJ, Stuart and Faith, I also spend a lot of time thinking about my story and fixing plot problems in my head, while doing other things (multi-tasker, that’s me!). Then the next time I actually get to sit down, I can pound it out, until I hit another snag…then it’s off to do laundry or work my veggies until I know how to fix the problem.

  • Razzie — I’m going to jump in and answer your question because I know David is on the road right now.

    I’d say the answer to your question depends on two things: your own personal style, and your own personal priorities. From a style standpoint, I’m a heavy mono-tasker, so whatever I’m doing is usually all that I’m doing. Short story? I’m working on that short story. Novel? I’m working on that novel. If I get an idea for a short story while I’m working on a novel and it really calls to me, I have to set the novel aside for a few days until the short story is done. Your style may vary, so your habits will, too.

    Same thing for priorities. If you’re not under contract or any other kind of obligation, you can decide for yourself what you most want to accomplish. Deadlines and such tend to narrow your window of opportunity to work on other things. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because when you only have time for one other thing besides your previous obligations, you don’t have a lot of decision-making to do.

    If you’re trying to decide which of several short stories or which of several novels you want to write, my advice would be to go with your gut. One of those projects will call to you, compel you more than the others. Trust that feeling; it will usually serve you better than anything else.

    I’m not sure all of this actually counts as an answer, it feels more like a great big extended “it depends.” But the truth is, I think 99% of the time “it depends” is the most honest answer.

  • Sarah

    It’s reassuring to hear the blogging, submission and other things count as BIC. I’ve started a writer’s blog and I’ve been wondering about the balance of actual words getting on the page with all the other things going on. At the same time, blogging about writing has helped me write because it becomes a way of being accountable. I told everyone (all 10 readers that I have) that I was going to finish my WIP by this past Saturday. And by golly, I did it because I couldn’t face the embarrassment of blogging “I screwed around all week and didn’t get it done.” So I did it.

    Of course, by “done” I mean I have a complete story arc and book length manuscript, not that the labor is done. Now I have to re-edit and proof the dang thing in time for the SUVUDU contest deadline, so there’s another motivation for BIC.

  • Razziecat

    Edmund, thanks for your reply, I appreciate it! I think my problem is committing to one story at a time, instead of rushing off to the next new shiny idea. When I get stuck on one, I always have another to turn to, but nothing gets finished that way, and I think the quality suffers. The stories that I finished were done because nothing else at that time called to me. And your comment about following my gut is very apt–I do have something like that, but I keep thinking I should complete other things first. Once I immerse myself in the world of the story, nothing else will call to me as strongly. I just have to take a deep breath and jump in; I know the others will be waiting for me when I emerge.

  • Project hopping is a killer, for sure (for SO many reasons). Momentum is your best friend; you have to find a way to get up a great head of steam and ride it all the way to the end.

  • My thinking time is my half hour walk with the dog each morning followed by my shower. The warm water seems to melt the creative blockages, I think.
    My commute to work, 1 hour by train, is my writing time and 1 hour back again = 2 hours each work day of writing. It’s fantastic: I put my earphones in (they are the ear plug type, isolation ones) which blocks out the noise and type. I usually get through 1,000 – 2,000 words a day that way, though some days less as I am too tired or just feeling a bit beige.
    I found when I was on holiday it was really hard to get into writing because I wasn’t stuck on a train.

  • Unicorn

    In between horses, school (of a sort; luckily, I’m homeschooled), work on the farm, family time, and so on, I don’t get much writing done in the daytime. An hour before and an hour after supper is the best I can hope for, and in that time I usually get about 1 000 words a day, aiming for 7 000 a week. During school holidays I tried to write in the daytime but I couldn’t get the creative juices flowing until evening. I think I have trouble writing with all the bustle of the farm around me in the day; it’s a noisy place, and there are much less distractions at night.
    Thanks for the post, David.

  • Time management has never been a strength of mine, but I do tend to get writing done all right. Like Razziecat, I have a day-job that leaves me with less time during the week for writing than I’d like. For me, writing around work was never a problem as long as I didn’t try to micro-schedule myself. Setting daily word-count goals for myself tends to hurt my writing productivity, because if I can’t get to it for some reason, I get discouraged and my enthusiasm for the project is tainted with guilt. For that reason, I tend to set weekly goals, which gives me the option of doing more writing in one day, and not dealing with the guilt of missing a day because I really wanted to go to the gym, and then my best friend in Japan called on Skype.

    That said, I would really love to know what kind of schedule and goals you guys set for revisions. I’ve suddenly found myself in the position of having so much revision to do I’m afraid to add to it by starting another project. (I’m in the middle of revising a the first novel in a fantasy trilogy, with a second unrelated fantasy manuscript doing drawer-time, a novelette awaiting revision, and a novella collaboration with a few more scenes left before it’s finished.)

    Really love this “Back to the Basics” series! I’m also glad you took this one, David, considering the panel at Stellarcon, when a few folks asked about finding time to write.

    Take care,
    Lauren “Scribe” Harris

  • Thanks all for the great comments. Sorry I couldn’t respond to specific questions — Edmund, thanks so much for stepping in on my behalf. I will look forward to answering questions to the next post that goes up tomorrow. If there are leftover questions from this post, please feel free to toss them my way.