A question often raised in my workshops is how to find time to write when you already have a full-time job. As writing is such an insular profession, I always enjoy hearing how other writers do it. Last week I went to some inspiring sessions at Sydney Writers' Festival. The weather was balmy, the queues were long—and good-humoured—and writers from around the globe shared their tips to packed audiences.
In one session entitled Au Pairs, two writing couples—James Bradley and Mardi McConnochie, and Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra—discussed how they live (or not) with each other and their work. James and Mardi juggle their writing careers with two young children under five; Mandy and Louis live 100 metres apart and spend their days feverishly writing apart, and their evenings at the local Fitzroy Hotel in King’s Cross.
But it was when Mardie discussed her latest novel, The Voyagers, that I was intrigued. Mardie has worked as a playwright, written a clutch of novels and works three days a week writing advertising copy. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said that once she’d conceptualised and planned out her latest novel (and she’s a self-described ‘great planner), she then wrote it one day a week, with a sprint of several weeks at the end to finish it, and it took four years.
I’ve heard another writer say that he cut his working week down to four days and took every Wednesday off to write. He preferred taking a day off mid-week, so his colleagues didn’t think he was just taking a long weekend. Another writer friend carves out blocks of time (2 or 3 hours) to write her book in cafes and juggles that with a part-time legal job.
Of course, if you’re an early riser you can do what Bryce Courtenay did, and get up at 5 am and write for three hours before going to work. Or if you burn the midnight candle, like Téa Obreht, whose novel The Tiger’s Wife was named on the New Yorker’s list of Top 20 Writers under 40, you can write all night. During one chilly New York spring, 25-year-old Obreht would start at 9 pm and write til 6 am.
Whatever your bio-rhythms, it you only have small parcels of time to write, it helps to break down your project. Set yourself tasks (for 20 minutes or one-hour) and stick to them.
These days it is such a luxury to be able to write full time. But it’s heartening to know that you can do it in between everything else. Sure, it takes longer, but if you have a book at the end, it’s worth the effort.
So how about you, when do you fit it in?
Whether you write for business or pleasure, whether it’s the odd travel article or a full-length book, it helps to have a community of other writers around you. Sometimes ‘talking shop’ with someone who understands your world can be a lifesaver.
A couple of years ago, a writer friend and I tried to set up a writer’s group. I had grandiose ideas of it being like a Parisian salon where intellectuals and creatives could discuss their latest works. The first group lasted three months; the second fizzled out after our first meeting. So my friend and I gave up on the group and now we meet every few weeks. It works wonderfully. Usually we send some work to each other before meeting and then have a frank discussion over lunch.
We have very different writing styles, so there’s no competition. (For just how territorial writers can be, watch the hilarious British comedy Tamara Drewe set on a writer’s retreat in Dorset).
I’m now teaching travel memoir at Sydney Writers Centre. After my first five-week course finished, some of the group stayed in touch to inspire each other to get their projects completed. As I cheer them on from the sidelines, I remember the wise words of American writer, Amy Bloom, who compares writing buddies to water buddies who ‘keep you from drowning’.
‘Your water buddy reads your first draft, and your second… prevents you from changing tenses in the middle, from writing sentences that will make you cringe a day later,‘ writes Bloom. ‘People often come to love their water buddies. It turns out that almost anyone is better than the writer at catching mistakes, fielding errant metaphors and seeing the writer’s intention through the unfortunate sentence.’
Generally I wouldn’t ask your loved one to be your writing buddy. There are exceptions: William Dalrymple’s wife Olivia edits all his work; Monica Ali’s husband reads early drafts of her novels.
What is important is that you trust their judgment.
Whoever becomes your writing buddy (or group), you want to decide how much to edit each other’s work. Sometimes all that’s needed is a sympathetic ear. But if you do want feedback, ensure that it’s constructive. Often it’s less about whether you like or don’t like the person’s writing, but how to fix the parts that don’t work. If there’s a large chunk of description, an obvious solution would be to suggest weaving it into the action.
None of us like criticism, especially when it’s accurate, but it’s much better that your writing buddy points it out, before your editor strikes a red line through it.
So, do you have a special writing buddy?