How To Write As A Stay-At-Home Parent

SAHM writer

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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 theadshot1he 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.

 

(Almost) Everything I Learned About Writing, I Learned from Parenting

Last week, some of the Cedar City members of Thinking Through Our Fingers met at our local library for a writer’s panel discussion (which was wonderful). The first thing our lovely panel moderator asked us was to share our most important piece of writing advice. Mine was along the lines of every project being different and how it therefore becomes necessary to temper our expectations along the way (i.e., just because book three was a relative breeze doesn’t guarantee that book five won’t be a beast with horns). Each work has its own personality, and I began to think about how in some ways, tending to our “book babies” is a lot like parenting. Not a parent? No worries. These analogies apply to other crazily difficult if not impossible tasks as well. Like domesticating wild zebras. Or learning how to sky-dive into volcanoes.

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READING ABOUT IT IS FINE, BUT TO REALLY LEARN HOW TO DO IT, YOU HAVE TO JUST DO IT.doit

  • Prior to becoming a parent, maybe you stocked up on those “What to Expect” or other parenting books (Goodness knows I did). While useful for some technical things (like how to get that dirty diaper off and the clean one on before the baby pees or poops EVERYWHERE), nothing can better make you a better parent except for rolling up your sleeves and actually tackling parenting. Seriously. Despite the best books, you will have those days, weeks, months (or more) where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, but take comfort in the fact that you are learning more every day (especially from your mistakes), and that you’re doing the best that you can. Because you’re doing it.
  • Similarly, you might have a favorite stack of craft books and podcasts and go-to blogs about writing. You may attend writing conferences and workshops to learn about your craft. Yes. DO THOSE THINGS. But in addition to getting ideas, inspiration, and technical details, nothing will teach you more about writing than rolling up your sleeves, sitting your butt in that chair, and writing. And yes, you will have those days, weeks, months (or more) where you feel doubtful about your writing and maybe even question your entire writing career, but take comfort in the knowledge that by actually writing, you are learning more about writing every single day (especially from your mistakes), and that you’re doing the very best that you can. Because you’re doing it.

MAINTAIN REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.expectations.gif

  • Even before I became a parent, I had plans. I planned to go the route of natural childbirth for my first child. I read up on it, spoke to my physician and other professionals, and attended classes to prepare myself and my husband for what would hopefully be a memorable experience. Well. What wound up happening was a total of 28+ hours of difficult labor, two separate epidurals, and an emergency C-section that saved both my and my son’s life (talk about the opposite of “natural”)! And the important and special bonding process between mother and baby that’s supposed to happen immediately after birth? I didn’t get to even see him until two days after he was born because we were both recovering from those 28+ hours of trauma. That little guy is now almost ten years old, and I’ve learned to chill out (a little) about my expectations. If he remembers to brush his teeth and comes home from school with a smile on his face, then this is a good day! If he also does his homework and helps around the house and doesn’t argue with me and doesn’t torture his younger brother too much and practices piano without me nagging him 194 times, then that’s an amazing day. The point is not to set low expectations, but maybe it would be better to set realistic ones and understand there are lots (and lots) of things in life that out of your control.
  • Oh boy. We expect so much from ourselves as writers, don’t we? We go to conferences, connect with other writers, read about others’ experiences, and educate ourselves as best as we can about what it takes to get published. We hope that people (critique partners, beta readers, agents, editors, and eventually EVERYONE) will read and enjoy and possibly even connect with our stories. Once our book babies are out there in the world, we hope and hope and hope they will do well. I made the emotionally draining mistake with my third published book of having unrealistic expectations. This was the first contemporary story I’d written, it had gotten great pre-release buzz, and so many people worked hard to promote it on release day. Well. This book never did too well, and at first, I let that bring me down. However, I still dearly love that book baby, am currently working on another contemporary story that shall be published later this year, and I’m being careful to not unrealistically inflate my expectations. Since I’ve published my first book, I’ve chilled out (a lot) about expectations. Honestly, as long as I’m still writing, I’m good :). If people read my book and connect with it, that’s amazing. I don’t stress about charts and rankings so much anymore, especially because things like hitting bestseller charts are not in your control and therefore aren’t realistic goals.

