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An Innovative Monster

There’s this battle that writers face.

It starts off with school. While you’re there, it seems like nothing in the world eats time like school. You spend all day there, you come home, then there’s a stack of homework and study waiting, demanding to be fed time in a loud growl, like a pet monster you never asked for. Then university, which isn’t much different, except the stack of homework and study is a bit harder, a bit more time consuming. The time-eating monster grows.

Then there's the whole ‘being a grown up’ thing, having a house which needs to be cleaned and meals that need to be cooked and rent that needs to be paid – usually through a job which eats up time and energy like you never thought possible. And don't forget the people, the family members, the partners, the friends, who all like to be spoken to and fed and stroked. Wait, that’s cats. I haven’t even started on pets.

And that thing, what’s it called? Sleep? That thing, that knowledgeable people always go on about, not to mention your mother and some old lady in the street who claims to know you. Everyone thinks that you should get a full night’s sleep, or else something ghastly will no doubt happen. Your brain will slowly and quietly slide out of your ears. That sort of something.

And there’s also that mythical thing, called relaxing, where you’re supposed to, you know, forget all your worries and watch all the waves on a beach for a while. Or whatever. I don’t know relaxing particularly well, because, let’s face it, relaxing is generally time spent with this low mutter going on at the back of my head. Something like, I should be writing, I should be sitting at my desk right now, and I really really should be writing, and did I mention how I should be writing and instead I’m doing nothing? Because I actually should be writing.

Here in New Zealand, there’s this cheese advertisement which involves an old man with a deep voice talking about how ‘good things take time’. I’d really rather not think about how that relates to cheese, but it does, however, relate to writing for a lot of us. The fact is, writing needs a lot of time to be good*. And the other fact is, life doesn’t provide a lot of time. And that’s true for all of us, even incredibly successful writers. I recently came across a brief interview with Stephanie Meyer where she talked about how she’s had frustratingly little time to write in the last year or so.

The battle against time is a lifelong one, people. It doesn’t go away. It just finds new ways to be complicated. It’s an innovative monster. People often talk about time management, but to be honest, I have no idea what time management actually means. Every time I try to manage time, life happens. In my experience, the battle against time is often a battle best won by stealth.

Being creative with where and when you write is a good start. Last year, when I was working on a first draft, I decided I’d take any time I could get during my working day. No matter how pathetically short, no matter how odd. I wrote during lunch breaks, sitting at the bus stop, on the bus. A lot of writers mess with their sleep schedule. Anthony Trollope wrote massive novels, and famously used to write from 5am to 8am every morning before work. If he finished something before the time was up, he’d immediately start something new. And when NZ author Margaret Mahy was juggling her job as a librarian and parenting her two young daughters, her writing time often started at midnight and went until 4am. She also happened to be known among her co-workers for being a librarian who often fell asleep at work.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s not necessarily about the quantity of time. It’s also about the quality. For me, three hours of uninterrupted writing at a cafe works way better than six hours of sort of writing, and sort of checking the internet, and also sort of watching tv. It can be a lot easier to schedule a block of intense devoted writing time, where you go to the library, or a cafe, or unplug the internet and close the study door** than to schedule something longer, and potentially more easily sidetracked.

And you know, that relaxation time is actually important too. In order to be able to keep going and keep coming up with new ideas, it’s important to stop every now and then and read a good book, watch TV or defeat family members on playstation. Having some time out isn't something to feel guilty over. I would also recommend a full night’s sleep, but coming from me it would probably be the most hypocritical advice in the world. Instead, imagine that advice coming from a world class expert, or your mother, or one of your pets. They probably have more authority on the subject.

Also, don’t angst over how long or short a length of time it takes to write a novel. It can take days to write a novel, it can take years, it can take decades. There is no right length of time. I'll repeat that. There is no right length of time. And um, yeah. That’s also possibly slightly hypocritical advice coming from me as well, because I don’t think anyone in the world worries about finishing things the way I do. Definitely imagine your cat saying it.

How do you fight the time monster?

ETA: Make sure you read the comments! People have been saying interesting stuff!

*I do know of some awesome exceptions to that rule, who can write utterly stunning novels, in, like, two days or whatever. CoughHannahMoskowitzCough. I regard that sort of thing as rare and wonderful. If you’re one of those writers, chances are I would rather like to swap brains with you. 

**One of my life ambitions is to actually have a study. With a door that I can close. Bliss.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Nice post, Leila. I definitely have better luck with quality time over quantity.

    Poor SMeyer looks like she's going to cry in that interview. I could see myself reacting that way on the red carpet. Right before I threw up on my shoes.

  2. Really nice post! I read this with a smile because I have no idea where time goes. I have a nine year old, a house to take care, and characters that demand my undivided attention.

    When I've tried to set a time to write, sitting alone in the conservatory, I find that inspiration takes a holiday. I just carry a notebook around and jot down whatever comes to mind, then steal time from watching TV and doing other mindless things. It doesn't really work that way. I end up going to be at unreasonable hours and then waking up early. To start all over again, but I'm sure that if we didn't, we wouldn't be able to write the wonderful stories that we hope to publish one day.

  3. (Sorry to leave such a long comment--you can delete it if you want!--but this post reminded me that the problem with time even affected classic writers like Franz Kafka, too. Here's an excerpt from an article Zadie Smith ("White Teeth") wrote for the New York Review Of Books, concerning a new biography of Kafka. The rest of this comment is a quote from the review.)

    [The biography's author Louis] Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka's writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then "depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o'clock, once even till six in the morning." Then "every imaginable effort to go to sleep," as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet

    when Felice wrote to him...arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled.... "The present way is the only possible one; if I can't bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow."

    It was the opinion of [Max] Brod [Kafka's friend, first biographer, and literary executor] that Kafka's parents should gift him a lump sum "so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz's brain, wishes the world to have." Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod's wish

    probably misguided. Kafka's failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.

    It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.

    The truth was that he wasted time! The writer's equivalent of the dater's revelation: He's just not that into you. "Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents' apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn't write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem."

  4. What a timely post (no pun intended). I will never find enough time. No matter what I do, I always feel like I should have been doing the other things on my list. I guess I just need to embrace the fact that that's how I am and let it be.

  5. Ah, time. I never have enough. I should probably lock myself in an internetless room for a few days, and see what happens heh.

  6. Right. Time for an EPIC comment on everyone else's comments, because everyone's saying cool stuff.

    *deep breath*

    @Kate - Yeah, I can't say I blame her. I think being interviewed on the red carpet like that would be absolutely terrifying. Although dressing up for it would be fun.

    @lynkay - I like the way you put it. The struggle is always very definitely worth it.

    @Johnny - That stuff about Kafka is fascinating and raises heaps of questions. Thinking about it, I can totally imagine his books being written frantically in the early hours of the morning. And the logic is interesting. Maybe some writers almost need to be too busy to write in order to fuel our writing to start off with.

    Am definitely going to have to look up the rest of that article!

    @lisanowak - I like the idea of accepting and embracing the situation. I guess when there's a limited amount of time we have to do things, that makes the things we choose to do all the more valuable.

    @Kaitlin - I should probably try the same thing!


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Item Reviewed: An Innovative Monster Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin