Young Writers Series Week Seven; Keeping the Balls in the Air (How to Juggle School, Social Life, and Writing)

Wow! We’re almost done with the eight week Young Writers series. That went fast! So far we’ve covered everything from how to get your book published to the value added by agents and editors to self-editing. This week we’re going to focus on the big balancing act that is juggling anything creative with so-called real life. Although I don’t really like that concept, because I don’t know about you, but my writing is as much a part of my real life as anything else.


As a teenager or college student, I know your life is jam packed with school, social outings, after-school activities like sports and clubs, homework, and family. Three of my four kids all have a creative passion (writing, fine art, and filmmaking), and I’ve seen how they struggle to find time for their art while also being a young person in today’s constantly connected world. And while I’d like to give you a magic bullet to solve the problem, I’m afraid it’s not that easy.

The first thing I’ll say is that it’s okay to narrow your field of interest a little. In fact, it’s natural. Kids usually have no idea what their passion is, which is one reason many parents sign up their kids for so many things. We want you to try everything! Because how will you know you love soccer or piano or science if you don’t do those things?

But as you get older and start to get a better feel for who you really are, it’s natural to find yourself gravitating toward some activities while also realizing you don’t enjoy others as much as you used to. Kenneth used to be super into sports. He was an amazing baseball and soccer player (I’ve since realized he’s one of those lucky people who is good at everything he tries), and he played for the town, for his school, and sometimes at the club level. Then when he got older, he tried hip-hop and found he really loved it. That led him to music, which led him to guitar, which led him back to piano (he’d tried it when he was a kid and didn’t like it). When he started composing music and felt that he’d found his true love, he quit sports altogether, because he realized he was spending all his time there wishing he was home playing music. That wasn’t his last stop though. He went on to find a passion for writing (there’s a strong writing gene on our family) and has since completed his first book and is currently working on a screenplay. Music has become something he does just for fun.

Some of his friends at the time would say things like, “Why do you quit everything?” It made Kenneth feel a little insecure, because he’d never thought of it that way. But then we talked and I explained that he quit more things than most of his peers because he TRIED more things than most of his peers, and it just isn’t practical to believe you’ll move into adulthood doing a hundred different things at any given time. The reason you try new things is to have the experience and see if you like them. You are under no obligation to continue if you hate it, especially if there’s something about which you’re more passionate.

Now don’t get your parents mad at me! I’m not saying you should go out and quite everything. I’m just saying if you find there are things you’re doing out of habit instead of because you really enjoy them, it might be time to reconsider (and this is good advice for adults too). Think about the energy you’re spending on things that you don’t enjoy very much, and consider how much progress you might make on something you DO enjoy if you took the time and applied it there. This might require a sit down with your parents, but its been my experience that above all else, most parents want their kids to be happy. If you explain your reasons for wanting to cut back on some of your extracurriculars to devote more time to writing (or anything else), I have a feeling they’ll  understand.

But before you go quite everything; consider this; writing time is more than just writing.

It’s true. Let me explain.

For a long time, I logged my writing hours like I would log hours on any job, pushing myself to write 6-8 hours a day. The truth is, I felt (and still feel) incredibly lucky to be writing for a living, and I never wanted to take that for granted. I was always trying to “prove” I deserved it by writing as much as possible. But after awhile, I realized my writing was becoming less inspired, and a big part of the reason was that I was WRITING more at the expense of LIVING more. And living leads to the experiences and inspiration that make for good writing. I realized when I was out and about, seeing movies with my kids or hiking or reading a newspaper article or even driving somewhere, I was processing all of those experiences and stories and sensations, storing them away for later use. Even when I wasn’t aware I was doing it, snippets of those moments would come back to me when I was sitting at the computer – how the sunset swept the sky orange and pink, the way someone tilted their head when they talked, making it seem like they were always a little confused, the weight of the air on a particularly hot and humid day. And I was getting ideas too! From newspaper articles and books and movies and overheard conversations. In fact, if I logged all of THOSE hours, the ones I came to think of as time spent filling the creative well, I was putting in a good six hours a day at minimum, and usually a lot more. Then I might only write for two hours, but it was an inspired two hours.


All of which leads me to advice that is no less true for its ambiguity. The truth is, we all have to find a way to balance the logistics of daily living with our creative drive. It doesn’t get easier as you get older, it just changes. The one thing that has made all the difference for me is to have a schedule.

