I dream of a day when I can wake up, sip my coffee, write some morning pages, and then work on my latest novel until dinner. Unfortunately for me, and for many of you, that day is not today.
I’ve got kids and a house and bills, so I have to work full-time. Even so, over the past four years, I’ve published five novels, three novellas, and countless short stories.
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How to Write a Book While Working Full-Time: 5 Strategies
How do I write books while working full-time? There are five things I’ve had to do to make this a reality.
1. Figure Out Your Prime Writing Time
Some of us write better at five in the morning. We need those morning pages to get us going. Some of us write better at midnight, alone in the dark with our thoughts. But if you work full-time, when you write best may not be the right question.
With forty hours of your week missing while you are at work, it’s important to figure out not only when you are at your best, but also when you are capable of giving time to writing.
Most days, I get up around 5:30 AM with the three-year-old. I then listen to the news or a podcast while I make him breakfast, and make myself breakfast, and take my wife coffee, and pack my four other kids' lunches. By 7 AM, I’m in the car starting my commute, which is forty-five minutes.
My job is difficult and requires focus. (I’m part of a team that builds simulations that imitate emotions, allowing professionals to practice difficult conversations.) I leave at 4 PM, get back in my car and drive home. Then we tackle whatever sport the kids are playing at the moment, and dinner, and bedtime routines.
My life is full.
I’m not complaining; I love every second.
I love making my kids’ breakfasts. I love bringing my wife coffee in bed each morning. I even love listening to books in the car during my commute. I love my job, the team I work with, and the simulations we create. I love watching my kids play sports and occasionally coaching their teams. I’m not complaining.
I am saying that finding time to write is difficult, which is why discovering your “prime” writing time is so important.
For those of us who work full-time, finding “our writing time” isn’t just about what feels best. It’s also about what works for our schedules.
If I had my way, I’d write from 9 AM to 1 PM. That’s when I’m at my best and most productive, but that time is dedicated to my job because my job pays the bills. Therefore, I write late at night, after my house is asleep. I have three hours from 9 PM to midnight.
That’s my “prime” writing time because that’s the only time I have.
This is a hard truth about how to write a book while working full-time. We’ve got to squeeze writing into the cracks of our lives. We need to figure out when it is possible and then guard that time as sacred.
2. Enlist the People You Live With
I have teenagers in my house and only one TV. It’s in the central space where we all congregate. Most nights, my writing time begins while the teenagers are still up and watching TV. But they know that when I open my laptop and put my headphones in, that I’m working and they shouldn’t bother me.
I’m available all day. At 9 PM, I’m writing. Even if we are in the same room, I’m writing.
Whether you are single with roommates or married with kids, it’s rare that our space is our own. Because writing time is precious, we need help protecting it.
Tell the people you live with your plan and ask them to help you stick to it. Tell them the time you plan to write and how much you hope to get down. That way, they’ll be allies instead of distractions.
3. Commit to Giving Things Up
A coworker asked me this week if I’m keeping up with the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale. I was heartbroken that I had to say no. I then asked her to describe the episode to me, because I’m not going to be watching it any time soon.
Honestly, I would love to be watching The Handmaid’s Tale. I would love to watch every episode the day they drop.
But I know I can’t do that and write books, because I also work full-time.
You can’t work full-time, and watch all the TV shows everyone else watches, and go to all the fun places everyone else goes to, and read all the books everyone else reads, and write your own books. Unless you have Hermione's Time-Turner, time doesn’t work that way.
You are going to have to give things up. Come to terms with it now. It will make it easier when someone tells you how amazing the most recent episode of your favorite show is.
4. Push Yourself
My oldest son runs track for his high school team. For the past few months, he’s run as hard as he could at practice, but gotten close to the same time with each run. Every night he would come home exhausted and say, “I ran as hard as I could today. I just can’t break my personal best.”
Last week, his coach put him in a heat with runners faster than he is used to running with. The race was hard, but he was determined to keep up with the leaders. At the end of the race, he’d shaved thirty seconds off of his personal record.
My son thought he was working as hard as he could, but in truth, he was capable of more than he knew.
