How To Write A Book When You Have A Job (& A Life)

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
There's a bizarre misconception that most writers just take off work for a year, shack up in a garret with a notebook, and click-clack away at their opus. Some of those writers exist. Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert's skybrary? Oh, you don't know what a skybrary is? That's because it's a magical, almost-mythical room that could only exist in the home of a megawatt bestseller like Gilbert. But I guarantee she didn't write her first bestseller in a damn skybrary — and you probably won't write yours in one, either.

I recently finished my own first book, and at the risk of sounding trope-y: If I can do this, anyone can — or, at least, a lot of people can. My life is neither leisurely nor fraught with immediate crisis. I don't have children, but I do have a high-pressure, extremely full-time job (like a lot of people do). I did write my book during an exceptionally trying year of my life, both personally and professionally, but those issues are not unique to me.

If you're up to the challenge, here are some of the most important lessons I learned along the way: how to carve out time, how to manage your personal and professional life, and what to do when you're stuck (and at some point, you will be). But the point is, I wanted to write a book, and so I found a way to do it. I'm pretty sure you can, too — with or without a skybrary.

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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
1. Make Your Case

Before you write, take care of business: Write the proposal. Of course, this is mandatory if you want to sell your book to a publisher on proposal, but even if you're planning to write the book and then sell it, I say the proposal still comes first. Without mine, I would have been lost.

Writing the proposal forced me to outline chapters, consider my audience and competition, take note of my place in the publishing landscape, and, above all, think about what I really wanted to say — like, the little words on the page, and not just the big idea in my head.

It's a pain in the ass, but a pain in the ass worth doing. If you're like me, you'll almost certainly stray from your outline when actually writing the book. Nonetheless, it helps to have an outline to stray from. And it's important to envision where your book will go on the bookshelf. Who do you want to buy it? Whose work do you think yours belongs alongside? Why are you writing this story, and why should you be the one to write it?

Ask these questions and write down the answers. Writing a real-deal proposal could take days, weeks, or months, but this is your foundation. It's the guidebook you'll come back to when things get crazy (spoiler: They will!). So write it well.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
2. Get Yourself A Deadline

Writing a book and selling a book are two different things, so I won't get too deep into the publishing stuff here (especially since I'm still figuring out the industry myself). But I can honestly say that the only reason I wrote this sucker is because someone told me to. Yeah, yeah, it was my wildest dream and my life's ambition and all that, but let me tell you: Your life's ambition isn't going to wake you up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in August when all your friends are sound asleep. It won't keep you at your desk all day when they're out day-drinking at the beach. It won't turn down dinner plans because you only have two nights free to write that week and 40 pages left to finish. But your deadline will.

Only you can know your productivity and procrastination styles; some people may work better with mini deadlines throughout the writing process. Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, because this will likely be more challenging than any other project you've tackled. Above all, when you set a deadline, make it a realistic one. Missing a deadline is demoralizing, but making (or beating!) one will urge you forward and give you a confidence boost. So set yourself up with one you can make, and then make it. Period.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
3. Let Go Of The Word "Weekend"

Work-life balance is wonderful and important, but for the foreseeable future, you ain't got it. You're signing up for a temporary period of all work and little to no play, and it's important to commit to that mindset. When you have a full-time job, your weekends are your only real-deal writing days. Sure, this depends a bit on your writing style and the nature of your day job. During the work week, I was able to squeeze in some book-writing nights, but my creativity and stamina were both pretty drained by the end of the day, and I knew my Tuesday-night pages weren't nearly as good as my Saturday-morning pages.

The good news is: It's not forever. You've got that deadline (don't you?). On tough days, you can look at that deadline as the day you get your life back. But let go of the idea that you're going to be able to do this AND have a leisurely weekend. You're not. If you get caught up in pining for your weekend, you'll only wind up grumpy and resentful at your book and yourself for taking up this stupid project in the first place. That path leads to a dead end, so just don't go there. Make the radical mental shift and embrace this as your new (temporary) reality: You work a seven-day week, and you pick up night shifts during the work week, too. That's your life right now. Frankly, that's a lot of people's lives all the time. You're choosing it — for a good reason. You can absolutely do this.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
4. That Said: TAKE BREAKS.

Just as seven-day work weeks are mandatory, so are breaks. Don't wait until you want one; just build a break schedule in. As you get deeper into the process, you'll learn your own patterns and needs. While hammering out my first draft, I quickly realized a few things: I couldn't go more than three hours without a break, I couldn't take a break longer than an hour without losing focus entirely, and my steam ran out right around 5 p.m. no matter what time of day I started. That intel helped me create a structure to keep myself as productive and sane as possible. Breaks were a vital element of that.

