The Lunchtime Writer Part Five: On Breaks

One question which leaps to mind on the subject of Lunchtime Writing is: can I (or should I) take breaks? Maybe take a day or two off and make it up later.

Well, sometimes you have to. There will always be days when you have literally no time, not even a spare half-hour, for writing. Or other days when you really should, for other reasons. I remember one of Isaac Asimov’s editorial columns from his magazine, where he boasted that he worked literally every day of the year, and then added (also as a bit of a boast) that this had led to his wife getting angry at him for excusing himself from a holiday visit with guests to go write. Let’s just say there’s more than one reason Asimov doesn’t have a reputation for the greatest social awareness.

But I’ll also say that part of the power of Lunchtime Writing comes from the fact that it’s a daily practice. It’s like learning a language or studying for an exam or exercising or playing a musical instrument: in some ways, doing it regularly is better for your brain than the amount of time you spend doing it.

You can also, of course, shorten the amount of time you spend on it. If you want to make sure you get in some writing every day, you could set yourself a target of 100 words, or even just 1 word, on busy days.

But if even that’s impossible… well, my advice is to keep breaks to a minimum.

The Lunchtime Writer Part Four: The Lunchtime Editor

This post is about what happens when I’m sitting down to write, but not writing.

Whether or not you include editing time as part of your Lunchtime Writing activities is entirely a personal choice. Some people might want to bang out as many words as possible, and schedule editing separately. Some might write the words on the weekday and do editing on the weekend. It’s up to you.

I like to include editing as part of Lunchtime Writing. To my mind, editing is also writing, and there are days when I want to be generating new words, and other days when I’m really not in that headspace.

The problem is, of course, that editing doesn’t break down as neatly as word count. Mindful that, as I said, writing 500 words usually takes me about half an hour, I tend to organise Lunchtime Editing sessions that way: half an hour to forty-five minutes of editing work. Sometimes, though, it seems more natural to do it by sections: two full chapters of a novel, for instance, or 3,000 words of a story. You could also mix it up: 250 words plus 15 minutes of revisions, perhaps.

The danger of not including editing in your Lunchtime routine, also, is that you might put it off too much. Many writers hate editing, and it can be easy, when you’re working to a Lunchtime Writing routine, to say “I’ll do it at the weekend,” and then somehow never find the time. So including it as part of Lunchtime Writing makes it more certain that you’ll get on to it.

If you’re experimenting with Lunchtime Writing, I’d advise you to give including editing as part of your lunchtime a try. If you find you’d rather keep it separate, then fair enough. But editing’s another thing you need to find time for doing regularly, whether it’s at lunchtime or in a separate session.

The Lunchtime Writer Guest Post 2: Writing in the Gaps with Sara L. Uckelman

I wrote my first story age 4, typing it out on my parents’ Osborne before I could even hold a pen.  This was followed up when I was 7 or 8 by my first “novel”, Cyclesta, an epic tale of a dynasty of fish, and by age 11 I had started my sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

I always knew that I was going to be a writer.  I knew this even when I reached the end of my university years and realised I wasn’t that good.  I put aside fiction and poetry, concentrating on graduate school, research papers, and building my academic career instead.

By the time I woke up one morning in 2014 and thought, “I’m going to start writing fiction again,” I hadn’t written more than a few paragraphs of fiction in more than a decade. I’d gone from a student with an endless supply of time to a married parent of a toddler about to embark on a tenured academic position in a new country. I challenged myself to write 500 words a day – exactly – (I am motivated by arbitrary and obscure constraints) and if I missed my 500 words one day, they rolled over to the next day. Within these constraints, I gave myself perfect freedom: I would write whatever I wanted to write, without any concern about whether I should write it, or whether it was good, or whether I was allowed.

I very quickly realised that 500 words is a lot of words.  Too many words.  I woke up in the morning and was daunted rather than inspired.  Within a day or two, I reduced my challenge to 400 words a day, and that was the first important lesson that I learned: where 500 is impossible, 400 is doable.  I went on to write 400 words a day for the next two and a half months, and continued to write sporadically on that project over the next two years until I had 80,000 words.  Two years later, I extracted a short story’s worth of material from that 80k, and it resulted in my first fiction acceptance as an adult  (“The Sum of Our Memories” was published in Hannah Kate, editor, Nothing, Hic Dragones, https://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/product/nothing/).

