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Throw Your Writing From the Train

Flickr Creative Commons: Sarah Reid

In 2018, I moved to Japan to spend a year climbing mountains and writing both my next mystery novel and a nonfiction book about fighting cancer, facing fear, and breaking free from my old “safe” life to live my dreams. When I planned the adventure, it seemed entirely reasonable to climb 100 Japanese mountains and write two books in a little over 18 calendar months. (Spoiler alert: this was the antithesis of “reasonable.”)

As reality closed in and the months flew by, I realized I was going to need to up my writing game to deliver 160,000 edited, polished words (100,000 in the nonfiction, and 60,000 in my latest mystery) on that timeline. Travel and mountain climbing chewed up more of my time and energy than any full-time job I’ve ever worked, and I had to seek out new, creative ways to find the writing time I needed.

One year and two manuscripts later, here my top tips to squeeze more writing time from a busy day:

Use the Ride. Most of us work a day job as well as writing. For many of us, getting to and from that job involves a commute. I don’t advise writing and driving (via text or otherwise), but if you ride a bus or subway (train), or take a carpool, it may be possible to train yourself to write on the ride. I use the “notepad” feature on my mobile phone, and although it made me queasy at first I kept at it, in short bursts, and over time I learned to make it work. I still make quite a few mistakes on the tiny keyboard, but as long as I can understand it well enough to edit it later, the progress counts.

Mobile Writing Devices (including the phone) are a Busy Writer’s Friends. A decade ago, a writer friend introduced me to the AlphaSmart Neo, a battery-powered word processor with no Internet connection (read: no distractions) that weighs less than a pound. It has a full-sized QWERTY keyboard but its tiny, rectangular screen has room for (at maximum) four lines of text. While I can use it for editing (though it’s inconvenient) it shines as a first-draft workhorse. The tiny screen prevents me from second-guessing myself, and the portability means I can write almost anywhere. Between the Neo and my mobile phone, I’ve added to manuscripts not only in usual places like parks and coffee ships but also while standing in queue at the bank and sitting on mountaintops across Japan.

A Little Plus a Little is (Eventually) a Lot. For many years, I told myself I couldn’t write if I didn’t have a significant block of time. It felt too difficult to get my head back into the work, and I believed I couldn’t focus in short bursts. Unfortunately, that meant I often went several days between writing sessions. This year, with time at a premium, I went back to the way I wrote my very first novel (when my son was young and I still worked full time as well): in 10-15 minute increments. Even a little daily progress is better than none at all, and over time those short bursts of progress really added up. I still prefer more continuity, and blocks of time when I can get them, but when that isn’t a viable option, a little writing time is a whole lot better than none at all.

Train Yourself to Ignore Distractions. When I first started writing fiction, I could only focus well enough to write in a peaceful room with background music that put me in the proper “writing mood.” Later, I had to teach myself to write at the office, with people talking in the background and frequent interruptions from other lawyers or clients who needed my advice. When I moved to Japan, the distractions changed again. I’ve had to learn to ignore the movement of the train or bus, the announcer’s voice, and the (usually muted) conversations of other passengers. Every time I retrain myself I find it’s difficult at first, but it gets easier and easier with practice.

Rivers and First Drafts Flow in One Direction. While writing my first few manuscripts, I often found myself moving backward—either reviewing what I’d written the day before in an effort to jumpstart new progress or deliberately editing because I felt I could improve the previous section before moving on to a new one. In reality, all this did was slow me down. Now I have a personal rule that I’m not allowed to edit any part of a first-draft manuscript until I reach the absolute end. Even if I realize that I need to “go back and hide the keys” (my Bill-and-Ted-esque way of saying I need to add something earlier in the book to resolve a plot knot later in the story) I’m only allowed to leave myself a bracketed note in the manuscript describing what needs to be done. The changes themselves, I make in the second draft.

That final tip might not sound like a way to increase overall writing time, but it does. Regardless of your writing speed, effective writing is always more efficient than ineffective, distracted writing.

As always, I’ll point out that while these strategies work great for me, they may or may not mesh well with your personal schedule and style. Writing strategies, like voice and writing speed, are highly individual—but if any of these sound helpful, I hope you’ll give them a try (and tell me what you think).

I’m also interested in hearing what works for other writers, so tell me . . . how do you get more time in your writing day?

About Susan Spann [1]

Susan Spann [2] writes the Hiro Hattori Novels (Shinobi Mysteries) featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, who solve mysteries set in medieval Japan. Her first novel, Claws of the Cat [3]: A Shinobi Mystery (Minotaur, 2013) was a Library Journal mystery debut of the month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. Her fourth Hiro Hattori novel, The Ninja’s Daughter [4], releases August 2, 2016 from Seventh Street Books. Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year, and also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. She founded and curates the Twitter hashtag #PubLaw (for Writers), where she answers questions and provides information about publishing business and legal issues. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, reading fiction and nonfiction, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. She lives outside Sacramento, California, but you can find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com [2], on Twitter (@SusanSpann [5]), or on Facebook/SusanSpannBooks [6].