Making Time to Write SFF: An Essay


Making time to write ain’t easy. I’m stumbling through it like everyone else. But I think, at last, I may have found a way.

Desperately searching for time to write. We all suffer from the lack of it. We all go through the hunt for it. We all fight every unforgiving minute for it. But, there’s no going around it. Those of us who dare to be writers, know we have to find that time. Only, we’re not often sure how. Writing will happen, we tell ourselves, some time. In some way. And if, like me, you’re someone for who writing is not your day job, slicing out that time is probably even harder. Everyone has their own method, of course. And I’m firmly of the ancient Black proverb: “do you.” But I’ll share my own recent experience. Because who knows, it might be useful for someone.

In the past few years, I’ve had a decent run of published stories. Nothing prolific. But this year I’ll have about five stories out, including an entire novella. That’s about enough for me. You wouldn’t know it tho by how little time I seem to have to write. First I was finishing up a PhD. Now I’m a junior tenure-track scholar. Both of those expect me to write. A LOT. I’ve been barely finding the time to do research, go to conferences, and work on articles and manuscripts. Speculative Fiction writing? Fergetaboutit. Most times, that got thrown out the window. I would go on a SFF writing moratorium for the whole semester and then write furiously during the summer, or maybe on winter break. Nearly every story I’m getting published this year, was written in spurts during the summer or the previous summer. This was also the same time I was often fighting to meet academic writing deadlines, and that always took precedence. So SFF writing would still get pushed to the back, back, burner, to be completed whenever I had a spare moment. None of it seemed a tenable situation.

This semester, I signed up for a faculty boot camp. It’s one of those things your job offers to help organize your professional productivity. Contrary to popular belief, teaching (at a research university no less) is considered the least of your job responsibilities. Like they tell you it’s 30% of your tenure file. Ha! Ha! Ha! FOH. Maybe it realistically counts for 15%. More like 10%. Seriously. What I’m *supposed* to be doing during the semester is churning out book chapters and journal articles. Only, much as with speculative fiction, I just couldn’t find adequate time between prepping for classes and grading and everything else that comes with university life.

The boot camp changed all of that. I’ve become one of those obnoxious people who plan out my week beforehand. I have a color-coded calendar that schedules most of my daily routine: from my workout, to my commute, to teaching. You should see that beautiful ass sh*t. It’s all oranges and blues and reds and yellows. And interspersed in there are 30 to 90 minute-long stretches to research & write. Sometimes like twice a day. Turns out, I had LOTS of writing time on my hand. Because I went from a book chapter that was a mere 5 pages in mid January to 40 pages and finished by mid February. I’m talking with footnotes even! You have any idea how long footnotes take? Yes, yes, even with Evernote and the like. The trick? I had to actually make the time to write. I mean have it down in my daily calendar on my phone. With alerts. And annoying pop-up reminders. I mean setting a timer so that when I say I’m going to write for an hour, I do ONLY that. I mean arriving in my office and NOT checking my email first. Because academic email is a gaping black hole that will suck you inside and tear you to ribbons, depositing you out hours later with no understanding of where your day went! When I arrive in my office, first thing I do is WRITE for at least about 30 minutes. My productivity shot up. You probably guessed it, but yes, my social media time dipped precipitously. So did my stare into space time. My, “I’m gonna procrastinate and do everything else but write” time. I started getting sh*t done.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m going all fast and furious non-stop. I put breaks between all the events in my calendar. I accept that anything can throw my precise timing off: a student shows up who still thinks the syllabus is an unreadable cipher; traffic on my commute; I catch a cold. But I adapt and tweak the calendar. If I’m too exhausted or mentally out-of-it to get an hour of writing in, I drop it to 45 or 30 minutes. It’s not a big deal, because I’m still *consistently* writing. This has allowed me to do something I couldn’t do before: unplug from work by about 8PM, sometimes earlier, and spend the rest of my time with family, watching TV, wrassling with my dragon-dog, doing whatever I like.

Guess what I put into that “doing whatever I like” part?

You guessed it: Speculative Fiction Writing!

I basically applied my boot camp lessons to SFF writing. So at least three nights a week, I go for an hour of writing before bed. I set the timer. If I don’t hit a full hour, then 45 minutes or 30 minutes is still better than nothing. And, since getting my academic work done gives me most Saturdays off, I use the day to get several hours in along with whatever else I might be doing any given Saturday.

Again, I realize this won’t work for everyone. All our schedules are different. Some folk don’t have an “end” to their workday. There’s family, kids, and dozens of responsibilities. Some people just don’t work well in 30-mins to hour-long stretches of writing. They need to do it at 4AM, or only weekends, or off the grid locked away in a cabin for days with only a bag of semi-sentient tortilla chips for company. And that’s okay. My routine doesn’t have to be yours. I’m not here to pressure you into my cult. Honest. You gotta do whatever works best for you.

But, if you don’t have a plan. If you’re flailing (like I was) and interested in ANY plan, this might be worth giving a try. Map out your weeks, like every Friday evening or Sunday morning. Perhaps you already do that. If so, look for that open slot when you can write.  30-minutes is enough. Writing doesn’t always mean diving into the story. It might mean sketching an outline. Sketching a character. Some worldbuilding. But it’s you getting something done and staying engaged with your creative writing. I won’t lie. Finding time to write, at the end of it all, is just you being selfish and stingy with your time. So you might have to tell lots of folk, “Nah.” You might get less social time, either online or IRL. But, scheduling my writing time at least allows me to say: “this 30 minutes or an hour are for writing. period.” Then when I’m done, I turn it off and go live the rest of my life.

This is still a work in progress for me. It’s only been a month and a half. I’m not like Luke Skywalker force-splaining to Han Solo about a religion he just learned about like 24 hours previous. Time will tell if I can keep this up. But so far, I’m doing better than I have been. And that’s a good thing.


7 thoughts on “Making Time to Write SFF: An Essay

  1. Thank you for the words of wisdom, Phenderson! This is a problem I’ve been having for awhile now, balancing work, school, and grappling with anxiety. I especially appreciate what you said about writing being more than strictly diving into the story. Lately, I’ve had trouble staying interested in the stories I try to write and reading this made me realize I simply haven’t put enough time into my outlines. Now I will do just that and make a concentrated effort to schedule on google calendar. Thanks again! Also, congrats on the novella!

  2. Pingback: For the Good of the Order- Writing Goals 2019 | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

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