Establishing Priorities

By John Gilstrap

It’s a common lament among authors struggling to make time to pursue or complete their writing tasks: With kids and a full time job, I can’t carve out the time to sit down and create.

Before diving into the advice portion of this post, let me show my prejudice. I wrote twelve books while working a full time job with executive responsibilities that kept me on the road for over 100 nights per year. That’s well over a million published words, all as a sideline. Through it all, I never missed a kid’s soccer game or school event, and my wife and I kept up a robust social life.

In the early days, my inspiration was Tom Clancy, who managed to create the techno-thriller genre while working full time in insurance. Later, I realized that Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Tess Gerritsen, and countless other successful authors were able to squeeze their same 24-hour days in a way that allowed them to create works of fiction that changed their lives.

I put my inner engineer to work and ran some calculations.

Everyone of us starts Sunday with the same 168 hours available for use in the coming week. Including commuting time (if you don’t live in New York, L.A. or D.C.) work will absorb 9 hours per day, Monday through Friday. That’s 45 hours stripped away from your control.

We have to eat, of course, and take care of chores and personal hygiene stuff. Shall we agree on 10 hours for each, for a total of 20? Throw in another three hours as a rounding error (and to keep the math manageable) we’re down to roughly 100 hours of unaccounted for free time.

Okay fine. You want to sleep. And you’re blessed with the ability to sleep eight hours per night. Subtract 56 hours from the weekly assignment schedule. That leaves you with 47 hours to work with. We’re approaching the amount of true discretionary time. That’s almost six standard work days’ worth of time.

Oh, yeah. The kids’ soccer tournament on Saturday. Will seven hours cover it? Give or take a couple, you’re now hovering around the 40-hour mark for free time. That’s a standard work week, folks.

The hours are there. Now it’s a question of priorities. That episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” costs you 2.5% of your writing time. Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will cost a whopping 10% of your creative hours. (And if you’ve seen it, I trust you’ll agree that it is worth no more than 5%–7.5%, tops.)

The time is there, folks. The question that all writers must confront is how important is it to them to finish what they’ve started? Not to bite the hand that is currently feeding me, but recognize that every second you’ve spent reading this post and whatever responses it garners is a second you’ve decided NOT to spend on writing.

It’s all about choices.


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathanโ€™s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

25 thoughts on “Establishing Priorities

  1. John, thanks for the interesting breakdown hour by hour. It is amazing how much time we waste.

    A couple of other necessities to include in the writing work week:

    1. Education – Easily an hour a day reading craft books, blogs, discussion groups, listening to webinars, etc. TKZ *does* count as education!

    2. Exercise – I spend at least an hour a day walking, during which I plot, ponder, problem-solve, etc. Physical activity is essential to balance the many hours writers spend in mental activity and to maintain health.

  2. Ouch, Mr. Gilstrap! And here I sit, retired, moaning that I don’t have time, or I can’t focus, or I have to go water my flowers…and yada yada yada…

    Announcement: it stops here and now.

    (P.S. Can I call you Dad? Ya sound just like him…and he’s a great guy, a Navy vet who never once shirked.) ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Good reminders, John. The hours are there. It’s finding the discipline to use them that makes the difference.

  4. Writers also need to spend time learning the craft, supporting others in the writing community, and building somewhat of an audience. Yes, I know we disagree about the last point, but releasing a debut when no one’s ever heard of you is much more difficult than releasing a debut to an audience that you’ve nurtured over time. Especially these days, with millions of books listed on Amazon alone. It’s also more difficult to sell a book to an editor or agent when the writer has no online footprint.

    That said, I agree that writers with a day job need to prioritize their time. If writing is important to them, they’ll find time to finish the WIP.

  5. Well said, Brother Gilstrap.

    A page a day is a book a year. (250 words = a page.)

    I have a friend, a full-time govt. attorney, who writes traditionally published legal thrillers on his train commute to and from the city.

  6. Excellent advice and an important reminder that we all have time, it’s just a question of how to spend it. Even an hour can lead to a book written in a year.

  7. One of the secrets. You are always writing even when you aren’t writing. The writer corner of your brain is observing and taking notes as the world flows around you. The specialty news piece on the local TV station that’s playing while you are cooking supper will spark an idea for your novel. Someone in a crowd will be talking, and, boom, you’ll have the voice for that mob boss in a scene. The world is like a generous parent who will offer you what you need when you need it. Serendipity is a real thing, and you need to pay attention.

    If there are shows you want to watch on live TV, record them and fast forward through the commercials and boring parts. A TV sport can only be watched if it’s a social event that’s more about the people around you than who wins. Don’t isolate yourself.

    And as someone who has been around a long time, remember that the people you love, your health, and your finances matter more than the words of the paper. Don’t look up from your keyboard, one day, and realize that you missed your life.

  8. Great breakdown, John. I’d like to be the guy who invents a time stretcher, but I think that falls in the same arena as perpetual motion. Something I’m finding that takes away from productive writing time is this new concept I’ve discovered called marketing. I never tried marketing before I decided to take this gig seriously and make money from it. Now it’s seriously robbing my fingers-on-key time. Any suggestion on what a proper balance of promotion vs production time should be?

