And no, not the kind of writer that lives by the sea, having been given an allowance by a wealthy distant relative and has never endured the discomfort of hard labor. (Although to be fair, I do live by the beach.)
If you’ve made it to this blog, you’re likely already aware that I work full-time as a writer, creating copy and content for large organizations and boutique agencies in the PR and branding industries. What some of you might not know, however, is that I’m also the other type of writer.
Clearly, I can’t get enough of the craft of writing in my career, because when I’m not spending my down-time taking care of my menagerie of animals (Cassiopeia, Twig, Fern, Starla, Sage, Aspen, Hazel, Denali, Rowan, Blossom, Shiro, and Hedwig) or hiking the coastal trails by my house, I’m camped out in front of a pile of books, multiple mugs of tea, and my laptop, working on my novel.
And I just so happen to have sent this novel to my beta readers: effervescent and delightfully literate friends and colleagues who have a penchant for lending their keen eye to books of all sorts. I started my draft in February or March of 2023, had a complete draft done by July, and had my second draft edited by the end of September. All while, miraculously, making time for the aforementioned menagerie, family, and friends, and, of course, working full-time as an independent writer with a roster of clients.
If you’re raising an eyebrow wondering how I did it, that makes two of us. But no, I didn’t stay up until 2 a.m. every night, wake up at 5 a.m. (I am so not a morning person), down a bunch of yerba mate, or stick some prompts into Chat GPT.
How I Wrote My First Novel While Working (And Living) Full Time
01 I set goals
Obvious, right? Wrong. So many people endeavor to write a novel without a plan, thinking that they can just lay out word by word, consecutively, and end up with a gleaming masterpiece at the end. The problem is that, without goals, it’s really easy to miss a day of writing, then two, then three, and all of a sudden your inspiration-fueled first few chapters fall flat, and you’ve wasted months spinning your wheels.
Once I decided to write my novel, I committed to writing my draft within three months. That might seem crazy, but a friend of mine wrote hers in 30 days, and it went on to get picked up by a major publishing house so clearly she did something right.
Setting goals helped fuel my motivation and kept my productivity on track, which leads me to my next points, all centered around the fact that I set realistic goals.
02 I made progress every day
And it didn’t have to be writing. Although I tried to sit down and write every day, I loosened up on myself and allowed “progress” to look like:
- Reading source material
- Sending on-topic voice memos to my writing partner
- Noodling on a particularly challenging plot problem
- And yes, actually writing
03 I allowed my writing to be bad
This one is scary for someone with a degree in English Literature and a minor in Writing, but I knew that I would quit before I’d even made measurable progress if I allowed perfectionism to own me. So I lowered the bar.
When I sat down to write, I opened up the relevant page in Scrivener for the next part of my novel, turned the brightness on my computer all the way down, and wrote blindly. I didn’t reread it for the entire writing session. I wrote and wrote, even if it was bad, even if it made no sense, even if I was typing out that it made no sense, and I allowed my plot to find its way. This created much-needed forward momentum and allowed me to build a writing habit.
04 I plotted beforehand
When you’re working full-time and also trying to live a full-time life, writing for art’s sake can seem indulgent. My solution? Plotting in near-agonizing detail.
By plotting before I ever wrote a chapter of the novel, I was able to create a reliable roadmap for all the work I would do in the draft. I could see the scaffold, check my work against it, and make sure everything was structurally sound.
Not to mention, it allowed me to be creative within reliable parameters rather than trying to improvise every time I sat down at my computer.
05 I wrote in imperfect conditions
Although I wish that I had a wood-paneled study stacked floor to ceiling with books and one of those fabulous sliding ladders from Beauty and the Beast, a delightfully tranquil environment, and a life with no interruptions, this is simply not my reality.
Nor is it entirely feasible for me to lock myself up and write separately from distractions, focused entirely on my manuscript. If I’m being honest, I often also entered my writing time having worked all day, needing to tend to responsibilities around the house, and generally didn’t come filled to the brim with inspiration. And that’s okay. I wrote anyway. Whether I was writing during dinner, writing during family TV time, or writing in between meetings, I still made time. With my allowances for sub-par quality and my desire to just get something on the page, this was pretty doable and meant that when the time came I had substantial material to edit.
06 I scheduled in collaborative time
Once a week, every week, I met with my writing partner who was working on his own manuscript in the same genre. Although our work was very different, our strengths and processes complemented each other and rounded out our approaches to our novels.
I slotted it into my calendar as a non-negotiable meeting and scheduled other commitments around it. This accountability was key and the conversations around our work imbued me with fresh motivation and inspiration to carry me through the next week’s worth of work. Although this cadence might seem too frequent, it actually helped me sustain my work rather than experience a slump.
07 I told people about it
As an independent writer and, by extension, an entrepreneur of a certain sort, it can be easy to define myself as a copywriter and content writer. That’s what I do, it’s who I am, and, in off hours, I am busy working to support this career. Whether it’s this site, this blog, branded photoshoots, self-education, writing client case studies, or building out my systems, there is always something to do, and it’s often all-encompassing.
By telling people that I was writing a novel, I was able to expand my identity as a writer in a healthy way. I wasn’t just writing for work, I was writing for myself, and writing for hypothetical future readers who would value my ability to tell a compelling story more than they’d value my ability to write an email headline.
These people have been my cheerleaders and my accountability partners since the very beginning, creating space for me to talk about my ideas and sift through my worries, while also rooting me in my future-oriented aspiration.
If you want to follow along on my authorial journey, follow me on Instagram @hannahmckelson, or stay tuned on this blog for novel-related updates.