Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time

Okay, I admit it. When I was in law school, one of the main reasons I sought a position at Chicago-based large law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (now Dentons US LLP) was that author Scott Turow is a partner there. It wasn’t just that I wanted to meet him, though that crossed my mind. Mostly, I figured a firm that touted a novelist/lawyer in its marketing must be comfortable with attorneys who pursued other vocations along with law.

In contrast, at the other big law firm where I interviewed, a partner glanced at the one line on my resume about fiction writing and said, “You know, you won’t have time to do that here.”  Points for honesty.

As anyone who practices law knows, regardless whether a firm or company tends to hire lawyers with outside interests, juggling law and the rest of life is a challenge in itself, let alone pursuing another avocation. I'm sure that's true for other professions and jobs, too, not to mention being a parent. The reality is, few people who write novels have more spare time than anyone else. And Scott Turow notwithstanding, most published authors don’t earn enough to quit their other jobs.

So below are a few suggestions on fitting writing into an already too-packed life.

(1) Seek Out Something Different

The less time you spend wracking your mind for ideas, the more time you'll have to actually write. Stimulating your mind with new activities and information can generate a lot of thoughts and ideas on which to base your fiction.

If you're too busy to add anything new outside of work, try to vary within your profession. Work with someone you don't usually partner with, have lunch (or coffee if you're short on time) with a colleague you seldom see, pick up a project that's just a little outside your comfort zone. Talk to someone whose views are completely opposite to your own.

And if you can do something new outside of work, that's a great way to get your creativity flowing. Attend a play, a movie, a concert, or just take a walk along a street you don't normally travel and really look and listen. It doesn't matter if you like what you're doing. Sometimes at a play that bores me out of my mind I come up with great new story ideas.

(2) Develop A Habit

In the classic Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill said, and I’m paraphrasing, you are what your habits make you, and you can choose your habits. In that way, writing is a lot like working out (though I'm far more likely to do the former than the latter). If you need to decide every day whether to go to the gym or what time to try to squeeze it in, it's less likely to happen. Same thing for writing. But when it becomes a habit, the pages start churning out, and it feels great.

If you don't already have a habit of writing at a particular time or for a certain number of minutes or hours per week, figure out when it's most likely you'll be undisturbed, even if it's only a half hour a week on Sunday morning or Friday night. When that time rolls around, write, even if you write about how you don't have anything to write about. Or you can use that time to sketch out what you'll write about in the following session.

Once you have the habit, you can increase the amount of time you write, and the quality of what you write.

(3) Create Time

If finding half an hour a few times a week is a challenge, look first at television, social media, and video games. I’m always surprised how many television shows my lawyer friends, even those with kids, find time to watch, until I remember–they don’t also write.

If you’re already lean on recreational activities, look at your work. Is it possible to work less and write more? Some firms or companies allow reduced schedules for reduced pay. I did this for several years at Sonnenschein, though I concede with mixed results. Sometimes I still billed more hours than people on regular schedules and just earned less. On average, though, it did allow me to write more. Likewise, when I ran my own firm, after a number of super busy years, I began deliberately cutting back. First I turned down new cases other than from existing clients, then I turned down any new matters at all.

If that's not an option, consider buying time. With the advent of virtual assistants and a sharing economy, almost anything can be outsourced. This is especially wonderful when you can pay someone less than your time generates in your own profession. If you earn two-four times as much per hour at your day-to-day paid work than you would pay someone to clean your home, remodel your bathroom, grocery shop, do your taxes, wash your car, fix typos in your manuscript, or keep your financial books up to date, do what you do best, and pay someone else to handle those other tasks. You can then use the extra free time to write.

(4) Harness Your Unconscious

Much of the creative process takes place behind the scenes. Even if you’re extremely busy, your unconscious can come up with story ideas and scenes and flesh out characters. The key is to stimulate the unconscious without stressing out. One way I do this is to ask myself a question before I fall asleep or head to the office, such as–when I was plotting The Awakening–“Where is the most unnerving place for Tara to be confronted by a stranger who claims to know the meaning of her pregnancy?”