If the first lesson I learned was immediate and obvious, the second lesson I learned from this practice I only realised I’d learned in retrospect, and that is that: writing breeds writing.  The more I wrote, the easier it was. Small, achievable goals meant I had the impetus to write every day; actually writing the words meant I wanted to write every day.

A few years into my new job, I joined a group of other academics and writers in formalising the 400 words a day challenge; each month, we bet the others in the group $20 that we could write at least 400 words a day 5 days out of every 7.  It was during this that I learned my third lesson about writing: All words are real words, all writing is good writing.  Many other people in the challenge only counted “real” writing, e.g., word intended for publication. I, on the other hand, counted everything – blog posts, referee reports, comments on student papers, things I would not otherwise have written had I not needed to reach my 400 word goal.  Because writing breeds writing, all writing is good writing. To separate out my words into those that “counted” vs. those that didn’t would only have served to say “some of the things you are writing are valueless”, when manifestly they were not, because they primed the pump. [The words for these post are going into my daily word count tracker!]

Which brings me to the title I chose in this post: Writing in the gaps. Leisure time – time to think, uninterrupted time, time when I am not exhausted – is hard to come by, when you have a partner and a child (even if she is no longer a toddler!) and a demanding job, even before you add a global pandemic into the mix.  Often, I have only a few minutes here and there, a moment when a few sentences spring into my head and I dump them down on paper.  It is in the gaps between all the other calls on my time that I am able to write, but even if it is just a few sentence here, a random Twitter poem there, all writing is good writing, and writing in the gaps means I am doing what matters most: Putting words on paper and building something out of them.

All words count.

All writing matters.

Writing breeds writing.

Write what you want, without judgement.

These are the lessons I’ve learned over the last decade or so, which give me the freedom and permission I need to write in the gaps.

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman is an associate professor of logic at Durham University. Writing in the gaps has resulted in a steady stream of published short stories, flash fic pieces, and poems over the last 5 years, including a story co-written with her (then 8yo) daughter, which resulted in the establishment of Ellipsis Imprints, a small press based in the northeast of England, which publishes SFF, poetry, anthologies, popular nonfiction, and books written for and by children.

For more about what she writes and publishes, see https://sluckelman.webspace.durham.ac.uk/fiction/ and https://www.ellipsis.cx/~liana/ellipsisimprints/.  You can find her reviews of short science fiction and fantasy stories at https://sffreviews.com/.

The Lunchtime Writer Part Three: The Scheherazade Effect

Last time, I talked about how Lunchtime Writing is a good way to find time in your busy day to write. A regular routine of writing a small amount of words keeps you working steadily at your manuscript, allowing you to write over 100k words in a year.

But there’s another benefit to Lunchtime Writing which I call the Scheherazade Effect.

If you remember your Thousand and One Nights, you’ll remember that Scheherazade the storyteller weaponised the cliffhanger, stopping her stories at an exciting point so that the sultan wouldn’t execute her, because he wanted to find out what happened next.

Forcing yourself to stop after a small number of words has a similar effect on the brain. You go through the rest of your day thinking about what’s going to happen. Maybe running through dialogue options, or trying out different things your characters could do in response to the situation you’ve left them in.

By the time the next lunchtime rolls around, and you’re sitting down to write again, you’ve thought it all through, and the next 500 words just flow.

So, it’s not just about writing a small number of words so as to fit your schedule: it’s also about stopping writing, so that your brain goes on working on the manuscript in between. Making those 500 words count, and reducing editing time.

Which is what we’ll talk about next time….

The Lunchtime Writer Guest Post 1: Dawn Vogel

When you work a day job as an author, you sometimes need to carve out bits of time when you can write. For me, when I worked in an office, that time was my lunch break. Even though I sat at the front desk and needed to answer phones, I could usually spend the bulk of my hour-long lunch typing bits of a story or a novel while I ate. More often, I spent about fifteen minutes devouring my food, and then forty-five minutes writing.

I’m a fast typist; if I’m really in the zone with a story or other creative project, I can easily get close to 1,000 words in forty to sixty minutes. For me, 1,000 words is roughly a scene in a novel chapter. With four or five days a week of writing during lunch, I could write about a chapter and a half a week. Several of my novels were largely drafted on my lunch breaks, over the course of several months.

The one thing that lunch time writing didn’t really let me do was revising and editing longer pieces. For those, I tended to want a little more focus and often a little more time. But for drafting quickly, lunch was a perfect opportunity.