Writing is not unlike a sport. We practice. We work on our techniques. We also have “game time” when we put our effort into the world for others to view.
And like any professional athlete will tell you, we too are capable of more than we think we are.
As I mentioned, I write late at night because it is when I am alone. Often, after I write for an hour, my eyes will get heavy and my body will tell me I need to stop and go to bed. But I don’t stop. I get a glass of water and push myself for another forty-five minutes.
Even though my body tells me I should go to bed, even though my eyes sting and my head is fuzzy, I know I can squeeze a little more gas out of my tank. I’ve got another four hundred words in me that I can get on the page.
There are going to be times when your mind is not your friend. Your brain’s primary concern is the protection of your body. Therefore, when your energy is running low, your brain starts firing warning signals. Your eyes start to droop and your mind says, “Let’s just go lie down.”
But that’s not happening because your tank is on empty. It’s happening because you are closer to empty than your brain would like you to be. When you start feeling those warning signs, you need to push a little harder. You are capable of more.
Full confession, there are many nights when I’ve woken up after falling asleep at my laptop. I’ve just accepted that falling asleep on the keyboard is what it takes to write books and work fulltime.
5. Keep It in Perspective
In high school, I pitched for my school’s baseball team. By “pitched,” I mean I threw slow and easy-to-hit balls close to the plate and then watched the opposing team crush those balls into the outfield while gleefully running around the bases. One night, I was put in as a relief pitcher, and I blew a strong lead and lost the game.
Afterward, I was frustrated and angry with myself. I remember telling my dad, a wise man who had many adages he’d repeat and that I still try to live by, “This is the worst. I’m the worst. And I hate it.”
Dad put his arm around me and said, “Listen, don’t sweat the small stuff. And remember, if you walk far enough away from it, it all gets small.”
Perspective is important.
Remember, writer of books who also has a full-time job: you have a full-time job.
You aren’t going to be able to keep up with writers who match your discipline and write full-time. They are going to write more words a day than you do, they are going to put out more books than you, and they are going to go to more conferences than you do, query more agents than you do, and hang out with other authors more than you do.
If they match your discipline, they will write faster than you do, because writing is what they do full-time.
Have some perspective.
You also aren’t going to write as fast as you want to. There will be nights when you can’t bring yourself to do it, nights when your “prime writing time” rolls around, and your laptop is waiting at the kitchen table, and your house is quiet, but all you can gather the energy to do is sit on the couch and watch an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
And that’s okay. Because you’ve worked a full day and did what you had to do to pay your bills. The world isn't over. You can write tomorrow.
Keep some perspective.
And there are going to be long seasons when you write and write and write, and then finally produce the book you’ve been sacrificing to make. And then you are going to put it into the world, hoping everyone will buy it and exclaim that it is the greatest thing ever written, hoping that they will tell everyone they know that they never need to read another story again because your story has ruined all other stories for them!
But instead, your story is going to be met with silence.
It’s going to be lost in the flood of thousands of books being published every year, and you’re going to be sad, and you’re going to want to pout and binge all of The Handmaid’s Tale in a weekend, and you're going to tell your partner that you will never write another word again. “Never! Never! Never!”
And all of that is okay.
Because in the end, you did something most people never will. You wrote a damn book, which in itself is winning.
Have some perspective.
Writing is not your full-time career; and until it is, you need to be honest about what you expect from yourself and keep your writing in perspective. Do what you are capable of and don’t get down on yourself for it.
Yes, You Can Have a Job and Write a Book
There may come a day when I can wake up, sip my coffee, write some morning pages, and then work on my latest book until dinner; but that day is not today.
Today, I work full-time.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a writer. It doesn’t mean I can’t publish great stories. I can. I am.
And if I can, you can too.
Do you have any tips for how to write a book while working full-time? Let us know in the comments.
Today, we're going to practice the third strategy: push yourself. Take fifteen minutes to write at least three hundred words. Remember, you can write more than you think, faster than you think, and you can even write if you're not at your best. You can free write, or continue your work in progress. Whatever you choose, challenge yourself to write at least three hundred words before the timer goes off.
When you're done, share your writing and your word count in the practice box below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Enter your practice here:
Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."