My novel writing process, aka writing with baby

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There’s a fabulous essay by Ursula Le Guin (I think it’s “The Fisherwoman’s daughter”?) on writing and motherhood, which contains the following: “The point, or part of it, is that babies eat manuscripts. They really do. The poem not written because the baby cried, the novel put aside because of a pregnancy, and so on. Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible.”

I read this years ago, and it’s stuck with me (though I’d forgotten that awesome last part). It’s all so true; and even more so when you have the actual baby. I stopped writing about seven months into my pregnancy, because I spent most of my time lying down with no energy, feeling very much like a beached whale. After the birth of the snakelet I went a bit insane with not writing, so I started doing it again in fits and starts; but it wasn’t until the snakelet was 4-5 months old, and I was almost ready to go back to work, that I started writing my novel again.

Novels, for me, are different commitments than short stories: I can research a short story for weeks and binge-write the actual first draft in a couple of days; I just can’t do that with a novel. With novels, I have to sit down and write consistently; a little at a time for a long time. The problem, when you have a baby, is that “little” can mean three minutes before something goes wrong ™ and you have to rescue a crying snakelet from whatever he got himself into.

I’ve seen people post about setting some time in the week for writing, always the same time: it never worked for me pre-baby, and it certainly didn’t work afterwards (when something does need your attention, it’s a choice of me or my husband; if my husband isn’t available it has to be me. In those circumstances, a set schedule is a bit like mission impossible). My philosophy was: “whenever there is available time, grab it”. Didn’t matter if it was ten minutes while the baby napped or while my husband played with him; I just used whatever I had.

“available time”, though, doesn’t get you very far with a day job and a baby. When I started up the novel again, I was 25k in, and needed to get to 100k in a couple of months: simple maths told me I would need to write more than 1000 words a day to make my self-imposed deadline. Given that there were a lot of days when I just couldn’t manage to write, this sounded like a lot cause.

Fortunately for me, I have a commute. And an alphasmart (a Neo 2 I think).

They don’t make them anymore (they stopped in 2013 I think), but those things are the best friend for a writer like me. Basically, it’s a keyboard with a small screen. I admit the attraction, put like that, is limited, as you could get the same mileage out of an iPad or a laptop. But the thing is, a Neo is totally distraction-free, boots up in a heartbeat, (you touch a button, it lights up, you touch a button, it turns off), and it keeps going *forever* (and I mean forever. I got mine in 2009, I put three AA batteries in it, and it’s still at 60% despite my typing up 1.5 novels, 1 novella and a bunch of short stories on it). You only get a chunk of 10,000 words or so (after that you need to change memory buffers, which is trickier), but given that you can’t really edit with it, it’s fine for me. I basically would type my day’s scenes on the Neo, transfer it to my laptop (it hooks up to computers by pretending to be a keyboard, which means it’s dead easy to set up), and do cleaning up and editing on my laptop.

The trouble with this method is that I need a lot more editing afterwards, because I make a lot more typos and because scenes easily get very repetitive (the Neo screen has about 6-8 lines of text on it? not ideal to get a large-scale picture). I did a lot of things in Word, and then imported the lot into Scrivener, where I searched for repetitions and moved stuff around (Scrivener is a very powerful tool that’s good for a lot of things; my use of it is akin to using a kitchen robot to chop up a few cloves of garlic: that is to say I label different scenes according to their POV, and move scenes around in my draft).

I didn’t *quite* make my deadline (of course), but I was still pretty darn close. Certainly, if you’d told me I’d write most of my novel while minding a very young child a year ago, I’d have told you you were insane ^^

At any rate, that’s my writing process. What about you? How do you make time for writing? Do you have any tips for writing with young children?

9 comments

  1. Thanks for this, Aliette. I always wanted one of those Alphasmarts, but I’m pretty happy with my netbook.

    I have a day job and domestic duties and pets to feed and walk, so I generally give up weekends to writing as often as possible, and usually try to write on my lunch breaks and before and/or after work, depending on how sleep-deprived I am and how close my deadlines are. I also learned a while ago that there’s no “perfect” time to write — you write on the subway, train, in the laundromat, in the lobby at the convention, any time you have a few minutes to spare. (Unfortunately, I still need longer stretches of time for revision, because it’s a different process from drafting.) I also make time by limiting TV and movies and, sadly, some reading and social time. It’s a tricky balance, but if the people in your life are supportive of your writing career, it can be done. I’m interested in seeing more people’s advice for writing with little ones about, since that’s gotta be a handful.

