Some of the most common questions I hear when I’m doing events are about time management. I’m frequently asked how many hours a day I write. Another common question is how long it takes me to write a book. Perhaps the most common obstacle new writers worry about is that they just can’t find time to write.
I get it. You probably have a job that you work forty hours a week. Assuming you care about your health, you’re likely sleeping fifty-six hours a week and exercising at least three or four. If you care about your mental health, you have relationships. Your family deserves your time and attention, and life without friends would be unbearable. All these people demand a slice of your time, and deserve it far more than a computer screen opened to a blank page. Finally, it’s important to relax and to be entertained. An evening set aside to read a book, a night spent going out to dinner, a movie marathon on the weekends, or taking a few minutes here and there to play a game on your phone are good ways to relieve stress. You can’t be “on” all the time.
Of course, by the time you’ve done your work, given time to friends and family, relaxed and entertained yourself, you find that, hmm, another week has gone by and you haven’t written a single page.
When I was in my twenties, I was working on a novel and progress was slow. I used to daydream about how much I could write if writing was my whole job. I fantasized that I’d publish a single book, it would make me financially secure enough to quit my day job, and after that it would be smooth sailing as I cranked out book after book. In other words, I was caught in a fantasy that seduces a lot of beginning authors: One day, when I’m a writer, I’ll have time to write.
And that’s bullshit. Take my word on this: Right now, you have the same amount of time available to write a book as everyone else. All those demands on your time are demands every other writer faces. What’s more, fantasizing that at some future date you’ll have more time to write is a rather feeble hope. I felt so busy and rushed in my twenties, but when I got into my thirties I wondered where all my free time had gone, and felt like all my new responsibilities were overwhelming. In my forties, I could look back and see just how few responsibilities I really had when I was thirty. As I’m writing this I’m in my fifties, and I’ve got demands on my time I didn’t even imagine a decade ago. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’ll never have more time available to you than you have at this moment. This is self-evidently true. Your life is an hourglass. The sand grains are pouring through, and there’s no way of turning the glass back over. Demands on your time will increase each year, especially if you’re a smart, capable, and responsible person. The more you’ve done, the more you get asked to do. You will never, ever, reaching that mythical state of finding time to write.
The solution: Make time to write. It’s that simple. There are things you need to give up so you can keep your butt in your chair and type. There are other things you need to stop doing so you can daydream and let your imagination run wild.
I obviously can’t address your life specifics, but a few of the things I gave up in order to write were gaming and television. Like a lot of young men, I used to have a pretty extensive collection of video games. And, because I’m a geek, I loved games that didn’t require a screen, stuff like D&D, Warhammer, Magic the Gathering, and just plain old spades and rummy and hearts. I ran weekly game nights and spent a lot of time designing campaigns and painting miniature armies. All the time, I kept thinking of myself as a writer, even though I really was piddling along and writing maybe a chapter a month. It took me two or three years to write a book, but speed isn’t everything, is it? I mean, taking time to get stuff right is a good thing.
But I wasn’t taking time to get stuff right. I was taking time to second guess myself. When I would go a week or more between sitting down to write, I’d lose momentum. Passion for my project would diminish. Worse, I’d change my mind about what I’d already written because I was giving the ideas time to grow and mutate. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it meant I kept restarting the same projects again and again to incorporate new ideas for characters, settings, and plot points.
Good writing requires momentum. A first draft should be a project of weeks, not years, if it’s to feel coherent and whole. My first book took me three years to finish and it was a mess. My second I worked on for two years, and my third took about the same time. None were ready for publication, and with my glacial pace of writing, I was constantly wondering whether I should put them aside and start with a new, better idea, or keep slogging away at a manuscript I no longer cared about. Then, I stumbled into something that changed my writing forever: A deadline. A completely arbitrary one. It was November of 2000. I was one of those calendar snobs who insisted that the new millennium didn’t actually being until January 1, 2001. And as part of a conversation with some other novice writers, we decided to challenge ourselves with writing the first new novel of the millennium. We’d start books on November 15, and type “the end” at midnight on December 31. I thought it was a pretty crazy goal. At that point I seldom finished short stories in a month and a half, let alone a whole book. But, I agreed to the challenge and just started writing. I knew I needed 1500 words a day to finish a novel by the deadline, which meant I needed about two hours each night. Two hours each night is about what I spent watching television. So, no television until I finished my words for the night. When weekends came around I normally met up with friends and gamed. Since I was working on my book, I went to hang out with my friends but took my laptop. I sat in the corner and wrote while they played video games, and from time to time we’d all take breaks and talk. I gave up gaming without giving up my friends.
I was worried about whether I’d be able to keep up the pace for a month and a half, but made an interesting discovery. Since I was writing every day, when I’d sit down to write the previous session’s work was still fresh in my mind. I developed a habit of stopping my chapters a line or two before they reached the end. That way, when I sat down the next day, I already knew the first hundred words or so I’d be typing, and once you’ve typed your first hundred, your second hundred flows more easily, and after a half hour or so you’re so absorbed you’ll just keep writing without effort. Momentum mattered!
I know writers who have built a career out of writing 1000 words of first draft a day, every day. I’m not one of those writers. I still spend a lot of weeks and months between projects when I’m not writing first drafts. I also tend to binge on first drafts, going a few days producing nothing then sitting down for an eight hour word-a-thon where I crank out several chapters in a row.
