Ask Correia 11: Time Management for Writers

I’ve gotten a few e-mails about this topic and I’ve been meaning to talk about how writers manage their time, especially when they are like me and they still have a day job. I got a big one today and I started responding, then realized that I’d typed up quite the blog post, so I’ll just go ahead and share.

One of the ugly little secrets of writing is that it takes time and effort. People who’ve never written anything tend to think that novelists have the easiest job ever. Not really. We’ve got the coolest job ever (okay, second coolest, because I want to be Tony Stark when I grow up) but it isn’t necessarily easy. Writing is easy; writing something entertaining, engaging, and good enough to sell is work.  

One of the biggest challenges for a writer is finding the time to write. This is a real killer for many of us. Normally when you start writing you’ve got a job or two, a spouse, children, friends, hobbies, responsibilities, church callings, volunteer duties, a dog that needs to get walked… whatever. You get the idea.

And don’t start to think that you can buckle down long enough to get one book out, and then you’ll make millions of dollars, quit your day job, and be able to write whenever you feel like. A dirty little secret of the writing profession is that most professionals still have a day job until after they get a few books in circulation. If your first novel is a huge hit or some publishing house is so sure that you’re going to be a top seller that they give you an epic advance, sure, you can write one book and quit your day job. However the average novel is only going to sell something like 10-15,000 copies over its life. You won’t exactly be rolling in the dough.

That’s why most of us have several books out and grow a fan base for a few years before we quit our jobs. That’s pretty normal.

I’m in an odd situation right now, in that I am selling enough books that I could quit my day job and still make a decent living. I made more money off of advances and royalties this year than I did annually as an accountant five years ago. However, I’ve currently got an awesome day job. It is challenging. I love the people I work with. I’ve got freedom, responsibility, and I get paid good. If I still worked for the horrible corporate culture of Humungous Monotony Group I would’ve quit my day job the second I cashed my first royalty check, even if that meant living off of cat food under an overpass, but I digress.  Since I like what I do, I hold down two jobs, which means I’ve got to manage my writing time.

First thing, writing is a job. Treat it like a job. If you just screw around and write when the mood strikes you every once in awhile, you will probably never make it as a writer. Jobs have schedules. Schedule time to write.

It doesn’t matter when you do it. Do whatever works for you. I know some people that get up at four in the morning and write for a few hours before they leave for their day job. I can’t do that because my brain doesn’t work before eight. Personally, I write on weeknights for a couple of hours at a time and then I will usually write all day on Saturday and Sunday after church.  

I don’t write every single day. Sometimes there are just other things going on that you have to take care of. But if I have to take a Saturday to run errands then I need to make sure that when I get home I buckle down and put in some writing time. Personally I find that the more I write consistently, the easier it is to get in the zone, the faster I can produce. When I take too much time between writing sessions, I lose that momentum, and then it takes more time to get back into it.

I have young children. I need to be a good dad. That means that oftentimes I don’t start writing on weeknights until after they go to bed. This means that I’ll often start writing at 8:00 and go until 10:00 or midnight.

Most importantly, don’t neglect your children. Don’t be a jerk to your spouse. You are a fool if you neglect them to climb the corporate ladder and you’re just as much of a fool to do it for your writing. Make sure that you pay attention to them and their needs. There’s an old saying that no amount of success in the workplace will make up for failure in the home. I really believe that. I’ve neglected my family before. (90 hour weeks owning your own business, go figure) I really don’t ever want to do that again.

In his book on writing, Stephen King has a story about how when he became successful, he built a house with a great big writing office, and he put a giant writing desk in the middle of the room. Then he wouldn’t let his children in the room. He said that for years his family and his writing suffered, then he moved the desk off to the side of the room, so the family could be in the middle, and that made everything better. I heard somebody tell this story at a Con once, and everybody in the audience nodded along at the profound wisdom… Whatever. I think King is a narcissistic douche (mostly because I happen to know soldiers can read! Shocking!) and if he had family problems during that time frame I’d be more inclined to think it was from snorting all that cocaine and not from the relative positioning of his desk.  But whatever… That’s why he gets ten bazillion dollars per book and I don’t.

There are only so many hours in the day, and you’ve got to sleep for some, work to pay the bills for some, and spend time with your family.  So you want to squeeze writing in there? You may have to give up some other things. If you really want to be a writer you might have to sacrifice some of the things you do for fun.

