Hearing other writers talk about their writing process is kind of like listening to someone else talk about a dream they had that you were not in. (To paraphrase Built to Spill, other people are less into that than you might think.) But in the interest of contributing my humble part to the world's store of potentially useful writing advice, I thought it might be helpful to explain how I wrote a novel, my first novel, in fifteen minutes a day.
I am not an especially fast writer, nor am I some kind of life-hack-obsessed productivity genius, nor am I any kind of genius at all -- although this one time I did the Times Sunday crossword in like 20 minutes. I started my first novel when I was working full-time at a demanding job and had a 7 month-old baby. I work, I have a family and I write -- I'm not a special case.
So it stands to reason that if I can write a novel in 15 minutes a day, other people probably can too. Probably even you. Here's how.
Step 1: Commit to writing for 15 minutes a day.
"Anybody can do anything for 15 minutes," as the indomitable Kate Winslet once said of exercise. But as even she would probably admit, it's all a Jedi mind trick. Kate Winslet probably doesn't really exercise for only 15 minutes a day (I mean, look at her). But she commits herself to exercising for only 15 minutes. And because 15 minutes sounds reasonable and doable and not like it's going to kill her, it gets her to the gym.
The same Jedi mind trick works for establishing a daily writing habit. If you tell yourself you have to write for an hour every day, you might never make it. An hour? Every day? I have a newborn, I have a job, I have knitting, I have baseball, I have an entire season of Homeland to catch up on.
But if you tell yourself you only have to write for 15 minutes every day...it starts to sound feasible.
Step 2: Understand that the important thing isn't the 15 minutes.
The important thing is that you do it every day, or as close to every day as you can. The point is to make writing a daily habit.
I know writers with busy lives who arrange marathon writing sessions at coffee shops on the weekends to make up for all the writing they're not doing every day during the week. My hat is off to these people, but that's a very high standard to hold yourself to if you're not some kind of super writing ninja. I've tried the weekend-coffee shop-writing thing. You know what happens to me? I spend the entire time re-reading what I wrote last weekend just to remind myself what the hell I was talking about.
Whenever you store up your writing minutes for "later," that magical later when everything else is out of the way and all the cows are in the barn, the writing never happens. Because "later" never happens. "Later" is always going to recede infinitely into later still. So don't write later. Write every day. All you've committed to, after all, is 15 minutes.
Step 3: Ignore anyone who tells you to set a timer.
So, I told myself I only needed to write for 15 minutes, and I made myself do it every day. How did I enforce it?
Some people will tell you to set a timer for 15 minutes. That is terrible, counter-productive advice. The point is to lose track of how long you've actually been writing, not set a timer that reminds you when you can stop.
You know how to read a clock. When you sit down every day to write for fifteen minutes, make a mental note of what time it will be when fifteen minutes have elapsed. Then start writing. If you're like me, for the first ten minutes or so you'll check the time every 90 seconds: Uuuuuuugh this is not going well holy crap it's only been three minutes how is that possible uuuuuuuuuugh.
But by retraining yourself to keep focusing on your writing, even when it feels boring and hideous and self-esteem-stripping and physically painful to do so, you retrain your writing instinct to keep kicking in and turning over. And around minute twelve, if you're having a good night, you'll forget how long you've been going. There's a saying among distance runners that the first two miles are the hardest--once you beat past that invisible mental and physical barrier, the rest is gravy. So why would you set a timer to remind yourself that you've been swimming in gravy?
For me, a daily commitment to writing retrained mental muscles I didn't know I had. Some nights, every one of those fifteen minutes was a struggle, and I closed the laptop after minute fifteen and walked away -- and I had still kept my promise to myself, so even a bad night was a good night.
On many more nights, however, because I didn't set a timer, I lost track of when the fifteen minutes was up. I wrote for 22 minutes and walked away. I wrote for 37 minutes and walked away. And on several memorably painful occasions, I got so into what I was doing that I wrote for a couple of hours, after everyone else in my house was in bed and I got three hours of sleep and was a zombie the next day but I had cranked out a big scene. Worth it.
Step 4. If you're not using your 15 minutes writing, then use them to develop a plan to write tomorrow.
Say you're having a bad night. Nothing's coming. The minutes are ticking by, and you're not progressing in the actual narrative or writing any dialogue or making a scene come along. What then?