SORRY, BUT IT DOESN’T GET ANY EASIER.screams

  • Okay, yes, some parenting things do get easier with experience. With my second child, I figured out how to multitask a bit better (because simultaneously juggling nursing, helping my son with his homework, cooking dinner, and proofreading a manuscript was necessary). However, I had to give up naps because life became much busier, and that was hard. Most importantly, I quickly learned that my kids’ personalities are not the same, and so I’ve had to adjust my parenting style to fit each child — in a way that’s a bit different for each child but hopefully still fair (unless you ask them directly, then nothing in life is fair). But I haven’t even gotten to the teenage years with them yet, so I know it’s going to get harder and harder and that I might not completely survive adolescent boys. Just kidding. We will be great, and when I get more gray hair, it means that I get to color it even more fun colors. But to say parenting becomes magically easier with each kid — just, no.
  • Likewise, every writing project is different, and prior experience will make some things easier, but not all. For instance, I don’t cry (nearly as much) when my editor comments that something major in my story needs to be changed. On the other hand, drafting is still that untamed beast with horns that gores me and leaves me bleeding on the ground. Each book has its own personality and its own challenges, and I find that these challenges continually surprise me. Book two was a challenge because it was the first one I wrote from dual POV (one male and one female). Book three was actually a relatively easier and pleasant one for me to write, but it was different because it was contemporary and not fantasy. Book four was a huge challenge because I had to balance two stories that were 500 years apart, but I felt pretty good throughout the process. And here I am writing book five, and it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever written and I want to pull out my hair because of ALL the things. GAH. What a problem child my fifth book has been. But I don’t hate it, and I just have to keep reminding myself that this story has its own personality and challenges. But to say that writing becomes magically easier with each project — just, no.

IT’S WORTH IT. (ALSO, DON’T BE TOO HARD ON YOURSELF!)worthit

  • At the end of the day, I might be hoarse from yelling and my house might be in danger of being classified a Federal Disaster Area, but being the mom of my two creative, hilarious, energetic, and sweet boys is so worth it. Some days I feel like I still know pretty much nothing about parenting, but I know a lot more than I did before I held my first baby.
  • Similarly, writing may make me frustrated, sleep-deprived, feel like a failure, give me anxiety or at the very least, Imposter Syndrome, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it. I know a lot more about writing than I did when I was slogging through my first manuscript.
  • Writing books and being a parent are two of the most challenging things I’ve ever done (and my former graduate school advisor is still mad at me because I told him that getting my Ph.D paled in comparison in difficulty to either of these things). Whether we choose to become parents and/or writers, zebra domesticators and/or volcano skydivers, these difficult tasks that we take on require us to continually build up our abilities with experience. But as long as we acknowledge and embrace that there’s always more to learn, I think we will all be okay.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: HOPE

Even though there have been many, many moments in recent days when it has been a struggle, the last lesson I want to share is this: HOPE. Raising my children requires that I maintain hope, for their happiness, for their lives, for their education and future prospects, and for the world that I leave behind for them. My children are my ultimate inspiration to keep fighting for a better future, and I will continue teaching them about important things such as inclusion, diversity, and how we should speak up and act when we see the need for change. Similarly, as writers, we have the power to write meaningful stories that touch lives and provide connections for those who feel lost. We have the power to share stories that reflect inclusion, unity, diversity, and betterment of the human condition. We have the power to tackle tough topics, heal people and their wounds and empower them. We can create better worlds and give people the power to speak up, and we can give them hope.

Because we always need hope in our world. We really do.

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Mom of two and author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (<– coming as soon as she can tame that wild beast of a book baby). You can find out more about her writing at www.helenboswell.com.

Being a Productive Mom Writer

Being a mom and having a job and being a writer (and having an Etsy storefront) is pretty…busy.

But there are certain things I do to help maintain my sanity, and to also increase my productivity.

I clean the house when it’s absolutely necessary (my daughter asks me “Is company coming over?” whenever she sees me dust). I once read that when JK Rowling was once asked how she was able to produce such huge tomes in a relatively small amount of time, she said “I didn’t clean the house for seven years.” You are my soulbeast, JK.

I alternate what I’m doing. I’ll revise five pages. Then I’ll clean up a piece of art in Illustrator. Then I’ll do another five. Then I’ll color that piece in Photoshop. Wash, rinse, and complete. (Such as the illustration I put in this blog’s visual.)

I work on my story when I wake up. No, I don’t lie there and daydream about it. I have my computer open and I’m writing new words or revising old ones. When I do this, 100% of the time I go back to writing/revising later in the day and hit my goals.

And that’s the thing—I made peace with the fact that I cannot carve out time during the day to write. That’s when I’m busy and tired with child-rearing and errands. So I have to wait until everyone’s in bed (around 8 p.m.).

I don’t watch TV. I used to, and I had a whole bunch of series I just had to watch. But then I realized I was binge-watching 13 hours of TV to watch other writers’ work, writers who stopped watching TV to do their work. I do, however, have either Gilmore Girls or The Office on constant replay on my iPad as I work. They’re excellent white noise.

Here’s the real fact: I go to bed super late in order to write. I wake up at 6:30 (when the children start screaming over who is looking at whom), and I go to bed at 2:00. On a good night, it’s 12:30. On a super-pumped night, 3:30 a.m.

And here’s a little secret: During the day, when the toddler is napping and my third grader is still at school, I take a nap.

Bestest,

Sydney

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Sydney Strand is a fiction writer who has published two young adult books through New York and another six books via self-publishing. Over the last two years, she has focused on writing fun romances, but not of the Red Room of Pain variety. More like the Dan and Roseanne/Sam and Diane variety–humor is sexy, dontcha know. You can follow Sydney on Instagram (1st Favorite), Twitter (2nd Favorite), and Facebook (Not a Favorite). She’s also at www.sydneystrand.com. (Her favoritest of favorites.)