I love shooting. I especially love competition shooting. However matches are really time consuming. A 3gun match will absorb your entire Saturday in short order. So if Saturday is my most productive writing day of the week, I’ve got a problem. I’ve had to mostly give up shooting competition. I shoot maybe one or two matches a year now, when I used to shoot 20 or more matches with at least that many practice sessions.

Do you play video games? I happen to love first person shooters. I love me some Call of Duty. But when I play video games, I’ve got to moderate it so that I only do it for a set period of time. No more “One more game”. Nope. Can’t do it. And if I’m going to play on the weekend it is going to be after I write X number of words. And X varies depending on what I’m working on and when it needs to be finished.

My personal rule of thumb is that weeknights are maybe 1,000 words or editing because I find I do my best work when I’ve got a few hours in a block, unless I get on a roll. Saturdays can be 5,000-10,000 words or more. Coke Zero? Check. Ass in seat? Check. Now get to work.

So, even with working a 40 hour a week job, having a wife and 3 kids, and still having a life, I can write about 2 books a year.  

Do you sit down to write and then find yourself checking your e-mail, dinking around on Facebook, or reading a blog? Stop. Well, finish this blog post first, otherwise that will very confusing. Seriously, screwing around on the internet can murder you writing time. Now, once you’ve established yourself as a writer, the internet is a valuable tool for social networking to get and stay in touch with fans. I spend a lot of time doing that kind of thing (and blogging!) but I have to set aside time to do it. I can’t sit down to write, and then say, “Oh, let’s see what everybody is up to on Facebook” for an hour.

The internet is awesome for research too. I use it constantly, especially when I’m writing alternative-history Grimnoir universe stuff. However, because I need to check to find out some factoid of 1930s history doesn’t mean I should go on an ever widening 45 minute Wikipedia spiral. (Though did you know I’m referenced in the articles about wargs and Conrad Dippel? Sweet… oh wait, somebody needs to update my Wiki that I made the New York Times bestseller list… see? I just wasted five minutes.)

I don’t watch much TV. Just not into it, so that was an easy time sink to dodge. However, I love B-movies. Not only that, watching movies is how I recharge my creative juices, same as reading books. So I make sure that I watch movies and I read books. I bought an exercise bike so I can kill two birds with one stone. Now when I watch a movie I exercise.  I burned nearly 2,000 calories watching L.A. Confidential the other night. Not that I’m Lance Armstrong or anything, that is just one long movie. (on that note, writers tend to get fat. I’m working on that).

I’m not saying don’t have fun ever again. That’s stupid. You need to have fun. You need to recharge your batteries. But the biggest key to being a good writer is writing. Just make sure you set aside time to do what needs to be done. Family first, then work, writing or otherwise, then other stuff.  

Take advantage of bonus time. If my wife and kids are going to go out of town to visit the in-laws, I’m going to get twice as much writing done. I was unemployed and looking for work for four months at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. I wrote my half of Swords of Exodus and ¾ of Hard Magic. Even if I just look at my advance for the eventual sale of Hard Magic a year later, that was some very monetarily productive unemployment.

Basically, you can do it. You just have to be serious about it.


One other related question for new writers that came up in this last e-mail:

Also, how do you handle pre-writing and research, if at all?  How does one travel if they don’t have a budget for travelling and if you can’t research by visiting somewhere or actually participating in a certain activity, how do you convincingly “fake it til you make it”, so to speak? 

Good question.

One of those perks of the old “write what you know” is that it is cheap. Setting scenes in places I’ve actually been is easy. Tweaking places I’ve actually been a little bit works too. However, there are many things you’ve never seen in real life that you’re going to want to write about. That’s expected. And sometimes our imagination just can’t fill in those accurate technical blanks. You can only get so much from books and Google Earth.

It is kind of like the Ask Correia I did about action scenes. Some things are better experienced, but if that’s not available, then talking to people who’ve been there, done that, works well.

I recently sold the thriller Dead Six, that I wrote with Mike Kupari. It is set in the mid-east. I’ve never been there. Mike has lived there a bunch. He’s military and he’s been a civilian contractor on the Persian Gulf. So in that case I’m going to pick his brain to get the atmosphere right. Ironically, Monster Hunter Alpha is set in a place based on Mike’s hometown in upper Michigan. I’ve never been to the U.P. but I’ve got several good friends from there. Once I wrote the rough draft I had my Yooper friends read it to make sure it felt right.

