Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Day in the Life

One of the fun questions I get a lot is what is an average day in the life for me, as a writer? I usually give a glib answer: at home, no pants, laptop on the couch. And it's true--but really, a "day in the life" is much more difficult.

And when I really think about this question, it usually comes from people who aren't published yet, who want to know what it's like. But the thing is--it's different for everyone. And it's different based on where you are in the process. So I thought I'd give you several different days in the lives of me as a writer.

I'm a college sophomore at this point, and an RA, living by myself. I'm not much into partying and I'm pretty introverted. I'm considering taking a creative writing class, but I know they do a lot of short stories, and I don't really write short stories so I try one. It turns into my first novel.

Typical day:

  • Morning: sleep in, catch breakfast just before it closes at the dining hall, because breakfast at the dining hall is amazing
  • Midday: most classes. Write notes about my story during boring classes in the margins of my notebook.
  • Afternoon: hang out in the grassy field quad at campus between classes, think of new plot turns
  • Evening: before bed, after television and hanging out with friends, write for an hour or two. I never had a schedule--this was all for fun, and eventually, I had a whole book

I'm in grad school now, and I've been writing a book a year since the first one. It's still fun, but I've started thinking about publishing. I sent the other books out for potential publication, but nothing came of it, and I wasn't too disheartened (and I didn't try that hard either). But I was starting to really, really want publication. I already had my BA in English education and my teaching certification, but I also wasn't really sure I wanted to be a teacher forever. I had dreams of landing a pub deal and never having to "work" a day in my life. These dreams were huge, because I had only inflatable furniture and ate a lot of Hamburger Helper (sometimes minus the hamburger) and ramen.

Typical day:

  • Morning-afternoon: go to library or read for my master's thesis. I was doing a two-year program in one year because I could only afford one year. So I did all my classes plus my master's defense simultaneously.
  • Evening: I was also too poor for television. So instead of watching TV, I switched from writing my thesis to writing my novel. It was a lot of words, but it was also the book of my heart, and I loved it, and I believed in it. This is the one, I would whisper to myself, when I finally collapsed into bed, usually around 3am.
Spoiler alert: it wasn't the one. And neither was the one after it. And my dreams of being the next JK Rowling and living in a castle while I casually wrote didn't come true. I was still writing a book a year, but my writing was starting to feel futile. Instead, I got a job. I liked the job--some days I even loved it--but it was also really, really hard. 

Typical day, Monday-Friday:
  • 5am: Wake up and get ready for work. Go over lesson plans--as a new teacher, I was still struggling to know what worked and didn't, what would fill a day or leave me with 30 bored 16-year-olds on my hands.
  • 6:30am-4:30pm: I was on. I was a very active teacher, and I didn't do anything during this time but teach. On days when I ran a club or grades were due, I wouldn't leave the school until an extra hour had passed. And while, yes, I had a planning period, I also never really got much planning done. I usually had to grade or attend training sessions or pull together resources or wait for copying machine or a myriad of other things.
  • 6:30pm: I was almost always back home by this point--and exhausted. I'd scrape together a meal and allow myself about an hour of "dead" time.
  • 7:00-11:00pm: This time was spent typically grading papers or planning the next day's work. If I had a rare time when I didn't need to do this, sometimes I would just stare at the wall and think about the good ol' days when I didn't have to work to exhaustion. 
Typical day, Weekends or Vacation:
  • One of the fantastic things about teaching is the summers off. And there are periodic breaks around holidays that are quite well planned. I'd usually take at least one day to detox, but then:
  • Write 5-10k per day while I could. I would write until my fingers ached. I would write until I could barely see straight. I literally typed the letters off my keyboard and had to replace it. 
  • In between writing, I was researching. Sometimes for the book--but more often on agents and publishers, the ins and outs of publishing. I read every agent blog, I joined social networks specifically to connect with pros, and I enmeshed myself in the world.
  • I also joined critique groups and found critique partners. The books before were written for me but with the magical belief that I would have to do no work to become rich and famous. I was now focused on the work side of publishing. I knew that this would be about more than just good stories; there was a business side, and I needed to really revise and get better at writing. Some of the partnerships with critique readers I made then are still maintained today.
  • Important note: At this point in time, I'm still too poor to afford television, and internet is pretty crappy. If I had had great television and Netflix then, would I have found the time to work? I don't know. Writing was my entertainment, in part because I enjoyed it, and in part because I had nothing else.
When I started my job teaching, I expected to be there only a year. It's been five years now. I'm married now. I have a mortgage now. I know enough about the business to know that even if I break out, I'll likely still have to work. But as my new husband and I are trying to evaluate a budget and a savings account, I'm starting to realize just how much time and money has passed, how I really have nothing to show for it. I've still written a book a year in this time--although my typical day of writing has changed, my work production hasn't. It's just now I'm not sure it's worth it. 

