Do You Have a Typical Writing Day?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Novelist Tracy Chevalier recently observed:

Part of me wishes it were easy to describe my typical writing day. I have heard about them, those smug productive hours when a writer – usually male, it has to be said – sits down each day at 9am with an espresso, writes till 1, makes bouillabaisse, writes from 2 till 5, plays tennis, and after supper sits with a glass of single malt whisky reading over what he’s written that day. That is a scenario I both crave and detest. It will never be that controlled and disciplined for me.

This is an absolute slander! I make a sandwich for lunch, haven’t played tennis in years, and in the evening prefer a California red.

I do, however, have a typical writing day, though of course it has varying tones and I’m free to be as flexible as I want to be. That’s the nice part of being your own boss. Yes, I have to call myself into the office and chew myself out from time to time, but I generally get along with the old so-and-so fellow.

Here’s how I like my day to go:

I’m up before the sun rises. The coffeemaker was set to timer the evening before so my morning brew is ready. I love starting work in the dark. Most people I’ve broached this subject with look at me with a mix of wonder and horror. Their eyes and dropped jaws nonverbally retort, “You do what? The dark? Are you daft?”

Yep. From daft to draft!

I try to do some writing immediately, to bring up what my writer’s mind has been working on all night. There might be a good plot twist there, or an idea for another book, or maybe just a way of phrasing something. Or perhaps it’s just junk. Whatever it is, I spill it into a free form document that I’ll assess later.

I then set out to write a Nifty 350.

Later on, I’ll give a light edit to my previous day’s pages, then go for my quota.

What I really have to watch out for is the temptation to jump onto social media the moment I hit some challenge or other. I’ve written about this before.

However, I do like having some ambient noise going on, which means I will sometimes be found writing at some local coffee establishment. But at home, I turn on Coffitivity. I compose in Scrivener, which allows me to have a background on my screen. I have taken a photo of my favorite deli, Langer’s, so it’s like I’m there in a booth, writing:

From about 11 – 1 I’ll generally take care of business matters (e.g., marketing, email) and have some lunch. I’ve pretty much settled that from 1 – 3 it’s zombie time. My brain just wants to lie in a hammock. So I’ll work in a power nap (15 – 20 minutes). That sets me up for the late afternoon. I can usually squeeze in another hour of writing or editing from about 4 – 5.

Then I pretty much knock off. Dinner with Mrs. B. We might watch a movie or classic TV show. If I finish a book, or my wife closes a real estate deal, we’ll celebrate by going out to eat. It’s a short drive to Malibu, where we can nosh by our beloved Pacific Ocean.

That’s as typical as it gets, so long as there are no earthquakes, fires, mudslides, power outages, or locusts.

So now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have a typical writing day? If not, how would you design one?

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42 thoughts on “Do You Have a Typical Writing Day?

  1. Ah, I live for the day that I will have a ‘typical’ writing day. No matter how the details vary, it involves creating during the first half of the day. I am so NOT an afternoon/evening person. By the time 2:00 p.m. rolls around I’m pretty much toast.

    My problem is that because the before work morning hours are such a goldmine, I’m often conflicted. I do my best writing in the morning, but also ideally that’s the time I walk and workout. Physically, if I don’t start my day with exercise I just don’t feel as good.

    However, that battle has been partially allayed during these winter months when it’s too bloody cold to go out for a 4:00 a.m. walk (yes, even in Arizona. Yes I’m a wimp. 😎 So for the last 2 months I have been quite successful at getting up and using that ‘hop out of bed and pour it out from the brain’ strategy. In fact, as of today, I have already written more words this month than I did in ALL of 2017. But in another month as the weather warms, I’ll have to change my routine again & try to come up with a happy medium. It is unfortunate that I cannot change my day job hours to something like Noon-8:00 p.m. or similar.

    The other change I need to make is incorporating editing time after the writing session. For me that creative buzz is such a fragile thing that I just free-write whatever’s in my head without regard to whether or not I have changed POV’s, etc. However I could probably write smarter if I made myself edit regularly and it would become more second nature instead of having to later revise in layers 500 different times. But for right now I say who cares. I’m just glad I’m writing.

    • BK, I try to get some treadmill in after my Nifty 350. For a time, I was doing some writing ON the treadmill, at low speeds, with an attachment to hold my laptop or AlphaSmart. It didn’t quite work, so now I have a standing desk and do half my writing there.

      • No, I definitely could not do the write while you walk thing. Dictating a few short brainstorms into my phone as I walk has occurred, but definitely not a type while I go sort.

    • BK: If you haven’t read Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work,” I’d recommend it. He discusses the reason behind the fact that most people can’t work deeply on a task for more than four hours in any given day, so being done by 2:00 isn’t all that out of the ordinary.

