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Write Your Novel Without Quitting Your 9-to-5
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Write Your Novel Without Quitting Your 9-to-5

The Joy of Not Quitting Your Day Job

"I've always wanted to do this," one of my clients told me, "but I feel like a fraud. I can only work on this for maybe an hour per day. It's not like I can quit my job, you know? I've got debt... a credit score." 

My client's dilemma is a common one for creatives. She felt the drive– the urge– to create something meaningful and authentic to who she was. But the reality of her situation (and the situations of so many others) is that she needs to be able to pay her bills and keep a roof over her head. Because she couldn't realistically not work and focus solely on her creative endeavors, she felt like a fraud– like it wasn't meant for her to pursue her most authentic ambitions because they didn't seem practical or realistic. 

Some of the myths that exist around creativity have reinforced the idea that in order to be successful as a writer, that must be your vocation. You must live and breathe books, ferreting yourself away for long stretches of solitude and divine inspiration while you crank out your next book. Pop culture has underlined that it's okay for writers to have day jobs so long as their day jobs are also writing; it's okay to be a journalist and a novel writer, for example, but not a construction worker and a writer or computer scientist and a writer. 

Myths aside, the reality for many of us is that our careers, family obligations, and the desire to have one sweet moment of downtime in our day make us hard-pressed to find time to sit down and write. If we do have time, it's maybe thirty minutes here and there, which doesn't feel like enough to do anything with, so why even bother? 

As a result, there's a legion of latent literary talent going underinvested across the world, and I'm of the mind that we can change the paradigm around creativity. In doing so, we can cultivate our creative talents, which results in a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, leading to a net benefit in the other areas of our lives. 

But first, a few writer role models who kept their day jobs

For me, it didn't click that I could keep my non-creative career and still be a valid writer when I heard Elizabeth Gilbert discussing her own career trajectory in a podcast. Gilbert has been one of my creative role models since I heard her interviewed on NPR ahead of the release of her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. As soon as I heard her speak about creativity and what writing meant to her as a spiritual practice and act of self-love, I was hooked. 

In the podcast episode that I was listening to, Gilbert talked about her decision to keep her bartending and waitstaff jobs while she wrote and published her first several books. For her, the stable income of her day job meant there were practical matters she didn't have to worry about, and it provided her with a schedule and routine that she had learned to bake her writing time into. It wasn't until her book Eat, Pray, Love became a runaway bestseller (as in, it has sold over 12 million copies and earned Gilbert an estimated 10 million in royalties) that she decided to step away from her day job.  

For me, that was enough– to know that if it's a good enough setup for Liz Gilbert, it's a good enough setup for me. 

But Elizabeth Gilbert isn't the only author to also work a day job while simultaneously investing in her career. There's also... 

  • Virginia Woolfe, who founded and managed Hogarth Press.
  • Frank McCourt, who worked as a high school teacher.
  • William Carlos Williams, who worked as a doctor.
  • Wallace Stevens, who worked (famously quite happily) in insurance at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

And so many more writers throughout history and among our contemporaries as well. 

Set Realistic Goals: Make Writing Approachable Rather than Nebulous

All too often, writing advice sounds something like this: wake up at 4 AM and cloister yourself away for three hours because it's better to be miserably exhausted throughout the day than to be a big dumb dumb who doesn't write enough. 

Okay... maybe that's hyperbolic, but as someone who has read a ton of books, blogs, and magazines on the topic, that's often the message that comes across. 

A much healthier approach is to start by setting more realistic goals for yourself. That's why so many people gravitate toward NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which writers are challenged to write 50,000 words in the month of November. With thirty days in the month, 50,000 total words average out to about 1,667 words per day. Since most people type around 40 to 60 words per minute, if we assume an average of 50 words per minute, you can reach your daily word goal in about 35 minutes, give or take a few minutes. 

Finding 35 free minutes feels much more achievable than waking up unreasonably early. 

That's the beauty of realistic goals. Realistic goals put your work into perspective, and they make the abstract and overwhelming feel tangible and finite. 

Even if 35 minutes per day doesn't feel doable with your schedule, what if you managed to squeeze out 35 minutes a few times weekly? You'd still be making progress. NaNoWriMo may try to fit 50,000 words into a single month, but you cannot produce an entire manuscript in thirty days. 

Use Prewriting to Break Your Novel Down Into Tangible Tasks

For a long time, I thought rewriting was bogus. I preferred to just sit at my keyboard and crank out words as they came to me, claiming that it was my characters, and not me, who dictated what happened next in my manuscript. The story was forming as I made progress. The result? Several sophomoric manuscripts that would never sell because they lacked cohesiveness, compelling stakes, or believable protagonists. 

