A very long time ago, I read a story about how A. S. Byatt wrote her first novel. I could look it up* but I prefer the murkiness of what I think I remember: she was a bored faculty wife who wrote a novel with one hand while rocking the baby with the other. It’s a great story. The grit! The single-mindedness! The ability to rise above sleep-deprivation! Above all, it makes things sound so straightforward:
Step 1. Decide to write a novel.
Step 2. Write the novel.
Step 3. Send it (via a friend) to Cecil Day-Lewis, who will take you to lunch at a private member’s club in London. The rest is history.
But a lot of messiness has been edited from that story. Recently, I was chatting with some other writer parents and joked that I’d made a bunch of cardinal errors in working from home, so felt qualified to give expert advice on what NOT to do as a write-at-home parent. I’ve blogged about some of these challenges before (and have linked to the relevant posts below). But this seems like a good time to consolidate what I’ve learned.
Before I start laying down overconfident-sounding imperatives, I want to make it clear that even these are ideals to which I aspire. I screw up all the time, make silly decisions, get annoyed with myself. But when I’m working happily and efficiently and confidently – which is more and more of the time – here’s what it looks like.
This means saying a lot of quiet, consistent, regretless No’s. No dental appointments, no errands, no committee meetings (that one’s easy!) or impromptu coffee dates. No quick grocery stops. No taking phone calls from my mother, not even for just 10 minutes. No blog posts, even. My two- or three-hour blocks of writing time are purely for writing fiction. (I blogged about this last year with suggested scripts, if you want them.)
I have tunnel-vision/I leave the house.
Sure, it’s gross to sit at the kitchen table with breakfast dishes piled in an egg-crusted ziggurat by the sink. But I’ve learned, over and over and over again, that if I do the dishes, throw in a load of laundry, clean the bathroom sink and book that dentist’s appointment I keep forgetting to make, I’ll lose a whole hour. Then I’ll lose momentum. And then I’ll be furious with myself. An acquaintance described it as being your own bad boss, and she’s so right. When I assign myself tasks that fall outside the writer’s job description, I set myself up for failure.
I steal time.
I’m embarrassed to admit that this one took me a really long time to figure out. I used to start each work session by re-reading at least a scene or two, to get me back in the rhythm of my WIP. Only then would I start to think about where I was headed. Elapsed time: 20-30 minutes per session. I can’t bear to calculate how many hundreds of hours this adds up to, over my writing career.
A couple of years ago, I finally realized: I can steal time from the margins of other activities. Now, when I’m on my way to a writing session (getting the kids in the morning, walking to a café, making dinner), I’m already thinking about where I left off and where I need to go. I might block out a scene or sketch out some dialogue. This often goes best when I’m walking. Then, when I open my laptop, I’m already primed and ready to write.
I skip the slow parts.
I generally start at the beginning of a novel and write everything in the order I want it to be read. It works for me because I’m not a meticulous master plotter. In fact, my plots frequently wander/twist/swell in the most unexpected places, so it’s probably my most efficient process. Still, my current WIP has a frame narrative, and that means I’m already jumping around temporally. This has led to giving myself permission to skip spots where I might stall out (for me, these are scene openings and bridges) and go back to them once I’ve got the scene fleshed out. It’s working so far (although it still feels a bit like cheating).
This comes in two parts:
- Sometimes, even with a lot of care and effort, a writing session feels like I’m trapped in a staring contest with the Opus. On those occasions, I’m trying to train myself to refer to a checklist with the extremely elegant title, “I’m stuck/tired/lethargic/don’t feel up to writing, WAAAAAH!” (It’s here, if you’re interested.) Basically, the goal is to ease up a little, analyze why I’m stuck, and then nurture myself in order to overcome the obstacle.
- I also know a number of extremely talented, fast-writing novelists. If I ever compared my daily word counts to theirs, I would hurl myself into the abyss. I just don’t. (Or, real talk: I try really hard not to.)
I bend the rules.
I think this one’s mostly about temperament. I can live with rules but from time to time, I just have to break them. Lately, I’ve used some work time to have lunch with friends. It doesn’t happen often – maybe once a month. But it’s a terrific incentive to be extra-focused that morning, it rewards me with the company of people I really like, and it opens up my world a little wider. I am so much happier when I’ve made time to talk to an adult outside my family and, indirectly, it’s good for my writing.
I really hope this list doesn’t come across as smug or didactic. It’s just a few things I’ve learned through trial and much error, and I hope it’s useful to some of you. If you have observations or suggestions, please do share in the comments! I’m always hoping to learn from others.
*Here’s the story Byatt told in an interview in The Paris Review: “I had two small children, and in a slow and rather unhappy way, knowing that it was all inadequate, I rewrote and rewrote, with one or the other child in a little chair on the desk, rocking him with one hand.”