How to write a book when you’re really, really busy

I am, as my mother would say, “a busy little beaver.” I write novels for HarperCollins, work full-time for a social and economic justice nonprofit, go to school at UCLA and run ultramarathons. I also sleep, eat, see my friends, post on Twitter and Facebook, blog, belong to a book club and watch a number of Mythbuster episodes.

One question comes up a lot, especially from other writers: “When do you write?”

The short answer to that is a good bit of the day on Sunday and most days after work. But what I think these folks mean is: “How do you write enough?” The answer to that is I plan. I have a spreadsheet. I tell people this. They don’t believe me. So here it is for my current book-in-progress:

Book schedule
Numbers in thousands represent the total word count by the end of that day. The smaller numbers are the editing process and represent total number of edited pages by the end of that day.

Click to enlarge image.

(It’s probably worth noting here that I don’t have children. If you have children, the idea that you could plan your work in a spreadsheet and have that resemble reality is probably hysterically funny. I have no idea how people with kids write books. You have to go ask one of them.)

When I start a new book, I sit down with my calendar and block off all the days when something out of my control will make it impossible for me to write that day. I don’t kid myself. I take two days a week off to have a life. For me, that’s Friday and Saturday. Friday, I’m at the day job, too, but mostly those are the days I intensively do all the other things that aren’t writing. So now I know how many days I REALLY have in the next several months to work.

Then it’s just math. Do I have a deadline? In this case, my agent wants me to have this sucker done by the end of the year. I’ve done this enough to know I like two editing passes, so I figure that in. How much time does that leave for a first draft? Divide probable word count by number of days to get words-per-day. In this case, it’s 2,000. I ask myself “Is that reasonable for me?” In my case, it is. Your mileage may vary.

Then I stick to it. I rework only if something shocking happens in the manuscript. That happened in this book. I trashed 50 pages and a complete outline when I realized my main character needed to age 10 very important years. Sometimes I have to be flexible, but I don’t allow myself to be lazy. There’s just not enough time.

This book stuff is freakin’ hard. This is how I get it done. Everyone does it differently. But we all do it for the same reason: We love it. We love it more than sleep and movies and happy hours. Being authors is integral to our personal identity, and we could more easily change our gender than change that fact.