Writing a Novel in Three Minutes a Day

I’ll just lay it out here in black and white:  I write a good deal.  It can be an obsession when the fit is on me.  The “vortex” Jo March speaks of in Little Women can be entirely consuming when one is lost in it.  It is an indulgence for a novelist to find oneself there, I maintain. An indulgence.

Piers Anthony, back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, made himself a place outside his home in Florida with few amenities to distract him, just so he could write.  David McCullough – the only biographer I can read with any degree of attention – has a tiny office on his property that is equipped with research materials and writing materials but without (last I heard) a great many connections to the world at large.  Some writers set writing goals for themselves in terms of hours spent “at work.” Others have goals focused on word count or pages typed, depending on their preferred working medium.

This is a dream of mine.  A dream currently unrealized.  I am a stay-at-home-mom with two sons. One of my sons is a teenager, currently on the second half of his junior year in high school.  The other of my sons is in third grade and is autistic.  My husband works and I stay home to be the Domestic Engineer.  I’ve also been a novelist – submitting my work for rejection and sometimes getting an “I love this story, read it in one sitting,” from an editor – since 1997.  In addition, I have written weekly columns for online ‘zines, participated in the best roundtable/writers’ group in the history of mankind (The Writers’ Roundtable of Phoenix, 1999 – 2004) and still cooked dinner every night, kept up with laundry for all my guys, paid bills, handled the usual domestic obligations and managed to be on top of birthdays for my entire family.

(I never said I slept. Just putting that out there.)

The point to that patting-myself-on-the-back paragraph is that I do not, as a rule, have the sheer luxury of taking myself away from my guys and saying, “I am writing. Leave me alone!”  I talk to women who try to schedule “a block of time” for writing.  They feel that they can concentrate best when they, like well-read and established authors, are able to tune out the world and focus on their creativity for an extended period of time.  But often, for some of us, this isn’t highly practical. And then, it is all too easy to blame a lack of productivity on outside sources.

From there it is a simple matter to slide away from the dream of being a novelist at all.  “It’s not a good time for me,” I’ve heard.  “I’ll wait until the kids are in school/out of school/I have some vacation time…”  And sometimes, when folks see how much I write professionally and for other, playful purposes, they ask, “How do you do that?”

How does anyone write?  I just go one sentence at a time.  Same as anyone.  The key to writing a novel without the indulgence of a separate workspace and/or vast blocks of alone time is to keep the story always running through your mind (a topic for another day!) so that when you can steal a minute or five you can jot down the next event or happening.

If I know that George and Martha are having a deep meaningful moment divulging his real activities under a cherry tree of yore, then I am prepared – when next my guys are all happily engaged with floor plan software, the Playstation 3 or a movie – to plop myself gracelessly in front of my laptop, click on my document and pound (Tap? Me? Surely, you jest!) out the next few moments of George and Martha’s conversation.

Really, that’s how you write a novel:  one moment at a time. Some authors write key scenes and tie them together with flowing prose.  Others start at the end and work their way back.  Still others are more like me in their approach – proceeding in an orderly manner from page one to the final sentence of their story.  No matter how you do it, it’s still just a sentence at a time.

If you can’t partition off your space or Day Planner or calendar, you are always free to partition off your mind.  Keep a part of your brain free to create, all day, every day.  And then, when you can physically wrangle an opportunity, you are more than prepared to take advantage of it. Even if all you get is three minutes that day.

(Now lodge your tongue firmly in your cheek…) If all else fails, you can use this Fic Generator. It’s like MadLibs® and you can probably fill in all the fields in three minutes. Or less.

Originally published here here in January, 2011.