Sci-fi and YA author Steven O'Connor provides practical tips for self-published authors to maximise their writing time without giving up the day job.
Very few writers earn enough from their endeavors to write full time. We all know that. Yet we write on anyway! Because we love creating new worlds and immersing ourselves in them. Because we love exploring the characters who might inhabit those worlds — exploring their minds, their emotions, their relationships and the challenges they face. Writers write, regardless of payment. Most of us have to earn our living elsewhere.
We also know that writing is best done in an ongoing way. Plus there's the unrelenting promotional demands that accompany it these days. So that leads us to the question: how can we go about integrating our writing work and our paid work? Below are some of the ways I go about it.
1. Go part time!
Not all of us can afford to do this, but if you’re committed to your writing, you really should think about it. I have been four days a week in my paid job for years now. Three days is what I would prefer (try love), but as a parent in a busy family, I simply can’t afford that. And there aren't that many jobs like that around either.
Also, I never regard my day away as my day off. It’s my writing day. The nexus of my writing week. And it’s a Wednesday, to avoid the notion of a long weekend — which I fear could happen if I made it a Friday or a Monday.
2. Write in a continuous way — and daily
Don’t fall into the black-and-white routine of only writing on days off or weekends. Seizing random moments is critical to my writing flow. Cultivating a practice of writing whenever, even if it’s just a short burst, significantly saves me time — it means there's no time and energy wasted when it comes to one of my longer writing sessions. If you’ve ever left a sizable gap between your writing sessions, you’ll know exactly what I mean. It can be a struggle to re-establish your precious rhythm. And think about getting up an hour or so earlier than the rest of the house to touch base with your writing and going to bed an hour or so later. (After all, who needs sleep?)
3. Keep in touch with fellow writers and potential readers during commuting time
I get so many email notifications from subscriptions it's ridiculous. That’s all part of the modern writer’s life, I guess. Picture this: wintry morning at a bus stop, my breath in the frosty air and my trusty iPhone in my hands as I check out the latest blog post from a fellow writer. Brrr, freezing hands! And the typo risk is high. But I really do need to do this kind of thing if I’m going to stay in touch with what’s happening and maintain at least some visibility. (Obviously do not do this if you drive to work. Hands-free Twitter and blogging has still to come.)
4. Keep tabs on your social media during work breaks
At lunch time, I’m often clocking into Facebook groups and various blogs to see what’s happening. This need only take 20 to 30 minutes and can be quite enjoyable. I might do one or two tweets or shares. This can also be a good time to read one of the more detailed posts from an industrious fellow indie author such as Joanna Penn. Or read a bit of the latest ebook on book promotion.
5. Email ideas to yourself
This is a throughout-the-day-everyday thing and a total must if you’re a writer. Forget those who might say it's cheesy. So many good ideas, plot quirks, interesting phrases (tossed off by others and caught by discerning you) and complete sentences come to me at the oddest moments — during boring meetings, over a coffee with a colleague. Get them into your mobile phone's notes app and emailed off to yourself (whoosh). And they’ll be there, waiting for you when you're ready to throw yourself back into your writing.
6. Use your paid job as a source of inspiration and as a promotional angle
Hey, hey, something full-time writers don't have — a separate occupation that's not only a potential source for inspiration but something you can make a song and dance about come promoting time. My current project is a young adult fantasy novel called Under the Garden and it's about an HIV-positive boy. Writing this, I realize that when it comes to launching the book, I must make sure to talk about my time as an HIV/AIDS social worker.
7. Promote in your workplace
It's also worth flipping things around from the above and identifying promotional opportunities within the workplace. For example, most employees run the other way when approached to be included in an organization's newsletter. Imagine how delighted the editor will be if you offer to be the sacrificial lamb for the next staff profile (or you could get a colleague to nominate you). Your writing is an angle they will be keen to exploit to counter the rest of the dry material they have to spruce up.
Well, hopefully I’ve got you thinking about some things you could do. The possibilities are numerous when you think about it and I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Great tips Steve. I really liked “email ideas to yourself”. I do that a lot and so I can agree with you that it’s really helpful. Glad to know someone else who is doing the same thing.
Thanks, Hannah. I remember a fellow writer scoffing once when I talked about how I did that. In fact, that was when I realised not all writers did it, or even like the idea, which is why I mentioned it in this post. I was amazed! I find it such a useful habit, no matter where I am. They are like little MS texts back to your book. And I love that the ideas are there, waiting for me.
Yes, I love that it’s so easy to hit ‘send’ on that little notes app that comes with iphones. I’m sure there must be something equivalent on androids. And then there it is, waiting for you in your inbox. And it also serves as a gentle reminder that your writing is waiting for you to return to it. Your idea of an audio recording must be just around the corner, surely? Though I do like that it is in writing, so I can simply cut and paste it straight into my project.
Just on that, whenever I write an idea to myself, if I can, I have found it much better to actually write the very sentence or phrase etc I want to use, rather than write a descriptive note of what I should try to do. It feels like less work that way, as if I have cut out the middle man. You can’t do that with bigger ideas, of course…
“Email ideas to yourself.”
That’s a great tip. I keep notes on my smartphone, but I never thought of sending them to myself. Now if I could figure out how to do the same with audio recordings, I’d be even happier.
Thanks for sharing, Steven.
What helps me the most is dedicating time at the beginning of the day – before I get sidetracked by social media and other distractions.
Hi Kathy – thanks for your comment. I haven’t written a response, which has popped up below. 🙂
I work three days per week but on several projects as I have my own accountancy firm. This makes life more difficult as I don’t get much commuter time & I share my home office with tax files and imaginary literary characters! I’ve managed to avoid creative accountancy thus far though. 😉
Great post with really useful hints and ideas, thanks Steven.
