Monday, June 27, 2005

It's All In the Priorities

When I was a kid, I would often tell my mother that I didn't "have time" to do things that were important but sometimes difficult or tedious, like book reports or science projects. Every time, she would say, "You had time. You just didn't make the time." Inevitably, this would be followed by a lecture about getting my priorities straight. I heard what she said. And I understood in an abstract way. But I didn't really get it...not until I published.

If you read my previous blog with Deidre about not giving up your publishing dream, you already know that I sold my first book when my daughter was a baby, and a sickly one at that. I worked full-time, had a husband that traveled more than I wanted and had deadlines I'd never dealt with. Not to mention family obligations, self-promotion, general household maintenance, etc. For instance, between June 1999 and May 2000, I wrote 3 full-length single-title medieval romances. While working and caring for my sick toddler and dealing with life's assorted issues. The experience about killed me. Trust me, I don't recommend it unless you're looking to worm your way into the nearest mental institution. But I did learn a few valuable things:

1) Take a quick inventory of your life and ask yourself what's essential. I gave up most cooking. My husband is a perfectly capable human being and decent in the kitchen. I let him do at least half. Sometimes, he does it all. We eat out a lot. Eating is essential, but devoting 2-3 hours a night to making it happen is was a waste of time, in my book. I farmed out my housework. I NEED a clean house. I just can't let it slide (it's a me thing...), but I didn't have 4-6 hours a weekend to clean it. I found an inexpensive cleaning service to come twice a month. I keep it picked up in-between, but I'm not wasting creative time slaving over a can of Comet. I don't garden. Some people find it relaxing. Happy coincidence for me that I'm not one of them, but if you do, make sure your hobby isn't dominating the time you devote to your dream. I don't watch a lot of TV. It really is, by and large, a huge time waster. Each season, I allow myself 3 shows. Period. If I want to pick up a new one, I have to drop another. Because I have a maximum 25 hours a week total to devote to all things not related to the day job I hold with a Fortune 15 company, I have to be super-disciplined. Last Fall, I averaged about 4 hours of TV a week. I did my best to spend at least an hour a night and a half day on the weekend with my family so they know I still love `em, now we're looking at 10-12 hours a week to write and read to keep up with the market. If I cleaned, cooked, gardened...I'd be out of time. Look at the activities in your life and cut them down to those that are essential. Anything else important but can be done by someone else, barter with them, pay them. However you can, get it off your plate.

2) Train your family. I know your hubby and kids aren't dogs, but I hear over and over again about unsupportive husbands and nagging kids and how time-draining they are. I'm militant about this, so I'll confess to that in advance. But the truth is, they will continue to drain your time as long as you let them. Why should they do something for themselves when you will do it for them? Yes, they will get snappy and try to make you feel guilty, most likely. Ask yourself how them wanting that certain meatloaf is more important than you finishing chapter 12. Never feel bad about standing up for what you want. Chances are, no one else will. And no one can understand your dream if you don't explain it, set boundaries and expectations--and stick to them. Set office hours. Many husbands would pop a blood vessel if you suggested they do the laundry during office hours. If you're going to be a professional writer, you should feel the same. You set the tone; don't let them. My husband knows that when I'm writing, if he wants to talk about something, it better be urgent. I'm going to be deeply annoyed and very unpleasant if he nudges me to talk about his latest PC game. Before bed, fine, tell me. Over dinner, sure. I'm all ears. Not on my time. My daughter is now old enough to understand that unless there is blood, major pain or trauma, to see daddy when mommy is in her office with the door shut. She's not perfect, and sometimes she just wants her mommy. I roll with the punches. But she is generally independent and respectful of this rule. And my mother, bless her heart, understands now when I tell her that my WIP has to be my priority.