Now that I’ve been working from home for nearly two years, I find that I don’t get as much writing done on my lunch break. My husband also works from home, and we usually chat during our respective lunch breaks. Some days, I go for a walk during the second part of my lunch break. Often, there are little household chores that I can knock out instead of writing. The time just doesn’t feel as focused and dedicated as it did when I was in the office daily.

However, I still use similar techniques when I want to draft something quickly. I’ll set myself a timer for twenty or thirty minutes and just write until the alarm sounds. Similar to the Pomodoro technique, I will often break up my writing sprints with short breaks, either to move around so I’m not in my seat all day, or to focus on another task for a bit. I find that using this technique helps me get more done without feeling overwhelmed by the larger project.

So, while my blocks of writing time may no longer be quite as organized around my lunch break, I still make use of short sprints of time to draft new pieces. It’s a useful technique for anyone who doesn’t have as much uninterrupted writing time as they might want!

Dawn Vogel has written for children, teens, and adults, spanning genres, places, and time periods. More than 100 of her stories and poems have been published by small and large presses. Her specialties include young protagonists, siblings who bicker but love each other in the end, and things in the water that want you dead. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. You can find her and her lunchtime drafted novels at historythatneverwas.com or chat with her on Twitter @historyneverwas.

The Lunchtime Writer Part Two: How To Lunchtime Write

Welcome back to The Lunchtime Writer! In this post I’m going to expand on what I mean by Lunchtime Writing, and lay out the basics of how to do it.

As I said in the first post of this series, Lunchtime Writing doesn’t necessarily mean writing at lunchtime. What I mean by Lunchtime Writing is, writing in short, regular bursts, the sort of thing one could, potentially, do at lunchtime. Myself, I’m technically a Before Work Writer, because I tend to do my writing around eight AM before the working day begins, and you could also do it in the evenings if you’re so inclined.

The point, though, is to write a small number of words, but do it regularly. My own usual routine is to write around 500 words a day.

But the other point is to do it regularly. I write 500 words, or equivalent writing-related work (more on this in later posts), every day– workdays and weekends. Writing, for me, is like playing a musical instrument or learning a language: the key to it is to do it regularly and often, and make it part of your routine.

Which is the “secret” (not a secret) to how Lunchtime Writing works. 500 words of prose a day, every day, is 182,500 words a year. 500 words every weekday is 130,000. That’s as much, or more, as writers who binge-write a few thousand words every few days. And the best of it is, you don’t feel like you’re writing a lot, because you’re only doing it for about half an hour a day.

This is why I’d really recommend Lunchtime Writing particularly for people who are in the headspace of wanting to get serious about writing, but feeling like they can’t take the time away from work or caring. Maybe, once you get into the practice of writing, you’ll find you can write more, or you can make more space in your day for it. But if you’ve ever said “I have a good idea for a novel but I never seem to find the time…”

…then here’s how to find the time.

The Lunchtime Writer part 1: Introduction

I’m starting a new series on my blog. The catalyst was this story making the rounds in late 2020: the tl;dr is that one man became quite upset upon discovering that, after his writer wife had promised to put aside writing to look after their baby, she had in fact written a book on her lunch breaks, and he felt this was a dereliction of duty.

My response? “Hang on, I’m a lunch-break writer, and I can tell you that it’s more than possible to get a 100k novel draft written in about seven months, leaving you the rest of the year to revise and edit and maybe do a few short stories.”

After a while, I got the impression that it might be useful to write a few short blog posts about the discipline of Lunchtime Writing from my own perspective: what I do, when I do it, how to set goals and stick to them, what other Lunchtime Writers do or have done, and so forth. So, here we go!

A couple of points as we begin:

1/ As I hope to expand in the next post, I’m not defining a Lunchtime Writer as someone who writes exclusively at lunchtime! Anybody whose writing practice involves daily (or work-daily) short bursts of prose, of the sort that could, potentially, take place at lunchtime, counts.

2/ I’m not going to tell you how to Get Rich through being a Lunchtime Writer. It’s possible to do so– Jacqueline Wilson is a Lunchtime Writer— but whether you write commercially salable fiction in your lunch breaks is entirely up to you, and there are a lot of other blogs that will tell you how to write for profit. I will say that it’s a good way to achieve your writing goals, and whether these involve writing massive bestsellers or incredibly literary novellas is up to you.

Right– off we go then!