13 YA Authors on How They Find (Forge, Carve Out, Sacrifice For) the Time to Write

Anyone pursuing creative work with any level of seriousness has heard the question: “How do you find the time?” They may or may not have responded by laughing, loudly and grimly, until the questioner slunk away. Time, as Heidi Heilig says below, isn’t forged, but “gleaned from sacrifice on a dark altar.” Around childcare, family obligations, other jobs, Life Stuff, and (in one case) tickets to Frozen on Broadway, all the authors here have dreamed up, written, and edited their books, slaying the dragons of Never Enough Time in the process.

Here are some of the ways they’ve done it.

I’d love to write a book, says Some Guy. If only I had the time. Here’s why I bristle at this: I wrote my first book when I was a stay-at-home dad of our newborn baby, and as any stay-at-home parent will tell you, taking care of a baby is tireless, around the clock work. I’d spent most of my professional life recording music in my home, which was now a complete impossibility. But I had an idea for a novel and knew that if I didn’t channel my creativity in some fashion, I would die (a slow, sad, death) inside. So I made little deals with myself. I would try to write when he napped. If I ended up napping when he napped (as was often the case), I would try to stay up late that night. This guaranteed at least an hour or so of writing time per day. Additionally, we had a family membership to the YMCA. PRO TIP: the Y offers two hours of childcare per day, and while you can’t leave the premises, they don’t *make* you work out. So while other parents sweated through Zumba, I sweated through plot holes and weak character development. I’d say I wrote roughly half of my first novel sitting in the YMCA lobby. I get being busy. Whether it’s a job or a kid or school or any number of a million things—I get it. But if you’ve ever found yourself thinking, I’d love to write a book, I’d encourage you to follow that up with, now how can I make the time to do it? Somewhere out there, your YMCA lobby awaits!

–David Arnold, author of The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik

“How do you find the time?” That’s the constant refrain. As though time is under a leaf in a witch’s garden, or at the bottom of a wishing well in a dark wood. Sometimes I hear the companion question: “How do you make the time?” Perhaps they think I conjure it from coffee grounds and cogs from broken pocket watches, or forge it on an iron anvil where my pillow should be. I can’t complain. I dreamed of this life. The first book I wrote was my way of dealing with infertility. The joke was on me, though: I was pregnant by the time I was querying. Four years later, with two kids, three jobs, a book a year, and a husband in there somewhere, I don’t have it as hard as many do. We eat well. We have time to play. My dreams have come true. But the fairytale of my life is heavily edited. There are more pages in the trunk than make it into the final draft. I have killed so many darlings. Long conversations with secondary characters I adore have been cut to serve the main narrative: work and family, work and family. The Story of the American Dream Come True. It is, in its own way, a witch’s curse, or the sharp double-edge of any wish granted. Perhaps I have sucked time from the marrow of the bones of my past life, before I had children, before I was an author. The girl I was when I would have given anything I was to be who I am now. Time is not forged on an anvil. It is gleaned from sacrifice on a dark altar.

–Heidi Heilig, author of For a Muse of Fire

I sold Daughter of Smoke & Bone on a partial manuscript when my daughter was a baby, and all of a sudden I had a deadline and a pressing need to finish it. But with a baby in the house, focus was a little hard to come by. I’d never been able to write in cafés, but it was time to try harder. There was one just a few blocks away and I started going there for a few hours each morning. It was tiny and really slow, which was perfect. Over the course of that summer, I finished the book. Yay! And I’ll never forget this: the next day—literally the day after I finished writing Daughter of Smoke & Bone—I drove by and the café was out of business. I like to imagine that at the moment those doors closed forever they opened somewhere else, on some little side street where a writer was looking for a quiet spot to finish their book. I wish I could send this mystical café to everyone who needs it. (Also, thank you to my husband who was home with the baby during those morning hours!) 

I had to go to a much busier café after that, but it wasn’t so overwhelming after I’d eased into it with the quiet one. I did have to get noise-canceling headphones, though! It was one of many times that I’ve discovered, under pressure, that I actually could do something I thought I couldn’t. It’s important not to be too precious about process and ideal work conditions, because life won’t always provide those.

–Laini Taylor, author of Muse of Nightmares

In theory, running a full-time business while writing sounds easy. After all, it’s my business and I make the rules; I can work at my own pace, right? …Not exactly. Aside from the fact that IceyDesigns, my design studio and shop, draws as much from the creativity well as writing does, there are only so many hours in a day for scheduling, and I am always working.

If you’re looking for a time-turner of an answer, alas, I’m still searching for one myself. But there’s only one way I’m able to make this much happen, at least: family. It’s so important to find the ones who are on your side no matter what, and for me, that’s my family. I’m forever thankful to them for helping and supporting me in every possible way. I’ll need all the help and more the closer I get to We Hunt the Flame‘s release date!

