Writing a novel alongside the day job

In an ideal world, we’d all have the means to retire to a French châteaux to nurture our creativity and hone our masterpieces. But for those of us with no choice but to work full time, here are a few tips that helped me commit a novel to paper, whilst continuing to work full-time.

1. Schedule your writing time

When you first fall in love with an idea, you may well be willing to write through the night, you may find that you enjoy such prolonged sessions. But writing and honing 100,000 words will normally require a less romantic, more methodical approach.

Look at your week and schedule realistic writing slots where you can. In your first flushes of enthusiasm it’s easy to believe you’ll find the will to do a two hour stint after you’ve been to work, gone to the gym and cooked dinner. But half an hour is more likely a sustainable goal. You can always keep going if a session is going well, but you’re much more likely to sit down in the first place if your target feels doable. And doable when you are tired and doubting yourself, not just when you’re freshly enthused.

2. Write every day if you can

For me, a daily commitment to writing allows me to reach a much deeper level of immersion in my story and characters. I find that if I miss a few days, the session that follows will go far less smoothly and I may have to spend time going back over my notes and soaking myself in the atmosphere of the book before I can make any progress.

Again, you don’t have to commit to hours and hours, but thinking about your work in progress on a daily basis will fuel idea generation and maintain forward momentum.

3. Accept that your first draft won’t be perfect

When I first started writing regularly, with a view to publication, I found it very hard to get beyond chapter one. I had high expectations of my prose and wouldn’t move on to the next sentence until I was sure what came before was as perfect as I could make it. This made for some very frustrating sessions, crafting and re-crafting the same section, whilst not really moving the narrative forward at all.

Giving yourself the freedom to write rubbish – to simply get something down, knowing that you can come back to it later – will liberate you creatively. Nothing can compare to those sessions that go by at breakneck speed, when your fingers can barely keep up with the thoughts in your head, when you are ‘seeing’ the action unfold in the same way that your reader will see it later on.

You can always fix your first drafts. But if you strive to hard for perfection in the first instance, your pages will remain blank.

4. Keep exploring new ideas

Whilst maintaining momentum and ploughing your way through the scenes and chapters that will comprise your first draft, it’s important to also devote some time to the wider landscape of your novel.

Every week or so, I like to sit down with a notebook and ask myself: am I exploring my themes in a sufficiently compelling way? Am I giving my characters the opportunity to make choices that will shape their destinies?

Going back to pen and paper, spending time thinking, rather than writing, often helps me generate ideas for later in the book. This pays dividends later on, making it far less likely that I’ll dry up during any of my writing sessions.

5. Edit your way out of a rut

There will be times when writing is absolutely the last thing you want to be doing. When you’ll open up a word document and feel as though you have nothing to give. You don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. You’re not sure you even care anymore.

My tactic for extricating myself from such a rut is to edit. Sometimes, going back over the last couple of nights’ work will be enough to re-immerse myself in the story and enable me to press on. Other times, I may need to go all the way back to the beginning, re-reading and tweaking as I go.

So there you have it. The work of creativity is exactly that – work.