Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Guest Post: Laura Vanderkam

How to make space for fiction when you write all day
by Laura Vanderkam

Normally when people talk of finding time to write a novel, it’s a tale of bits of time: at night after the kids go to bed, during a lunch break at one’s day job.

I had a different issue. I’m fortunate in that writing is my day job. I write for a number of publications, including Fast Company, Fortune, and USA Today. I write non-fiction books on time management and productivity. I have plenty of time to write, and I wanted to challenge myself by attempting a novel. The problem is that I’m writing so much from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily that carving out time to write more, particularly something speculative and long-term, didn’t seem immediately appealing. It’s like the joke about the pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.

So for me, it wasn’t about finding the time. It was about finding the energy. So here’s what I figured out while writing The Cortlandt Boys ( Amazon ), my novel about a small town high school basketball team that wins the state championship on a last second 3-point shot, and then deals with the fall-out from that lucky break for the rest of their lives.

First, I realized that getting something on the page was the hardest part. I would simply have to push through. So I set a goal to write 2000 words a week. It was enough to get somewhere, but not an oppressive goal either.

I’m pretty good about sticking to my goals (I do write about productivity for a living!) but even so, I found an accountability partner to keep me on track. I checked in with her weekly to say that I’d written my 2000 words. One week, I found myself composing an email to her about why I hadn’t hit my word count. Then I realized that I could put that same energy into actually writing what I was supposed to write. A few hours later, I had.  

I made sure to turn off my inner critic. Sure, there was a lot of work to do on my sloppy rough draft. I wrote out of order and had to piece things together later. But writing is re-writing, and there’s always going to be more editing to do. The sooner the draft exists, the sooner you can get to the editing stage.

That’s all pretty standard writing advice that can keep you on track no matter what you do for a living. But, as someone who already wrote all day, I ultimately relied on two other more surprising strategies to achieve my goal.

First, I changed my environment. I usually write at my home office, with my laptop on my desk. I did write some of my novel there, too, but since I was surrounded by my usual files and notes, I’d often be thinking about other projects. I solved this problem by going to my local library to write. The different space gave me permission to get in a different mindset.

Second, I chose to write at a different time. Writing is my day job, and I have childcare during my working hours so I can focus. However, I tend to think of work hours as revenue-generating hours. Writing a novel is speculative in a way that my non-fiction books, for which I can count on advances based on proposals, are not. So I’d carve out one night a week for novel writing. Either my husband would take the kids or I’d get a sitter. Some parents might take one night “off” per week to go to an exercise class or out with friends. Novel writing became my me-time instead.

The good news is that with these strategies in place, eventually I got into my story. I found my characters compelling enough that I was soon cranking out far more than 2000 words a week. I wanted to make my draft better, and so the novel found its way onto my during-the-day to-do list. I was happy it was there, it just took a little while to happen.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of a novel, The Cortlandt Boys, and several non-fiction books including 168 Hours (Portfolio, 2010), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and the forthcoming I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015). She blogs daily at

About The Cortlandt Boys:
A small town high school basketball team wins the Pennsylvania state championship with an improbable last second three point shot. The Cortlandt Cavaliers celebrate their unlikely victory, but good fortune changes the boys’ worlds in unpredictable ways. This story revisits the characters 10 and 20 years later as the ramifications of their youthful success play out over the course of their lives, forever linking them and the people around them to this little town that has its ways of not quite letting you go.

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