Writing and Life

One of the challenges of being a writer is integrating writing into day-to-day life. The vast majority of writers – aspiring and published alike – have a day job, a family, hobbies, and chores.

And, sadly, they still need to sleep. I think that is a great oversight on someone’s part.

I have no idea how people manage to have a day job, children, and a writing career. In my case, it’s a somewhat simpler question of balancing a job, writing, and the rest of life.

Even so, it isn’t easy.

No Time to Write!

I think the most important realization is that it isn’t a question of time.

It is a question of priorities.

I think I first heard that observation on Writing Excuses. I find it valuable because it re-frames the question. Instead of asking “however can I get more than the standard 24 hours per day that everyone is allotted,” it urges the would-be writer to take a look at their priorities, and consider where writing fits in the stack.

It is a useful exercise to consider both your real priorities and your wished-for priorities.

For example, maybe you want your priorities to be:

  • Work
  • Writing
  • Family
  • Chores
  • TV

But looking at your use of time, your priorities are actually:

  • Work
  • TV
  • Chores
  • Family
  • Writing

This is not a happy thing, but until you recognize it, you won’t do anything about it. You’re most likely to just keep thinking wistfully that it would be really nice to write, if only you had time.

You do! You just have to give up TV (or games or gardening or books or whatever-hobby) in order to get it.

Are you willing to do that?

It is ok to say no.

It is your life, and if you want to place a hobby above writing, that’s fine.

If you want to place your family above writing, that’s probably healthy from many standpoints.

If you want to place your day job above writing, that’s good for your financial well-being.

But don’t say you don’t have time.

Acknowledge your priorities. Own them. And if you don’t like them – well, change them!

That easy, right? Um. Yeah.

The Writing Habit

There exist binge writers, who spill out a book in a month or two, and then don’t write again for a year. Recognize NaNoWriMo?

Don’t get me wrong, I think NaNo is great – it gets people to really try writing out – but after my first NaNoWriMo in 2007, I didn’t write again for months.

There are a few rare writers who can actually operate this way, but if you’re playing the odds, it is much better to build writing into your daily life as a habit.

My first successful run at the writing habit was to do half an hour a day, every day. If I missed a day, I had to make it up. It actually worked pretty well; it got me a full, edited novel. A trunk novel, yes, but a novel nonetheless.

The big benefit of that kind of system is there isn’t any question of whether you’ll write.

There is no, “Hmm, do I feel like writing today? Nah.”

It’s “Dang, I don’t really feel like writing, but I’ll put in my half hour.”

And the amazing thing? Even if you don’t much feel like writing, you can still wind up with quite a good session. For me, about 90% of the time when I don’t feel like writing, if I just sit down and do it, it will go fine.

The big disadvantage of that particular system is that it’s easy to watch the clock. There were times when it was going pretty well, but I would hit time and stop because there were books to read and gardening to do and dinner to cook and . . . !

I wish I could give a variant of this that worked for everyone (or even for me all the time). My best suggestion is to try different approaches.

I have been doing editing for the last few months, so I barely remember what my last successful approach was, but it boils down to something like this:

  • Write or edit every day.
  • Put in a minimum (minimum, or great shame!) of 15 minutes. Target forty-five minutes to an hour, more if on a roll.
  • If it’s a poor session, try to make it up the next day.
  • If it’s a really good session, sock up the extra time. Note that I don’t usually “use” the saved up time, unless I’m purposefully “saving up” because of a known lull in writing (a work trip, vacation, holidays). But I can feel all virtuous and happy about all that extra time.

There are all sorts of ways to play with this.

  • Minimum word count instead of minimum time (although that risks the writing of crap).
  • Minimum time for the week, allowing fewer but longer blocks of time (although that’s harder to establish as a habit).

The big thing is to observe how you’re doing with the goals, and whether they’re working.

  • Do you question your writing time?
  • Do you feel guilty if you don’t write?
  • Do you write before you settle in to <perform random unwinding hobby>?
  • Are you getting your writing time in?
  • Are you happy with how your empirical priorities are stacking up?

These last two are the most important. For me, the first three are good, because those regulate whether I’m actually doing my writing – but everyone is different. Plenty of crazy night owls wait and do their writing after the family is in bed.

They’re nuts, but whatever works.

Life Happens

The other important thing with a well-maintained writing habit is to acknowledge that life happens.

