The Number One Top Secret Best Way to Writing Success
Each week until the end of National Novel Writing Month in November, I’m going to write about a different creativity topic related to how to succeed in NaNoWriMo. If you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, don’t worry: all of the topics should relate to any creative project.
Here are the first two pieces in the series:
“What is the most important thing a writer needs to do to succeed in NaNoWriMo?”
I get asked this question a lot. I think the questioner often thinks I’ll reply with a tip about outlining a novel or divulge a special craft secret—or that maybe I’ve come up with a new elixir that will infuse a writer with drive and moxie at the price of $7.99 for a tincture (I’m working on it).
No. My answer is one of the unsexiest but most necessary parts of being a writer: you have to have a strategy to make time for your writing.
Here’s one way to think about the world: all of its forces are working together to support you in all of your dreams and aspirations.
Here’s another way to think about the world: it’s a relentless invasion on your time and energy—on yourself—so you have fight, wheedle, and sneak in the time for your creativity.
The true answer might be somewhere in the middle, but I often feel like I’m fending off invasions just to get a little time to write. So many people sign up to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month, but they don’t think about what they have to change in their lives to give them the time to write 1,677 words a day.
You don’t want to fight for time for yourself—you want to make time for yourself.
The role of an author’s time management skills are the steel girders and rivets that make a novel’s beautiful contours possible. I’ve offered a few thoughts on the art of time management for writers below.
Working on your “novel-building factory: your life”
To write 50,000 words in a frenetic, harried life, you have to truly evaluate how you spend your time. Each October, I go on a “time hunt.” I track how I spend each day for a single week, tallying how much time I spend on social media, how many TV shows I watch, how long it takes me to eat breakfast and read the paper—everything I do.
It’s always a revelation to realize how much time I fritter away, despite thinking I have no time to spare. Each year I find ways to open up nooks and crannies of time each day to write my 1,677 words (sorry Netflix and Facebook), whether it’s sneaking in five minutes of writing at lunch or weaving in snatches of writing while doing household chores.
The novelist Kwame Mbalia often tells his Twitter followers to “Drop and give me 50”—to drop anything you’re doing and write 50 quick words. A novel is built in small increments.
“When you write a novel, you’re not just working on the novel itself. You’re also working on the novel-building factory: your life. You have to create a life that is conducive to writing. That means scheduling regular time to write. Writing must become a habit.”
—Gene Luen Yang from his NaNoWriMo Pep Talk
Making time constraints your writing friend
“Constraint” is a negative word to most. We want more, right—more of all of the good stuff. More money. More spectacular clothes. More cotton candy. And more time to write.
But “more” tends to be bad for you. What we often need is less. We don’t need expansive swaths of time because when people have a lot of time they tend to waste it. We need time to prod us, to yell at us, to motivate us with urgency. We need time to be constrained.
Such time constraints have worked for many writers. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 during his lunch breaks. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in the nuggets of time she had after putting her children to bed as a single mom.
I’m generally a slow and ponderous writer, so it is difficult to write so much each day. I sometimes write with a self-imposed constraint: the Pomodoro Technique, a method that breaks down work into intervals separated by short breaks. I set a timer for 10 minutes and write as much as I can.
Those bursts of focused writing sometimes lead me to take creative risks in ways that I wouldn’t have if I’d practiced the more methodical pace of writing I was accustomed to. Constraints also keep niggling perfectionist notions from eating away at you: you dive in and just start writing because you have to.
You might say that small pockets of time are their own special kind of muse. The ticks of the clock are like a metronome for creativity, each tick urging us to get to work now.
As Kierkegaard wrote, “The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
Writing isn’t just a “desk sport”
“Carry a notebook with you everywhere: I’ve done so much writing in the time spent waiting for a friend to arrive at a restaurant, or sitting in a doctor’s office. For these small, unpredictable periods, why not try setting the goal of just doing the smallest something?”
—Emily X.R. Pan from her article on how to succeed at NaNoWriMo
Writing is often about saying NO!
NaNoWriMo also teaches one of the most crucial and under-valued noveling time management skills—a skill rarely discussed in a writing how-to book: learning to say no.
“It’s extremely powerful to say no; it’s really the most powerful thing to say,” said Bill Murray.
Saying no takes practice. I start by saying no to my email and social media until I’ve reached my daily word count. Then I practice saying no to an after-work gathering, a brunch on Sunday, an invitation to watch a basketball game.
I don’t want to make life a narrow affair where writing is more important than being with friends and family, but I want to make sure that my creative time isn’t crowded out—and to find the time to write a novel in a month, something has to give.
I dream of a time when I’ll have vast swaths of time available to write, but NaNoWriMo has helped me realize that I’m actually lucky to have my limitations. One’s imagination doesn’t necessarily flourish in the luxury of total freedom. One of the many paradoxes of human creativity is that it seems to benefit from the pressures and boundaries of our daily lives.
If you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it, the saying goes.
A time restriction of writing a novel in 30 days takes away the choices available to us—choices that can have a paralyzing effect, causing one to dally and maybe not start at all.
This week’s homework: go on a time hunt
A time hunt starts with an audit of how you use time. Track a day or two from waking to sleeping in 15-minute increments. Total the time you spend on social media, reading the newspaper, cleaning the house, whatever. Look for unused pockets of time.
Where can you find time to write in your day?
I bet you have more time than you know.
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
I write this newsletter for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.
Because more about me
I am the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, the co-founder of 100 Word Story, and an Executive Producer of the upcoming TV show America’s Next Great Author. I am the author of a bunch of books and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded.
My essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.