While some savants can burn through a manuscript without guardrails, it's probably not the most efficient way to approach writing fiction, especially if it's a habit and skillset you're still trying to build. 

Instead, doing a bit of prewriting is the way to go. Prewriting is the process of mapping out a written work before the actual composition begins. For a novel, prewriting typically consists of understanding your story, your plot, your characters, and elements of your world-building. 

We've created this free workbook to help facilitate the novel planning process. It's designed to help you double-check the foundation of the story you want to tell so that you have something really solid to build off of and don't find yourself lost and wondering what should happen next. 

Use Index Cards to Figure Out Your Scenes

Another way to make your writing goals feel very realistic and tangible is to focus on your individual scenes rather than the novel as a whole. Scenes are the small microcosms of action that, combined, make a novel. If your novel is a molecule, scenes are the atoms that make them up. 

Every scene in a novel should move the story forward in some way. They're composed of action, dialogue, setting, conflict, spheres of activity, internal thoughts, and description. Scenes within a single chapter are typically connected in some way, and the break between scenes if often marked by a transition in time, a pivot in characters, changes in location, or the end of a chapter. 

What I like to do is use index cards to write a sentence or two about what happens in each scene and then another sentence about how I see the scene moving the story forward. The benefit of doing this process on something tangible like an index card is that you're then able to lay out all of the cards (or tape them to your wall as I do) and see at a high level how they all fit together, which makes it much easier to eliminate scenes that don't make sense or identify areas where the relationship between scenes may be unclear. Plus, each card is a bite-sized part of your novel that will probably be somewhere between 750 to 2,000 words, giving you a much more manageable chunk of work to focus on at a time. It's much easier to commit to writing 2,000 or 4,000 words in a week than to think of your novel as a whole and envision the 80,000 to 100,000 you'll need to write in the long run. 

Finding Time to Write: Tips and Strategies for Fitting Writing Into Your Busy Schedule

When it comes to finding time in your schedule to write, there are a lot of cliches and frustrating advice that gets thrown around. The rub is that some of that advice... is actually pretty good. Here are some of my reflections on what I have found to be most helpful with carving out time to write. 

Keep a time journal for a few days

The first step to identifying where you may have more time in your schedule than you realize is to get clear with yourself about how you currently spend your time. The goal of a time journal is to accurately gauge how you're spending time currently so that you can identify opportunities to cut out unnecessary or less rewarding activities and to get a clearer sense of where we may be overestimating how busy we really are.

To do time journaling: 

  • Pick a medium you can carry around with you. I like a notebook and pen, but the Notes app on your phone can work too. 
  • Make a rough calendar, bullet pointing out hourly blocks. 
  • As the day goes on, make a short entry for how you use each hour. This exercise is only for yourself, so don't try to sanitize it. If you spend an hour of "project time" on social media, your boss never has to know. 
  • Repeat this process for a few days to get a fairly representative sample of how you spend your time

Dr. Peter Ulric Tse, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth, has written extensively about subjective temporal expansion and compression– that is, our perception of how time seems to move more quickly during some activities and more slowly during others– such as in his chapter titled "Attention underlies subjective temporal expansion" in the book Attention and Time. Tse's work is dense and intended for an academic audience, but the principles are easily understood by anyone, given that we've all experienced the phenomena he describes. Consider, for example, how long the day feels when you're bored at work and watching the clock. Compare that to when you manage to sink a few hours into a video game or binge-watching a show without realizing how much time has passed. An hour is always an hour– but how long that feels to us varies depending on how we use our attention. 

I bring up Dr. Tse's research when proposing keeping a time journal because it highlights an important truth: we're generally quite bad at assessing how much time we allocate to different activities. Keeping a time journal keeps us honest. 

You can also cite your phone's activity logging

As an addendum to your time journal, remember that most smartphones keep track of your activity on that device. The iPhone, for example, will even give you a weekly screen time report. That's a helpful way to keep your time journal honest since mindless scrolling is one of the time sinks most of us significantly underestimate. 

Identify Your Mentally-quiet time

Another strategy for finding time to write in a busy routine is to identify what I call your "mentally-quiet time."

Drawing on Dr. Tse's research mentioned above, we know that the context of what we're doing affects how we perceive time. If we try to sit down and write while there's a list of chores looming, work notifications and emails coming in, kids and pets screeching and running around, and so on, then we're making it even more difficult for ourselves actually to utilize the time set aside for what we had intended. 

