Words for Writers: Establishing a Routine

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Anonymous Asked: Do you have anything up about what writing routine you use? Do you even have a particular routine or do you just write whenever you have the time? I’ve been trying to find a routine that will work for me so I’ve been looking around at what other writers do.




No, I don’t think I’ve spoken about this before.


I try, really, really hard to be a good professional and have a routine but right now I’m hampered by two things: lack of good work space and lately, a crazy schedule. I used to be much, much better when I had a dedicated desk and I didn’t have a full time job.


Right now I write piecemeal – in the space I can scrabble out, and in the time I have free.  I actually do feel like this is a detriment to both my focus, my productivity, and my creativity, and I certainly see a difference in the output I had last year, and this year’s output.


When I was unemployed/job hunting, I wrote an average of 4000 words per day, and I could leave my computer on my wee writing desk all the time.


But that was because I had the free time. I spent the morning submitting resumes, and then after lunch I would sit down and write. Once I finished my personal goal of One Chapter Or 4000 Words (Whichever I Hit First), I would then focus on social media stuff like updating my website or interacting on Goodreads until my then-roommate got home. The evening was freetime/socializing, etc. On that schedule, I got a novel done in a month and a half, and a handful of short stories in the month that followed.  The novel also went through the editing process pretty quick, and I had it to my agent and ready for submissions within three months of beginning it.


This is the schedule I’d use if I were free to do so.


I started to plow into the next book, deciding to write as much as I could while I had the space to do so, and got 30k into it before I got my current full-time job. I saw my productivity slide way down when that happened.  I had hoped that I could write during lulls at work, but the office is so open concept that it’s not possible.


My horrible excuses:


Well, I got a job. So there’s 9 hours a day minimum that I’m not able to devote to being in front of my manuscripts. That also means that now I can only write on evenings and weekends. And unfortunately that also means that the social/marketing things I was doing in the evenings/weekends (such as being a guest a cons, going to pub nights and networking events, or even just playing boardgames and having wine nights with my friends) now suddenly conflict with my writing time.


My job is also filled with walking. I have a desk but I think I’m actually sitting at it for about 3 out of the 8 hours per day I am at work. So I also come home exhausted and a bit frazzled. By the time I’ve chilled and got my head into a place where I could write, it’s darn near midnight and I’m struggling to just stay awake.


And my apartment, while larger than my last one, doesn’t really have any place I can set aside and designate “work space”. At first I didn’t think this would be a problem. I wrote on the sofa, on my deck, on my telephone table, at the kitchen table, wherever I wanted.  It was freeing! But the problem with that is that I have to pack everything up when I’m done with it. I can’t just leave my computer on, the document up, my notes taped to the wall or scribbled on the chalkboard above my monitor.


This also means that things can’t stay set up. Whenever someone comes over, or when I have another project that I need to pull out (such as sewing), I have to pack things away. Which means I find myself less inclined to grab those few minutes to jot something down or do up a scene because it means I have to unpack my work space. So instead I make yet another note on the chalkboard (it’s starting to look like kindergartener’s scribble), and return to whatever else I was doing.


So, there’s my really horrible excuses about why I have a rubbish routine.


But, here are the things I am trying to be proactive about:

  • I may not have the architecture that allows for dedicated work space, but I’ve bought a giant chalkboard that I use to keep notes on, and I’ve recently acquired a little wee bedside table to sit beside my writing desk where I’ve set up a monitor and a keyboard. It’s not a perfect set up right now, but until I’m in an apartment with a nook or actual second bedroom I can use as an office, it is at least a home for my writing.
  • I have a tablet to take with me to conventions and to events, which means my computer can stay in its home-space and ready for me to use. I’m working on finding a portable keyboard to go with the tablet so I can jot down notes and scenes when I’m in transit and email them back to myself.
  • I keep lofty word count goals in mind, but I am more realistic about what I can achieve in one weekend. I aim more for One Short Story than my former 10k/Three Chapters goal.
  • I’m a bit more of a social hermit and hoarder. I say no to more invitations and I stay home more often, and I keep my laptop on while I’m watching films and doing chores at home incase inspiration strikes.
  • I keep a list of all the ideas and half-begun stories/novels/projects I have in a visible place. I’ve got them taped to the fridge so I can see them when I’m cooking; this usually gives me a mental jolt, a little “Oh, yeah, I was going to do that thing with the cannibal lawn gnomes, wasn’t I? Hmmm, I’ll think about that while I’m frying up breakfast. Let’s see where this goes…”
  • I carry a notepad and pen, but I also use my smartphone to compose scenes in my email program while I’m on transit, so I can just send it to myself and not need to transcribe it when I get home.
  • Carry my writing USB key everywhere, so I can snag time at work on my lunch if the opportunity of having the office to myself arises. I back up the USB key every weekend, and I back up my whole archive every few months on CDs. I also email myself manuscripts and hold them in a folder in my email, and use Dropbox. It seems excessive, but it gives me great peace of mind, which allows me to focus.


