I was recently thrilled to have the opportunity to interview bestselling fantasy / science fiction / romance / young adult novelist Sharon Shinn. Why all the genres? She's incredibly prolific. Moreover, she's prolific while holding down a full-time job. A writing job! It's just incredible.
I just had to find out how she does it--especially because she also happens to be one of my favorite authors. I especially love her popular Samaria series (the first volume of which, Archangel, is shown below), but all of her books are filled with great characters, suspenseful plots, fabulous world-building, and the kind of well-crafted prose that's a joy to read.
I hope you find Sharon's time management insights as useful and inspiring as I do--and thanks to Sharon for the interview! (Also see previous interviews with best-selling science fiction writer John Scalzi and acclaimed free software activist and MacArthur "Genius" Richard Stallman.) - Hillary
1. You are someone who works full time who has managed to write prolifically AND create a highly successful career as an author. How did you do that?
I think the answer is that I really streamlined my life. I took jobs that were interesting and paid good salaries, but didn’t require me to work 80 hours a week. So I had the time to write in the evenings and on weekends. I also didn’t take on a lot of extra responsibilities—I didn’t sign up for night classes, I didn’t belong to a volleyball league, I wasn’t tending a large vegetable garden in the back yard. Now, I’m not a complete hermit and I do manage to have a social life, but the biggest chunks of my life go to working and writing.
I’m also always constantly watching how my time is deployed. My hope is to write four or five days a week, but I really need to sit down at the computer by 6 pm to be able to get in a solid block of writing time. If I can see that on one day I have a commitment that won’t get me home until 6, I’ll fill the rest of the evening with other tasks or errands that need to get done. So I have a haircut Tuesday night? OK, I’ll also go grocery shopping and answer the emails I haven’t gotten to that week. I’ve lost the writing time for that day, but I finish accumulated tasks so that other days are clear.
That being said, for the past three years I’ve been taking a yoga class one night a week, and I usually go out with a group for dinner afterward. I can definitely see how losing one night a week, every week, has impacted my productivity. Not willing to give up yoga—but I have to factor in that lost day when I set my mental deadlines!
2. Going into more detail: how many hours a week do you spend writing, and how many hours doing non-writing things related to your writing business? (Marketing, accounting, etc.) What is your daily or weekly schedule like?
My guess is I spend about 10 hours a week writing on average. I usually don’t have the willpower to write for more than two hours at a stretch, and I usually try to get in five writing sessions a week. On the rare weekend when I don’t have much else going on, I might manage two hours in the morning and another hour in the afternoon, but that requires a lot of discipline. Sometimes I just choose to watch TV instead.
I find rewriting easier than writing. The really hard push for me is the first draft, and that’s when I can only manage a couple of hours at a time. When I’m doing rewrites, I can work longer hours and later into the night. So during the rewriting phase, it might be fifteen hours a week.
I don’t spend much time on the nonwriting activities related to my career. I’m horrible at self-promotion, I don’t tweet, I only recently started a Facebook page. Probably the nonwriting activities that take the most time are answering fan emails and doing the occasional blog interview. And I don’t have a good guess at how much time that takes because it’s so cyclical, but probably only a few hours a week.
So my typical schedule is: Work at my day job from 9 to 5. If I haven’t been able to sneak in a walk during that period of time, I usually take a half-hour walk at the end of the work day. I hope to be back at the computer by 6, and I write until 7:30 or 8. Then I cram everything else in the next two or three hours—eating dinner, answering phone calls, putting away the dishes, catching up on TV shows. It can get a little frantic.
3. What's your general approach to social media? What do you do and don't do and why? How do you keep it from being a time sink?
I do very little. As I said, I’ve just launched my own Facebook page, but I only post about once a week. (For anyone who’s read the Elemental Blessings books: I pull blessings every Monday morning and post them to the site.) I’d like to get a little better at this, posting something two or three times a week—but so far that hasn’t happened often.
I don’t blog and I don’t tweet. I just don’t have that much to say! But I admire the authors who do just bubble with ideas they want to share. I think it’s a great way to connect with readers.
4. Ditto for travel. Do you do a lot of it to promote your books, and how do you determine when and where to go?
I usually attend at least one major science fiction/fantasy convention a year and sometimes two—most often the World Science Fiction Convention or World Fantasy Convention. These are great fun because I get to meet fans but also hang out with other writers, and I love both opportunities. Between travel planning, actual travel, and travel recovery, each con absorbs about a week.