Instead of cramming creativity into a crowded part of our routine, try to identify the time slots where you're afforded mental quietness. 

For many people, that will be at one end of the day or the other. Personally, I've found the mornings to work best for me as my mind is often still racing with ideas and distractions at night. I've moved my wake-up time from 7:30 to 6:30, and while my morning coffee consumption has increased more than I'd care to admit, I've been vastly more productive and consistent in allocating time to my writing because when I sit down to write, I'm focused and able to write. 

Ask for Support In Creating boundaries

As much as we love the people in our lives, they can also be sources of significant distraction, especially if you've never reinforced the boundaries of "me time" with them. Even though it isn't flashy or groundbreaking as a time management technique, asking those closest to you for support is often incredibly helpful. If you have a partner who can entertain the kids or pets for thirty minutes while you slip away to write, ask them to do so. Communicate that it's important for you to have a few times per week in which you can be left alone to focus on yourself and your goals. You may need to return the favor, but it's worth it to know that someone else can keep things from falling apart while you invest in yourself. 

Make Your Writing Time More Efficient

Once you find the time to sit down and write, focus on making that writing time more efficient and effective. You're not going to make any progress on your manuscript if you sit down, check Twitter for an hour, and then shut your laptop. 

Pick a Writing Device that Minimizes Distractions

Whenever possible, I choose not to write on my computer, and I put my phone on the far side of the room. As wonderful as technology is, it's awful about introducing distractions into your workspace. Personally, I find using my Remarkable tablet with a keyboard case to be best for me– it's essentially just a word processor at that point, and it doesn't get notifications, make sounds, or even have a colorful interface. 

If you want to write on your computer, try to make the multi-task-inducing nature of computers less alluring. Software like or SelfControl blocks your access to distracting websites for set periods of time, and you can adjust your system settings to temporarily pause all notifications. 

Some folks I know enjoy doing their first draft by hand with pen and paper. If that works for you, power to you. I can't do that because then I can't read my handwriting well enough to transcribe the draft into my computer when it's ready. 

Build a Ritual around Your Writing Time

When we talk about creating a ritual for your writing time, we don't mean in the mystical or metaphysical sense (but if you do want to call the corners, light some incense, and/or sacrifice a chicken, that's your business). 

Instead, what I'm referring to is giving yourself cues that it's time to write. As a personal trainer on the side, I like to think of it as a warm-up and cool-down period on both ends of your writing routine. 

For me, I walk downstairs, brew a cup of coffee, and read over my brainstorming board. By the time the coffee is done brewing, I know what my focus is and am ready to sit down and crank out my word count for the day. 

When time is up and I need to start getting ready for work, I use the dry-erase board in my writing space to make a note of where I've stopped and what the next steps should be when I come back to writing the next day. 

This ritual has helped me immensely. The simple act of writing down what I want to write next at the end of each writing session has been stupidly helpful. For such a small step, it takes away that mystery of reorienting myself with my work and trying to figure out what I need to work on when I'm still waking up and having that first cup of coffee. 

Other folks I've talked to have built their ritual around:

  • Doing some yoga, walking, or another form of light exercise to clear their head and physically loosen up. 
  • Lighting a favorite candle or incense that you burn only during writing time.
  • Journaling to clear your head and reflect on your goals.

Whatever form the ritual takes, pick something that is specific to your creative time and then stick to it consistently. 

Put Your Writing Time On the Calendar and Make It Non-Negotiable

As you figure out what time in your daily routine makes sense for you, schedule your writing time. Put it on your calendar for a timeslot in which you want to fully commit to investing in your creativity. Once you've scheduled it, don't move it around or cancel it. 

The reality of life is that there will always be something that feels more urgent. Maybe you're behind on chores, or a friend texts and invites you to catch up over coffee– there's always going to be a reason you could be doing something else instead of writing. 

Investing in your creativity and pursuing goals around writing requires commitment. Treat your scheduled writing time like a doctor's appointment. It's not something you should move around or cancel unless you have one hell of a reason. Realistically, the chores can wait for thirty minutes, or your friend can meet up at a more convenient time.  Too often, we make it a habit to treat our creative pursuits as the negotiable part of our lives– the nice-to-haves instead of the must-haves– and in doing so, we neglect ourselves and our own values. By safeguarding your writing time as an appointment you must keep, you flip that and put yourself and your own curiosities first. 

