Once a year, my writing group does an informal write-a-thon in which we vow to find time every day for a month to write. Our most recent write-a-thon began Feb. 21, and I am happy to report that I have written every day. Some days, for hours. The problem is, I have only spent eight of those hours writing my manuscript. The other hours have been spent writing something for someone who is paying me to do so.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I have worked hard over a long period of time to build my career as a freelance writer, and I fully appreciate how blessed I am to not only be steadily employed, but also to have the kind of flexible job that allows me to be the kind of present mom, wife and community volunteer that I want to be. That’s why my first inclination has always been to work on my freelance assignments as soon as the kids head off to school with the promise that I will turn to my manuscript when I’m done. Work then play.
But try as I might, picking up my manuscript after my freelance work is completed for the day is hard. The thought of writing another word is exhausting. I lack focus and am easily distracted by household chores, crafty things on Pinterest and the like. Even when I’m motivated to write, my muse is often AWOL. My creativity is depleted from a day of crafting deadline-driven concise sentences meant to inform.
Rather than feel defeated, I decided to come up with a game plan to summon my muse and be more productive with my creative writing time.
Write for at least 30 minutes before starting my work day. Over time, I’ve discovered that I’m most creative in the early morning. Also, it’s rare that I’m able to interview sources for the articles I write for newspapers and magazines before 9 a.m. So I give myself permission to work on my manuscript for 30 minutes before I settle into my freelance writing. (Hint: I have found it helpful to set the timer on the oven in my kitchen. The act of getting up to turn off the annoying beeping helps me to mentally transition from writing fiction to writing nonfiction.)
Take a break. At the end of my work day, I have also found it helpful to take a purposeful break before I re-focus on my manuscript. Often, there is a gap between the two that is filled with mom duties. This time period does not count as my break. But it’s amazing how productive I am when I say, “After I (fill in the blank), I’m going to work on my novel.” In the past, taking a walk, reading a magazine, enjoying a glass of wine on my porch swing, watering my garden and taking a bubble bath have all served as effective ways for me to transition from freelance writer to aspiring novelist. The common ingredient? All are things I consider to be indulgences. And what muse isn’t summoned by that?
Avoid technology. With very few exceptions, phone calls, text messages and emails can wait to be returned. I also ask my kids to hide the TV remote (and cross my fingers that they remember where they hid it). The hardest task, however, is writing offline. I sometimes write with good old-fashioned paper and pencil. But writing with a computer is faster and a better use of my limited time, so I only open my manuscript. The simple act of having to click an icon to open my browser is often enough of a deterrent that I stay on task. If I’m truly tempted, I turn off my modem so I can’t get an Internet connection.
Listen to my tummy. Athletes carbo-load before competing, so why shouldn’t writers eat for success, too? By eating a snack before I start writing, I’m less likely to hear my tummy growling and more likely to hear what my characters are telling me. Having a glass of water (or other choice beverage) at the ready also keeps me at the keyboard so I don’t keep trekking to the fridge to satisfy my distracting cravings.
Be flexible. There will be days when some or none of these strategies work for me, and that’s okay. Rather than stare at a blank screen for hours and allow myself to grow more and more frustrated, I use that time to research details needed for authenticity in my novel. I ponder new plot twists. I contemplate how to add more depth to my characters. I read. I sleep. And then, I wake up the next day refreshed and motivated to go through the whole process again.