Like most writers, I enjoy talking about my craft. Much of my process is patched together with tips from friends, writers’ blogs, workshops, and books. So, it’s my hope, when I post an article like this, that my tips will help someone else refine their process—or at least give them something new to try.
This post is about what I call Writing Blocks. When I first added the topic to my list, I tried to think of a clever way to tie my title into what is often considered a writer’s greatest nemesis, the dreaded block. Perhaps you’ve landed here thinking just that! If so, this post might help, because—for me—the easiest way to avoid a block is to make writing a habit or routine. Carving out a slot every day, morning, on your lunch break, during the kids’ soccer practice, or after everyone is in bed at night, and sticking to that time, makes writing a part of your schedule. Not everyone loves a schedule as much as I do, but there is something to be said for doing a thing at the same time every day.
When I travel across time zones, my great nemesis is my stomach. It wants breakfast at five, lunch at noon, and dinner at five, all Eastern Standard Time. If that happens to be two in the morning where I’m at, then I’ll have a hard time going back to sleep. My writing schedule works much the same way. This is both a positive and a negative. My best hours are the early ones. The earlier the better. Before eight in the morning, I can knock out two thousand words in about an hour. After eight, that number drops by about five hundred. After ten, another five hundred, and so on.
This can mean I have a hard time writing when I travel. I can do other tasks related to writing, but actually putting words down can be difficult. It’s sometimes about the time of day, but more usually that I’m not at my desk and in the correct frame of mind.
I learned that early morning was my time when I started getting up at four to try to write before everyone else started their day. I felt pretty groggy the first time I sat at my desk with the sun still buried under the cover of night. To my surprise, however, the fog cleared fairly quickly and my first morning was extremely productive.
Over the years, while the way I prepare for and write a book has changed in various ways, my writing routine has altered very little. I still get up early to write. The rest of my day is then divided into blocks. I love the block system because it’s modular, and as we all know, modular systems are fairly adaptable. I can shift blocks and resize them and still have them stack neatly into a productive day.
Why is breakfast a block? It’s one of the most important parts of my day. I eat a very healthy breakfast, often cooked, sometimes prepared the night before. It’s balanced and nutritious and designed to get me through several morning blocks without interruption. I don’t want to eat again until around 10:00-10:30. That’s a long way from 5 a.m., so a good breakfast is important.
Breakfast is also when I might journal. I find writing about some of my problems helps me figure out what I’m feeling. That helps me figure out what to do next. I sometimes have to write about the same problem for several weeks before a solution presents itself, but the writing is therapeutic. Other times, I write about what I’m going to write that day. A quick outline or a paragraph I want to include in the scene. An opening line of dialogue. On Sunday morning, I write a shopping list.
After breakfast, I read for at least fifteen minutes. It’s when my brain is most able to absorb information, so I tend to tackle non-fiction and craft books in the morning.
By six, I’m ready to hit my desk and start work.
Six to eight is my longest and most important block throughout the day. It’s when I’ll get most of my writing done. I don’t always need the full two hours. I will write until I’ve either finished a chapter or scene or until I hit a wall. Words suddenly become harder to find and my brain feels fatigued.
If I’m revising or editing, this is when I’ll write new scenes or work on major issues. Anything that requires full brain strength! I will often have a list from the previous day of scenes I need to work on in the morning. I will marvel at how easy a task might seem when I tackle it at 6 a.m. I’ll have the scene written in minutes. The new final paragraph for that chapter, the essence of which eluded me for over half an hour the afternoon before? Done and done.
Another reason for keeping to this schedule is that the earliest appointment I can usually make for anything outside the house is eight in the morning (my dentist). This means I’m almost always home for my writing session. It’s the part of my day I rarely have to rearrange. Even during the years my husband and I owned and operated a small business, I kept to this schedule, not leaving the house for my shift at the shop until 10 a.m.
This is another important block and it always comes after I write. Yesterday, I wrote approximately 2500 words between 6:30 and 8:30. It was a long, intense block. Because I’d slept in (a recent trip out west has messed with my schedule), I thought I might have a hard time gathering my focus. But I sat at my desk, opened my file, and started work. Two and a half hours later, I was done. I usually try to take a quick break about halfway through a writing block, just to stretch my legs. But now and then, I’ll get lost in the words and forget to stand up. My legs are usually pretty numb by the end of it and I’ll hobble around for thirty seconds until they come back online.
