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I've wanted to publish a book for a long time (since I was 10 or 11), but never bothered to do any serious writing until a few years ago. Now I'm in college and working part time in an engineering firm as well as on my own startup, so you can imagine how busy and unpredictable my life is. The original plan was to get my life on the right track so that I would be stable enough to be able to write and work on other creative projects, but the further in I get, the more it seems that I'm defeating my own purposes by being too busy to work on the real endgoal. I've started to realize that if I ever want to finish a novel, I need to start now and find a way to make it happen despite everything else that demands my attention. I know I don't have the focus right now to tackle a large project, but I've started a couple of short story series over the years that I think it would be fun to add to in small chunks.

From what I have gotten finished, I've found that writing daily and having a daily word goal works best for me, but there are a lot of days where I just don't bother because I know I don't have the time to really settle in. My question is this: how much time do you find you have to devote to a writing session to find you get something out of it (as in steady progress toward finishing) and how do you stay on target if you can only make those sessions short?

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Water Mosley, in This Year You Write Your Novel, insists that you must write every day. Not just to make progress, but also to keep yourself inside "the dream of your story," so that regular exposure to the story keeps it working in your unconscious even when you're not consciously working on it. To me, this means that you shouldn't skip a day, even if you don't have time to "settle in".

He doesn't seem to recommend a word goal, but a time goal, "not less than an hour and a half" and he notes that some days you may produce nothing. I'd say that if you can't do the hour and a half, pick another number, but I agree that there's value in doing it every single day.

Do you have spare moments when you're playing on your phone? My novel is on my phone, in Scrivener. If I'm waiting for the streetcar for ten minutes, or at an airplane gate, or even in line at the grocery, I'll tend to open Scrivener and tap at the scene I'm currently working on. I can't always manage to write new material this way, but I can tweak and edit that current scene, and it also keeps me inside the story.

My personal goals are (1) do something in the novel every day and (2) finish one scene every three days. (And I don't get credit for extras--if I finish two scenes in three days, the next one is "due" within three days of the moment that I finished the second one.)

That works for me. The goal should be to find something that works for you in producing steady, if slow, progress.

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    "He doesn't seem to recommend a word goal, but a time goal" +1, that's where all the money is. Saying "I'm gonna write 1k words today" is very dangerous and unproductive. But dedicating 1h, 2h, or whatever time feels appropriate for your given situation is a great idea. You might write 1k words, you might write 3k. You might write 0. It's all fine. – user16555 Sep 5 '18 at 6:37
  • +1. There is psychological evidence for Mosely's 90 minutes being ideal; our brain runs on 90 minute cycles. This is most evident in sleep, but also true while awake and working. 90 minutes on a task will feel like "enough" was done to matter. – Amadeus Sep 5 '18 at 10:39
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In my personal experience, no less than 6 days every week, and no less than 15 minutes each day.

I say six days, not seven, because I'm a big believer in the idea of a "sabbath." It doesn't have to be religious, but it's a good idea to take a regular break and recharge your creative energies. Fifteen minutes is small enough that you can find that much time every day, no matter how busy you are, but big enough to add up if multiplied over a long enough sustained period of time.

It's really the regularity of it that matters, and the commitment to push through whether or not inspiration is with you. If you are skipping days at will or because of externals, you will eventually stop writing entirely. On the other hand, if you start with the fifteen minutes and keep to it regularly, you'll eventually build up to longer sustained periods of time.

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Many writers have managed to write their first novels in little chunks of a few minutes between other task, during their lunch breaks, by getting up in the wee hours of the morning, or late at night, when the kids are asleep.

The common wisdom is that if you really want to write, you can write, no matter how little time you have or how much else you have to take care of in your life.

But I have found that for me that is not so. I have tried to write while I was studying, while I was working full time, while I was raising my children – and I never managed to get anything done. I was becoming increasingly unhappy, and I even sat down regularly to write, but I could never get into it.

The only way to write for me is this:

  • I need five hours in the morning, without any other tasks before I begin. If I have to do anything before I write, I cannot write on that day.

  • I need these five hours every day, including weekends. If I cannot write for two day or longer, I need three days to get back into writing. The first two day I sit at the keyboard, trying to get back into the story world, remembering where I was, what I wanted to write next.

  • I need the afternoons off, to replenish my writing energy and imagination. If I work in the afternoons, after writing, I loose the connection to my writing.

  • I need three months of this to finish a novel. During this time I barely have the energy to clean my flat, go shopping, cook, take care of my kids. I have to let everything else go and immerse myself completely.