      • I had digitally checked out Mr. Newport’s book but then had to return it before I could make much headway. Thanks for the reminder to get that off my to be completed list.

  2. “so long as there are no earthquakes, fires, mudslides, power outages, or locusts.”
    Add smog and drought.
    That’s seven of ten plagues already.

    Granted the ocean is prettier than Lake Erie. But Lake Michigan is at least as good for looking and swimming (except in a third of the year). Had a good two months in SoCal, but glad to be back to the real world.

    Even absent plagues, my workday is hit-and-miss. I write when I can and when I’ve worked something out. Maybe 300 words a day, maybe 1500. Since I’m using Scrivener and a “modular” approach, plugging scenes in here and there as I go, I spend a lot of time rereading to check flow and chronology. Outline mode helps, especially if I’ve remembered to do my synopses and put dates/times into my document headings. But I still have to reread a lot.

  3. Up by 4 AM, swear to God. The dogs don’t even get up with me anymore. Keurig coffee. Emails, FB, Twitter, news. Settle in with yesterday’s writing efforts on screen for a bit, usually by around 5. Cry, bitch, fight the naysaying part of my brain every freakin’ day. Revise, try to get what I consider to be a good 250-300 words while I continue to click back and forth on social media, rewarding myself for having completed a paragraph or two. I know, a bad habit, with too much online indulgence that hampers productivity. Back to work, stay with it until around 7. More coffee and quick breakfast with my wife, watch some Morning Joe, back at it by 9, try to stay productive until around 11. Hit and miss into early afternoon, work some until late afternoon. Evenings spent reading peer workshop material. I find I’m more ruthless at night, so that’s when I critique other people’s work and my own. Tell myself half of what I wrote earlier in the day is shit, edit it to near extinction. Fall asleep with a pubbed novel against my chest.

    • You’re my man, Chris! Even down to the social media temptation. The only TV I allow myself in the morning is if I’m eating breakfast, hopping between First Take and Skip & Shannon.

  4. Morning, Jim.

    My pal Dennis Foley says, “I get up and write at six a.m. b/c my internal critic doesn’t come to work until eight.”

    Dennis actually did a spreadsheet tracking his creative time hour by hour throughout the day and discovered when he was productive and when he wasn’t. Once he established the pattern of his circadian rhythm, instead of fighting it, he adapted to it. Rather than beating his head against the wall trying to write during “down” times, he did something else during those hours. Although he might spend fewer hours in front of the computer, his word output increased substantially b/c he used his “creative” time more effectively.

    My morning schedule is coffee, write/edit till I hit a wall, then go for a walk to find a way to climb over the wall. Afternoons aren’t creative for me either so that’s the time to care of mundane business. I often get a second wind in the evening and work into the night, editing my own or someone else’s manuscript.

    Everyone’s internal rhythm is different, but as long as you make a habit of sticking to it, productivity increases.

  5. Up early with coffee. but the creative part of my brain doesn’t wake up with the rest of me, so I take care of going through email, a quick run through my Facebook page, about 2 minutes on my actual Facebook feed. Delete spam from my website even though I have Akismet. I just like to dump what’s in the spam folder. See if anyone I know is having a birthday. Is she’s up, touch base with one of my crit partners. Where I live, there’s very little human contact. Have breakfast playing my Mahjong challenges.
    Then … I’ll get out the notes I made on the scene/chapter I wrote the night before and make my changes. Sometimes it’s a minute or two, sometimes longer if I noticed a glaring plot hole. After that, my brain is back in the WIP and I can start making forward progress.
    There’s usually household “stuff” to deal with, which gives me “away from the computer” breaks. The dog wants her walk; I have yoga 2 days a week, then there’s laundry, dinner prep if it’s my night to cook. Then there’s the “other” writing stuff. Blog posts, marketing, taking care of my responsibilities for the author co-op I belong to.
    At the end of the day, I want to see at least 1000 words on my spreadsheet, and if I finished a scene, I’ll print it out and take it to bed to read through.

    • I like the idea of reading a hard copy of a scene before bed, Terry. Then your writer’s mind can play with it during the night.

      1k words a day is great, and seems to be common among the record-keeping writers I’m aware of. It is for me. 1k a day, six days a week is my aim.

  6. I write in the early morning when all is still quiet, and I can usually hit my quota, though half of it is crap. (Can’t wait to get to the rewrite phase!) In the afternoon, I live my other life: errands, chores, going in to work that day if it’s a work day, etc.

    I also schedule a couple of times per week to study the craft because I’m a beginner and have lots to learn! Right now my study consists of deconstructing two books I read recently and enjoyed. Darkansas in particular is interesting because it’s so bizarre (and scary) that it shouldn’t be plausible, yet while you’re reading the book, it seems believable. How did this Middleton guy accomplish that?!