I happen to be a plotter, and not a pantser. Because I'm such a dyed-in-the-wool plotter, I believe pantsers must face a certain challenge in getting from point A to point B in a long narrative (and therefore I salute them, with my pants). Because one advantage of being a plotter is, even when the writing isn't going well, the plotting can be.
It took me some time to forgive myself for using writing time to plan my writing -- to see brainstorming as anything other than glorified journaling. But planning isn't cheating, and it isn't wasting time. Planning and thinking and brainstorming are all well and truly part of the writing process, and an allowable use of your fifteen minutes.
Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, it can help to have two documents going at the same time during your 15 minute daily writing commitment: One document is for writing whatever you're writing, and one document is for not writing whatever you're writing -- but for planning what you will write, when you do get back into writing whatever you're writing.
If you do nothing else with your fifteen minutes of daily writing, work on your outline. Work on your scene flow. Write a character description. Do some story-world building. Or just write yourself a note about what you wish you were writing tonight, and what you want to write tomorrow.
Step 5. Feel bitter, get better.
You might have noticed, observant writerly reader that you are, that I invariably refer to writing at night, as if writing only happens at night. That's because for me it does. Like a lot of writers, I used to have a cherished morning writing ritual, waking before the sunrise to sit at my desk and make sweet love to my coffee cup and think glorious creative thoughts. That all went to hell when I had a kid. So now I write at night, usually after my child and husband are both in bed. I get less sleep than everybody else in my house. Oh, and also, I live in a tiny apartment and I don't have a desk, or any dedicated space of any kind for writing. And the Mets suck and there aren't enough New Girl episodes about Winston and I have to make dinner more often than I want to even though otherwise my husband is pretty cool. Does all this sometimes make me feel bitter and angry? Yes. But a little bit of bitterness, a little bit of struggle, won't kill me. Nor does it need to stop me, necessarily.
All I'm saying is that there are probably going to be things about a daily 15 minute writing commitment that are going to suck for you, too -- it might not be easy. But neither will it be as hard as, say, delivering vital medical supplies into a war zone. (Unless you are actually also writing in a war zone where your day job is delivering vital medical supplies.) What doesn't kill you and eat you makes you stronger. You may pat yourself on the back now.
And the payoff, I really think, is worth it. A daily writing habit did all the things for me that every writing expert on Earth says it will: When I wrote my novel every day, I got better at writing. I got faster. You know those hold-on-this-changes-everything moments that go off while you're working, where a solution to a problem comes to you, or an idea for how to fix a scene or an insight that turns your story around? I had more of those, more often, when I wrote every day -- even if I was only writing every day for the laughably short duration of 15 minutes. When I wrote every day, even for just 15 minutes, part of my brain was always writing the novel.
Step 6. Schedule a public writing staycation to work through some hard parts.
On a couple of occasions while writing my novel in 15 minutes a day, I realized that I was approaching a part of the story that was going to need some additional time to work out.
It's kind of like driving in a car in the general direction of the mountains -- you'll see them in the distance for a while, and then suddenly, boom, there are the mountains, right there in front of you, and you have to go over them. You face a moment of decision then: Are you going to climb the mountain in small doable stages but possibly get stuck in a snowy pass where you'll have to eat your own arm to survive, or are you going to gas up the wagons and tear your way up and over?
In my case, I found it really helpful to schedule a couple of two- or three-day "staycations," where I stayed home from my day job and went to write at a coffee shop. For me, it was helpful, and sort of hilarious, to perform the act of being a Full Time Serious Writerly Novelist Person, right out there in the open, in a coffee shop of all places. Shhh don't bother me, I am writing my novel and it's super duper hard and important.
A public writing staycation was, in every way, the opposite of my 15-minute-a-day commitment -- that small-scale promise that I found I could keep precisely because it seemed so small, so doable. A public writing staycation, by contrast, was an investment: I took precious vacation days to write my novel. I took time off of important projects at work to write my novel. I went out in public and acted like a person who was writing a novel. I put myself out there.
And that was a big lesson to learn too, about what writing a novel might really take: The doable, 15-minute daily writing commitment will get you most of the way there, because all writing requires is an investment of time and creativity. And one day, you will be surprised to learn the truth: You're already rich.