If you can write while having a job and a family, you are lucky. I cannot. I have tried, but my mind just doesn't work that way. I'm a project type of guy. So what I do is:

  1. Work until I have saved enough money to get my through the next six months. Then stop working.

  2. Write for three months, take a month off, revise for another month, then one month of finding the next job.

  3. Repeat.

I'm living at poverty level. I've tried not to write and build a career, but I couldn't do that. I must write. So that is how I live.

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It's great that you set goals and recognize your strengths and weaknesses.

When you can't write, you can keep your brain on task with other items: Set up podcasts to listen to, perhaps in your car. Read craft books when you turn in for the evening. Take notes as you are reading for enjoyment. As you are drifting off, have a conversation in your mind with one of your characters. Join a critique group.

I haven't been churning out words for a while (have instead been editing and revising.) Answer: I aim for 1000 words per day when I am drafting new stuff.

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Writing daily is a fair goal, but also a good way to resent writing as a chore/time waster. It's better to have fewer high-quality sessions than an arbitrary word-count goal per day.

The amount of words you write per day is ultimately meaningless. What isn't is what you write. Consider making some, in fact more of your days devoted to planning, plotting and outlining. Not only does this make your days feel less saturated with the 'grind' part of writing, it'll also increase your writing's quality.

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    That's a good point. Grinding can definitely be an issue. The thing is, though, I do a lot of outlining and planning. I get ideas in class, or while working on other things, or drifting off to sleep, and if I have half a minute I'll jot them down, usually with a bit of analysis or detail if I have time. A lot of it is pretty high level, and I could definitely be helped by more concrete outlining, but I've got piles (literally, piles) of notes I've made over the years and entire multi-volume stories outlined in various levels of thoroughness. The problem is that after all thi – CMB Sep 5 '18 at 6:35
  • ...s time, they're still just outlines. It's the grinding it out part that doesn't ever happen. – CMB Sep 5 '18 at 6:36
  • @CMB Fair enough. Well, I find having concrete outlines and a firm belief in the story I'm writing is plenty motivation for me, but if it isn't to you, my apologies, I'm not a man who can help you. I run on thought out plans and passion. – Matthew Dave Sep 5 '18 at 6:44
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    @Mattew Dave There's no need to be sarcastic. The whole reason I asked this question is because I'm becoming very aware of the need to get organized. That's one reason I like the writing every day/word or time goal system. It helps keep me focused on one thing and makes it easier to not bail when the passion gets burned out or sparked by something else. You make a good point, though. I know I've had bits in the past where I've rambled on for ten pages and not hit what I was trying to convey. I can see how more detail work could save a lot of time and energy. – CMB Sep 5 '18 at 7:02
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    But detail work IS time and energy. Everybody has to do it their own way, of course, but I pretty much never regret writing words that won't be used. It's in the actual writing of scenes that most of my plot gets worked out. As a result, I have probably 80K words of discarded scenes in addition to my 116K of keepers (yes, the novel is going to have to be cut for length), but I'm in sight of the end of my first draft of my first novel. So I'm happy. – RamblingChicken Sep 5 '18 at 7:55
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how do you stay on target if you can only make those sessions short?

I don't have a work schedule that allows me to write daily. More often than not, I can have one afternoon in a week when I can really sit down and write. I suppose I could carve about half an hour daily... but then I'd have to stop just as I start getting in the flow which is far more frustrating for me.

I suppose you should ask yourself if you can get in the flow fast enough with short sessions, and discover by yourself the minimum time you need . For example, anything less than one hour is pointless for me. I spend the time stressing out because I must write fast, it takes longer to get in the flow, and when I'm finally writing smoothly it's time to stop. One hour is not ideal, because it will interrupt my workflow when it's at its best, but at least I don't feel pressured by time.

What works best for you, personally?

However, I kind of write daily... just not in paper. I can spend the entire week mentally writing a scene. I'll go through it so many times, adjusting actions, words, trying out the PoV of the different characters to make sure everything is perfectly in character, experimenting with what-if scenarios, jotting down snippets of dialogue that are just perfect... When my writing day finally comes and I get to sit down for four or five hours, it'll be a nearly perfect scene.

Could such an approach work for you?

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It depends on how your personal writing process works, some people can write every day, I can't. When I'm in writing mode I can put 3000+ words on the page every couple of hours and I can write for hours on end but I can rarely write new material at all. I write three times a month if I'm lucky, the rest of the time my contribution to the process is to reread and edit work if that.

You need to learn what works, for you, and do it regularly.

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