If you're not sure what makes sense for you, start with the timer trick. Whip out the timer on your phone and set it for the number of hours you want to commit to writing that day. Whenever you feel you need to take a break, hit pause and check to see how long you've gone and what time it is. Do this for a few days, and you'll start to find your rhythm.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
5. Get Out Of Your Head & Into Someone Else's

Breaks aren't just about rest; they're also about resetting. When you're wading through your own world all day, it's important to wash your brain out with someone else's. This is particularly true if you're writing something personal. Writing my memoir meant dredging up poignant and often painful memories that triggered an onslaught of emotions, both conscious and unconscious. Often, I left the computer feeling anger or sadness or worry that I couldn't explain. I would talk to my friends (and my therapist) about it and let myself process. Then, I'd turn on Friends.

Everyone needs a mental excursion from their own work, and junky television was my reprieve. I'm sincerely grateful for having had Netflix during this process. It kept me sane, and it kept my work fresh. I also made a point to read or listen to good, enjoyable, and enriching books in a variety of genres: The Girl On The Train, How To Disappear Completely, and, for the millionth time, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Think of other books as chargers for your own creative energy. You're spending a lot of that right now, so be sure to recharge on good-quality writing regularly (on top of the junky TV).
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
6. Remember Relationship Triage

Be up-front with your friends, family, and S.O. — you love them, and you're going to be lame for a while. You'll be declining invitations, leaving the party early, and sometimes vanishing for weeks at a time. It can be agonizing, and that's why it's important to be straight with them.

It's also important to whip out your calendar and do some relationship triage. Get friend hangs and date nights on the books well in advance, so you can carve out time in your work schedule. During crunch time, you might not even be able to manage that. In those periods, just be sure to reach out with a text or an email. Be as connected as possible, with the understanding that you're more absent than they'd probably like. But, if they're good friends, they'll understand.

And if they're not good friends, you might lose them. Even with my best efforts, I lost some people. I couldn't go out for happy hour with work friends, and I missed a lot of birthdays. When I looked up, some of those more casual friends had lost interest, and I can't blame them. It hurts, but it's an unavoidable sacrifice of doing work like this.

But, with your tight pals, just ask for patience, vocalize your gratitude, and promise them a big pizza party when you're done. I just did that with my close friends, and it felt great. My posse supported me through this process, even when I was absent and scatterbrained and un-showered. I relied on them for that generosity of spirit, and I made sure they knew how much I appreciated it — and that I'd do the same for them.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
7. Be Okay With Being Tired (But Not Too Tired)

There's a great AA motto called H.A.L.T. It's a reminder for folks in the program that if you want to support your sobriety, don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Those are the things that make us all more vulnerable, and you don't need to be an alcoholic to benefit from H.A.L.T.

You're going to get tired out during this process — probably hungry, angry, and lonely sometimes, too. Thanks to your deadline, you have the comfort of knowing that there will be an end point. But until then, you'll have to resign yourself to some late nights and early mornings. That's just part of the deal. You have two jobs right now, so don't expect to be your best and brightest self every day.

That said: Prioritize good sleep, proper nourishment, and general self-care whenever you can. Maintaining those things is the only way you'll get through this. If you can't carve out a teeny-tiny space for those things, then your writing will suffer — and you will suffer. And then, what's the point?

Depending on the day, you might need to go to bed early instead of going out with friends. Or, you might need to go out and see those friends instead of getting an early night. Odds are, you're going to have to compromise a lot. Now is the time to listen to your needs and honor them as much as you can.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
8. You Will Stall — So Do It Right

Everyone stalls. We all hit periods of writer's block, and we all have days when we can't finish a sentence to save our lives. You'll avoid some of those via the aforementioned self-care practices, but stall-outs are part of the deal. Sometimes, the muse just has better things to do.

The key is to know when to throw in the towel and when to keep going. Most of the time, I'm afraid, the answer is to keep going. If you're really sick or distracted by an immediate crisis, then, by all means, call it a day. Barring those scenarios, keep going.

My best friend (and fellow writer) often reminds me that the only real key to writing is "ass in seat." Even if you hate every word that comes out, just keep your hands moving. Sometimes you just need to write your way through the garbage to get to the gold. Sometimes you discover it was just performance anxiety, and the work comes out fine. Other times, the flow just isn't as flow-y as you'd like, and oh well. This is your job. You don't get up and walk out of your day job when you're not feeling it. You sit there and do what you can, knowing tomorrow will probably be better.

If you're dealing with the kind of issue for which you'd take a sick or personal day, stop writing. Otherwise, just keep sitting.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
9. Be Prepared For "Book Baby" Weight

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Writing is not good cardio. Even when you're doing your best with self-care practices, writing a book is going to eat up a lot of the time and energy you'd normally put into physical maintenance.

