In the previous installment of this post, I introduced the first step in finding the time in a busy life to bring that thing you want to write out of your head and into the real world. If you have been paying attention, you know that there is no such thing “finding time.” There is only “stealing time” from other parts of your life, including important and enjoyable activities like Netflix bingeing and becoming a better person by liking people and things on Facebook that you think a person like you really should like, even if you don’t actually like them. If you recall, the first step in making time for your book or screenplay, or whatever, is to get a good running start by putting something – anything, an outline, character names, anything –down on paper or into a computer. Steal an hour, or two hours, and give those unformed, amorphous thoughts a place to live outside your head. Give them a real address. Once you have done that, you can move on.
Step Two: Do Something Every Day. Yes, every day. But notice I have not said you need to “write” every day. Do Something. You must do something every day that counts as writing, even if it is not actually writing.
If you can actually spend significant periods of time writing every single day, then you are wasting that time reading this article. You and Stephen King and your other time-bending friends need to leave the rest of us alone to figure out how we can string enough minutes together to actually produce something longer than a Post-It note. Writing takes time. Lots of time. And that is the problem: there is no time. So what is an aspiring writer to do when there is no time to sit down and write even once a week, let alone every day? This second step requires you to change how you think about writing and about time.
I used to think of “writing time” as two or three-hour blocks of time in which I could disappear into my imagination and work undisturbed. The problem was always that there were more unicorns in my life, by a factor of ten, than there were three-hour blocks of time. Consequently, that thing I wanted to write waited and waited. And waited. I had a good start (see Step One) but without any attention, the story grew cold and threatened to fall out of this world and back into the seething caldron of unformed ideas.
Out of desperation, I eventually began writing in my car between meetings or sitting in a parking lot outside of some fast food joint, frustrated that I only had forty minutes, or twenty minutes, or ten minutes to spend crafting my novel. I like to tell people that I wrote my first novel, Lying Under Comets: A Love Story of Passion, Murder, Snacks and Graffiti, fifteen minutes at a time. It’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. The limitations of time I experienced with that book forged a new and fundamental understanding about writing: There is a whole lot more to writing than coming up with words and arranging them on the page.
I know this will sound heretical, but the wordsmithing part of writing might just be the least of it. Writing is really about thinking or, if you are a fiction writer, imagining. The words are obviously important. Duh. But the words are only there in the first place to effectively translate thoughts and ideas that already exist in your head. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, old Liam Neeson. Before you can write that sentence, you have to imagine it. If you are trying to write something without first having thought it through, without fully imagining it in all of its detail (see that sleek fox, the kilt, the terrified old man expression), then you are in serious trouble as a writer.
A lot of advance work has to be done before you can start slapping words together. Much of what I ended up doing parked out in front of Subway was not writing-writing, but thinking-writing. I was taking care of the essential preconditions to writing. Thinking. Imagining. Creating. These things may not involve actual writing, but they are critical enough to the writing process to count as writing. And while it may be tough to get much wordsmithing done in 10 or 20 minutes, you can cover a universe of mental, imaginative groundwork in that time.
Let’s be clear: I am not suggesting that you sit in your parked car and idly think about… stuff. I am not talking about daydreaming. I am suggesting a very deliberate, focused concentration on the details of that that thing you want to write. What are you going to write – what details are you going to render – the next time you can steal enough time to actually type it out? Names. Places. Basic chronology. Mood. Themes. Once the details start to come to life in your head, you will be amazed at how compelling that feeling is. It’s the feeling of something new in your life. I can only imagine that it’s a little like feeling the unborn baby kick for the first time.
When amorphous thoughts begin coalescing into sharper and sharper detail, the effect is both compelling and synergistic. I found myself looking for anywhere in my workweek that I could steal twenty to forty minutes just to ladle back into the caldron of ideas and work on refining larger concepts into concrete details. The quick brown fox, chased by angry bees, is collecting kilts for his den. Lazy old Liam, suddenly defrocked, stands up shouting and waving his arms. Cue the bees. Liam shows aging action hero agility here. Reaches for gun and starts shooting at angry bees. Run, Liam run. See Liam flail. The point is that forty minutes in a Subway parking lot provided an ocean of quality time with which to create and sort through the details of that thing I wanted to write. Was that forty minutes just lying around? No. Was it free? No. I had to make it. I had to steal it from lunchtime.
I was also eating, of course, which is strangely relevant. I cannot eat and type at the same time. I have to choose. When you only have forty minutes between meetings, then one of those things – eating or typing – is not getting done. You can guess which one usually comes up short. But, and here is the point, I can definitely eat and think at the same time. I’ve done it my whole life and I don’t think I’m special in this regard. I put those 20, 30, 40-minute intervals to spectacularly good writing use. I developed character arcs and refined plot lines. I solved problems. I imagined endings. And all with my mouth full. I made time to write, or at least I made time to do something that counts as writing. Before starting the car had heading back to work, I tried to take about five minutes to scribble out a few notes about what I had resolved, pulling the ideas out of my head and into this world. I took those notes everywhere I went. I took a second here and a minute there to add to them. It was like feeding a baby. A growing baby. A colicky baby.
All to what benefit? There were actually three consistent benefits to these micro-sessions. First, when I finally had time to write for an hour or two on a weekend, I knew exactly what I was doing. Fox. Kilt. Bees. Pre-arthritic naked action star. Gun. Undignified flailing and running. I was free to spend my writing time actually arranging words on the page. I had enough plot, character and thematic details accumulated from my 20-minute sandwich-chewing-think-sessions that I was not wasting any of my precious writing time trying to orient myself in an ocean of ill-defined possibility. My little micro-sessions had made me much more efficient.
Second, and maybe even more importantly, those 10, 20, 40-minute sessions meant that I was interacting with that thing I wanted to write every single day. Every day of the week I was doing something focused and deliberate that counted as writing. Thinking about characters. Tuning the plot. Shaping themes. Sketching an outline. Solving problems. Making notes. Reading a draft. Editing. Casting the movie adaptation of the novel (starring Harrison Ford as Liam Neeson). Ten minutes a day counted as over an hour of writing time a week. Forty minutes a day put me at almost five hours of quality time per week. If someone had told me that if I wanted to write a novel I would need to find five unused hours in my life every single week, I would have given up before I had started.
Ironically, and this is the third benefit, the more time I spent on that thing I wanted to write, the more time I wanted to spend. Five hours a week made me want ten. A creative synergy took over: the more minutes I fed it, the bigger it grew. The bigger it grew the more I wanted to feed it. Before I knew it, that thing I wanted to write had an independent existence in the real world and was yowling for attention. It was impossible to ignore. It wanted more of my time and it would not accept the excuse that my life was just too full. Beginnings naturally seek endings. My biggest ally in my mission to make more time for writing was… that thing I was writing. I don’t have any children; but suddenly, I kind of did have a child. I couldn’t let it starve. One way or the other, I made the time.
In the final installment of this blog series I will lay out Steps 3 and 4 on the path to stealing time from an already busy life for the sake of that thing you want to write. In the meantime, between now and then, try to do something every day that counts as writing. Seriously, anything. As long as it’ something. I promise that when next we meet that constellation of loosely connected ideas in your head is going to feel discernably different than it does today. It’s going to feel a little more… what’s the word… “real.” It’s going to feel like progress.