If you dream of becoming a writer, you have to eventually sit down and write. Whether you’re doing National Novel Writing Month in November, or you dream of being a writer “someday”, the first inescapable step is making the time to do it. Here’s a 15-minute exercise toward that end that you can do today.
This year, I will write my tenth terrible novel. I do this every November; it's part of the NaNoWriMo tradition. I've never published these novels, but I grow as a writer and as a human being every time I write one. Let me tell you why it's worthwhile.
You’re going to pick a few writing times — early morning, late night, commute time, what have you — and audition them. One a day is fine; that gives you nine chances before November starts. Here is the process:
- Find a 15-minute block of time (with no obligations, or ones you can blow off).
- Be ready with your laptop or notebook when that time arrives.
- Sit down and write.
If you plan to write a novel, you’ll need more like an hour or two each day, but it’s OK to ease into it. Fifteen minutes is perfect for a little bit of journaling or story planning, or an episode of a novel-writing audio course.
Tim Clare's Couch to 80K writing podcast is a delightful, intense, encouraging eight-week journey towards writing a novel. For the best experience, go into it blind; all you need to know is that it's good and it's appropriate for any experience level. If you want to know more, keep reading, but be aware that here be spoilers.
You can learn a lot in 15 minutes. You’ll gain a sense of how to set up your materials and environment to be the least distracting, for example. And after keeping so many appointments with yourself, you’ll get better at showing up ready to do work.
Don’t just take it from me; Dorothea Brande had this idea in 1934, and included it as a key step in her book Becoming a Writer. Here’s what she said about developing a schedule:
Now this is very important, and can hardly be emphasised too strongly: you have decided to work at four o’clock, and at four o’clock write you must! No excuses can be given. If at four o’clock you find yourself deep in conversation, you must excuse yourself and keep your engagement. Your agreement is a debt of honour, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. If you must climb out over the heads of your friends at that hour, then be ruthless; another time you will find that you have taken some pains not to be caught in a dilemma of the sort. If to get the solitude that is necessary you must go into a washroom, go there, lean against the wall, and write.
Some of your chosen writing times will turn out to be terrible, and the only way you’ll find that out is to audition them now. Maybe you’ll bring your laptop into bed at 11:00PM, only to find that you’re drifting to sleep as you type. Maybe you’ll try to write on your lunch break, but your brain won’t stop fretting over deadlines and meetings. Great, you’re narrowing down the possibilities. Pick another time tomorrow.
And if you cannot bring yourself to do any of your scheduled writings at all, Brande has some wise but harsh advice (emphasis hers): “If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy as early as late.”