    • Garry, the promotional stuff is a giant time suck. I think the trick is to pick your targets and stick to them. After all, you’ll never know whether or not any of them are selling books anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Back when I had a Big Boy Job, I always put that first (after family), the books second, and promotional stuff third–until launch date approached, when the promotional stuff took seniority to writing.

      Now that I’m writing full time (which, to be honest, is really a part-time endeavor), I start my day around 10. I read the news, check email and flog my Facebook page a bit. If there’s important email to deal with, it comes next. I’ll usually settle down to real writing around noon. I’ll write till 3 or so, then take a good long walk to get blood flowing back into my legs. Around 4:30 or so, I’ll go back and write some more, usually quitting around 6:30 or 7. Then me and the missus catch up and log some mind-numbing television.

      Every two weeks, I lose pretty much a whole day to this blog–preparation and monitoring. Also every two weeks I lose a day to production of a video for my YouTube channel.

      Somehow, it all gets done within the deadlines.

    • Hi Garry. I’m not John, but I am the guy who loves Marketing! For me, as long as I can write a scene a day, I’m happy.

      Marketing takes some time setting up (website, email list, FB page, endemic groups, et al.), but once that’s done, it’s relatively painless to get the word out as time goes by. So, for me, the balance depends on where I am in the cycle.

  9. I would say what I’ve picked up hear counts towards being a writer, which helps with the actual writing… so to say “…every second youโ€™ve spent reading this post and whatever responses it garners is a second youโ€™ve decided NOT to spend on writing…” is kinda misleading… provided I don’t spend ALL of my free, er, writing time, reading and responding… ?

    • Time management is a lot like weight management. As long as you’re consuming the excess calories intentionally, with full knowledge of the consequences, then there’s nothing wrong with a gluttonous Thanksgiving dinner, even if it happens in June. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Good post, John. I agree that the hours are there, and it’s up to us to utilize them. But I do wish “real life” would stop muddying the numbers! Just as I thought freedom from social obligations would grant me blissful hours of writing time, I was sidelined by surgery.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Marilynn, too. Life is full of references, research, ideas: all we need to is keep a portion of our subconscious attuned to that “free channel.”
    Honestly? Despite the full-time job and a full-time culinary & medicinal garden (that hobby never stops, even in winter; not when you start your own plants from seed!) I spend most of my extra time chasing down research ideas brought to me by the “free channel.”

    The rest of it is blogs like this (you’re right, Debbie: learning the craft is a necessity!), or cooking & eating. Meal prep can be ridiculously time-consuming! When the husband and I both worked outside the home, I spent a good portion of a Sunday afternoon cooking & prepping the week’s lunches! Another boon to working-from-home…that chore is greatly reduced! And I can add a bit more writing due to lack of commute.

    Oh, and Marilynn’s suggestion of recording TV to avoid commercials is brilliant. I haven’t had to endure annoying ads in years! It can shrink an hour show to almost 30 minutes. Now there’s a disturbing realization!

    • Sorry to hear about the surgery. Hope all is well.

      Life will always find a way to foul up well-made plans. We’ve got to really milk the good days for all we can get, if only as a hedge against the face-plant that’s waiting for us around the corner. This pandemic, for example, knocked me woefully off my game. When I finally embraced the serenity prayer, I was able to concentrate again, but it took weeks.

  11. Love the countdown! One thing you forgot to mention is time for reading – other people’s books, I mean! We’re all book lovers, that is a fact. I don’t count getting lost in a story as wasted time, but sometimes I feel guilty about it. Could I have pounded a 1000 words instead? Oh wait, what am I doing on this blog… gotta get back to it!

  12. Great post. Tony Robbins says, “If you talk about it, it’s a dream. If you envision it, it’s possible. But if you schedule it, it’s real.” It would be a great idea for people to actually record what they spend their time on each week for about a month or so. Then determine if how the time is being spent is a true reflection of what’s important. The reason that many people don’t achieve what they want is that they haven’t formulated a vision of what it is that they want.

    However, I suspect that there are also some folks who don’t necessarily suffer from a lack of focus, but from a lack of physical energy. For some people, a 40-hour work week is not realistic. At certain jobs, particularly in engineering, people are expected to work a lot of overtime. Some jobs entail working double shifts at times to meet contract deadlines. Jobs can also involve travel to other cities/countries. Other people may have to devote time to caring for (including diapering, feeding, bathing) aging parents. Sure, almost everyone should be able to find time to scribble down 250 words a day. I know I’ve done some great writing on cocktail napkins. But let’s not kid ourselves. Writing 250 words a day doesn’t mean that one would be able to string those pages together at the end of the year and have something that is anywhere near ready to publish. Lots of time is needs for planning, organization, and revision. Also, time is needed to read and stay current in one’s chosen genre. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I think it’s reasonable to assume that to do any kind of meaningful writing, you’d need to spend at least a couple of hours on most days. That might mean having to get by on five hours sleep a night. Some people can do that very successfully, and other people might find it impossible to be creative when they’re physically drained. Maybe folks who want to be writers should find spouses willing to support them in their efforts. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Just for fun, here’s an article on the daily routines of twenty famous writers:

    These writers all made a serious time commitment to writing. For people who don’t have much time to write, Ray Bradbury advises writing one short story per week. That sounds like great advice. Always best to choose a goal suitable for the time one has available.

    Happy writing, everyone!

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