Can I have my creative cake and eat it too?
September 5, 2008 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Working writers: how do you carve out time for fiction?

Here's a question for working writers. I've managed to turn my passion into a full-time life as a freelance writer. I do corporate stuff, copywriting and marketing pieces, journalism, and I'm thrilled to be working for myself at something I adore. My real passion, however, is fiction, and like so many others, my real aspiration is to complete and sell the novels that have been niggling at me for years.

Trouble is, at the end of the day it's really difficult to transition from non-fiction to fiction and from have-to-I-get-paid to want-to-so-I'm-disciplined work. I find myself using my sore wrists and zonked brain as an excuse...and I'm starting to get scared that I'll never achieve my dream of being a working novelist.

I'm wondering how other writers approach this dilemma. Is "suck it up" the only answer, or are there some tips/tidbits/tweaks I'm missing?
posted by mynameisluka to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
"Write fiction three hours a day six days a week. More important than exercise, family or income." Words I got from a Creative Writing instructor many moons ago.
posted by philip-random at 10:47 PM on September 5, 2008

I've worked as a different kind of writer, but I've found the following books interesting... First, Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly. He talks about what makes a book last and what keeps people from writing one, or at least what kept him from writing one of the kind he wanted to. Second, The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges, O.P. The latter has an extensive religious element to it, but also offers a lot of practical and commonsense advice about how not to stifle creativity, how to get the intellectual food you really need, how to stay physically healthy (and why it's important) and sane while being a writer or scholar etc. How to plan your day to get the maximum productivity.

I also offer the book that persuaded me I wasn't supposed to be a novelist... On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner. This book seems to have encouraged a lot of people in writing fiction, but it discouraged me... which I believe was the right result.
posted by Jahaza at 11:06 PM on September 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Trouble is, at the end of the day it's really difficult to transition from non-fiction to fiction and from have-to-I-get-paid to want-to-so-I'm-disciplined work.

I've had this problem as well. Two things: maybe try getting up in the morning and writing fiction first-thing, as opposed to waiting all day and feeling guilty. Also, be sure that this isn't just an excuse for a deeper kind of procrastination based on fear, anxiety or something like that (which is often the case, I've found in my own life and talking to other writers). Maybe instead of trying a surface-level fix, try to figure out why you want badly to write fiction and yet you do not. And if you figure that one out, let me know the answer.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:07 PM on September 5, 2008

My predominant task at work is writing stuff, as well, although I could give a shit about what I write at work, which may not be the case for you.

However! The two things that really give me a spark to write some fiction are:

1.) Writing group. My friends and I have a weekly (sometimes more) writing group that's focused solely on our fiction projects, and that spurs me on to have something to present every time.

2.) Turning off the video game system.
posted by greenland at 11:17 PM on September 5, 2008

A good book for motivation: The War of Art
posted by sharkfu at 1:11 AM on September 6, 2008

As a working writer, my theory is that my brain only has so much capacity for writing. If I spend all day writing for a deadline, I'm going to be drained and writing for fun is going to be like pulling teeth. On the other hand, if I spend the day doing non-writing stuff, I'll have an urge to write like crazy and end up writing lengthy AskMefi answers.

Based on that theory, here are three possibilities:

1. Try adding more non-writing work to your plate if it's possible. You're freelance, so you can find freelance activities that aren't strictly "writing" - editing, proofreading, or web design for example.

2. Try doing creative things that aren't writing. I'm currently learning to play the guitar, and I'm still passionate about that no matter what I've been working on all day. It won't get your novels finished, but it might help you feel more creative.

3. The third solution, I suppose, would be to increase the amount of total writing capacity of your brain. I've never succeeded at that, but I suspect the secret is to gradually increase the amount you're doing. Start forcing yourself to write fiction for 30 minutes a day, and when that gets easy, increase it to 1 hour.

I still think your best bet is to use less of your writing capacity on your day job so you have some left over for novels.

Best of luck.
posted by mmoncur at 3:19 AM on September 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend Metafilter's own jscalzi's blog - he writes regularly about this sort of thing as he's gone from a primarily non-fiction/corporate writer to a nearly-full-time novelist. Drop him an email, he might be able to point you to relevant entries or even write one specifically about your issue, he's a cool guy.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:56 AM on September 6, 2008

You might consider entering an MFA program. As a writer in one, I'm often wary about recommending them to people, but if you have the funds (or are able to get funding), I think they're really great for people like you who want time to write. You'll have two or three years devoted almost wholly to writing, even if you have a Teaching Assistantship (I do, and it's max ~15 hours of work a week). At my program, you have to be really dedicated and determined to get writing done and not use the time here to socialize, but I can say that I managed to bash out half of a manuscript this summer while also doing summer teaching. You'd likely have to give up--or at least do less--freelance for the time you'd be in a program, but at the end you could definitely have a novel draft, which would put you a step closer to your goal. It's not for everyone, but it's something to consider.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:36 AM on September 6, 2008

I'm kind of trying to BECOME you -- I'm doing a non-writing thing for the "day job", and am JUUUUUUST starting to take on freelance stuff. I do already have one gig that's kind of exhaustive -- I write the study guides for a theater company in Pennsylvania, but that's just four times a year, and I wanted to branch out more.