Normally, I go to the gym four to five days a week, and I cook about two-thirds of my meals. I held on to those habits as much as I could while writing my book, but most days, I just didn't have time. Furthermore (I don't know if you've heard about this), stress-eating is a thing. I have a somewhat sordid history with food, and I had an eating coach while I was writing this book. But stress-eating is an extremely normal coping mechanism, and as long as you're not going to extremes, it's nothing to panic over (when has panic ever helped you stop stressing?). Combine inevitable stress-eating with the sedentary nature of this work, and you'll probably wind up with some extra pounds by the time you turn in your manuscript. Maybe you'll also have zits and really need a haircut.

The important thing is not to freak out about the physical impact of writing this book. Just as your social life takes a hit, so does your body. Do your best and remember that this phase is just that — a phase. You can and should get back to your normal routine as soon as you hit that deadline. Bet you're glad you made one now, huh?
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
10. Don't Write In Bed

I know this is good advice, because I've ignored it and seen the result. Forget skybraries; I didn't even have a desk when I wrote my book. I had a sticky, wobbly, old Ikea table, and I had my bed. Writing at the table was hard enough, but it got worse when I wrote on the couch, and downright abysmal when I wrote in bed.

Most of us don't have the luxury of a real workspace at home, so we've got to make do with what we've got. Choose the least leisurely space you have, and set up camp there. Even better: Starbucks. Getting out of the house is good for morale, but it's even better for writing. Hit the library or your favorite local café — wherever you can be comfortable but alert (and unable to nap) for a long period of time. For me, honestly, it was my local Starbucks. I don't care how ‘90s-cliché it is. It was comfortable, it opened at 5 a.m., and nobody cared if I bought only one coffee and spent nine hours parked at a table. Starbucks days were my most productive, and it was worth coming home reeking of dark roast. Find your most productive environment and stay there, coolness be damned.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
11. Oh My God, Back It Up

I hope this goes without saying, but back it up, people. Back it up, everywhere. And if you back it up online, do it somewhere safe. Book piracy is real, so if you're not super-savvy about this stuff, find someone who is, and have that person set up your back-up system. Make it easy — or even automatic, if you can.

I got lucky: I never lost work while writing this book, but that's because I had been burned before. So, you better believe I backed up at least three times during each writing session. Backing up was the only way I could sleep at night.

It's easy to get caught up in the deep, arduous labor of crafting your masterpiece and space out on the basics. Please, oh please, don't let a mundane technology-fail eat up a day (or more) of your work. You will kick yourself. I will kick you.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
12. Save 3-5 Emergency Days

Going into this project, I knew there would be problems and challenges I could never anticipate. So, one of the best things I did for myself was set aside five of my vacation days, just in case. "In case" happened.

Maybe a family emergency comes up and you need to take time off from writing. Maybe you forgot to back up that one time and need to rewrite a chapter. Maybe that realistic deadline wasn't so realistic after all.

I guarantee there will come a night when you find yourself lying awake in bed wondering how the hell you are going to finish this thing. The only balm for that anxiety is more time, so give it to yourself. Yes, it sucks to sacrifice yet more of your personal time to this project, but I promise you will not regret it for a second. Odds are, you'll need to take a "bookcation" from work at some point. If you don't, then woohoo! Blow those five days on a last-minute getaway or a staycation to catch up on sleep once the manuscript is in. Either way, you win.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
13. There's The Writing & Then There's The Editing

At least in my experience, writing a book is only about 1/3 writing. Yeah, it's a big, important part, but after I turned in the first draft, I spent almost a year on edits. I know.

Editing is a different skill set, but it's one worth developing. With a book, you need to be able to take notes well and be a good self-editor. There's no magic trick here; I mention this because it's necessary. Listen to your gut, but listen to other guts as well — especially if they're more experienced than you. I worked with wonderful editors, and while we haggled over certain points, the final result was one I'm very happy with. But that only came with working hard on my text and on my ego — and doing both of those things over and over again.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
14. Do Your Damn Best, Then Let It Go

Just like everything in life, your book is not going to turn out just how you thought it would. The only thing you can do — you must do — is make sure that you have given it absolutely as much of yourself as you can. No matter what, every time you look at the book after publication, you're going to find passages you'd like to rewrite. You cannot control that instinct. The only thing you can control is the effort you put in now.

This is not the place to cut yourself slack. Maybe don't shoot for the moon, but shoot for just as far as you possibly can. If you give it all you've got, then you will have that truth in your back pocket. That truth is your armor against the critics and, more importantly, against self-doubt. So get your ass in the seat, do your damn best, hit send, and walk away. You did it. You did it.

On to the next.