My schedule has changed over the years. In the early days, I wrote from 9pm to 1am and sometimes later. This is because I had little kids who needed my attention, and it was the only time I was guaranteed time to write. It meant I was exhausted when I woke up at 6am to get the kids to school, but I learned to go back to bed for a couple extra hours of sleep while they were at school, then stay up late writing again (I work better in the afternoons and evenings, which is why I didn’t just write during the day while the kids were in school). When the kids got older, I blocked off 7pm-9pm during the week, because they were usually doing homework and taking showers anyway, and afternoons were spent running from one after school activity to another. Nowadays, I have two writing blocks; 3pm-5pm (my kids can mostly drive themselves around now) and 7pm-9pm. If something comes up during one of these blocks, I know I have at least two hours left to write on any given day. Everyone who knows me knows that this is sacred time. I don’t answer my phone and don’t schedule appointments during those times if I can avoid it. If you have friends who work at a movie theater or a restaurant, odds are they can’t take calls or check their phone while they’re on the clock. Consider your writing time work time and follow the same rules.

But you may not be able to commit to two hours of writing every day. And that’s okay! Let’s look at how long it would take to write a book if you blocked off different amounts of time (assuming about 750 words an hour and a 70,000 word book);

2 hours per week; About 10 months

2 hours per day, twice a week (say Saturday and Sunday); About 5 months

1 hour per day x 5 days a week; 4-5 months

8 hours per week (say four, two-hour blocks); About 3 months

12 hours per week (say, over Summer); About 2 months

Are you seeing a pattern here? It’s not about HOW MUCH TIME you spend writing. It’s about CONSISTENCY. Even if you only write two hours per week, you WILL STILL HAVE A FINISHED BOOK IN TEN MONTHS. That’s about the length of one school year. Alternatively, if you spend your school year focusing on school and school-related activities and only write in the summer, you can have a book done in eight weeks.

Now you might be thinking, “There’s a big difference between eight weeks and ten months!”

There is. About eight months difference. But the end result is the same; you have a finished book. And that’s assuming you’re writing a novel. If you’re working on poetry or short stories instead, you would have A LOT of finished work during that time. And whatever you do, it will result in more finished work than if you do nothing.

Lastly, take advantage of small amounts of time. For years I wouldn’t bother writing unless I had a good hour or two. When I finally started taking every spare 30-minute block I could find, I was shocked by how much more quickly my word count piled up. Using our formula above, a half hour a day five days a week still puts you at under ten months to finish a whole book. Most of us can find a 30-minute block of time each day — even if it’s that half hour after practice or the half hour between getting home from school and eating dinner or the half hour we spend mindlessly reading Buzzfeed articles. And if you need a little help staying focused, I highly recommend a program called Freedom, which allows you to block social media sites and/or your WIFI connection for set periods of time. You’ll get more done in 30 minutes of focused writing time than in an hour of back and forth between your manuscript and Twitter. I use Freedom almost religiously when I’m drafting, and it’s startling how much more focused I feel, even for thirty minutes, when I KNOW I can’t access the internet.

Let’s recap tips for balancing writing and real life!

Be willing to narrow your field of interest to make more time for writing.

Talk to your parents if you feel you’re over scheduled and need more downtime.

Be willing to sacrifice some of your “empty” downtime, like TV, surfing the internet, social networking, etc.

Be honest about your time wasters and use a program like Freedom if necessary to disconnect from the internet.

Make a schedule that will guarantee you a certain amount of writing time each week.

Attach your writing time to activities that rarely change, say, right before or after dinner.

Take advantage of small blocks of time to chip away at your word count or revisions.

Remember that living and thinking and learning and experiencing all count as filling the creative well. When you absolutely can’t write because of your schedule, don’t feel guilty! Enjoy the moment you are in and trust that it’s all contributing to your bank of experiences – which will only make your writing better your whole life through.

I hope this helps!

It’s hard to believe, but next week is our last week on the Young Writers series. We’ll be talking about Rowing Your Own Boat (What To Do If the People Around You Don’t Take You Seriously). Of course, you can always leave questions in the Comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve all had a chance to pick up LIES I TOLD. I have been totally blown away by the response to this book (see my post about Kirkus’s tweet!), and I’m very excited to share it with you.


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