If I ask a question like that every so often, then put it out of my mind, eventually a scene or idea pops into my head.  (In that example, the scene takes place just before midnight in a deserted Laundromat where Tara works. The stranger enters as she's closing for the night.)

(5) Use Your Downtime Well

One of the things I love about TV law shows is how no lawyer goes to court and sits forty minutes waiting to give the judge a status report. You also never see lawyers waiting at the gate when the flight to the deposition is delayed.

In the real world, most of us spend some time waiting. That’s why I carry a note pad everywhere and pull it out if I have more than five minutes. (You can also use the note function on your phone for this, but judges frown on lawyers appearing to be emailing or playing on their phones while in the courtroom so I carry paper.)

I particularly like scribbling about characters, because if I’m cut off in the middle, it doesn’t matter. In fact, my unconscious will probably keep going with the train of thought. Now and then I write snippets of dialogue or openings for scenes. While the legal pad pages rarely make their way to my writing desk, and the exact words almost never get typed into a manuscript, my thoughts flow more freely when I do have time. It’s a big part of why I’m usually able to turn out pages as soon as I sit down to write.

You can also use time stuck waiting in line to observe fellow customers. Notice their chins, their noses, how they carry themselves, their expressions. Think about how you'd describe them in writing. This can be especially helpful if your physical descriptions of characters tend to get repetitive or rely too much on describing eye color, hair color, and height.

You can find specific writing/thinking prompts for short time periods in Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.

(6) Set Small Goals.

Most professionals are goal-oriented people. That’s how we got where we are. Large goals, like writing a best-seller in two years, are inspiring, and they work well when pursuing a pre-set program like graduate school. But they also are too easy to put off truly pursuing until tomorrow.

So break those goals down. If you have a regular schedule, your first-draft goal could be a page a day or seven pages a week. If you have an erratic schedule, a goal of a number of pages per month or per three months may work better. One of my best writing instructors, author Raymond Obstfeld, called this latter approach the spare change method. Rather than writing X amount per day or week, you throw whatever you can into the writing equivalent of the spare change jar. So when I practiced law full time, one week I might have written 4 pages, the next 10, then next none, but at the end of the month, I’d written 30 pages.

(7) Write Something Bad.

If you’ve tried cases for twenty years, you might be able to think through an opening argument the night before trial and give it the next morning. But when you started out, you probably outlined the argument, practiced ten times in front of a mirror, and tried it out on a colleague or two. Yet, for some reason, many of us insist on trying to make every sentence of our fiction perfect the very first time.

Hemingway said all first drafts are sh*t. I find this very freeing. Many of my first drafts are rambling or too sparse (or both) and include pages that ultimately don’t need to be there. A first draft is a thing of beauty not because it’s perfect, but because it’s done. Trying to write well the first time out can keep you from writing at all. So the biggest key to finishing–no matter how much time you have or don't–is being willing to write something bad. Then you can revisit, rewrite, and polish all you want.

There’s no magic to finding time to write, any more than there is to finding time to study in college, or to raise children, do volunteer work, or care for your parents while working fifty hours a week. There will be things you’ll miss while you sit and write, and carving out the time to write may mean, for a while at least, earning less than you could if you focused all your efforts on a more immediately lucrative profession.

But if you love writing the way I do, it will be worth it. Much as I enjoyed practicing law, nothing satisfies me more than finishing a piece of writing and feeling I’ve done my best with it. (Though practicing law did mean I eventually got to meet Scott Turow. Pretty cool.)

Until Friday, wishing you a productive and not-too-stressful week–

Best,

L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you're starting a novel and are looking for a clear, quick way to plan it without being bound to a rigid outline, try Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel. It's free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers (reg. $0.99 for Kindle, $4.99 paperback). The Kindle version includes a link to helpful worksheets. It can save you a lot of time.

2 thoughts on “Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time”

  1. Speaking as a bookkeeper and a fiber “artist” (want to be) and not a writer, this article is wonderful. Its just what I needed to help me rethink where I can pull out those extra minutes – hours – to design and produce and still keep my bookkeeping practice a lucrative concern.

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