Many years ago I found myself without a job. I was in my early twenties, less than two years out of college, and my parents offered to let me move back in while I found a new job and saved a little cash.
I knew restarting my career might prove challenging. The local unemployment rate had reached 7.5% and people just weren’t hiring. When I mentioned my circumstances to a friend, she suggested I look at it as a gift. “Allow yourself a little time to regroup,” she advised. “Enjoy the respite. This might be an opportunity to finish your novel.”
I had begun writing my metaphysical science fiction novel in my sophomore year of college. Having finished my term paper early that semester, I did something many people come to regret. I opened a fresh word processing document, hit CAPS LOCK, and typed, “CHAPTER 1.” I’ve been writing ever since.
It took me two summers to finish the first draft of that manuscript, but I had been writing just to get the story down on paper with little thought about grammar, spelling, or craft, and since then had been revising. All that time I’d daydreamed about what it would be like to write full time. Now I would get my chance.
It took me a few weeks to pack up my apartment, move everything in storage, and settle into my parents’ spare bedroom. I started writing on a Monday, getting up early and getting ready, exactly as if I was going to work, but instead I sat at my roll-top desk and began to type.
I wrote all day and into the evening and ended with twenty-six pages of decent material. This is amazing, I thought. I’m going to finish this bad boy in a few months!
The next day I repeated the process, but by the afternoon I was getting antsy. I found myself getting up more frequently for stretch breaks. It’s as if the energy I had put into that first twenty-six-page day had deflated me. I finished Day Two at five or six in the evening and had a respectable sixteen pages. Nothing like the performance of Day One, but not bad either.
By Day Three, the frequent stretch breaks began in the morning instead of the afternoon. By lunchtime, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed a break. Is this what writing full time would be like? Before now, I’d either been in school, had a summer job, or both. My longest continuous writing session before this point had been four, maybe six hours, and it had always been immensely pleasurable. I’d assumed the more time I had to write, the more gratifying it would be.
What I came to learn is that the time traveling to work and school, time spent walking from place to place, and any other miscellaneous downtime had also been writing time, I just didn’t know it. Those sessions in front of the computer had merely been capturing the material when my thoughts were coalescing, when ideas for characters or dialogue or plot points were coming together in my head.
In the end, I found that I could only write eight pages a day. Anything more was unsustainable for more than a few days in a row. Writing twelve pages one day meant I could only manage four or five the next day and maybe even less the day after that.
The lesson I learned was this: It is much more productive to write a little each day, consistently over time, than to write in large chunks. Which, as it turned out, gave me plenty of time left over to find a job.
Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.