This is why exercise is the next block! I need to move. Restore blood flow to my extremities and battle the flattening of my butt. When the weather is against me (too hot, raining, snowing, too cold), I’ll cue up a thirty-minute exercise video and sweat it out. If it’s nice outside, I walk for two and a half miles through my neighborhood. I prefer walking. I get to listen to an audiobook and not someone insisting I can do anything for sixty seconds. But I try to get to at least one workout video a week, sometimes two, regardless of the weather, because walking isn’t going to build or maintain muscles in my arms. Or tame the relentless pooching of my tummy.
I also enjoy the mental break. My walk is my sanity check—being out in nature, especially when it’s sunny, is very important to my mental health. I let my thoughts drift, even while I’m listening to a book. I’ll figure out a plot point or a character direction, an edit I was having trouble with. I’ll come up with a new story idea or a line of dialogue. Or I’ll just completely immerse myself in the book I’m listening to and not even notice I’m walking until I’m on the way home.
If I’m editing or revising, I’ll continue into this block, which is anywhere from one to two hours. It’s the block before lunch, basically, and can be split into two if I need to do things in the kitchen or whatever. I like to do as much dinner prep in the morning as I can (I’m a huge fan of slow cooking) because I’m often too braindead to be creative in the afternoons.
If I’m writing, then this block is reserved for research, perhaps a little outline maintenance, and the admin tasks that come along with managing my writing career. Posting on social media and bopping through older posts to react and comment. Checking in with friends’ groups and timelines on Facebook and Twitter. Answering email. Outlining my newsletter or filling in a block. I have a template and I add to it over a week so it’s not a huge task when it’s time to send it out. Planning a blog post or writing it. Putting together promo graphics. Writing the occasional book review. Doing marketing-type things. Staring dumbly at the Amazon Ads dashboard and deciding yet again that it’s all too complicated.
I always take lunch away from my desk. Usually, I’ll make something that will last me the week, a huge pot of soup or a hearty salad, or maybe I’ll have portioned-out dinner leftovers (I’m scarily organized). I’ll grab whatever it is, and set myself up in front of the TV, cue up the latest episode of the series I’m working through, and tune out for about forty minutes.
This is like my exercise break. If I work through lunch, which I’ll do on occasion, especially when I’m revising and editing, I feel it later in the day. I need this break. I need to step away from the computer at regular intervals, and my entire block system has evolved to help me do just that. So, lunch. Away from the computer. As often as I can.
Odds and Ends
Sometimes my workday will end with lunch. It depends on how much work I have to get through. If my To-Do list isn’t done, I’ll continue with my edits. Tackle more administrative or marketing work. Work on critiques and beta reads I have promised to friends. Write and revise blog posts. I will save tasks like editing graphics for the afternoons because I enjoy the work and it doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. If a project does get complicated, I’ll put it aside for earlier the next day.
Before I decided to slow down (and stop writing five books a year), I would write in the morning and edit in the afternoon. I only do that now if I’m up against a deadline.
I both love and feel guilty about the days where my afternoon is free. I love the feeling my afternoon is a gift and that I can do anything with it I want—outside of the responsibilities of all adult humans who have other humans depending on them. I can garden, hike, watch a movie, or read a book. Sometimes I’ll sit with one of my journals and make notes, longhand, about the book I’m writing. This is how I unpick a character or plot knot.
I do wonder if I should be working (too often), but a writer’s brain never really shuts off. I might be weeding my garden and listening to an audiobook about aliens buried deep beneath the surface of Mars. But I’m probably thinking about one of the characters in the book I’m currently writing. A ladybug will crawl up my arm, and in the pause I take to watch it, I’ll realize that this is exactly what my character needs to do. Watch a ladybug. Or, in the movie I’m watching, someone will ask, which of your friends would bury a body for you? And I’ll think about who would do that for one of my characters, and that will help me establish and strengthen the lines of friendship and family across a series. Or maybe there is a body to be buried, and I just haven’t figured out who’s going to do the digging yet.
In a way, the hours away from the desk are as important as the time I spend there, hands at the keyboard. They’re the fallow fields, the place my mind goes to rest. They’re the place where new ideas will grow, roots snaking out and establishing themselves, branches extending upward, leaves turning toward the sky.
I love schedules. I love charts and timelines and data sets. When I hit my exercise break at exactly eight o’clock, I get a little endorphin rush because I’m right where I need to be in my day. Similarly, sitting down to lunch at exactly twelve makes me absurdly happy.
I’m still learning to enjoy my free time, but I can see how useful it is.
Whether you’re writing full-time, part-time or in the margins, I hope you find some inspiration here. Blocks can be any size and can be squeezed into any part of your day. The important part, I think, is defining them and making them happen. Every day. So you never have to wonder when you’re going to write, but what you’re going to write.
If you have a schedule or a system that works for you, I’d love to hear about it. Comment here or email me! I’m always happy to chat.