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How to Write That Bestseller While Writing Other Things (and Having a Life)

By Sarah Miller September 9th, 2016

So you want to write a book.

Maybe you have a great idea for a bestseller about a dolphin psychologist who solves a murder with the help of one of her most gifted, communicative patients, who just happens to be a witness. Or maybe you want to write the definitive biography of Teddy Roosevelt—those previous ones weren’t nearly definitive enough.

No matter what it is, you have an idea. But having an idea is the easy part. Now you have to write it. This is going to require a little thing we call time, which costs nothing, but is, to a writer, the rarest and most precious commodity.

What good is all the literary ambition in the world when your full-time job, part-time job, children, significant other, or time-consuming attempts to find a significant other, are sucking up every hour and minute of your days?

Fitting your book into your life

I’ve written two novels: Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. I have a really hard time concentrating on more than one thing at a time, so I worked all day on my book (which included procrastination, exercise, and long lunches—but no other work) on Monday through Wednesday, including at night.

I am not proud of this, but if I worked at night, I drank at least a half a bottle of wine, because it was the only way I could make myself keep working. Any other work I had to do—pitching, writing magazine articles, interviewing people—I crammed into Thursdays and Fridays. I wouldn’t say it was fun, but it worked. The books got written. The hardest part, by far, was managing my time.

“Other than flagging self-confidence, self-doubt, writer’s block, etc., the biggest issue writers have faced since the dawn of time is finding time to write,” echoed Tim Murphy, author of the recently released Christadora, a novel set in the ’80s about several characters whose lives intersect around an iconic East Village apartment building. “At the same time, once you’ve found the time to write, you’re halfway there. I knew once I had figured out how to make space for my novel, I could write it.”

So how did Murphy make space? He used a time normally reserved for sleeping: weekend mornings.

“I am a freelance magazine writer, and my weekdays were just too busy and hectic,” he said. “So I worked on the novel only Saturday and/or Sunday mornings. I would wake up, make coffee. I would usually write for hour or two, sometimes as much as three hours.”

Murphy didn’t give himself a word count requirement or force himself to keep going if he felt tapped out. “But it was very concentrated writing time, and I was able to get a lot done.”

What about all those people who tell you that you have to work on your story every single day? Well, that would be nice, but Murphy is not the only person to complete a book in fits and starts.

“I can only write in the morning during my caffeine high,” said Catherine Newman, author of Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family and Catastrophic Happiness. “I have two kids, and I have my other writing to do most other mornings, but I wrote a middle-grade novel just writing five hundred words every Friday morning.”

Something else that was super important for Newman: accountability. “Every Friday this one other friend and I check in with each other: ‘Did you do your five hundred words?’ We don’t read—or even care that much about—each other’s stuff. We just make sure we’re writing,” she said.

Technology is not your friend

Novelist Jonathan Franzen is so adamant about the disruptions of email and social media that he works on a computer without internet access. This is extreme, to be sure, but probably not a bad idea.

Truth is, even if you carve out all the time in the world, it can still easily be sabotaged by email. “I should mention that those intense weekend work mornings, I did not check my email, Facebook, or phone when I got up. I didn’t look at it until I was done,” Murphy said.

If avoiding email hasn’t worked, perhaps you need to think about it in a new way.

“I read an article about effective leadership that said you shouldn’t check your email in the morning until you’ve worked for a couple of hours, because that lets someone else set your agenda for the day,” said Judy Frank, author of All I Love and Know and an English professor at Amherst College. “I loved that formulation. I’d tried to push back reading my email, but put that way, it made it seem like an ethical thing. I set my agenda—not someone else.”

Stop writing and play with me!

Of course, everything is more complicated if you’re a parent. It’s easier to ignore your email than your children or spouse. Since it’s hard to reason with children, an understanding, supportive spouse is invaluable.

“My wife is good about recognizing what I need as a writer and helping make the mornings I write inviolate,” Frank, who has twin girls, told me. “I also arrange mini-retreats from time to time, leaving home for a week or two for a residency or for an informal retreat with writer friends. She harbors zero resentment for those, which is fortunate.”

Rumaan Alam, author of the novel Rich and Pretty and father of two sons, believes that if you’re going to write a book while also being a parent, you’re going to have to adjust your parenting expectations. “For example, I like to cook elaborate meals,” he said. “But while I was writing the book, there were more fish sticks and broccoli, and I was okay with that.”

When all is said and done, though, your biggest enemy and your best friend throughout the process of writing will be your attitude.

“I could say, ‘Have confidence in yourself!'” said Mike Albo, a freelance writer and author of Hornito, The Underminer (along with Virginia Heffernan), and the Kindle singles The Junket and Spermhood. “But maybe a deeper truth is to know that there will many low points when you think you are a talentless fool and that this is the worst thing ever. I guess just know that these moments are part of the ecology of writing a book, and keep going.”

In my experience, there’s really no way to write a book unless you accept that it’s going to take precedence. This means everything else in your life—relationships, other jobs, family obligations—temporarily gets the short stick.

And that’s okay. You can come back to all those things when you’re rich and famous. Or, at the very least, when you’re done.

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