You will get sick. Work will go crazy. There will be a family emergency. You will go on vacation.

There is a threshold where your priorities will change, and you may not get your writing in.

That’s ok.

The important thing is to recognize what’s going on, and try to manage it.

For me, it’s important to not slide into it. A crazy week at work? Fine, I’ll still do my writing.

A crazy month at work, plus sick? Well, maybe it’s time for a break – with a date to resume.

What I don’t want to do is skip writing once or twice a week . . . and then two or three times a week . . . and then most days . . . and then wake up to realize I haven’t worked on a story in six months.

If I skip a couple days, I take a hard look at what’s going on in my life, and either buckle down and get back to writing anyway, or allow myself to take a break.

This last summer, for example, I bought a house with my fiancé, cleared out my house in Seattle, got renters, and moved out to our new home in Port Angeles.

Did I write during the nuttiness?

I took a 3 month break.

But it was conscious, and when the dust cleared it was lovely to get back to writing. It felt like I was getting back to my “normal” life.

There is risk to stopping, but I think that if it is deliberate and controlled, the chances of starting again are much greater.


The thing that has worked well for me, and many of the writers I know, is to find a writing schedule that can integrate into day-to-day life. You’re in this for the long haul, and it’s best to keep that in mind.

When reviewing your priorities, try to keep in mind that it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

Writing is important to me.

I have cut into my reading time in order to pursue it.

I could write more if I didn’t read at all.

I could write more if I never watched movies.

I could write more if I quit gardening.

I could write more if I made Rob do all the chores.

I could write more if I reduced my day job hours.

I am not going to do any of that, though, because in the long term it would shake my balance, and I might get knocked out of my writing habit in the resulting correction.

Better slow and steady and consistent.

Other Opinions?

These thoughts on writing/life balance are drawn from my own experience.

It is something that I think all writers struggle with. Have thoughts or opinions? Please share!

Temporal Descriptors in Fantasy

It is easy to take time for granted.

We live in a world where we are very conscious of the time. We have accurate time at our fingertips. We use time at a minute level on a regular basis, and we can get the time at a second and millisecond level quite readily.

Time can easily be one of those things that a fantasy writer throws around without really considering. I certainly did.

“I waited a few seconds.”

“Give me five minutes.”

“I was due to meet him at 3 o’clock.”

“It had been seven hours.”

All of these are the sorts of phrases that drop into the text without really thinking about it. They are commonly used in our culture, and to not use them requires a conscious decision.

As part of my large-scale world-building review, I have been thinking a lot about time. What degree of granularity is appropriate for my story? How do they measure time? How conscious are they of time?

In deciding how to handle time in a story, there are two major factors: how much does time matter in the story’s context, and what are their options for measuring time?

As part of figuring this out, it is helpful to know a little bit about how temporal descriptors developed in our world, and what timekeeping devices have been like throughout history. Stealing like a thief is always a fine option in world building!

How Long is an Hour? 

Things like hours have not always been considered constant. Because an hour is made up of 60 minutes in my world, it is easy to assume that a standard of unit of time is, of necessity, going to be constant.

Not so.

Depending on how you measure time, an hour can vary. For example, if you get an “hour” by evenly dividing the daylight time, an “hour” will be much shorter in the winter than it is in the summer.

As odd as it seems to us, that was quite standard in many parts of the world – including Medieval Europe. In fact, they had two different sorts of time. Solar time, which varied, and time “of the clock”, which didn’t.

I find this notion of parallel – and differing – temporal metrics quite amazing. Of course, once you know that temporal measures don’t have to be constant, you have to decide whether you want them to be constant in your world.


So how did we wind up with hours, minutes, and seconds anyway?

Two ancient civilizations are at fault.

The Egyptians first divided the day into two twelve-hour chunks. That’s the duodecimal component. They primarily used sundials, so they were one of those temporally-variable cultures noted above. It was actually the Greeks who came up with the idea of fixing the duration of an hour, to make certain calculations easier. You can thank Hipparchus for our current 24-hour system. But I digress.

The Sumerians were the brilliant folk who did sexagesimal calculations, giving us the base-60 calculations for minutes and seconds. The Babylonians adopted the system, and gifted it to the Greeks.

Of course, minutes and seconds were not in common use for many centuries. Whether to have seconds at all is a question every fantasy author should consider.

When I was thinking about this question myself, I became preoccupied with the terminology. Where did minute and second come from, anyway?