But I had one more story to tell. And that story was Across the Universe. 

Typical day, Monday-Friday:
  • 5:00am: I'm getting far, far better at this teaching gig thing, but my hours are still crazy as I now live further away from the school and have a longer drive. So I still wake up crazy early, but I spend the forty-five minute drive to work thinking about what I need to write.
  • 7:00-8:15am: I also have first period planning, which is a blessing, Sweet Jesus. So I spend my morning jotting down the notes of what I thought about while driving. This process--thinking for a long time before I actually write--has become ingrained in me and made me a better writer, and it started with this schedule.
  • 8:15am-4:00pm: Teaching. I am focused in my job and only occasionally give the kids a movie day to distract them while I write.
  • 7pm-midnight: Write. As discouraged as I am, I love this story, and I foresake television and time with the husband to work on it. 
Book deal! I got my agent at the end of 2009 and my deal at the beginning of 2010 (Across the Universe was published in the beginning of 2011), and it was amazing. I still remember sitting in the parking lot of the school, taking notes with a notepad on my steering wheel, fielding calls in my car because I knew with my long drive, I wouldn't get home before 5, and I couldn't take a call on the road because there's no cell signal. Crazy. 

But then edits came. 

And it quickly became apparent that there was simply not enough time in the day to do everything. By this point, I actually enjoyed teaching and I loved the kids, but the big edits for my manuscript of Across the Universe were due the same day student grades--and their ten page essay evaluations--were due. Before, I could write on my schedule, and it wasn't a big deal if I took May off--I could make up for it in June. Now? Now I had another schedule to work with, and they clashed. Horribly.

  • 4:30am: wake up, drive to work, sometimes speaking notes into my phone because I knew I couldn't waste time
  • 5:30am: I'm often the first to school and unlock the big outer doors to get in. I turn on the lights and rush to make sure I have everything I need for the day, then open up my word file and write/edit as much as I can.
  • 7:00-8:15am: Morning planning period. I typed furiously. Most of my coworkers assumed I was a lesson-plan fiend. I wasn't.
  • 8:15-4:00pm: Luckily, I also taught yearbook during this time. The kids knew I had a book deal. I would get calls from my agent or editor in the middle of the day, and all the kids would shout Shh! Shh! Mrs. Revis has to talk on the phone! and I'd crouch at my desk and try to juggle a pen and paper and an eye on the door in case the principal came in.
  • 5:30pm-whenever: Get home. Maybe see husband? Lock self away and work. And work. Collapse. 
By that time, it was obvious I could no longer continue working both jobs, so I quit teaching. Which meant I now had to worry about things like privatized health care and self employed IRAs and hiring a tax guy because I had no idea what I was doing. 

But also, suddenly, school was out (forever!) and my first book was done. This was when I normally would be writing, since it was summer break, but I was no longer a teacher, so summer break was no longer a thing. Also I'd just finished a book, was I really supposed to immediately jump into another one? The answer was yes (although I admit to slacking off rather a lot that summer because freedom). Since that first free summer, my daily life depends entirely on what stage of writing I'm in:


  • I don't actually get many ideas for novels--at least not many that stick. When I do get an idea, I tend to sit on it and think a lot. I casually research--casual, because I'm just curious about the subject. This casual (but constant) research turns into obsession which eventually turns into a book. This stage can last for months. 
  • This means all that time I sit around reading Wikipedia and Cracked and Reddit is crucial to the process. Really.
  • First: I don't write every day. Some people do. I am not one of those people. I write in bursts, probably because I learned to write while I had a day job that didn't allow me to write every day. So while drafting, I may write a big chunk one day, and then take two days off. Or three. Maybe four if something good is on Netflix. I don't stress about it. At the end of the month, I have the same amount of words by writing sporadically as I would if I was writing daily.
  • I tend to write the most on the edges of the day: morning and late at night. I write the happiest at the start of the book--the first 30,000 or so words is easiest. I'll brew coffee and then forget about it because I'm so wrapped up in the words.
    • At this stage--early in the writing--I likely have a book that's recently wrapped (the project before this one). So a part of my writing time, especially in these early days, will be used for promo. I spend mornings online, working on social media, updating things, etc. 
    • This also tends to be the time when I'm booked for travel and promo. So all of this flies out the window when I have to go do events or festivals--which I love, but travel eats at writing time. One day of travel = three days of not writing (one day to pack/plan, one day to travel, one day to recoup from travel). Minimum.
  • The next 30,000 is not the easiest. I write more into the middle of the day. I definitely drink the coffee. I start making charts on paper, or brainstorming. I find excuses to not work. The yard needs to be mowed. The car's oil needs changing. Better schedule a dental cleaning. 
  • The last 30,000 are a mix of sudden inspiration--write all day! 10,000 words in one day!--followed by crashing-and-burning. I'll write a huge chunk one day and nothing else for the rest of the week, during which I will lament and cry and think I'm a failure. I blow through the coffee until my heart starts doing a weird rhythm. If there's also a deadline--and now, there usually is--I force myself to not get distracted, but I am also on an internal panic pretty much 24/7. 

