No, I don’t have time for a coffee

It has been a while since I’ve added anything new to this blog. The reasons are myriad, and I suppose on the whole unimportant. The biggest reason I had to let the blog fall to the wayside a bit (okay, a lot), is because of time constraints. We only have so many hours in a day, and because of other responsibilities (and sometimes completely unimportant “stuff”) we give up our writing time.

People often misunderstand. They think we don’t want to spend time with them, or that we’re just being antisocial, or whatever misconception they dream up. Nothing can be further from the truth. We want to spend time with you … we want to hang out, but we also really need to write. If we don’t, we go insane. For that reason (and many others discussed below) we have to guard our writing time.

My writing buddy, Sarah, and I discussed the problems we as writers have to face every day, most importantly the attack on our time – the constant battle of having to protect our “writing” time.


I don't have time for a coffee

Q1: As NaNo approaches, what do you find is the biggest challenge where family and friends are concerned?

Sarah: I’m lucky in that most friends and family members know how seriously I take my writing – it’s A JOB! – and that I’m at my pc daily, from 8-1, sometimes again at night, working. I work from home, like others work from an office somewhere. And still there is often this notion of “oh, as she’s home anyway, can I drop by for a quick coffee and a chat? For her to take me to the station (as happened yesterday, thanks, MIL)? For a quick phone chat? Whatever. During relaxed times, I squeeze that in for friends, as we all have kids, and evenings are short and full. But with NaNoWriMo approaching, I regularly become more wary. THAT schedule is a monster that will eat up every available minute. And NaNo needs prep, too. And my normal writing tasks (like editing, prepping launches) don’t evaporate.

Elaine: I am part of a successful neighbourhood watch and civilian patrol group. I’m very proud of being part of that community, and as you can imagine those people have become friends over time, and a lot of them think because I’m home and “just” writing, I have time to do everything they can’t do, because they have “proper” jobs. Writing is a proper job, and not an easy one at that. Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve seen how my work as an author was pushed on the back burner and once more became ‘just a hobby’. This year, for NaNo, I’ve resolved to make it my priority to be a writer again. That means saying “no” to people a lot. It might take a while for everyone to accept that I can’t just quickly do “XYZ” because I’m at home, and no one will care if I quickly run out. I care. My home is my office. Yes, I work here, and yes I am a little more flexible than most, but I DO work. People are not overly happy that I can’t devote all my time to them anymore, but a person can only take on so much, and sooner or later we have to decide what’s most important to us.

Q2: How seriously do people take your writing as “proper work”? In general? Is it seen as a cute hobby?

Sarah: I’m rigorous about my work. If I want to have any chance of succeeding, I have to put my foot down and convince ME everyday that this IS work, and then everyone else around me. Most people know that I mean business, and with a “proper book” out, that helps with acknowledgement and being taken seriously. But everyone who loves me seems to think that “it is just me, just this short time span” out of her writing time, and what harm can that do? They are irritated or puzzled when right before NaNo I tell them No. Because if everyone came to me like that, “just me, just briefly”, my days would be torn apart and shit would not be finished. Artists need peace and quiet (well, me) to sink into the tasks and let creativity flow. So no, they don’t see it as a hobby, I made sure of that. The problem is everyone thinking, “it’s just them”.

Elaine: I started writing a serial novel for an online magazine not so long ago. That means I suddenly have deadlines. People get irritated with me when I tell them I can’t hang out to party all weekend, or that I have a deadline and have to go. I have been asked, “Why do you have to go? It’s not such an important deadline, it’s just a story.” Yes, it’s just a story … but it’s important to me, and all those books you read, and movies you watch are entertainment to you, and important to you, because the human race needs entertainment. Do people think that art just falls out of the sky? It’s created by us – misunderstood people who are pouring their whole being into something the world at large don’t understand. Writing is art, and creating art takes time. My husband, a few very close friends, and most of my family, understand that it’s my full-time job, and are less condescending.

Q3: How do you guard your writing time, and how do those around you respond when you choose writing over having ‘that cup of coffee’ with them?

Sarah: I can be too lax with such requests, as I love my people and want to spend time with them, and if they are free and just wanna come over … I can give in easily. But NaNo is the time of year where I can’t do that, or else I’d fail, and I take pride in that I never failed NaNo once, despite regular sicknesses and mishaps with the kids. I plan for a few days of “nursing time” anyway, so being a mum is always an extra struggle as you don’t get every day to yourself. I’ll have to work doubly hard. November is therefore a very complicated month, and my stress levels high. So I tell people what NaNo is and how it helps me to kick start novels, and most understand and step back. It’s not the first time, either. When I mention that it’s “that time of year” they understand. Still, things like school excursions, parents’ meetings etc. are weighed against my work, and people who don’t write don’t get the dynamics. They simply assume I can be flexible and will somehow make up for it, just do things later. NO! I have to stick to a schedule, too, like everyone who works, and that is often still hard to convey. That I’m not that much more flexible than other workers – and I don’t want to be. Being an artist is complicated enough, it’s not a straightforward job. So if I don’t protect my schedules, I’ll get into more trouble. Some friends (and at one point even the husband) rolled their eyes when I said no to seemingly small tasks. But in the long run, I think being that strict can only prove to them how serious I am about this. IT’S. MY. JOB.

Elaine: I put my headphones on, close the door and tell people to fuck off. I’ve had to use those exact words before, and I have regretted it. I don’t like letting people down, so often I’ll push my writing time back to accommodate others. My husband will sometimes say, “Oh, you can do it later when the boys are asleep.” Sure, but when do I sleep? When you intrude on our working time, we have to find some other time to work, that means sacrificing time with our family and friends. Just like everyone else, we don’t want to give that up, but because someone intruded on our ‘working’ hours we are forced to make a decision. What do we give up? Writing time or family time? Most often, family wins, and tomorrow we have to work like maniacs to catch up on the time we lost yesterday.