I’ve got a series coming out set in 1932. No matter how much I travel I’ll never be able to see the places that don’t exist anymore. In that case I’ve done as much research as possible to try to get everything right. I can still write what I know, though. I didn’t go through the Great Depression, but I did grow up dirt poor. I know how it feels. My Grandpa did live through the Great Depression, and he was a Portuguese farmer in the San Joaquin Valley and absolutely despised the Okies. (Yeah, Grapes of Wrath was not written from the Portuguese perspective). So though I didn’t live through the dust bowl exodus into the San Joaquin Valley, I can write a very convincing scene of somebody who did.

Now, once you are a massively successful bestselling novelist who sleeps on giant piles of money, you can take your family on huge vacations to exotic places and call it research. Then you’ve solved both problems brought up in this blog post!

You've got to see what they put on the STI webpage
An interesting article about where I grew up

20 thoughts on “Ask Correia 11: Time Management for Writers”

  1. Another great Ask Correia post, Larry. Between you and John Brown, we’re getting some quality advice on how to become better writers. Advice, I might add, that is a whole lot more useful than the sometimes vague writing instruction to be found in so many of the overly wordy how-to-become-a-world-class-writer books you can find in stores.

    Thank you for that. 😀

  2. Thank you for the answer, Larry! Now, if I can just get over that “Husband hiding away to write while his wife wrangles the kids” guilt thing…. Its a work in progress…

  3. This was a great blog post. I was wondering how much I should be writing and it’s good to have an idea of how much I should be aiming at.

    I’m an awful typist, I average about 20 words a minute maybe, so setting myself an achievable goal is where I want to be.

    Also whats with all the hatin’ on Steven King? The mans a genius! Well maybe not a genius but definitely an excellent authour with some fantastic novels and short stories. I challenge you to find an authour with a wider range of short stories.

    Having said that his latest stuff is pretty crap. I haven’t managed to finish a recent novel of his in the last 5 or 6 years.

    And when did soldiers start reading? Are you sure they aren’t just looking for pictures that have naked women in them?

    “A soldier’s job is to do or die,
    and never ask a reason why.”

    I’m not sure if that’s an actual quote BUT it looks like it should be.

    1. Panticles, I have enjoyed reading many of your post on this blog and I think you are just “trolling” with your comments about soldiers.  I should probably just let it lay but after having worked for 20 years with the military, having lived in military neighborhoods near Norfolk (navy), Hill, Langley and Cardswell (air force), Yorktown and Quantico (marines), having a father who is retired air force reserves and brother who gave 20 years, active duty, in the military…  I’m just going to have to bite on your troll bait.

      Every soldier in every branch of the US military has a High School diploma or equivalent.  Every officer in every service has a college degree.  Why?  Because a high level of literacy is absolutely necessary to be a soldier in today’s high tech military.

      Ever see the maintenance TO’s for the F16? I have.  Shelves and shelves of complex technical writing. Who are the masters these volumes?  Officers with advanced degrees?  No, airmen, E4 through E7 whom you so glibly said “…and never ask a reason why”.  And what actually happens when these airmen fail to ask/think why?  Good people die.

      Don’t think for a second that airmen who work F16 are unusual among enlisted women and men in the four services.  The F16 is Air Forces 32 year old “low tech” fighter.  The army’s M1A2s and Strykers are high tech weapon systems that require expertise similar to what is required by aircraft.  And don’t forget the navy, whose seamen operate the most complex weapon systems in the world.

      Steven King is an ass.  When he made the comments denigrating US soldiers he proved himself an ignorant ass.  Just because someone has demonstrated genius in one area doesn’t mean they are not an unlearned fool in a dozen other areas.

      1. Sorry rj I wasn’t attempting to troll but was aiming for a more tongue in cheek comment. Specifically I meant to make fun of the infantry and tried to throw in a Kipling reference.

        Should have qualified my original statement. Mea culpa.

        Having said that ‘Airforce All The Way!’ My sister and brother are both in the NZ airforce. Since we don’t have any combat aircraft that means they are both in the logistics side of things. Good pay, good benefits and good friends.

        I tried a couple of times to get into the army but they wouldn’t take me because I refused to obey their rules! Well that and because I was too fat. I can’t help it if I’m built for cuddling. It pissed me off because at the time I could do sets of 50+ pressups, 100+ situps, 20 chin ups and run 2.4km’s in about 8 or 9 minutes. I think I was about 95kgs at the time. They rejected me cause my body fat was over their limit for the BMI.

