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Making it Work: 4 Tips for Squeezing Writing between

Red checkmark.

Some weeks before my artist friend Vicki Paret’s baby arrived, she stretched nine canvases of equal size. She gridded nine rectangles on each canvas. Eighty-one rectangles would form one epic painting. She worked methodically, left to right, top to bottom. On average, she completed one rectangle every two days. She finished in four months. She is my idol.

When you’re working and parenting, time alone to pee can feel more remote than Tahiti. Time to write? Are you kidding me?

#1: Go Long

I followed Vicki’s example and prepared for my baby by writing nine first sentences. Ergo, I would methodically complete nine stories. Ha! Populating nine worlds with nine sets of characters turned out not to stimulate but to addle. Not to mention depress!

Instead, the novel, like Vicki’s giant rectangular canvas made of 81 rectangles, turns out to be the perfect genre for post-baby writing. Scenes and chapters compose one unified vision. Time away benefits the fictional world because knowledge of character and situation deepen. Squint hard enough and you can see time away not as enemy but as ally. Keep squinting.

#2: The List

But then there was the matter of butt in chair. Before child, I didn’t sit down to write unless I had at leasttwo hours available. After all, I spent the first 20 minutes resisting writing and the urge to check the fridge, answer work emails, even pay bills.

The List keeps my butt in the chair. It is my superhero quality. Whether I have been up all night with a kid who has the pukies or because it’s crunch time at work, The List allows me to make progress even when near brainless.

The List operates like a project manager. It sees the details and the big picture. It apprehends the priorities. What is The List? For first draft novels, it’s a list of scenes to be written. For later drafts it’s composed of tasks or “fixes.”

Generating the List

Honestly, this part is a time sink. For first drafts, you need to generate all or most of the scenes and sequence them. For revisions, you need your whole brain to read your whole manuscript straight on through. Have a pad or your device by your elbow. Note every fix. Get this time by any means necessary! This latest revision, my list totaled 78 items.

Divide the items into three categories: small, medium, large.

  • Sample Items, Small

  • Check 1974 beer labels.

  • Cut X words from Y chapter.

  • Sample Items, Medium

  • Fix minor character’s arc.

  • Ensure the geography is both constant and changing.

  • Highways and bodies of water, constant. That is unless your setting is bombed or suffers an earthquake.

  • Conversely, ensure said highway and said pond evolve through time, with the seasons, through the protagonist’s moods, etc.

  • Sample Items, Large

  • Thread a new strand through the entire novel.

  • Rewrite the climax from scratch.


Never go anywhere without the list. When you’re waiting for the dentist, tackle an item from the short list. Check it off. Take pleasure in checking it off. Jazzed from too much coffee and can’t sleep? Tackle an item or three. Make your way through the small items. That’ll give you momentum for the medium items.

When the gods smile on you and you actually have two hours, fix a medium item. Fix another one. Getting time for the big items, that’s tricky. I have been known to resort to horse-trading: You get to watch all of March Madness Basketball; I get this weekend and maybe next.

#3: Want to make more progress faster?

Nightly, highlight 1-5 items you’ll get to tomorrow. This avoids the problem of having a few unexpected minutes before you pick up your kids and spending the whole time looking through your list to figure out which item you’ll tackle. Before you know it, the kids are in the car and you haven’t gotten anything done. That’s frustrating.

The highlight routine is progress turbo-charged. Confession: I’m not so disciplined as to do this nightly. I love to hang, to daydream, to stare out the window, to read, to chat with friends and family, to watch my shows, to laze about. I do it when I am sick of stasis, sick of my whining or when a deadline looms.

#4: Write As If

Before child, and even long after, when I figured something out — say the protagonist’s father did not die six years ago. Must install dad! — I would return to the beginning of the novel and write the dad in. From page one. Then along about p. 76, I’d realize something else and back to page one I would go.

Remember when all the son in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse wanted was to sail to the lighthouse and it took him 10 years? I was on a similar pace until I discovered Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Book in a Month: The Foolproof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days, which instructed us writers to “write as if.” That is, if you realize on p. 76 the dad is alive, make him live beginning on p. 77. Keep going. When you’re all done, go back to page one and install living dad and all the other fixes. While I did not finish my book in the promised 30 days, I did, as it were, get to the lighthouse in three years.

Originally appeared on Dead Darlings.

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