It’s up to the writer to make her own hours, put her foot down and say “this is my work time. You have to wait.” Most people get annoyed, a few understand. The best way to deal with it is to ignore it. The world won’t come to an end because I do not have time for that movie, or that party, or that drink right now. I will have time later, but not right now.  It’s hard sometimes, but I’m getting better at saying no.

Q4: “What do you want to say to all those people who intrude on your writing time?”

Sarah: I want to tell them that I DO love them, sooo much, but that they need to see my work like everyone else’s work. It’s just a different location. Being at home doesn’t equal being available, not even for the postman, sometimes! So please, understand that I have to protect my time to get things done, to have even the slightest chance of being successful one day. That it’s not personal, it’s protecting my workspace. I want to see them, talk to them, do tasks. Just not during “office-hours”. Over time, I think they’ll see I’m serious. I’m proving this to them by working hard, every single day, not just when I feel like it or “have time”. Sticking to my office-hours will make them see just how important my job is, and that it is a proper job, with normal, regular working hours that mustn’t be interrupted. The more I keep that habit up, the easier people will understand. I hope.

Elaine: To you it may seem like it’s “just a hobby” or “just a story.” But think about all those good books you’ve read, the joy you’ve derived from them, the discussions you’ve had (people still have endless discussions about books written 100s of years ago). Those were written by people like me. Writing is hard. We are creating something out of thin air, or as Stephen King likes to put it, we’re digging up a fossil. It’s hard. Understand, that we’re not just sitting there thinking up a story. We work out timelines, plots, do endless hours of research, put storyboards together (well some writers do), and once that story is told, we have to put in more hours editing the work, finding spelling and grammar mistakes, fixing timelines, plots, adding and cutting. Thousands of hours go into creating just one novel, and it’s all for your entertainment. We are happy when people enjoy our work. For most writers, any monetary gain is secondary to a job well done. We do it because it’s our passion. When you relegate it to something ‘cute’ we do in our spare time, you’re basically shitting on every masterpiece written over the centuries. All those authors who brought you such joy are suddenly lumped into a category of non-importance. Yet, the human race craves stories. They read them, they tell them, they watch them on television and in cinemas across the globe. Have more respect for those who pour their entire being into bringing you that pleasure. That is all we ask.

The negative side of NaNoWriMo

Are you amped up for National Novel Writing Month? Itching to start? Have your plot outlines, your character whatevers, your coloured pens and timelines tacked to the wall? All the research done, your pencils sharpened, alarms set for midnight, 1 November, all stocked up on coffee and chocolate? Lovely. I’m happy to hear it.

But …

Gather round, kidlets. We need to have a little talk about the negative side of NaNoWriMo (NaNo). Let’s just clear this up right away. I love NaNo, but it’s not without its faults. So, for the love of the written word, the muse who brings us here, and every publishers’ sanity, keep a few things in mind.

50 000 words is not a novel
It just scrapes by. These days, people want more bang for their buck, that means more words per novel, not less, and unless you write a spectacular, mind-blowing, life-altering, never-before-seen book, no one’s going to publish it. You can publish it yourself, but don’t be surprised if sales are a little on the low side. True, novellas are published, but rarely – if you don’t have a big name to back it up, you need to write something that’s gonna set off fireworks, and that almost never happens.

Your NaNo novel is a first draft
It is not a marketable book. You can not, must not, should not, submit your first draft to a publisher. Ever! You can not, must not, should not, self publish your first draft. Ever! First drafts are for your eyes only, and maybe a close writing buddy who can offer feedback. For the love of all that is good and right in this world, take some time, put your NaNo novel aside for a month or two and wait. Come back to it with fresh eyes in January, then edit and redraft as needed. I know you probably think you’ve just written an earth-shatteringly good book, but odds are you didn’t. I know, I’ve had those thoughts myself. Looking back, I rather enjoy my naivety and often have a good, long, hard laugh at myself.

What you write in November is a first draft, and given that the rules state you shouldn’t go back and change anything, it’s probably not a very good first draft at that. So please, do us all a favour, don’t publish, or submit to a publisher, your first draft NaNo novel, especially if you’ve never written a novel before November. Publishers and readers will thank you for it.

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National Novel Writing Month

nanoSo, it’s almost time for National Novel Writing Month again. This year, as last year, I’m not fully prepared. I do not work with plot outlines, I draw timelines as I write, and I do research as I go along. I’m a stickler for facts, and if in doubt I’ll look it up. The exception being history, if I know I’m gonna work on anything historical I’ll do my research beforehand and make notes, but plotting the story before I start writing? Never. I tried that once. It didn’t work. Within an hour, my characters took over and ran riot. NaNo prep for me, is making sure I have enough coffee and chocolate in the house to keep me going.

Unlike last year, when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to do until a day or so into November, this year I know exactly what I’m gonna write, and I’m excited about the project. That’s all I’m gonna say about it. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about works in progress.

While I can not give any pointers to help you prep for NaNo, I can talk about things that will help you through November.

You only have to write 1667 words a day
That may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. Currently, I write anywhere between 2000 and 5000 words a day. Last year though, 1667 words a day seemed like an almost impossible task. To make it easier, break your daily word requirement into chunks of 500 at a time. Get up an hour earlier and write 600 words, 500 during your lunch break, and another 600 before bed.

Just write
Don’t worry about getting it “just right” – perfection is nearly impossible anyway. You can worry about ‘nearly perfect’ during the editing phase. In November, your goal is to write, write, write – forget about spelling mistakes, syntax, grammar, tenses and whatever else the English language throws at you. After November, there will be enough time to go back and fix it (never use the backspace button).

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