Hi Helena. Sometimes a neighbour might offer me a lift if they’re going in the same direction and I accept reluctantly. I do value those private moments on public transport. The things I can get done quietly…
Working three days a week sounds like utter bliss! And there’s something that appeals to me about the idea of a tax office transforming into a writing studio two days a week that really appeals to me. There’s a story right there, I reckon.
Steven, this is a very effective list of tips. I used to work 4 days a week, until the job’s demands increased, but I DID take Fridays “off”, and as you pointed out, it often got blended into a long weekend, and was then not a writing day by itself. I really like your suggestion of making the day off a Wednesday. That would really corral it in as a writing day. Perhaps I will try that.
I also appreciated your tip to email ideas to myself. I do try to capture them in my phone’s notes app now too, but I check my email much more frequently than my phone’s notes. Thanks for sharing these ideas!
You’re very welcome! It was great fun writing the post.
I refer to my day off as ‘my writing day’ to all and sundry, which both helps keep the focus on what that day is actually for and helps to bat away (nicely) non-working friends who try to have a cafe catch up with me on that day. ‘But you don’t work Wednesdays?’ ‘I do. Sorry. It’s my writing day.’ Colleagues at work now all refer to it as my writing day, which kind of helps cement the deal.
Plus, having a Wednesday off from your paid job, you never work more than two days in a row. Ya gotta like that.
The idea that I like that I took from Tracey Garvis-Graves is that she would make it a point to write in the early morning before heading out to work for the day. Otherwise, I agree..if I waited until I had full periods of time to write, it won’t happen.
I like the very early mornings because my house is quiet and the cellphone is silent. Not a common occurrence once the demands of everyday life and career get going.
Yes, I like to write before everyone else is up too. I can still be a little tired as I write – in that dopey kind of way. It can be conducive to random ideas and images. Thanks for your comment.
I agree with snatching short periods for writing (and indeed publishing tasks), Dan, and in my experience those who wait until they “have enough time” never get round to writing much. And for many of us, it’s just a notion, a form of writer’s block. In 2008, I thought I would give up the day job (then running a Writing School and Literary Agency) and write full time — I never wrote less in my life. 🙂 Which leads me to my best tip: get a day job that feeds your writing. In my experience, and from observing our members, that’s either something with a lot of silence if you’re an introvert (night porter in a quiet hotel seems ideal); or if you’re the extrovert type, something that indulges your social side so that writing becomes your stolen “me” time. Thanks for offering some great tips, Steven!
Thanks, Orna, I found this was a great topic to write about as Iâ€™ve been working 0.8 (four days a week) for a long time now, so that I can satisfy my writing urges as much as I can afford to â€“ and I have found I can meld the two activities to mutual benefit. Though I’ve never been sure if I’m an extrovert or an introvert. I seem to swing. Sometimes I’m both on the same day!
Your comments have also made me think about something else. As colleagues at work get to know and appreciate your writing ability, you may find more and more written tasks coming your way. Deft handling of collegiate requests can be important as you need to progress your own work. However, I do enjoy allowing this to happen to some degree (especially with management approval). For example, editing the work of an appreciative colleague and perhaps providing them with a few writing tips if they’re interested.
I used to think writing at work might exhaust my precious writing energy, leaving me with none for my own personal writing endeavors. Hah, quite the reverse. Itâ€™s all fabulous writing practice â€“ and how marvelous it is to be getting some practice in during work time!
And of course, by choosing to go part time so I can write, I have probably chosen not to rise up job career wise – but that has never worried me. I enjoy the more front line nature of my work.
You’re my kind of optimist, Steven – I especially love the last two points in which it starts to sound like a positive advantage to have a day job!
We’re so lucky to be living in the age of smart phones, which make it much easier to squeeze in tasks between the rest of the daily routine. I find Twitter a particular boon for catching up with other authors and professional advisors on journeys or when waiting for doctors’ appointments etc.
The fact that you’ve successfully published two books by applying these tips is impressive evidence that they work – well done!
Thanks, Debbie – with smart phones our various compartmentalized identities can all safely come together on a single digital device. Smart phones and ipads mean you no longer have to leave your writer-self at home as you head for the workplace. In fact, you could say it’s another whole level above multi-tasking! What a world, eh?
And I really must make more of my professional occupation when promoting, than I currently do. All of us who work should. It’s another part of us, and there will be connections to our writing. We just have to find them. Your non-writing job still comes with many rich experiences that inform our writing. I remember hearing Sonya Hartnett talk shortly after publishing Of a Boy (What The Birds See in the UK and US). One of her big regrets in life was not having experienced other occupations beyond writing, as she was successful from such an early age.
The part time and catching up with people during the commute are ones that only apply to people a lot more money than I could imagine but some great tips here. The second one is particularly important. I hear far too much advice telling people to find a regular time to write each day, but for most of us that just isn’t a possibility, and the effect of trying to enforce it can be to make you embittered and demotivated (and frankly not very nice to those you love). It ios far better to find a strategy to enable you to make the most of snatched moments, however small (if you wait for a chunk of cear space, you will be waiting forever) – I’m always encouraged that Murakami used to write in the snatches of time between serving customers at a jazz bar – it even shaped his style of writing short chapters.
Hi Dan, both my wife and I are part-time, and our duel income helps! And I make sure to have a different day off to her. I do love my writing day, which is a Wednesday. And she loves her Fridays.
Iâ€™m glad you agree with my snatch moment approach. For me, those moments are so important. I could not do without them. Iâ€™m writing this message to you now in a snatched moment while the wife and kids are doing other things about the house. And this morning I re-wrote the beginning of my new work-in-progress for about 40 minutes while eating toast, and then headed off to work with a spring in my step because of it. Love the story about Murakami.