  2. I have a 21 month-old and a 3 day-old, both girls, that I keep up with. My daily writing time is after bedtime. It’s the sacred “take time for yourself” part of the day. After chasing a toddler all day (still adjusting to the newborn, of course) it’s my time sit by myself, without any “mommy, mommy,” and do some writing. Since I’ve had all day to think about what I’ll write, I can usually write about 500-1000 words within half an hour. It’s not a lot, but I’ve written over 120k in six months this way. Oh, and I do this daily, no matter what day it is.

  3. I wrote my first novel, RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, starting when my twin daughters were two. My commute to my day job is all driving, so I didn’t have the luxury of typing–but I did leverage that time by roughing out dialogue and plotting in my head. That, and I spent a lot of time talking to myself. Once I had an idea of where I wanted to go on a given day, I had about an hour between their bedtime and my bedtime to actually write. Unfortunately, only one of the twins had good sleep habits; the other had extreme difficulty going to sleep and staying asleep, so I was constantly interrupted during the little sliver of writing time that I had. (Fortunately her sleep patterns have improved somewhat, and it only took me a few months to write my second novel.)

  4. Aliette –

    This is so cool. Best of all, no internet distractions. I crave tools that feature a singular purpose.

    Too many devices try to do everything, and fail to do one thing well.

  5. Hi Aliette, Thanks for sharing your process. I’m a freelance writer (ghostblogging, website content) by day, and I work from home.

    Writing time for my fiction projects was very hit-and-miss when the kids were younger (baby through preschool). I did client work during naps & preschool, and by the end of the day I was usually too beat to focus on fiction.

    Now that my youngest is in elementary, I wake up most days about 1 hr before they do for a fiction writing session. Not a morning person, and I grumble sometimes as I trudge to the desk, but it’s what works for now. While they’re at school I focus on client projects.

    I use a Kindle w/wireless keyboard for writing on the go, like when my oldest is taking karate class. I’ll write to Evernote (which saves to the cloud) and then copy it into Scrivener. Like you, writing out of the house often means more edits, but I’ll take whatever writing time I can snag:-)

    I’m not familiar with that Ursula Le Guin essay–sounds like I should check it out.

  6. Obviously, I’m not a fiction writer, but for my blog I do need to write a lot. I work four days a week and use all but one of my lunch breaks to write, mostly roughing in what I want to say in a review, and I’ve started to take the first hour after the girls (2 & 4) go to bed to write and/or do admin and I’m lucky in that my husband regularly sends me upstairs to write by myself for an hour on the weekends. I do tend to write when the girls are playing, but I’ve found I write much quicker when it’s just me and the laptop (and I manage to stay of Twitter ;))

  7. Aw thank you everyone for the comments, it’s fascinating to hear about different folks’ ways of making time for writing.
    @Eugene: he. I do give up a lot of TV watching time to write, but that’s OK because the H is a nice person (and we haven’t watched a lot of TV since the snakelet’s arrival, anyway). And yeah, when you have a little one you do wonder how you have *so* much spare time :)
    @Jess: wow, I’m impressed with the “daily” thing, I never could manage that! (can’t manage after bed either, I’m busy stuffing things into the washing machine or cleaning up stuff…).
    @Curtis: sympathies! Sleepless babies are… not very helpful for one’s sanity, to say the least.
    @Michael: it’s a great single-purpose tool. I can understand why some people might want something a little more versatile, though!
    @Amy: the Le Guin essay is fantastic, well worth reading. And ouch. I never can get up before my alarm clock (or before the baby screams, depends), so much admiration.
    @Mieneke: twitter is the worst ^^

  8. Scrivener is your friend. When my wife was pregnant with our second, I plotted out my novel in Scrivener, breaking the whole thing down by chapter and scene and playing around with the outline until I was happy with it.

    Then, after the birth when I became a stay-at-home parent, I could always grab a scene from the outline and write it when I had free time. When the baby went down for a long nap, I knew I could attack a bigger scene. But if I thought I only had a few minutes, I could still edit a shorter chunk.

    I also used Dragon Dictate which I found allowed me to get more words down quicker. There are quite a few mis-placed words (voice recognition is never perfect) but its a good way to get a first draft relatively quickly.

  9. I usually have a set time for writing (nighttime). The later the better, because then people are less likely to come for me with requests and whatnot, and I can write uninterrupted. Also, it’s just peaceful, without any sounds aside from the ambience (my house can get noisy).

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