–Hafsah Faizal, author of We Hunt the Flame

It is 8:57 a.m. Today is in no way a special day, except it’s a Monday and my children are not in school, but then again, it feels like my children are never in school (darn you, second-tier holidays and colds and flus and weird rashes). I’ve brushed my teeth, not my hair, and I really have to pee, but my five-year-old son is demanding I “pick a card, any card” because in the last twenty-four hours he has decided he’s into magic and wants to—no, needs to—show me his new trick. I’m yelling at my eight-year-old to eat breakfast so she doesn’t develop rickets. (She’s much more interested in reading her book than nourishing herself, and at least in the first way, though definitely not the second, she’s very much her mother’s daughter.) I’m sitting in front of my laptop, and I’m: 1) responding to three different work emails with my one free hand, including the offer to write this paragraph; 2) glancing longingly at the pile of books I want to read in the next month that will nourish my brain and help with the manuscript I’m supposed to be—but at least at the moment, not actually—writing; 3) glancing apprehensively at the pile of books I’ve agreed to read for blurbs in the next month that will distract me from my own work; 4) and perhaps most urgently, waiting for the clock to turn to 9 a.m. because all the parents in my daughter’s class have been instructed to help sign up our school for a field trip six months away at 9 a.m. on the dot. Apparently, all the good dates somehow get booked up within two minutes; it’s kind of like Tinder or New York real estate, but for a visit to the Jet Propulsion Lab. Awesome. I’m on this. 9 a.m., I click on the website. No dates available. Crap. Only 9 a.m., and already failure #1. My son makes me close my eyes so he can secretly peek at my card. While I spread extra butter on a bagel for my daughter, who is skinny (Is she too skinny? Why doesn’t she like food? I worry.), and realize we are out of milk (failure #2), I pretend to be amazed by the sudden appearance of the six of hearts. WOW! I say. AMAZING! Was that my card? I honestly can’t remember. Both my kids are still wearing only their underwear. So is my husband. Why are they always in their underwear? (Failure #3.) Did I remember to send that email to my agent—the one about that issue that I feel super strongly about, or I did last night, before I got distracted? (Failure #4.) I don’t know. I’d check, but the new Gmail layout is confusing. (Failure #5.) I have yet to open my book-in-progress. 9:10 a.m. This paragraph has been written. (Big win!) I still really, really need to pee.

–Julie Buxbaum, What to Say Next

Trying to do everything is not easy. If you’re a parent​-writer​, it​’​s very likely that your child will be home sick from school or ​that ​your great aunt will require your assistance with some urgent task like setting up a gnome retreat in her backyard when you​’​re on deadline. Murphy’s Law and all that.

For some people, it’s easy to multitask. I am not one of those people. What I had to do, especially before I started to get paid for writing, was schedule time on my calendar to work on my book. Just like my kid’s swimming lesson or my husband’s meeting at work, my writing time was sacred and defined by this boundary I set. My biggest piece of advice to anybody looking to juggle multiple responsibilities is to treat writing as a corporate job even if you aren’t getting paid yet. This means no matter what, whether you’re feeling a little under the weather, or unmotivated, or other people are concerned that you might secretly have joined a cult because you spend so much time at Panera, you still need to pretend like you have a curmudgeonly boss who’s going to fire you if you don’t show up.

​Writers need to be okay claiming our time.​ And sometimes that’s a LOT of time.​ ​Easier said than done, especially when taking time to write feel​s​ like ​we’re being selfish.​ I have to tell myself over and over again that yes, I’m kind of a sh*tty mom when I’m on deadline, but that’s a temporary situation. My kids might not be seeing a whole lot of happy, upbeat, bake-cookies-every-afternoon Mom during these times, but they are seeing their mom as a fully-fleshed out human being who has a career, is creative, and isn’t afraid to take what she needs. ​And that’s an important lesson, too.

–Sandhya Menon, author of From Twinkle, with Love

I have a long daily commute to my day job, so making use of it to write is a must. But as someone who writes a lot of romance, sometimes you’re forced to contort your body in some weird ways on the subway to block…sensitive scenes from neighboring eyes. It’s definitely an interesting writing process just trying to get and stay in the zone surrounded by that many people, but learning to do it has paid off in such a big way, especially since having a baby has made writing at home considerably tougher. My son is extremely cute, but more than anything he loves toddling into my office and begging to be lifted into my lap so he can type just like Mommy, which has made my commuting time all the more precious for creativity!

–Dahlia Adler, author of Just Visiting

I’ve written in some weird places. A raccoon infested hut. Backstage at a symphony concert. A sweltering 100-foot tent built over a tennis court. The dark corner of a ballroom in Lisbon. My day job keeps me busy, but at least it gives me plenty of opportunities to change up my writing routine.

–Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great Is Not Okay

Being a writer, in my opinion, is about practicing the habit of writing. It sounds so simple, and yet often, as my mother says, “life just gets in the way of living.” I began working on my first book in 2007 when I was working full time at a high school. At first, I just squeezed in writing haphazardly whenever I could, but I wasn’t getting anywhere quickly. I realized I needed routine. So I started getting up at 5 a.m. and writing for two hours before going to work. I was exhausted when I wrote, yes, but the pages were finally piling up. I was in a writing group at the time, and once we were workshopping a section I’d turned in and I had no idea what everyone was talking about—I didn’t remember anything about the scene because I’d been half asleep when I wrote it! But later, that same scene became a pivotal chapter in my first book, The Gospel of Winter. Maybe my semi-dream state had helped! I no longer teach, but for the past three years I’ve spent more than one hundred days on the road each academic year. Writing routines are tough when you are always on the go—but they’re still necessary. I’m writing this paragraph on a desk in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, MI, and it was on a similar desk in a similar hotel in this same city that I put the finishing touches on what became the final draft of my latest book, Tradition. My new schedule might not allow me to put in the two hours every morning as I once did, but there are now hours at a cubicle in an airport, there are hours at a desk in a hotel room, there are hours on the tray table on the Amtrak trains. If those hours are all I have, they are still a gift, because they allow me the chance to practice my favorite habit, the habit of writing.

–Brendan Kiely, author of Tradition

I have a fairly intense and demanding day job.  I’m a prosecutor for the State of Tennessee.  I’d never be an author were it not for that job, because it’s where I honed my skills as a writer and acquired the confidence to try my hand at fiction—after all, if I can write a story good enough to keep a rapist in prison, maybe I can write one good enough for young adults.

In addition to my job, I have a family, a very cute Havanese who needs walking, a lawn that requires mowing, a dishwasher that needs unloading, a bathroom that needs cleaning, dinners that need making, and laundry that needs doing. So I’ve developed a way to shoehorn creativity into my life. Every day, I take an hourlong walk to let my imagination run free, which fuels my two writing slots of the day: my bus ride to and from work. I’ve written about eighty percent of each of my three books on my iPhone on the bus. I’ve even filmed an ad for Nashville’s transit system. I believe that creativity is something I have to make time for, or I’ll lose my mind.

–Jeff Zentner, author of Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Do you want to build a snowman? No, I wanted to work on my revision! Just days before a major book deadline, I was sitting in a Broadway theater, half paying attention to Elsa and Anna up on stage. I wish I could have focused on the show. I wish I could have lost myself in the costumes, the sets, the frozen fractals all around. I wish I could have sung along in my head to those addictive Disney songs. I mean, they’re seriously like crack for kids. But all I could think about was my book—plot lines, character development, that one chapter I just couldn’t get right.

Then I had an idea. It came at the end of Act 1, after Elsa belted the last note of “Let It Go.” Tucked underneath my seat was my backpack, and inside it, my laptop. Intermission was 15 minutes long. What if instead of getting up, I wrote?

I looked to my left and right, took a deep breath, and took out my laptop. For a second, I felt shame. But quickly, I let it go. Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know? Nope. I had a deadline to hit. And so I wrote. During intermission. In the middle of Frozen on Broadway.

I hit my deadline.

–Arvin Ahmadi, author of Down and Across

For as long as I’ve been writing fiction professionally, I’ve also been a working mom to two small kids (who love to talk). That means I’ve pretty much always had to steal time—from my MFA days (when I met my frequent coauthor Dhonielle Clayton), when I’d wake up at 4 a.m. to get that week’s assignment done, to the baby days to today, when D and I log countless odd hours on a shared Google doc to get drafts and revisions done. The awesome thing about having a coauthor is that it brings an automatic accountability—someone else is waiting on your pages, so they’ve got to get done. (Or else!) These days, working on my solo debut, Symptoms of a Heartbreak, without Dhonielle, I’ve really had to rely on outside deadlines to motivate myself, because I’m a master procrastinator. I try to use productivity tools like the pomodoro method (a timer that clocks work in twenty-five-minute segments) and Wunderlist to track my tasks, so I’m not whiling the day away on countless episodes of House Hunters (which makes awesome background TV). My day is usually still framed by kid stuff, so I know if I don’t get most of my work done during school hours, I will be stealing time again late at night or in the early a.m., and that’s a good motivator, too. Because I’d much rather sleep!

–Sona Charaipotra, author of Symptoms of a Heartbreak

Yes, hello, it’s me, the editor of this post. I’ll admit I pulled it together because I wanted to read it, drawing inspiration in the process. Before having a baby, I was pretty pleased with myself for having written a novel around a day job. After having a baby, I’m too busy fitting in writing and making a stuffed lion go “raaar” to pat myself on the back. Most writers, myself among them, don’t choose to(/aren’t able to) quit their day job. What I’ve done instead is pare away all the “extra” stuff I was doing with my time. Cooking, going to the gym, watching Netflix—chopped! Having less time has also made me less precious about my rituals: I used to set up my writing environment like I was planning a little party for one: tea! Candle! Comfy chair! Now I just…write. Usually sitting on the bed outside of our teeny nursery, hoping the kiddo stays down for a while.

–Melissa Albert, author of The Hazel Wood

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