Create Meaningful Feedback Loops

While writing is a largely solitary act, it doesn't have to be something that makes you feel shut off from others or lonely. One way to help your budding writing routine stick is to create meaningful feedback loops that continually reenergize you. 

Join An Accountability Group, Critique Group, Or Book Club

As a kid, you learn about peer pressure in pretty negative terms (for what it's worth, Mrs. Wilson, I've been offered wayyyyyy less drugs than you suggested). Thankfully, peer pressure isn't all bad, and it can even be a useful tool to keep you motivated and moving forward. 

Within the writing world, you can find accountability groups, critique groups, and book clubs that are all meant to create a community for writers so that we can network, engage with each other in groups, and support each other in reaching our goals. Accountability groups typically focus on setting progress goals; members then give updates on how their progress is going, where they're running into challenges, and how their goals are evolving over time. Critique groups allow you to share your work with other writers and get feedback on it; a good critique group is hard to find since most people never learn how to discuss writing and give feedback, so if you find one, cling to it with dear life. And, of course, book clubs allow you to discuss a book with a group of peers, sharing insights that stood out to you, general impressions, and how the book's content fits into your worldview. 

All three can be immensely powerful tools in your arsenal. Don't underestimate the impact of collective effervescence and shared sparks of creativity that can come from such gatherings. 

Reward Yourself

One of my pet peeves online is when people talk about rewarding yourself for cultivating a new habit being something like, "Oh, I did the thing, so I can have a piece of chocolate." 

Using rewards to reinforce a new habit can be impactful when done the write right way. 

  1. Clear, Reasonable Milestones. If you define an award like "I'll go to Aruba when I publish this manuscript," you're setting your sights on something too far off and too abstract to feel realistic and compelling. Make your milestones defined and realistically achievable. Perhaps you want to seek a reward on a per-chapter basis.
  2. Apply Contingency Management. Set yourself clear boundaries of what must be done in order to receive the reward. Don't let yourself fall into a look of saying, "I'm close enough, so I'll get my reward anyway." Doing so only undermines the potential for your reward system to be clearly tied to the outcomes you're trying to create. 
  3. Don't Reward Yourself With Something That Undermines Your Progress. It should be obvious, but it's actually a pretty easy trapping to fall into. If part of building your writing routine has required you to cut back on scrolling TikTok, for example, don't tell yourself that once you finish a chapter, you can scroll mindlessly to your heart's desire. Doing so can make it harder for you in the long run since it can help solidify the subconscious divide between the fun dopamine rush of scrolling and the slower, tougher act of writing. 
  4. Make the Rewards Scale with Your Accomplishments.  Earlier, I jokingly said that the premise of your reward systems shouldn't, in totality, be something like a tropical vacation in response to publishing your manuscript. But here's the thing... once you do finish a draft of your manuscript, hit an important milestone in the publishing process, or similar, the size of the rewards you give yourself should increase accordingly. Let yourself celebrate big wins with big efforts. 

Periodically Make A Grand Gesture

The idea of a grand gesture is that you do something unexpected that forces your focus onto your creative endeavors. It's a means of removing external distractions while also making the creative process more alluring– perhaps even a bit sexy. 

For me, an ideal grand gesture is a weekend in a cabin in the woods with nothing to do but walk around in nature and write. 

Other types of grand gestures include checking into a nice hotel for a night or two with the intent of staying in and writing; taking yourself out on a "date night" to an exciting location where you can write, such as a nice cafe or bar; or joining an in-person writing conference in a fun location, such as by the beach or a city you've always wanted to visit. 

In Cal Newport's book Deep Work, he even recounts the story of one man who had a huge project to finish on a tight deadline. Knowing that he found it easiest to focus and write on airplanes, he booked himself a roundtrip ticket between New England and Tokyo, using the entire flight time to crank out the work that needed to get done. 

You don't have to flee the country for your grand gesture to be meaningful– it just has to reinforce for you that writing and creativity are a priority for you and that it brings you joy in spite of it being hard work. 

Invite Us to Your Book Launch Party - We're Here to Be Your Cheerleaders

Balancing writing goals with daily life is not easy. We don't want to make any pretenses that following the advice in this article will prevent writing from feeling hard or that it will never be difficult to fit into your schedule. Life gets in the way of creativity pretty often. 

But that doesn't mean we should willingly neglect our own creativity. If you've felt the lingering allure of investing in a creative project or just want to get your ideas out of your head and on paper, it's entirely worth it to make the effort to prioritize and routinize creativity. Even if you don't think you'll ever want your book to see the light of day, it's still going to feel immensely rewarding to have written it. 

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