  • Revising for me usually means rewriting. Which is not fun. And it usually means ~month deadline, as I'm working with editors, not critique partners. So revising/rewriting process starts with getting an edit letter. After reading the edit letter, I usually get mad (she didn't think the book was perfect as it is!) and then I usually switch from coffee to beer. 
  • I like to work with lists. I immediately cross out all the positive compliments in the edit letter and highlight everything that needs to be changed because who doesn't love depression. I then list the changes I agree with (90%) on one side of a paper, and brainstorm ideas of how to change things to make those edits happen on the other side.
  • This is focus-time. I'm like a bulldog during revision. Nose to the grindstone. This is all work, no play. I open Scrivener and use the split screen function. Old draft on top, new draft on bottom. I cut and paste what I can, rewrite what I have to, following the plan of attack I made with the edit letter. 
  • During this time, my husband usually has to remind me to eat and bathe. When I'm forced to go out, I hiss at the sunlight. I usually try to avoid all travel during this time, which is usually about a month, but if I have to travel, I do so grumpily and half-distracted.
Minor Edits:
  • After the big rewrite (if I'm lucky and don't need another big rewrite), it's time for what I consider the minor edits--line edits and copy edits. How crucial they are, and how much time I'm given to do them, varies, but I find this part of the process easiest. It's usually all done in Word, with track changes, and I just make sure to set aside some time and get them done as quickly as possible. 
  • But also during this time, I've restarted the process. I've learned that I can't take breaks. So, while I'm wrapping up edits on Project A, I've definitely started the pre-drafting casual research process for Project B...and these days, I've actually layered my days so that my schedule looks more like this:
    • Minor edits for Project A
    • Drafting new Project B (especially if it's in the early stages--later stages take more focus)
    • Pre-drafting research/idea building for Project C
  • And also during this time--which is getting closer to release date--I'm really focused on marketing. So a big chunk of daily "writing" time is actually spent:
    • Brainstorming new ideas to market this book. During the final edits, the book is freshest and "finalest" in my mind, and I do my best ideas for marketing then.
    • I plot out a three month plan--the month before, during, and after publication. This is mostly when I plot out how to do things online for promo, such as blog giveaways, Facebook campaigns, Twitter giveaways, etc. This is when I shop for giveaway ideas and design swag and online promo (like quotes for Instagram). 
    • This is also when I start looking at what kind of in-person promo I need to do, and start setting that up. Launch parties at Malaprops, joining with other authors to do driving book tours, reaching out to festivals near that time.
    • And, while I'm doing all this, so is my publicist. She's booking me guest spots on online and print venues, speaking gigs, and book festivals as well--so my calendar rapidly gets full during this time. This is the time when I say "yes!" to everything in a panic that I need to do it all for the upcoming book release...and then I'll grumpily say "no!" to everything when I get burnt out. It's a never-ending cycle. 
The only time I focus entirely on one project is when I'm revising/rewriting. That step takes such single-minded focus that I can't do anything (including eating/bathing) during that time. 

But wait! I have a baby now! How has my schedule changed?

...not that much. I write more in the mornings and less in the evening than I used to (because I go to bed earlier). I travel less. I'm on social media less. But beyond that, my schedule hasn't changed. The books are the most important thing, and I'm working on those as much, if not more, than before. 

Writing is my job. Just because I do it at home (where there is now also a baby) doesn't make it less my job. No one would question me taking eight hours a day to go to a school and teach, or do some other job. No one should question me taking eight hours a day to stay home and do this job.

During the "easy" phases of early drafting or when I'm just working on marketing materials, I allow myself to get baby-distracted easily. I go on walks with the stroller or play with the baby or take day trips. The advantage of working at home. But when I'm in the "hard" phases of revision/rewriting or I'm up against a deadline, I let the husband or my mom take care of the baby, and I do my job.

And some days...I don't. Some days, the baby screamed all day and all night and is still screaming and now also throwing food at me and pooping everywhere and the dogs are being jerks and the husband's as burnt out as I am. Some days, when the baby naps, so do I. Some days, I don't even open my laptop. And that's okay.

Because the next day, I'm going to kick ass.