        Nowadays I’m lucky if I can do half of that many repititions and it’d take me about 8 or 9 minutes to walk to my letterbox. I can still bench around 120 -130 kgs though!

        Also what did King say about US soldiers? I still stand by my comments about him being an excellent authour but I agree that doesn’t mean he’s not an idiot in other areas.

        And it’s funny you mention needing a High School diploma, I just read this article If you don’t trust my link or can’t be bothered clicking it basically says that 1 in 4 applicants fail the U.S. Army entrance exam.

        Now I don’t know what this says about the American education system but I’m pretty sure that you would get a similar result if you were to examine the NZ Army entrance exam. In my current job, which I shall be leaving in the next couple of months ‘HELL MOTHERFRAGGING YEAH!’ to become a full time student, I come into contact with a lot of high school children. And honestly most of them seem really stupid to me.

        Now to be fair I am in my 30’s so this could just be my age talking but I’m not really confident that the NZ education system is producing well educated folks. I don’t know is this just a problem in NZ or is it all over the place?

  4. Great blog post Larry. I’ve had just this issue that I’ve been trying to tackle with recently on our 2nd short story volume.

    I do have 2 follow up questions,

    1. Not that I can compare directly but when you’re writing you averaging 250 to 500 words in a hour’s worth of dedicated time? Just trying to get a handle on how much time I’m spending as I write.

    2. How much in place editing are you doing? I get bogged down sometimes trying to write then I immediately start re-writing before I got the scene done then I have to re-pickup when I left off. Is there any sort of balance there our just get it spit out then go back and change it?

  5. This is probably one of the most realistic advice articles on writing I’ve ever read. Thank you, Larry! I was on a roll awhile back with my book (I consider writing 2-3 typed pages per day a roll) but I’ve been at a standstill the last two weeks. I don’t stay up very late at night because sleep is necessary and I’m the sole caregiver for our 15-month-old, so nap time is usually my writing time. But there are always days when she decides to nap when we’re out running errands, or right before I have to go to an appointment, so I miss a lot of writing time and my brainpower gets replaced with visions of dollies and Elmo. Plus, my husband just got hired at a job clear across the country, so I have about 3 weeks to pack us up and organize a move from California to Massachusetts. Stressed is not an adequate word for my status right now. However, after we get settled he will be making enough money for me to remain at home with the baby, so I can get back to writing my wonderful fantasy/mystery story that’s unfortunately set in California.

  6. Best article I have read in a long time. My Dad is a published writer and long time contributor to Midwest Outdoors Magazine, he has always told me the secret to writing is to sit your butt in the seat and write. Coffee is a must but not required. And family is first. Always. Good wisdom, Larry.
    Now I start writing in earnest. Thank you.

  7. “I think King is a narcissistic douche (mostly because I happen to know soldiers can read! Shocking!)”

    Thank you. I haven’t gotten to read any of the newer King stuff, but from what I’ve heard, he plays us soldiers up as knuckle-dragging baby killers, and thinking back over his older novels that I’ve read, he hasn’t changed, he’s just gotten more blatant. The liberal stereotype that he loves is utter crap.

    These posts are awesome.

  8. For local atmosphere, might I offer this idea? Track down the reference desk of the main library in your location of interest, if they have one, and ask what books he/she recommends to newcomers so they can learn the history and/or “feel” of the place. Thank them generously, mention them in the acknowledgements and you have made a friend. I’ve also looked at tourism department websites, city/church/castle/museum websites and other places for book suggestions and cultural information, especially for overseas (Europe) localities. That is, if you can’t find someone who’s been there-done that or go yourself.

  9. I just finished reading both Monster Hunter books. Good stuff! I had been writing a story back in 2003 or so, but then got discouraged. After reading the MHI stuff, and then looking your advice bits here, it got me inspired to pick up my story and continue. I’ve had a few friends and family read over the few chapters I’ve done, and they told me they like it… but I don’t know if they’re just being, well, ya know, polite. Do you know if there are any sites or groups of objective observers who might give advice for first time amateur writers like me, with no budget to speak of?
    Thanks, and keep up the good stuff!

  10. I know this sounds off the wall, but I’m serious. If you’ve set something in a period you don’t know, like 1932, go to ebay and type in 1932 with no qualifications. Depending on the day, you’ll find people selling old movie posters, books, maps, dollhouse furniture, real furniture, toy trucks, cigarette tins, lipstick . . . totally unpredictable, and the kind of detail you wouldn’t think of but can think of an immediate use for to anchor a scene.

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