One book I found to be tremendously encouraging was Stephen King's memoir ON WRITING. Whatever your opinion on Stephen King, he does go into his development as a writer at great length, and gives a LOT of advice about how to structure your day and carve out the time for what you want to do; he's also very, very encouraging without being overly-optimistic (he dissects the career path of a new writer he knows, to give the reader an accurate picture of what "becoming a successful fiction writer" actually looks like).

I read it when I was fretting about never finding the time to write my own stuff alongside the study guides -- because they do take a lot out of me -- and got to a passage where he suggests that when you're starting out, try shooting for a goal of 1,000-2,000 words a day; I saw that, thought "say, that's not that bad," and it was the impetus to get me sitting down and writing, which is half the battle.

Fiction writing is actually what he's geared towards, in fact; but it's encouraging and practical enough that I took something from it and I don't even write fiction myself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:40 AM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Never underestimate the value of a writing buddy. I haven't found writer's groups to be successful, but having one friend with whom you have a mutual deadline society is great.

Also, deadlines in general are great. I'm lucky enough in my career as a playwright that I can call a theatre, ask if they'll be willing to do a reading, they set up a time and place, and then I have to come through with a play by that time. I imagine novels would be harder, as you wouldn't have a group of people depending on you to finish something.

Which brings me back to the mutual deadline society.

Also, seconding On Writing. It's a really good book.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 9:01 AM on September 6, 2008

There are a lot of great books about writing (and some not so great ones), but I don't think that's what you need right now.

I think you just need to get up earlier and writer before work. That is what I do. After working a 10+ hour day including commute, there is just NO FREAKING WAY I am going to write anything of substance when I get home. Even on weekends, I try to write first thing- once I do something else, anything else, I just can't get the same level of concentration on writing.

Also, don't beat yourself up- self-motivation is a very very hard thing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:39 AM on September 6, 2008

My business requires me to write a lot, and when I want to work on one of my own projects the only thing that works for me is to pile up some money and then tell my clients that I have a "big project" and "won't be available" for a chunk of time. Usually I do that for only short periods (a month here or there), but it helps.
posted by PatoPata at 9:40 AM on September 6, 2008

but since we are talking writing books, I can't say enough good things about Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I talk about Running". He talks about how being a long-distance runner helps him be a novelist, and about writing as a physical ordeal- which I think is one of the most important and under-reported aspects of being a serious writer.

It's also an incredibly readable, entertaining, and at times profound book, which isn't surprising considering the author.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:43 AM on September 6, 2008

I've been working lately on the idea that I must write 100 words a day that's not a blog comment or my work or an email. It can be a blog entry, but only if it's one I take some time to craft. I track chains of daily writing on Joe's Goals and try not to break the chain.

Of course, rare is the day when I write precisely 100 words, because in the 100 words I force myself to write, I shift mindsets and get into the idea of writing on my personal projects. You might do better with a different number -- 500, perhaps. Even if it doesn't change your frame of mind, at least you got 500 words done, which is 500 more than you had before.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:44 AM on September 6, 2008

I have a friend who works in advertising as a copywriter. What he does is he wakes up at five in the morning, writes his own stuff for an hour, then goes to work.

If you're too tired to write your own stuff at the end of the day, then write it at the beginning of the day. Problem solved!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 12:23 PM on September 6, 2008

I wrote my first novel while I had a full-time writing job at America Online. I did it by writing on the weekends and using time after work during the week thinking about what I was going to write when I sat down at the computer on Saturday. It took me three months to write the novel that way, writing roughly 5,000 words (or about one chapter) a weekend. You'll find your own native writing speed, but taking time on the weekend to write is a good way to balance getting writing done and not feeling exhausted from your day-to-day writing.

Aside from this, I've noticed that when one stops watching television, lots of time seems to magically open up.
posted by jscalzi at 3:22 PM on September 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've written a novel (currently working on third revision) and it's taken me nearly three years. I write very, very slowly. The only way I've written as much as I have is that I go to cafés and just sit there, staring at pieces of paper (or reading source material) until I've gotten some words down.

I'm not saying that you necessarily need to go to a café but you should find a type of place you like to go for a few hours and write.
posted by Kattullus at 12:25 AM on September 7, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for your advice!
posted by mynameisluka at 7:20 AM on September 9, 2008

« Older Synergetics Dictionary, Where?   |   Miso Hungry Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.