I haven’t done much other travel to promote my books. I’m not at the level where my publisher is wanting to send me on tour! A couple of times when I’ve been in another city for another reason and I’ve had a connection with someone there, I’ve done a reading or a signing. A few years ago, when I was in London to visit a friend, I contacted a bookstore there and set up a signing. But this is relatively rare for me. I don’t actually love to travel—and it disrupts my writing schedule—so I’m happiest when I don’t have to leave the city.
5. You seem to break one of the cardinal rules of writers-with-jobs which is to not have a day job that involves writing. How do you manage to write forty hours a week for your job and then come home and do it some more?
You know, I find the two kinds of writing to be so different that I don’t have a problem doing both in the same day. In some other interview somewhere, I’ve said that journalistic writing and creative writing are different but complementary skills, and I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned in one to what I do in the other. So, for instance, writing articles is like playing hymns and writing books is like playing jazz, but in each case your fingers are getting more familiar with the keys.
What I find difficult is that the physical act is the same—i.e., for both kinds of writing I’m sitting in a chair staring at a computer. That’s hard. Which is usually why I try to walk or get in some kind of exercise in between the work day and the writing day. For the past 15 years I’ve worked from home, so I’m even at the exact same desk in the exact same chair. What I’ll often do, just for some variety, is unplug the laptop and move to the couch when it’s time to start working on the book.
6. What are the most important sacrifices or compromises you've made for your success?
I’m not sure that I’ve made sacrifices so much as choices, and those choices wouldn’t work for a lot of people. For instance, I don’t have kids. I think it would be impossible for me to work, write, and be a good mother. Now, I never particularly wanted kids, so this wasn’t a problem for me, but for some people it’s an unthinkable choice. If I had had children, I would have needed to give something up. I’d like to think it would have been the full-time job, but I can’t see into that alternate history!
7. In your Samaria series you track the processes of enlightenment and industrialization in a civilization. You seem partial to the nomadic, nontechnological, and relationship-centered Edori, who have a physically arduous but very free and relaxed way of living. Could you tell us about how you developed them, and what your influences were? Also, what did you learn (esp. about time) from writing about them, especially as a counterpoint to the more industrialized Samarians?
Yeah, I didn’t learn anything from the Edori. I am the anti-Edori. I don’t camp, I don’t like communal living, I cannot manage their serene “let go and let God” attitude. So I think I just made them everything I’m not! I’m an industrialized Samarian who cheers every advent of new technology.
8. What advice would you give other writers who want to be as successful as possible while having full-time jobs or other responsibilities?
I think the trick is to find a way to make the writing time sacred. What are the things in your life right now that are nonnegotiable? Your job, your volunteer work, your parenting responsibilities? Put writing at the same level. It is so easy to let writing be the first thing you give up—because you’re tired, because you’re doing it on spec, because you can get to that chapter tomorrow, because there are so many other things to do. And also because other people don’t always respect your writing time, either. Your boss or your mom or your spouse expects you to be at your job every weekday at 9 am, but they don’t think it’s so important that you’re sitting at the computer writing at 6 pm. And they’ll never see how important it is unless you make it important.
That being said, sometimes life is so full of other commitments that you simply can’t carve out much time to write. What I suggest is to find a set period of time every week that you can devote to writing. Maybe it’s 9 to noon on Saturday mornings. Maybe it’s Tuesday nights from 5 to 10. Make a bargain with your significant other, tell your friends, and don’t accept social engagements for those times. Keep the time sacred, and use it to write. Now, obviously there will be days when you have to break that commitment—you have to attend a wedding, travel for work, visit someone in the hospital. But if you diligently try to make certain hours writing-only hours, you can start to develop a rhythm and accrue some pages.
The other thing that works for me is to set page goals. I usually try to write 100 to 150 pages a month. If I’m falling behind on that goal, I find myself hunting for spare hours just to make up the lost time. I admit, it’s kind of an OCD-way to live…but it works for me! But you have to pick page goals that are realistic for you, otherwise you won’t even try to hit the mark. If it’s 20 pages a month, it’s 20 pages. That’s 20 more pages than you had before.
Finally, remember that it takes a long time to write a book. Maybe Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three feverish weeks, but most people need months or years. It’s easy to get discouraged, it’s easy to lose interest in the book, it’s easy to get distracted by a shiny new idea. But to write a book and do it well requires a real investment of time and energy, and you have to pace yourself and encourage yourself to make it through to the end.