    • Priscilla, you rock. First of all, you write to a quota. (And don’t worry about that first draft. I think it was Hemingway who said all first drafts are s____. Anne Lamott has a whole chapter in Bird by Bird called “S___y First Drafts.” Ha!)

      And then you’re studying the craft, too, including “deconstructing” books. Fantastic! I did exactly the same thing with an armload of thrillers I bought at a used bookstore when I was just starting out. It’s invaluable.

      Write on.

  7. You’re so lucky Mrs. B. works outside the house. I start at 5 and work as much as I can until “someone” announces mandatory hot tub time at 8:30. Darn! Then I smile and nod while struggling not to lose the murder scene pinging around my brain. “You’re not so talkative today,” he says (every morning). “Sorry,” I say. “I just killed someone.” I let him get out first while I linger 10-15 minutes more to work out the getaway. Then I rush to the computer and type like crazy. Sometimes I get dressed first; other times I wear a towel. Ah, if only my husband were in Real Estate. I’d have 10 books by now.

    • LOL, Nancy. I do have to say Mrs. B is a saint when it comes to my writing quirks. My daughter made me a sign (in “ransom note” script) that says Writer At Work. When I hang it on my door that means no disturbances, no knocks. You can try to text me, but I may not answer. Cindy always respects that.

    • Balzac certainly believed that, Mike, but unfortunately to excess. Up to fifty strong cups a day. A lot of books … then death at 51 due to caffeine poisoning!

      But the health benefits of moderate coffee drinking are well-known.

  8. Hi, Jim,

    Because of my work schedule (part-time librarian), my writing schedule varies depending upon the day of the week, but I strive to get some writing in first thing, and then more writing morning writing in on the days I’m off work, save Sunday (the day I spend with my wife, with the occasional exception). However, I struggle with getting to the keyboard first thing, because I have an early morning snack, drink tea, and read the news. The problem is, some days, I only have an hour or ninety minutes to write before heading to work.

    The other battle for me, as an indie author, is balancing writing and marketing/publishing business time. I’m coming up on my first year anniversary as a self-published novelist (1/31), and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how all encompassing marketing can be if you let it. There’s always something. Of course, if you don’t write the next novel, you don’t have anything new to market. Clearly the solution is to not market until I’ve written for the day but it’s tough establishing that habit.

    • Dale, I recall that Elmore Leonard worked as an ad man, and wrote for an hour before heading off to work. He got to be pretty good. 🙂

      As for marketing, it can seem overwhelming because of all the options. But 90% of it is the quality of the book. The rest of it is choosing which tools to use. I wrote a book about this to help simplify things.

  9. My day changes based on the season. My day job is at a seasonal resort in northern Minnesota so, I write in the winters and edit in the summers. It’s winter now, so I’ll detail my current schedule:

    Up at 6:30, some Beachbody on Demand, a shower, breakfast, and coffee, and in my office by 8:00.

    From 8:00 to 12:00 I work on Project A (reread enough of yesterday’s work to refresh my creativity and get lost in the world I’ve created, then crank out 1,000 to 1,500 words). Lunch from 12:00 to 1:00. During this hour is when I respond to emails, make phone calls, and check social media. Then, from 1:00 to 4:00 I work on Project B (typically this is the “pre-writing” stage of whatever the next project is … worldbuilding, character development, and plot outlining).

    At 4:00, I’m toast. I move out of my office and into the living room where my presence will indicate I am available to my family. I’ll work on a little more social media, read whatever articles I’ve clipped in Evernote while researching Project B, and generally take care of mundane business things until 6:00.

    At 6:00, it’s dinner with the wife and a movie or Netflix. My attention is usually split between the show and some ancillary part of the writing: designing a map of the world I’ve created, accounting, trying to understand marketing (James, your Marketing book is in my #TRB list), that sort of thing. This goes on until 9:00 when it’s time for bed. I’ll read someone else’s book until 10:30, then it’s lights out so the whole thing can start over again in the morning.

    Note: I spend very little time on social media. Last year I made it a resolution to ditch social media all together. While I don’t think that’s a viable option for an author, cutting my time back to a scheduled one or two hours a day has tremendously helped my workflow.

    Also: I’m writing this at 8:40 when I should be working. That’s because not every day falls into this structure, and I have to learn to be okay with that. Today, there are external things going on — responsibilities I must tend to that are outside the scope of writing. This happens more often than I’d like (maybe 12 days a month), and I’m forced to juggle my schedule to do the best with what I have. It’s taken me several years to get to a point where “that’s okay” (and I still struggle).

    • I neglected to mention, regarding ambient noise. My wife is home a lot during the day, and she’s noisy. She likes to watch television while she’s puttering around the house, and it can be loud. I’d not heard about Coffitivity (I checked it out, it’s neat), but what I use is Brain.fm. It’s a binural audio service which allegedly uses tones set a different frequencies to stimulate the focus centers of your brain. It’s helped wonders.