It turns out that it was originally:

  • First minute (60 seconds)
  • Second minute (1 second)
  • Third minute (1/60 second)
  • Fourth minute (1/1/60 second)

The last two were only ever of interest to a slice of European scientists, in the time period before the milliseconds and nanoseconds took over.

Ways of Timekeeping

A society’s options for time keeping is going to have implications for what temporal granularity makes sense for that culture. It may also influence the most appropriate jargon.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sun and stars
  • Water clocks
  • Sand timers
  • Candle clocks
  • Mechanical clocks

The next thing to consider is whether there is accurate time but at a large scale (e.g. a town clock); globally accessible but inaccurate time (the sun); personal but relative timekeeping (e.g. a sand timer); or accurate personal timekeeping (a pocketwatch, etc. – which is extremely new-fangled in the larger scheme of things!).

To some extent you can mix and match these options.

How they keep time is going to have ramifications.

For example, accurate and compact timekeeping is necessary for measuring longitude accurately.

Case Study

 My novel is set in a society with roughly 16th century technology. Town clocks seemed reasonable, as did small but inaccurate devices such as sand timers or candles. I went with sand timers – although it’s worth noting that sand timers imply a degree of sophistication when working with glass.

Which verbiage to keep?

I decided to change hour to bell, since the bells are how everyone hears the time. I might still change it back to hour, since most people will consider “hour” invisible, and “bell” makes itself felt.

I tried to get rid of “minutes” for a while, but frankly minutes are really hard to eradicate. I eventually decided that at their level of sophistication – and regimentation – it was reasonable to have something more fine-grained. I may change my mind about it, but I feel that any alternative would be so obtrusive as to be problematic.

I did get rid of seconds. I really don’t think seconds have any place in a pre-industrial society, unless there are scientists involved. Fortunately it’s relatively easy to swap out “seconds” with “breaths” or “moments”, depending on context. Most of the time “seconds” aren’t actually being used as a strict temporal measure – they’re being used to give the sense that a small amount of time has passed.


Most of my information came from Google, thanks especially to:








Review: The Martian

For this week’s review, I bring you The Martian, by Andy Weir. It is a near-future Sci-Fi, set within the next few decades.


The premise snagged me right away:

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after his mission is aborted.


He is a member of the third mission to Mars. The most junior member. A huge storm blows up a few days after the mission reaches Mars’ surface, forcing evacuation to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). En route through the storm, Mark is hit by an antenna and knocked out.

Through a series of freak events, Mark’s crew members think he is dead.

Through a series of even freakier events, Mark actually survives, in spite of his suit being breached.

The MAV almost tips over in the storm’s high winds, and the crew is forced to leave – or risk being stranded on Mars.


So, Mark is on Mars. He has shelter, and he has food for now – enough for a year. The catch is that the next Mars mission isn’t due to arrive for four years, and he has no way to communicate with Earth.


The book is about Mark’s efforts to survive, and NASA’s efforts to retrieve him.

It was clearly meticulously researched. Umpty-nine things go wrong, and there are a corresponding umpty-nine clever fixes, each carefully grounded with detailed explanations. I’m enough of an engineer that I enjoyed the explanations, and appreciated the effort that went into them. I wasn’t quite enough of an engineer to read the explanations as meticulously as they were written.


I was impressed that the author was able to keep the tension and pacing through 369 pages of things almost killing Mark (and maybe actually killing him – wouldn’t want to give away the ending!). If the story had been on earth it would have been easy to hit the “oh, come on now!” point, but this is on a harsh planet, over a pretty fair span of time. With that background, the Murphy’s Law effect seemed inevitable instead of forced.


The story is split into first-person chapters from Mark’s point of view and third-person chapters looking at what’s going on back home.

I admit that I was a bit taken aback the first time I hit a third-person chapter, mostly because the first five chapters/48 pages were in first person. At that point I thought the whole book would be in first person.

That moment of “er – wait a minute!” was my biggest beef with the story. It definitely threw me out for a whole twenty seconds.

However, the third-person parts on Earth gave an important perspective. I think it would have been possible to write the whole book from Mark’s point of view, but that would have missed out on some wonderful emotional and dramatic moments.


My writer-self wonders whether Andy could have slipped a third-person Earth chapter in earlier. Perhaps something in third person showing his fellow crew members or Earth responding to Mark’s loss. But that would have weakened the logical sequence of point of view.

