I first started writing novels as a footloose and fancy-free twenty-something, with no kids – no creative writing school to run (!) – and no responsibility for anyone but myself. Looking back now, twenty years later, I can hardly believe the luxurious vats of time I was floating around in, and just how much I was able to produce. But having lots of time and producing loads of material isn’t everything (and neither, in fact, is fresh-faced youth). You can achieve a lot even if you only have tiny scraps of time to write in – and in the end it doesn’t matter if it takes you a long time to get that novel written. This isn’t a race, and writing isn’t primarily a young person’s game, in spite of what many may think. Experience, insight and – dare I say it – wisdom – have a great role to play in the creative process and can really enrich the work. And time-poor people often value their writing time more highly and find ways to use it more effectively. Here are some tips for people who want to write – or indeed illustrate – but struggle to find the time to get down to it:
1. Find your best time: many people write early in the morning – your thinking can be fresh at the crack of dawn before the day starts intruding. But maybe evenings, when the working day is done and/or the kids are in bed, will suit you better. I have a colleague at Curtis Brown, who is now a very successful author writing under a pseudonym: she has a demanding job at the agency, but has – for years now – written for one hour at the end of every working day before she goes home or out for the evening. She is absolutely disciplined about this one hour a day, and her writing routine works so well for her that she doesn’t want to resign the day job or even go part-time in case she finds herself becoming less productive through having more time. If don’t have a chance to write daily, try to squeeze in a couple of hours at the weekend. However, little and often is better than long but infrequent. It’s harder to hold your project in your head with long gaps between sessions.
2. Just do it: if the blank page frightens you, try free-writing using prompts – there are loads online and something interesting may come of it. Then ask yourself ‘what if’ questions to tease out a storyline. Join in with our monthly writing competitions on Twitter – @CBCreative #WriteCBC – or if illustration’s your thing, our brilliant tutor Sarah McIntyre hosts daily Twitter drawing challenges on @studioteabreak. Keep a notebook, too – build your confidence by producing material, learning from mistakes as you go.
3. Active Planning: I’m often asked how much planning you should do. I’d say figure out the bones of what you’re working on, and what lies at its heart – but write your way into the story before things become too rigid. You can return to your plan frequently throughout the writing process to put flesh on the bones. This process will also help if you get stuck.
4. Keep moving forward: don’t obsess over style, or worry about scenes that aren’t quite right. Fix problems at the editing stage with a complete draft in hand. If you’re fiddling a lot as you go, try writing longhand to freshen things up. For illustrators, Sarah McIntyre advises not to labour away on intricate drawings that ‘get all tight’. She recommends ‘doing some bad drawing’ to free yourself up.
5. Targets and deadlines: setting yourself small goals, such as a daily or weekly word count, can be helpful – as can self-imposed deadlines for completing a draft. But don’t give yourself a hard time when you miss targets – sometimes you need to reflect and let your back-brain catch up, and this can be more important than the word count.
6. End your writing session mid-scene or even mid-sentence: it’s tempting to stop when you hit the end of a chapter, but if you push forward a little way into the next section, you’ll find it easier to get going again when you settle back into work.
7. Get reading: if you want to be a writer, you must also be a reader. Read the stuff you love and books that are newly published to get a good sense of what’s out there. But above all, read.
8. Start with story: many writers spend a long time ‘setting up’ scenes and characters before they make anything happen. My advice is to get straight into your story, introducing your characters only when they have a role to play. In every scene, check that you aren’t starting too early and ending too late. We don’t need someone ringing the bell and waiting for it to be answered. Put your character straight into the room where the story happens. Get in and then get out again as quickly as you can.
9. Character motivation: be clear about your characters’ motivations. Know what they want – and what will stop them from getting what they want. This gives rise to conflict – and where there’s conflict, there’s story.
10. Edit: polish your work to a shine. Print it out and edit on paper to spot things you’ll have missed on screen. And read it aloud to hear how it flows, particularly dialogue. But don’t start editing until you’ve got a good chunk of material together – or even a whole draft.
11. A cheeky eleventh tip: check out our creative-writing courses. We’ve often heard from our students that the course commitments and deadlines help them to focus on that writing project they’ve been toying with for ages – and sometimes enable them to justify their need for writing time to partners, other family members and themselves … A good one to kick off with is Starting to Write Your Novel – which is designed to get you going with planning and writing.