  10. For the exercise-writing dilemma, I’m thinking of getting a dictation app. A friend of mine says it took him a few days to learn how to use it but now he’s pleased with it. He walks two or more hours every morning and finds his new scene typed and ready to go when he gets home. Has anyone else tried this?

  11. I try to put in an hour and a half every morning. If not then at least 45 minutes, unless there are fires to put out, or aliens on my roof, like yesterday. Oh. Wait. That’s right. They’re US citizens now.

    At your suggestion in one of your great books I’ve been revvin’ my engines by editing what I wrote the previous day.

    I’ve started DON’T LEAVE ME, and it is shockingly good. Problem is law school completely took the desire to read fiction away, so I’ll be slowly savoring the book. But you’re good, sorry, better than good. You’ve got chops, skilz. I’m really impressed. Don’t know why I should be surprised. Keep ’em coming.

      • You’ve got your “nifty 350”? Well I’ve got my nifty 45. I have to go 45 minutes without taking a break. And then again. Got an egg timer thingy, for interruptions, typically phone calls. Then I take a 20 minute break, only in theory, and go another 45 minutes. Again, only in theory.

        The laziest lawyer, my well deserved title.

  12. I am up at 4AM. I have coffee and quality time with him until he gets ready for work at 5AM. I workout from 5AM-530AM, then shower and by 5:45am I am in the chair. I do my “morning storm writing” first. That is just writing whatever has been floating around my brain. I write until there’s nothing left. Then I move on to my daily quota of 1,400 words. Sometimes it’s a short story, sometimes it’s from a writing prompt. After that, It’s usually around 7:30 or 8:00AM and I read about the craft of writing for 30 minutes (yes several of the books I am reading are yours…thank you). Right around 10AM I am out of steam. I take a break, then begin homeschool with my children, which usually goes to around 2PM. After that, I take care of chores around the house and run my errands until it’s time to make dinner. Then after dinner, I read for an hour or two. I hit the bed at 7:30PM every night without fail. That’s my ritual and rarely does anything make me depart from it.

  13. You’re an inspiration, Jim. I downloaded the Coffitivity app for my phone. The beauty is that there are no smells to make me hungry. Thanks for the tip, Jim. At first it irritated me. I have an office to myself and no one to disturb me, except for my two four-legged companions. I prefer silence, but I can block out background noises from a library and this coffee shop loop blends into the background and can be blocked out easily. I like it.

    Every day that I am writing and not taking time off, I get up before sunrise, usually anxious to get going. I have two dogs that are completely confused by my writer brain and what should be normal. I’ve adapted your nifty 350 and work off my previous days edits first thing, PLUS a bit more to get a jump.

    I may grab a quick breakfast, but when I go back to my office, I have to shut the dogs out. Those two can really disrupt my process by barking at people walking in front of my house. If it’s still dark outside, they will sleep by my desk, but that’s rare. They’re busy bodies.

    I write until 11 a.m. and take a quick break to call my mom (& dad) to see what they’re up to. I’m their bill payer and one of their trust managers, so they can sometimes get me chasing rabbits down holes, but I’m happy to have that problem. I’m blessed they have their health.

    I write solidly between noon and 3-4 p.m. (I feed my dogs, spend time with them, and make dinner.) My daily word count varies, depending on the deadline and the length of the project, but I shoot for 1500-2000/day. I print off what I want to edit and review before I go to bed.

    If I’m on deadline and behind, I may squeeze in another writing session around 6 p.m. But I have found that if I write too late, it can keep me up.

    For social media, I do poke my head up a few times per day. Usually in the morning and later afternoon. If I’m taking a food break, I may check out my smart phone. My really bad habit is not squeezing in regular exercise. That’s the first thing that becomes erratic. Not good.

  14. Sorry I’m late. My new(ish) schedule says Sundays are for family. I’ve always been an early riser. 4 a.m. and I are old friends, so I agree. There’s nothing like writing while it’s still dark out and the mind hasn’t cluttered with endless to-do lists. I start by reviewing the previous day’s work, then continue on till around, oh, 8 o’clock, when I check my email. While I drink my 2nd tea and eat my granola bars, I surf through social media, unless I’m on a deadline. In which case, I’ll only pop in every other day. Around 9 o’clock I catch up with my favorite blogs (unfortunately, I can’t read as many as I used to), and then jump back into my WIP till lunchtime. My husband and I eat lunch together every day. After lunch, it’s back to the grind till 5 – 5:30 p.m., when I shutdown for the night. My nights are reserved for the hubby. It’s a deal we made early on, and we protect our time like a mother bear protects her cubs.

  15. There’s nothing like writing while it’s still dark out and the mind hasn’t cluttered with endless to-do lists.

    Word!

    Great schedule, Sue. And good deal on the hubby time.

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