June Theme: How to Write a Novel (When You Don't Even Have Time to Read This Blog Post) -- by Lisa Graff

This month's theme is where we write our books, but I'd like to talk about something a little different--when I write mine.

I sold my first two novels three months after I started as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. And I was, of course, head over heels ecstatic about it.

And then I had to figure out how to find the time to work on them.

Writing when you have a full time job (as many authors will tell you) is hard. But it's by no means impossible. The trick is to find the chunk of time you're most productive in, and then train yourself to write in bits and pieces. When I was working full time, I found that the very best time for me to get some good writing in was on my lunch hour. Nearly every day for five years, I would steal away to a nearby coffee shop or library during lunch, and pound away at my keyboard for 40 minutes before returning to the office. I became very good at the 40-minute sprint.

The hardest part of writing a novel this way, of course, is that you don't have much time to dilly-dally. In an ideal world, I like to take my time when I write. I like to spend a little time thinking about what's going on in the scene, maybe do some character sketches, check Facebook for twenty minutes, and then type. But with the full-time-job method, you have to dive right in. So here were the three most helpful tricks I found to keep me focused:

1) Always read your last chapter before typing a single word. When you don't have long stretches of time to write in, it's easy to forget what your characters were thinking or doing when you last left them. So as soon as I sat down at my computer, I would open up my document and read the last chapter or section I wrote. This would put me back in the world of my novel, and give me a little extra oompf for moving forward.

2) Writing stretches are for nothing but writing. No email, no Facebook, no planning your social calendar. Basically, no internet at all. If I needed to look up a legitimate bit of research for my book, I had to put a note to myself in the document and find time to look it up later. Opening up a browser when you're pressed for time is just asking for trouble.

3) Don't look back, and never pause. I never rewrote anything until I reached the end of a full draft. This helped me move forward and kept my momentum going. If I couldn't think of the right word or phrase I needed, I would write "OR SOMETHING" in the middle of the sentence, in capital letters, and then move right along. (When I finish a draft, I search the document for "OR SOMETHING"s and fix them then. There are always about three hundred.) If I realized that I needed to fix a plot point, I'd make a note to myself to change it later, and then continue forward as if I already had.

I meet a lot of people who tell me they plan on writing a book when they retire. Or when their kids get older. Or when they finally get some vacation time. But I think that if you really have a story burning inside you, you need to find a time to sit down and write it. We all have a million things keeping us from that desk chair--so find a time to write where you don't need one. I have written on the subway, in airports, and I have written many, many pages in the waiting room of my doctor's office (really, I should pay them for making me wait so long!). Finding time to write with a busy schedule is insanely difficult. But it is absolutely possible. I hate to admit it, but now that I write full time, I often have trouble focusing. Guess it's time to come up with some new rules, huh?

So, tell me: when do you write?


  1. I LOVE #3, Lisa! I often give myself crazy page-count goals, so that I can't overthink or second-guess my drafts...Also, to keep from overthinking, I sometimes take my glasses off when I'm drafting. (I'm so nearsighted that with my glasses off, print disappears from the screen. I REALLY can't look back at anything I've just typed!)

  2. Great post, Lisa! As a part-time employee & mom of 2 boys, finding time to write is nearly impossibly some days (esp. now that school's out). I work best in the first few hours I'm awake or just before bed so I steal so time then. (though if I'm in the zone, everything goes to the wayside until the book is done.) Good luck finding motivation! maybe you need to time yourself for 40-minute sprints? :)

  3. Holly, that's hilarious! :) And Erin, I love that "zone!" It's my favorite place to be.

  4. I know just what you mean about being more productive when you know you only have a limited amount of writing time each day! I always find it hard to focus during the summer, when I'm not at the day job. It's one of my biggest fears about quitting next year!


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