Where do I find eight hours in a row? For years, I made the time by only working four days a week at my day job. Where I worked, there were certain shifts that were hard to keep filled. I told my boss I’d work these hard to fill spots on the schedule permanently, but in exchange I’d only be working four days. He took the deal. So, I’d work Sunday and Monday, have Tuesday and Wednesday off, then work Thursday and Friday. This cut my income, but on my mid-week days I was home when all my friends and family were working, so I could really focus on producing work. My goal with this schedule was to get out 10,000 words a week, and for the most part I met that goal. 10,000 words a week seems to be my most comfortable pace. I write a lot of epic fantasy novels about 120,000 words long. So, it takes me about three months to produce a first draft, two months to polish a second draft, and another month to finish a third draft. All further drafts are normally stuff I squeeze in here and there because I’ve already moved on to another project.
These days, I no longer have a day job. I’ve got over fifteen books in print and it’s enough of a back catalogue to keep revenue trickling in while I’m working on new stuff. I still find it hard to write much more than ten hours each week. Part of it is due to my transition to self-publishing. As I’ll discuss in later posts, the publishing aspect of being an indy author can easily devour every moment you choose to put into it. This isn’t wasted time, and in fact it’s essential if you want to have a career, but every moment you spend on the business side is a moment that gets stolen from the creative side. Another reason I only write ten hours a week is that, every now and then, I’ve attempted more and found it unsustainable.
I once walked into my day job and was told I didn’t need to show up for work the follow week. They’d discovered a code violation in the building and had to shut down to rewire the whole workplace. I went home wondering if I could write a book in a week. It turns out, yes. That book was Burn Baby Burn, and I consider it one of my best novels. It required very little rewriting because it flowed out so coherently and there was very little I needed to revise. I would get up each morning at 7 and write until 7 in the evening. A week later, I had a book. I also had back aches, sore hands, and memory problems. Writing so much so quickly almost literally emptied out my brain. I felt like I was in a mental fog for weeks afterward. Then, I did it to myself again! I took a new job, and had a week off between my old job and my new one. This time, I wanted to try a new strategy. I spent four alternating days writing, with a daily goal of 15,000 words. And it worked! A complete manuscript in four working days. And … it wasn’t as good as Burn Baby Burn. It wasn’t terrible, it just needed a lot of rewriting. Because of the pace I was writing, I didn’t have time to second guess my choices at certain moments where the plot could go one way or another. That had worked out well with Burn Baby Burn, but with the new novel, I reached the end and realized that the book I finished wasn’t the book I’d begun. It was actually a better book than my initial vision, but the second draft required me tossing out easily half of the original manuscript and starting fresh. And, again, I finished that writing marathon with the same physical symptoms. My back hurt, my legs were numb, and my hands took a month to feel normal again. A mental fog once more descended over me and made it hard to concentrate for a long time. I’ve heard other writers complain about “writer’s brain,” where the ability to concentrate on things in the real world is difficult after you’ve spent a lot of time deep in your imagination. You wind up going through the paces of your ordinary life like a zombie, not quite all there. It doesn’t affect everyone, but for me it’s a serious obstacle.
I’m not saying I’ll never attempt another week long writing marathon, but I’m also comfortable just plodding along with my 10,000 words a week.
So, to answer the questions succinctly:
How many hours a week do I write? Between zero and sixty, but my goal is ten. There is no one correct answer for how many hours a week you need to write if you want to be a writer. Write as much as you can, always try to write a little more, and never be content. The haunting, nagging fear that you aren’t doing enough is great motivation.
How long does it take to write the first draft of a book? Between several years and a few days. Don’t get discouraged if you’ve been working on a project for what feels like forever. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, they’ll read the book in a matter of hours. The length of time you took to create the book will be invisible to them. Working on a book for years might mean you’ve taken the time to craft a timeless masterwork, or it might mean you’re just flailing around on something that never feels finished because of underlying flaws. Banging out a book in under a month might mean you’re a hack throwing valueless words on a page in desperate attempt to grab a few dollars, or it might mean you’ve captured lightning in a bottle and are writing the most important story you’ll ever tell.
How do I find the time to write? By cutting back on entertainment, like gaming and television. I often have to choose between consuming art and creating it. Since a person can’t live without art, focus on consuming the art you’re trying to perfect, and read widely. When the universe throws time at you, like my unexpected week off, pounce.
Finally, one thing I haven’t talked about yet is writing time that doesn’t involve putting your butt in the chair and typing. Carve out time in your life to daydream. On your drive back and forth to work, turn off your car radio and let your mind wander. I had the benefit of being really bored at my day job a lot of the time, and was able to imagine whole scenes that went into my books while I was being paid for pretending to focus on something else. Now that I work from home, I spend a fair amount of time exercising. I go out kayaking for hours, and do 20+ mile bike rides a few times a week. Both require only a moderate amount of attention once I’m in motion, giving me time to think about my books. Or, if I’ve been writing a lot and am lost in a writer’s fog, being out in nature helps pull be back to reality. Even just going out for a walk alone is good for the body and the mind. Time you set aside to exercise doesn’t have to subtract from time you spend writing novels. If anything, it can be the time you’re devoting to mining your imagination, hunting for the precious words that will finally make it to the page.