ow do you find time to write a novel? Does the sheer number of words seem overwhelming or is it putting you off even getting started? I’ve spent the last few years researching the organizational tips and techniques that are most translatable to the writing life, some of which I’ll share with you here.
First, let’s diagnose the problem:
Which of the following best describes your situation?
- You struggle to find time in a busy schedule to turn up and write your novel.
- You keep writing the same section repeatedly and/or don’t seem to make progress.
- You’ve got a detailed plan but can’t seem to turn up and write the book.
- You’ve written lots of different scenes—perhaps they’re in different parts of your computer in no particular order - but they need bringing together.
- You suspect you have writer’s block.
- You just don’t feel inspired by the subject matter anymore.
- You turn up to write but you’re so distracted by other things you can’t focus.
Let’s imagine there are seven novelists who are all facing the above difficulties when it comes to managing their time. I’ll come back to them later but first, there are three organizational techniques that will help all seven of our writers, and they are:
- Working on their writing space
- Learning their ‘when’
- The power of chunking
Is space the real problem?
When talking to my students, the problem they present with might be ‘having no time,’ but space is often the real but hidden issue. So, let’s get this out of the way first. Think about the space you typically write in:
- What’s great about it? List at least three things you love about the space.
- What’s wrong with it? List at least three niggles or irritations about your space.
Let’s look at that from a different perspective now:
- What top three qualities would your ideal writing space have?
- What are your top three deal breakers? What definitely has to be excluded from your writing space?
Add more than three of each if you want to go in deep.
Don’t try to get to the perfect version but instead figure out how you could get more of what you love and less of what you don’t, even if it’s only slightly more. For example, if you currently write in a café but silence is on your list of top three priorities for your writing space, you could switch to a public library. Similar, but usually quieter!
Learn Your When
I read a fascinating book by Daniel H. Pink called When, which confirmed what I already knew: I like writing early in the morning! Just like space, not working at your best ‘when’ could be the root of the problem, so it’s useful to know when your energy levels peak and dip during the day. If you’re not sure:
- Keep a log for a couple of days.
- Try writing at different times to discover which feels best.
- Take a habit you’ve already installed in your life: does the time you do it help you to stay on track?
Look back at your notes on your writing space, including the deal breakers, and decide when you are most likely to get at least some of the conditions you crave. You might not be able to achieve your ideal space and ‘when’ right now, but you can still take small steps towards each.
The Power of Chunking
Chunking for Beginners
- Write 1000 words and time how long it takes you.
- Redraft 1000 words and do the same.
- For a deeper dive, repeat this 3 x and take the average.
- Using that same amount of time, schedule ten writing sessions, in a particular place, as if you were going to work.
- Each Monday morning, review your week, reminding yourself of when and where you’re going to write.
- During each session use a distraction-busting technique like the pomodoro or Brain FM.
- After each session, keep a journal of what happened and how you felt.
- After the 10 sessions are up, repeat and adjust based on what you discovered.
Chunking simply means dividing your time or your tasks into chunks. Here’s how I apply it to the novel writing process in my practical workshops:
- What’s your ideal session length? If you were uninterrupted, how long would you write for before taking a break? Next figure out which length of session is possible, given your circumstances. Consider how that might pan out over a year.
- Next figure out how many words can you write or edit in a session of that length. Over a few sessions, time yourself and count the words at the end (not as you go along, or the exercise will affect the outcome).
- Now make a note of your big writing goal. Make it specific and time-bound if possible. For instance, I will query agents this time next year OR I will finish editing the novel by January. Often this is about writing down what’s already in our heads in order to make it concrete.
- Can you figure out how many writing sessions you will need in order to achieve your goal? For instance, if you can edit 1,000 words in one writing session, you might need 100 sessions (or two sessions per week for a year) to finish this redraft. This exercise might make you realize that you need to adjust the deadline for your goal!
After that the trick is to forget about the big goal and to schedule and turn up for the sessions. These chunks of time are going to be:
- the best length for you,
- at a good ‘when’ for you,
- scheduled in an appropriate space,
or at least an approximation of the above. During a ‘chunk’ you’re not going to check the internet or respond to emails—you’ll only be working on your novel.
These chunks become the building blocks of your novel, practically speaking. They’re what makes the novel happen. Personally, I like the Pomodoro Technique, which results in 25-minute writing sessions with no distractions. Find out more here: https://francescocirillo.com/products/the-pomodoro-technique
Time Management Solutions
Now I’ll take those seven problems that our fictitious novelists face and give you a time management solution for each. Remember that these solutions have their foundation in the three organizational techniques I’ve already suggested.
1. Finding time in a busy schedule.
Keep a diary of how you use your time for a week and identify fallow time or anything you could stop doing, delegate, or get help with. Could you get more efficient at everyday tasks? Don’t sacrifice relaxation or sleep. You need those too!
2. Rewriting the same section/not making progress.
Use Brian Tracy’s ‘Eat That Frog’ technique, from the book of the same name. Take one difficult scene. Don’t write anything else until you’ve finished a draft of it. Schedule these sessions as if you are going to a place of work. Warm up, in the same way you’d warm up for exercise, by trying some fun writing games first. If in doubt, write the final scene of the book, then the most climactic scene. Writing non-chronologically like this can get you out of a fix.
3. Your plan doesn’t equal turning up.
Turn your plan into a writing to-do list by creating a list of instructions to follow. For instance, write scene where Mandy kills Clive by pushing him overboard. Next ask what you loved about the story in the first place. Once you have a sense of that, write in character, using first person, without a plan, for one writing session, then reconfigure your plan.
4. You have different scenes in different files that need bringing together.
I’ve found this is often a form of procrastination. Put aside a day when you have nothing else planned. If possible, call on someone who’s willing to check on you every couple of hours to make sure you’re doing what you promised! Do an audit of what you have as follows:
- When and where is each scene set?
- What happens?
- How long is it?
- What’s the point of view?
Make a list of the scenes in chronological order. If possible, fill in any gaps in your scene list with what you plan to write. Now turn this scene list into a writing to-do list. Create small targets for yourself.
5. You suspect you have writer’s block.
Make absolutely sure it isn’t time or space that’s the problem. Turn up, use freewriting to write for five minutes at a time, then see if you can extend that to ten minutes, then twenty minutes. Forget about what you’re writing about—simply make lists if you like—focus on keeping going for the time allotted.
6. You just don’t feel inspired by the subject matter anymore.
Do an audit of YOU. What do you care about, what do you love doing, what are your values, which places do you love? Can you introduce any of these things by rewriting the draft so you can start to love it again?
7. Your main problem is distraction.
Make a list of all the things that distract you over a couple of sessions: I haven’t done the laundry! What will we have for dinner? What if I’ve got a reply to that email? etc. It’s not possible to catch all of them, but with awareness, you should be able to catch those that come up regularly and schedule time to sort them out. Turn off your phone and the internet, to avoid those common distractions. You could use an app to help you focus (I use Brain FM) or get up early when no one else is around.
Lou worked as Drama teacher before doing an MA in Creative Writing at The University of East Anglia. She published two novels with Headline Review called The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, wrote a PhD, started a family, and became a Creative Writing lecturer. Since then, she has published several books, articles, stories and poems. She currently lectures part-time at the University of Brighton and writes for the rest of the week. A revised edition of her book, A Small Steps Guide to Goal Setting and Time Management, has just been published. She blogs at: www.louisetondeur.co.uk/blog