As it is written, the book only introduces a point of view shortly before it is “connected” to the rest of the story. The Earth point of view picks up very shortly before they discover Mark is alive. The crew’s point of view picks up very shortly before they are told Mark is alive.


Anyway, the POV management was an interesting aspect. Aside from that very first jolt, I thought it was quite effective.

I often get annoyed with multi-threaded books because I almost always like one thread better than the other. In this case, I was never sorry to leave one viewpoint and get shunted to another – they were all interesting.



The Martian is a great survival tale that has some neat engineering and excellent plotting/characterization.

It is Andy Weir’s first published novel. I look forward to seeing what he writes next!

New Effort – Reviews!

I’m going to start working the occasional book review into my weekly posts. Working on my own writing craft has made me more conscious of certain aspects of books. When reading for pleasure, I still try to look at books as a reader first, but the writer is always lurking in the corner.

These reviews will try to balance the reader view with the writer view – hopefully to useful effect.


The Martian – Andy Weir

Fun with Revisions

I have been busy revising my YA fantasy novel for the last month.

I came away from Viable Paradise wanting to strengthen the cultural and historic foundation for my world. I spent the first month doing research; I have been integrating the fruits of that research ever since.

It isn’t that I’m adding or changing that much, but each 10-200 word snippet has to be judiciously inserted, and then massaged to match the 2nd-4th draft quality of the rest of the work.

It is fun, but it is slow going.

I went through and tagged all the spots that I wanted to tweak. This last week, I have been bobbing up and down between having 27 and 30 sections to modify. That is down from about 50 at the start, but I seem to have hit the dreaded Editing Plateau.

Part of that is the tendency of the edits to proliferate: insert a detail about the city in section X. Realize that section Y should have further exploration of the same thing. Add section Y to the list.

Part of that is my reluctance to officially check off the changes. I go back and re-read each insertion. Edit. Tweak. Re-read. Allow it to rest. Come back. Re-read. Edit.

Some of them have been pretty easy to finalize. Others have been in draft form for several days, and will remain so for a little while. Inserting information while avoiding info dumps can be tricky, and I sometimes have trouble telling whether I have crossed the line.

That’s what beta readers are for, though!

My other struggle is coming up with substitutes for slang.

I love language, especially the weird mutt that is English, but some of my favorite words and phrases are too vividly vernacular to play in a fantasy setting. It is an interesting problem.

It is always a judgment call whether it is appropriate to use certain kinds of slang in a work of fantasy. If you view it as a translation, you have more leeway, but there is still a limit.

There were a number of terms or idioms that I used originally that I have now marked for substitution. In some cases I’m having trouble coming up with a reasonable/interesting substitute that will be easy to understand.

The one that is currently giving me fits is bigwig. There are lots of great (approximate) equivalents: high muckety-muck, big kahuna, nob, nabob, VIP.

None of them are remotely suitable.

So now I’m trying to come up with an equivalent that is actually appropriate for my story’s culture, that will be easy for the reader to pick up.

I’m toying with something based on military structure, armor, or weaponry, since the nobles in the country come from a martial culture. I could potentially go with a crossover term such as “brass”, which has the advantage of not being completely unfamiliar, but also comes with baggage.

I will probably wind up cutting my losses on some of the slang, either going back to the regular word (e.g. changing “green monster” to “envy”), or letting the real world slang slip through.

I’m hoping to finish up the current round of edits in the next week or two, so that I can put out a call for beta readers. We’ll see how I do with preventing the edits from proliferating. I have “finished” it before, surely I can again . . . ?

My First New Year’s Resolution!

I have never made a New Year’s Resolution.

January 1st isn’t an especially good time to start things, at least for me. I’m usually backlogged with work and projects from the holidays. The weather isn’t great. I just want to stay at home and catch up on things.

All that said, I am going to break my long-standing tradition and make a New Year’s Resolution.

I resolve to update this blog once a week, regardless of what else is going on in my life, for at least the next year.

I want to work blogging into my schedule, and this seems like the kind of goal that actually works well with the major January 1st benchmark.

There are lots of things that I have been meaning to talk about, but I have a full and happy life. That’s mostly good, but it means that “talking about stuff” tends to fall off the back burner.

So. Weekly blog commitment.

Anyone want to jump on the bandwagon?

Happy New Year!