The year I felt profoundly moved to pursue publication for my novels was—you guessed it—the same year that I got pregnant (after years of infertility, too, which makes it doubly ironic). I jumped into the querying game when my daughter was barely a year old, and sold my first book not long after her third birthday. From the beginning, I’ve been building my professional career around my mothering… and when my daughter hit two and stopped napping, I panicked, knowing that I had to figure out a way to become more efficient and write in the small chunks of time I was able to snatch here or there, or else I would be kissing my writing dreams goodbye.
That year I spent a lot of time studying up on ways to boost my output and write in short bursts off and on throughout the day. By the end of the year, I’d completed my new book, almost never writing for longer than half an hour at a time. By the next summer, I’d sold that book, and now—two years later—I’ve successfully edited my debut novel, written another novel and a half, and dealt with the myriad of other tasks that come with being a pre-publication professional novelist.
Often, people ask me about the mysterious tips that helped me shift my work style to accommodate writing once my kid stopped napping, so I thought that I’d share them here!
- I switched from pantsing to plotting. Before 2015, I was a DIEHARD pantser, the kind who felt like plotting took the creative energy from a project and killed all originality. But when my daughter was a toddler, I realized that I was completely miserable with the way I was writing; it took me about a thousand words to feel like I was hitting my stride and really taking my story in the right direction, and since I almost never had time to sit down and write a thousand words in a row—let alone anything more than that!!!—it felt like all of my writing time was just arduous and unpleasant. In 2015, I took a class from Melanie Jacobson about increasing productivity, and she talked about how she’d adapted the Rachel Aaron plotting method for use as a busy mom. I blogged about how I outline now in a series of posts here and here. In particular, briefly blocking out scenes before I write them gives a really invaluable tool to help guide me right back into a scene if I’ve had to leave off writing in the middle of it, so that I can be truly productive even if all I manage to snatch are a few ten-minute increments throughout the day. This method also majorly boosted my wordcount, so that I can now knock out a thousand words in about half an hour (sometimes even less) if I’ve done enough prep work before.
- I learned how to work well even if the setting wasn’t what I’d prefer. I’m the kind of person whose brain peaks around mid-morning. I’m not a night owl, and by the end of the day, honestly, all I want to do is curl up with a good book or Netflix and let my brain take a break. But when my daughter was little, I read this wonderful series of blog posts on living a creative life with children, and it was transformative. One of the things that it said was that a crucial part of being able to be a creative person as a parent was to learn to work in sub-optimal times and places, even if that’s not naturally the way you’d prefer to work. I knew that was the wake-up call I needed, and I took it to heart. I started practicing writing at night a few times each week, after my daughter had gone to bed, making myself churn out at least five hundred words before I could stop and do something else. Over time, working in sub-optimal conditions became more and more natural. And, sure enough, my overall word output went much higher!
- Set a schedule… and make sure it has time for relaxing, too. Around the same time, my husband—who is a software engineer and loves creating programs and websites in addition to his day job—and I came up with the idea of a weekly schedule of “work nights” and “[TV] watch nights.” We realized that we’d started defaulting to watching TV together every night because we were too tired to work, and we wanted to change that. Ever since then, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday have been our designated “work nights,” and the rest of the nights are “watch nights.” We’re only allowed to skip work nights in cases of illness, injury, or holidays. (We also, of course, will often work other times; when one of us is trying to get something finished, we’ll either skip a watch night or work for an hour before loading up Netflix. These three nights, though, are the minimum we’re allowed to work each week.) Combined with the changes I made in step #1 and step #2, this schedule has been really effective for me. It’s honestly amazing what you can get done in a few dedicated one- to two-hour stretches throughout the week. These days, I’m usually able to carve out thirty or so minutes of writing time most mornings, as well, but for a long time these three nights a week were the only consistent time I had to work, and I still managed to get all of my debut novel written in the space of a few months.
- When all else fails—get a babysitter! This fall, I hit a patch of intense deadline-crunching for my debut, where I was working for hours every day and still not quite getting as much done as I needed to. I hired a local teen to come play with my daughter (sometimes while I was around, sometimes while I went to the library to work there) for a few hours on a couple different afternoons, and it was just what I needed to get that extra work in. Plus, going to the library felt like this HUGE luxury—so much quiet! Nobody asking me for anything! If you’ve tried everything else and just are not able to fit in enough work time, try a babysitter, a preschool, or a babysitting trade-off. You might be amazed by how much your productivity increases merely by not having any other responsibilities! (And if you’re in a pinch? I promise, a little bit of TV time won’t kill the kids!)
Balancing parenting and writing is tricky—and for a long time, I felt like it was impossible. I’m glad to have been proved wrong!
Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2018. Find her online at http://www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter @beingcindy.