3) Make the most of your available writing time. This means more self-discipline. Sorry, but it's true. I once wrote an entire book on my lunch hours at work, with phones ringing, people barging into my office, noise all around. Why? Honestly, to train myself to write under the worst conditions. That was first book I ever sold, too. It's rare (at least for me) to have the perfect writing conditions--great candles, just the right mood music, a large chunk of time all alone while I'm feeling gloriously well-rested, completely enthusiastic and my muse is cooperating by whispering right in my ear. If I waited for all of that... Full planetary alignments happen more frequently. You learn to deal with the cards you're dealt. It's part of being a professional. I'm a morning person in a big way (no rotten tomatoes from you night owls), but the time I have to write is 9 to 11 at night during the week and whenever it comes on the weekends. Just the way my schedule works. I've learned how to adapt, how to come home after a long day in corporate America, deal with mail, family issues, dinner, etc., and then sit down to write. When you're on deadline, you have no choice. If you can't write with clutter, get a laptop and go somewhere clean. If you can't write with people around you or noise, get a set of headphones and block it out. If you can't write at the end of a long day, work into it. Think of it as mental aerobics designed to strengthen your mental agility. If you're serious about this career, you have to be prepared to make some adjustments.

4) Plan your schedule. When do you want the book completed? What is your deadline? How many quality pages a week can you write? How much plotting and/or editing time do you need? Be really aware of these things and plan accordingly. This is one I learned the hard way by missing deadlines--something, I assure you, will not please your editor. For instance, I can really comfortably write 15 pages a week. I plan deadlines around that. I usually end up doing more like 20-25, but I have a goal. Before I start a book, I divide up the number of pages and chapters I plan to write in the book and make a schedule of what I'll do when so I know whether I'm ahead, behind or right on track. I know that if I stay to that schedule, I'll finish in plenty of time to turn the book in. This may sound anal to some, but it provides me a measure of structure and comfort. I always know where I'm at, when I can coast and when I have to put my butt in the chair and stop surfing the `Net.

5) Take care of you. This is another thing I learned the hard way. The 11 month period I wrote 3 medievals started me on a downward spiral, health wise. I gained a lot of weight, eating to stay awake. I did NOTHING else but work and write. I had no time for family or fun. My husband did nearly all the child care, all the laundry, all the cooking. He deserves a medal for putting up with it and me. At the end of this period, I did sign up for a holiday book, followed by two single titles, the latter two with slightly longer deadlines than the others, but I was already fried. Totally burned out. I forgot to enjoy the writing and started viewing it as just another job. I suffered. My family suffered. I'm afraid to admit that my fans probably suffered. After taking a whole year off, in which I wrote almost nothing because I just didn't have anything left in me, I started writing again. Deidre knows where I'm coming from, so we set longer deadlines. More like 7-9 months, rather than 4-5. I take 3-4 hours each week to go to the gym. Exercise relieves a lot of stress. I sneak a few hours each week read to at least 1 book. I play when I'm caught up with my work. If I have already completed the page count for the week I assigned myself, then I take the rest of the week off. All work and no play makes everyone dull. So take a little time to make sure you're okay.

So, in the end, my mother was right. It is about priorities. If you're dreaming about being a published author or aren't sure if you can balance it in the middle of your already hectic life, I hope this has given you some ideas!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Shelley.

That was a kick in the pants I needed. ;-)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 2:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Ellen said...

Well put, Shelley. I was afraid when I had baby number 4 that I wouldn't be able to find time for writing. But I've managed to get writing done around the baby. I let the housework slide to a certain degree (dust bunnies don't bother me:-), I get the kids to pick up (it's their mess anyway!), and I get my hubby to cook more often. (All he can cook is frozen pizza, but the kids appreciate that more than broiled chicken and rice anyway, for some reason *g*.) As you say, it's a matter of priorities... writing has to be a priority for me, or it just doesn't get done!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 8:18:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Thanks. Here's another tip: Let the answering machine get the phone. I have chatty relatives, and if I talked to them whenever they call, I'd never get anything done. Unless it's an emergency, I only talk on the phone when I'm folding laundry, doing dishes, etc. Better yet - sell enough books and quit the day job! Ahh, dreams ...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 9:00:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kelly said...

Great post, Shelley. And actually on topic with Harley Jane Kozak's post today at

I think I'll print them both out and attach them with a small chain to my computer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 9:17:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jaci Burton said...

Beautifully stated, Shelley! And oh so true. We're our own worst enemies sometimes when it comes to trying to be everything to everyone. Learning to say 'no' to others as well as to yourself can work wonders.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 9:18:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Shelley, wonderful post!

And I'd just like to say that 8 days ago, I signed with Pamela Harty here at the Knight Agency and could not be happier. Ive had some immensely bad luck with agents in the past - 4.5 agents, to be exact - but when the glorious Gena Showalter suggested I get in touch here, practically from the minute I got Pamela's first email I knew we were going to click. What a wonderful agency...and what a wonderful blog!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 1:06:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Gina Black said...


Thank you for that. Just what I needed. I get so tired at night, but it's when I need to be writing. This is a great wake up call. :)


Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 3:34:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great article. Thanks for the tv tip. I work at home, but that tv, especially Oprah has me locked. And I also don't want my five-year-old in the habit of watching too much tv. The TV is off my friend...once Oprah goes off:)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 4:48:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I often watch many hours of TV per week, but I'll often do it while writing. When I get into a story, surrounding noises really don't matter, especially if it's a daytime talk show which doesn't require the same attention as a dramatic show.

I do plan out my viewing, and I often tape shows to watch later (to save the time wasted watching ads). And most of my TV viewing is in the evening, while most of my writing is done during the day, so it's not that big a problem.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 5:40:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Charlee said...

Thanks for this post, Shelley. It is a wonderful reminder that we all have choices to make. As a single mom of fourteen years I have felt the time crunch many times. I always try to avoid using lack of time as an excuse. We all have the same twenty-four hours in every day; it is all a matter of making choices about what to do with our time. Sometimes the choices are tough, I admit. My choices have changed from year to year as my priorities have changed. Right now pursuing my dream of writing fiction ranks high on my list of priorities. Thanks for the great new suggestions and for reminding us to think hard about those priorities each time we have to make a choice about how we spend our time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 10:40:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow priorities, train your family....Please yourself then your family but then when you dont please your family your being selfish, this is pro self decadence.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 6:31:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jennifer Echols said...


Thank you so much for your posts. Your experience is very close to my own (except that I'm not published--tiny difference *snort*). I love to hear about a happily pubbed author with a balanced life! And I know what thought and energy this takes. You go girl!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 9:33:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Anonymous, the balancing act for every working woman is something very personal and definitely not easy. Women today are expected to be bread earners more often than not, yet they're also expected to put their families first at the same time--and continue operating in strictly traditional roles around the home. We've placed women in a position where they're called upon to be super women, and I think Shelley's meaning was simply that it's okay to get your family involved as a group. After all, they'll share in the benefits too, as success comes.

As Shelley's agent now for, gosh, how many years is it? I don't even know, but at least six I think, I know her to be a mother and wife who places a great deal of emphasis on her family, and on family time--and quality time at that. I wouldn't want to see that fact misrepresented or misunderstood here on my blog. :)

You know, Shelley and others, the neatest thing when you learn to bring the family into the process is that it becomes a family goal. My daughter Tyler loves to hear all about the book process, how we select books, and both my daughters love to meet our clients. We have quite a few "Aunt _______" clients around this agency! :)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 12:57:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great article! Thank you for sharing it :)

That's so true about the role of women in the world today, but how wonderful (and sweet) that your daughters have shown an interest in your work :)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 3:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

Prioritizing is definitely a personal thing, and really, let's face it, there's always going to be something trying to drag your attention from your work, whether it's a child or spouse or simply the new bestseller that's taunting you from the coffee table. The key is in making decisions about how much time each person or thing requires and then being flexible in the case of emergencies or crises. You just have to know the difference between a skinned knee that needs a bandage and a kiss and cuddle before you get right back to work, and a real problem that requires a shuffling of the schedule. It's different for everyone, but I think what Shelley really shows here is the need to be strict with yourself first and foremost. Your loved ones will respect your need to write if you respect it as something that's truly important to you.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 5:58:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Shelley, you've taken the same journey I have, and with much of the same results/realizations/decisions. I didn't learn anything new from what I wrote, but I *did* get a powerful sense of relief because it was like getting permission for letting certain things go (weeds in the garden, dishes in the sink), and paying others to do other things (cleaning the bathrooms, mowing the lawn).

Anonymous, you pressed a very sensitive button for me, and Deirdre, your response was perfect. The thing is, if you are always putting your family first, who are they putting first? Themselves? And if that's the case, then why are they more important than you are?

Thursday, June 30, 2005 at 1:34:00 PM EDT  

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