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How I Found the Time to Write a Book

And a quiz that will help you discover your creative phenotype

Illustration: Bruno Mangyoku, originally published in Human Parts

For the launch of Creators Hub, Amy Shearn shares insights from publishing several novels over the years. Her latest book is Unseen City. Shearn is a Senior Editor at Forge.

How do I find time to write? This question is not really what it seems. You’re not really asking me that. But first let’s pretend you are, and I will tell you: I just do. There is a great and terrible myth deeply entrenched in our collective unconscious that novelists spend all day, well, writing novels, but I have to warn you there are maybe about 10 of those, and like three of them are Stephen King and the rest are probably Danielle Steel. The vast majority of the people who write books also have other jobs of various sorts (and/or rich spouses — also not a bad option probably, and if you have a spare let me know), which is to say, most of the novelists you can think of are probably extremely resourceful time harvesters.

Here’s what you do: You look at your life and see where there is some slack. For me, this has been different with every novel, and I’ve written four.

Each book is its own universe

I know that each novel I’ve written has been shaped by the kind of time and space in which it is written. My first novel was written in the mornings, between 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. or so, before I went to work. This meant going to bed around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. — I am not someone who functions well on little sleep. So, even though I was childless and in my twenties, I was always going home early or skipping the after-work drinks or whatever. (I’m fun!) I knew I had to give something up in order to get those early hours. And I think the book holds the imprint of that time — it has the dreamy, surreal quality of something written while not fully awake, someone in her own world.

By the time I was writing my second novel, I was at home with a baby. I wrote while she napped. Every week, I’d exchange a few babysitting hours with another stay-at-home-mom-writer friend. Sometimes I’d duck out to a cafe for a few hours on the weekend when my husband could watch the baby. This book reads like an overgrown short story — one storyline, one main character, one setting, and a tight timeframe. Part of this is, I think, because that’s what I could hold in my head, and write on a tiny laptop balanced on a tiny cafe table, or on a park bench while a baby napped in a stroller.

The third novel was written once I had two kids. Time had to be carved out in longer but more discrete chunks. A week here, while my mom came into town to watch the children; a week there, when I had the kids in a summer camp. This book is comprised of two intertwined stories, each of which has a couple different building blocks, each block shaped by a singular section of prolonged concentration time.

And the next novel (I hope, my agent is still reading it, fingers crossed please), was written once I had gone back to work full time in an office, and had lunch breaks. This actually felt like a vast improvement, time-wise, over being a stay-at-home mom. I had one hour, every day! Yes it was only an hour but also, it was every day! That novel — tapped out in various lower Manhattan cafes and diners — is written in letters, which happens to be a form well-suited for hour-long chunks of time.

There’s no right answer, but there’s a right now answer

You get where this is going, right? No matter what your life looks like, there is some way to find writing time. Whatever works doesn’t have to work forever. And it will surely shape in some way what you are able to write. If you have 20 minutes a day to write, great, use it. But don’t put pressure on yourself to write War and Peace.

Here’s why I say I don’t think you’re really asking me (or any other writer) how I find the time to write. You’re asking how you can find the time to write. Right? I’m sorry/pleased to tell you, that’s something no one can answer but you, yourself.

That’s because there is no right answer for everyone, all the time. There is a right answer for you, right now. The key is to find out your own, let’s call it a Creative Phenotype; to find what works for you and not to judge it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else in the world does, not me, not your favorite Medium writer, not William Shakespeare and his stupid obnoxious pandemic productivity. It only matters what can work for you.

The Creative Phenotype thought experiment can help

Here is a quick, completely unscientific, likely bullshit, diagnostic to determine your Creative Phenotype:

1.When do you have more energy?
a) morning
b) midday
c) evening
d) night
e) never

2. What makes you want to write?
a) reading books
b) having an urgent story or truth to tell
c) talking to friends
d) when characters start talking to me
e) hoping for fame and fortune

3. What’s your favorite kind of book to read?
a) anything with beautiful language
b) mysteries, thrillers, or biographies of famous people
c) zeitgeisty nonfiction or memoirs
d) plot- or character-driven novels
e) I don’t really read books

If you answered mostly:

a) I’m guessing you’re what Zadie Smith calls a “Micro Manager” — you’re going to write this book sentence by sentence and figure it out as you go. Try writing in the mornings, every day. If that sounds intimidating, tell yourself you can just try for two weeks. You will likely find it soon becomes second nature. Write the book that pops into your head. Don’t worry about figuring out the end until you get there, or categorizing it, or having an elevator pitch for it. Write until you’re done. Don’t talk about it until it’s birthed.

b) You might be an outliner, or someone who thinks story first, lines and language later. The novelist Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a master outliner (I know because I’ve done writing retreats with her and it’s intense). Here’s some of her advice on the practice. The great news is, if you have an outline, you always know what to write next, and can be ruthlessly efficient with small amounts of writing time. Devote your lunch breaks or any other unspoken-for snippets of time to writing one or two pages at a time. A year of this and you have a draft.

c) Perhaps you’re a 15-minute writer like the novelist Siobhan Adcock, who wrote her first novel in 15-minute increments of time, in the evenings after her workday ended and her child went to bed. Tell yourself you’ll write for 15 minutes (spoiler alert: once you start you’ll likely keep going), and connect with an accountability buddy or writer’s group to give yourself deadlines and stay on track.

d) Okay, night owl, you’re a classic. Many writers — from Marcel Proust to Stephenie Meyer — have written novels in the nighttime hours. Maybe you’re a micro manager, maybe you’re an outliner, but you are likely driven by a mysterious urgency and you have to honor that. Is it a muse? Is it insomnia? Who are you to judge? Just listen, and record.

e) This is going to sound mean but it’s actually the nicest thing: you don’t have to write a book. It’s possible you don’t actually really want to. (Which is fine. Writing a book is hard, often not fun, and the rewards are so much of the time intrinsic at best, invisible at worst.) Or maybe you’re just not ready to and that’s valid too. Keep a notebook, read everything you can. Check back in a year. Ready yet? Then begin.

Wait, one more thing

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a gift. Here it is:

I want you to write your book.

Because I know that piece can get in the way, and it’s easy to fall into a morass of wondering: Why am I even trying this? What’s the point? There are so many books in the world, who needs another? Why do I make myself try to do this when I could be bingeing old Golden Girls episodes? (Right? Just me?)

So in case your brain starts revving in that way, let me just say: I want you to write your book. I want to read your book. And other people do, too. I promise.

Got other questions about writing novels while working a day job and parenting and maintaining an Olympic-caliber workout routine? Well, I can’t actually speak to the last one. But the other things, yes, of course, please, let me know what you want to know!

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Creators Hub is the official resource for writing on Medium. You’ll find advice for succeeding on Medium, spotlights on thinkers across the platform, and inside secrets from fellow creators. We’re here to help you write better, post smarter, and connect with more readers.

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Amy Shearn

Amy Shearn

Creator Success @ Medium // Editor of Human Parts & Creators Hub // Novelist // Person

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