“How do you write novels while keeping your day job?” It’s a question I get every time I speak in public. Curious readers and harried authors all seem to want to talk about writing. In fact, a recent poll found that sixty percent of Britons picked ‘author’ as their dream job.
My primary career is to help run a Washington, DC think tank, the Center for Global Development, where I’m chief operating officer and a senior fellow. Most of my working day is spent writing about U.S. policies toward Africa, fundraising, or managing a 72-person nonprofit organization.
My second career came about by accident. Back in 2007, I was lucky to be asked to serve in the State Department, working for Secretary Condoleezza Rice as her top diplomat for West Africa. After leaving government and returning to my think tank, I decided I’d document some of my experiences through fiction.
My high-minded reason was to share stories from the trenches of U.S. foreign policymaking, taking readers deep inside the White House Situation Room and into the windowless classified rooms of our overseas embassies during the frantic moments of an international crisis. I also wanted to write a mainstream novel set in Africa to share my longtime affection for a region of rising importance to regular Americans. Most of all, I wrote a thriller because I thought it would be fun.
Three years of chaotic writing later, I’d completed a full draft of a story about a crisis manager in the State Department named Judd Ryker who battles forces at home and abroad to reverse a coup d’état in Mali. After eighteen months of networking, I landed an agent (introduced through a client of my cousin’s husband). It then took Josh Getzler just three weeks to sell my book to Penguin’s Putnam imprint. In September 2014, The Golden Hour was released and hit the Washington Post bestseller list.
That was just the beginning. Putnam asked for three more books in the Ryker series, one per year. This meant I needed a disciplined system to write and still hold down my day job. (I also drive my son to high school, coach middle school basketball, and pick up my fourth grader from dance class.) Thus the questions: Where do you find the time? How can you keep everything straight in your head? Do you ever see your family? When do you sleep?
Every author has their own system that works best for them. Here’s mine.
1. Keep a strict calendar.
I write best early in the morning, so I block writing time on my calendar for ninety minutes starting at 5:00am three days a week, plus a three-hour block one weekend morning. Knowing that I’ll always soon have dedicated time to work on the book allows me to concentrate on my other projects.
2. Go to bed early.
A good night’s sleep is a prerequisite for my productivity. I know it’s lame (as my kids constantly remind me), but I go to bed by about 9:30pm on nights before writing.
Maybe it’s the mix of endorphins or just the fresh air, but I’m most creative when out running or on a long walk. If I get a good idea or solve a plot snag while on the go, I use Siri on my iPhone to send myself a reminder.
4. Find a reliable notes bank.
I’m a fan of Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is premised on the notion that your mind stays clear if you have a safe place to save your thoughts. I use Remember the Milk, a simple efficient app on my iPhone that ensures I never lose an idea.
5. Hyper-organize documents .
- Ideas dump. I keep a running list of any and all ideas — from a major plot twist to background research to a random word that I like. I regularly paste notes from my Remember the Milk app into this document.
- Character list. My series has a protagonist and half a dozen recurring characters, plus another dozen or so new characters in each book. This one-pager holds details (what’s their appearance? background? motivation? jargon? quirks?) that help to define and distinguish my people.
- Outline. For a 70,000 word book, my outlines run about a dozen pages. This evolving document allows me to create and keep track of the multiple story lines, twists, and moving parts. When I need to restructure or change a storyline, I manipulate the outline first, which is infinitely easier than fumbling with large blocks of texts.
- Data sheet. Geek alert: I keep an Excel spreadsheet listing each chapter, location, time-stamp, a one-sentence plot summary, and character appearances. This is handy when I need to alter sequencing or insert a new scene. It’s also helpful to see at a glance when it’s time to bring a character back into the action.
- The manuscript. When I start a new chapter, I paste the next section from the outline and away I go.
I’ve now used this approach to write two more novels and begin my fourth. The second, Minute Zero which follows Judd Ryker as he flies to Zimbabwe where an aging corrupt dictator clings to power during a violent election, will be out September 15th. Ghosts of Havana, number three for release fall 2016, has been delivered, and I’m starting on the outline and ideas dump for book four.
Writing fiction has turned out to be even more fun than I expected. And my think tank day job enables me to work in the real world alongside some of the most brilliant and committed people I’ve ever known. I love both my careers. I don’t want to choose between them. With these five steps, I’ve found I don’t have to.