My recommendations for setting up your own routine:

  • Carve out physical space where your work can stay. Figure out if you prefer things to be filed, in boxes, behind glass doors, or if you prefer to have a corkboard, or a chalkboard, or note paper taped everywhere? Designate a home for the unit you write on.
  • Cave out time and mental space for work. Be it weekly or daily, know in advance when and for how long your writing time will be. Schedule it in, and tell people it’s on your schedule in order to both make yourself free then, and accountable to them.
  • Figure out how you work. Can you sit and write for hours and hours? Or do you need ten minute sprints? Do you prefer to rain the words onto the page in small doses as you go through your daily routine, or do you need a dedicated time in which to splash down a torrent?
  • Figure out your rhythms. Do you need to write every day? Can you? Is it a realistic goal or does real life just not allow for it?
  • Set goals and meet them. Tell yourself you have to do a certain amount (either in time or word/page count)  and then do it. No excuses. But at the same time…
  • Learn to forgive yourself. Sometimes you just don’t hit your targets. It’s okay. Take a day off, watch a film, go for a walk, play with some kids or pets. There’s always tomorrow.
  • Write for fun. Don’t forget that while you may be treating this like a job, it’s meant to be pleasurable. Do another project for a while if you need to give yourself a break. Write a poem, a silly song, some fanfic, a blog post, anything. Read a book and remember why you love writing – because you love it.


Work Space

For each writer it’s different, but for me I need:

  • Silence (with a preference to being alone in the house)
  • Tea or wine or water.
  • Twilight lighting – a bright task light on my workspace, but the curtains half-closed or the other lights dimmed. It helps me focus on the screen, and not the distractions of the room around me. (Like the dirty dishes or the unmade bed).
  • Several hours after work or upon waking in order to get zen, have tea, have a meal, have a shower and do some light reading (magazine, newspaper, fanfic on my smartphone); only then has my writer-brain had time to bootup and come online. Once that happens I can focus.
  • An hour or two to really get a bunch of the brain-vomit on the page. Usually I don’t go back and edit until a) I have a complete first draft or b) I’m stuck and I need to go back and reread in order to digest then recapture the tone/momentum of the book.
  • Scrivener and Final Draft for composing; Microsoft Word and Celtx for editing/finessing
  • A self-imposed deadline (for example: “There’s a pub night Monday evening. Today is Saturday – you can go to the pub night if you get a whole short story written and one draft of edits done on it before then.”)



Resetting my Calendar:


I think I’ve spoken to this before, but usually my year in writing goes like this

  • October – spend the month writing character sketches, wee scenes, doing research, and generally preparing to write a new novel
  • November – National Novel Writing Month; write the first 50k of the new novel.
  • December – complete the novel. (Usually adding another 50-90k.) I generally use a few days around Christmas when I don’t have to work to do the final torrent.
  • Holidays – Sleep. Let the novel lay fallow.
  • Late January – Edit the first draft on my own.
  • February – Send the novel out to my crit partners and beta readers.
  • March – wait for crit on the novel back; pick up the slack on other projects I’ve neglected like screenplays, short stories, reading other people’s books, or edits for other novels
  • April – edit novel based on crit’s/beta’s suggestions. Either send it out again to a different group of people, or send it to my agent.
  • May – August  – From there it gets a bit wibbly-wobbly. Either more edits are required, or we start putting together a submission package, which may include writing synopsis, pitches, loglines, short stories to accompany the novel, letters, asking for other authors to offer blurbs, etc. Meanwhile I am still catching up on everything I let slide, am writing short stories for anthologies, working on screenplays or audio dramas, and generally trying to get everything I thought up over the year and put aside in favour of concentrating on the novel done and tidy.
  • September – finishing up any other projects that might be lingering, generally clearing my plate in preparation for having a clean slate come November 1 and the new start of NaNoWriMo (this year will be my 11th year participating!); get caught up on my reading.

If I were to be writing full time, I would probably try to do two novels a year, or at least a novel and a half per year. But it would depend, of course, on how involved the research on the novel would be, and what happened with other novels/projects. Sometimes you just gotta put something aside and focus what needs your attention now, no matter how much you want to work on that first thing.

(I swear to you that one day there will be a novel version of “The Maddening Science”.)



Choosing to be a Writer: Why Write? & Self Confidence and Starting & Refilling the Creative Well

Getting Started: The “What If?” & Don’t Stop. Don’t Ever Stop & What You Need To Know to Get Started

First Drafts: My Advice for NaNoWriMo: Be A Bit Crap

Revisions: Unhooking, Tough Choices, And Raising Your Manuscript Up Right & Killing Your Babies

Hard vs. Soft SF: The Balance Between Science-Telling and Story-Telling

Self-Marketing: What I Do To Self-Market (make sure to read the comments, too) & Book Trailers

Agents: I Have A Publishing Deal But I Still Want An Agent & How Do I Get An Agent? Why Do I Need One? & Publishing Sans Agent

Genre: Why Do I Write Sci Fi?

Format: How To Structure A Story

World-Building: Culture-Building, Character-Building, and Finding The Story

Finishing a Manuscript: Keeping Momentum & The Emotionally Blocked Writer

Queries: You Might Have to Work At It & That Middle Place

Abandoning A Manuscript: Bidding Farewell

Copyright: Protecting Your Work

Have a question you want me to answer?


JM FreyWords for Writers: Establishing a Routine