How To Be “Mommy!” and Still Write a GH Manuscript

Hi everyone! My name is Heather McCollum. I’m a mom of three, I’m a writer, and I have a confession. I don’t set my clock for 5 AM to get up to write before the kids stir. I don’t stay up into the wee hours to write either. And still I have managed to write four full length novels, one of which was a finalist in this year’s Golden Hearts, and two are under contract to be published (squeals of joy!).

I still manage to put home cooked meals on the table some nights, drive my kids to soccer practice, and change my toddler’s diapers before they smell up the house. Today I’m here to tell you that it is possible – possible to write a novel when you have a million things to do.

First let me ask you – when you’re bored standing in line or sitting in traffic, do you make up stories in your head? Do you wake up some mornings and have to jot down a terrific plot that came from your dream? Do you ever get that squeeze of joy in your gut and scream “Yes!” when you’ve written the perfect scene? Then guess what, you’re a writer. Even if you haven’t typed THE END yet, you are still a writer. And if you are a writer at heart then, girlfriend, you’ve got to write!

So how does one go about finding time to write when jobs, families, and obligations are constantly hammering at you for attention? Actually it’s simple – you do it one word at a time. Okay, so maybe not one word at a time, but one paragraph at a time will do.

My friends used to ask me if I’d written that book yet. And I would always answer, “I don’t have time.” Then I heard Stephanie Bond speak at one of my local writer meetings. She said that she wrote her book in fifteen minute increments. She inspired me to try.

Below is how I started, but it is different for everyone. Your life is unique, just like your voice. Try some of these things, but if they don’t work for you, try something else. But whatever you do, don’t give up. If you are a writer, then you must write, like you must breathe and eat and love. It is part of your nature and to withhold it is cruel. So feed your soul and find those fifteen minute increments.

1. Call yourself a writer. When people ask what you do, tell them you’re a writer. Tell yourself you’re a writer in the mirror in the morning (positive affirmations). Order some business cards that say “Writer” under your name.

What does this do? It subconsciously gives you permission to spend time writing. Believe me, I’m a mom, I know that you need permission to do something for yourself before you’ll do it. So grant it!

2. Look at your schedule and your nature. Who out there has heard that if you want it bad enough you’ll get up before dawn to write? How many of you decided that you must not want it bad enough after the first week of trying that? I’m here to tell you that you can still want it just as bad as those early risers without waking with the rooster. Because sleep is a necessity for health (the research is quite concrete) and your health is more important than writing. So you have to tweak your schedule without giving up sleep, doctor’s appointments, eating, and peeing.

Start looking at your day. Do you sit in carpool or at your kid’s hockey practice? Think of “waiting rooms” as “writing rooms” – hair salons, dentist’s and doctor’s offices. Any place where you could read a magazine could be a place to write.

3. What can you cut out? I used to bake cookies for my kids once a week. I used to wash my kitchen floor once a week (the rest of my house is a disaster but I liked my kitchen floor clean). Now I bake once a month and I clean my floor every two weeks. The kids have adjusted and I have an extra two hours to write.

4. Capture your writing. I have a Dana Alpha Smart. It’s an electronic notebook so it doesn’t have to boot up, it doesn’t distract me with web access, e-mail, or games. It has a small screen where I type raw material which can be downloaded later into my computer. If you don’t have the money for an electronic notebook, buy a paper notebook and carry it everywhere.

5. Develop a method. I was one of those people who needed total silence to write. But Santa brought me an iPod for Christmas. I loaded it with inspiring, dramatic music (mostly without lyrics) like the soundtracks of Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings. I listened to it while thinking about my books and eventually I began to write with the music in the background. I create a “soundtrack” for each of my books. Now I can sit anywhere and write a truly dramatic scene while listening to the Battle of Gondor.

6. Jumping into your book. Some authors take fifteen minutes to get back into writing when they’re interrupted. I don’t have fifteen minutes so I use tricks that sink me quickly back in my world. One way is the soundtrack. Another way is my collage. I like to see the emotions that I’m writing. I also forget my characters’ eye colors and where exactly their scars are. Instead of looking it up in my manuscript, I create a visual picture of my book and characters.

I’ve created collages in blank books and on pieces of poster board (Stephanie Bond recommended using the inside of a manila folder). I pull pictures off the internet of period clothing and settings (and hunky guys – luckily my hubby is quite secure : ). I look at my collage and listen to my soundtrack. I’ve even lit aromatic candles that smell like my heroine and sipped a cup of tea to help immerse me quickly into my world.

7. If you can find an hour, grab it. Once a week I go to my local bookstore and write after dinner. It is “me” time and my family’s come to respect it. I walk in, smell the books, buy a hot chocolate, put on my iPod and write. I type as fast as I can. Later I download my work and celebrate the number of pages I wrote. It’s usually six to eight pages. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but those pages add up. I’ve written four, 100K plus word novels this way. One page at a time, one paragraph at a time, one word at a time.

We’d all love to have our days open so we could sit for hours immersed in our settings and characters. We’d write twenty sensational pages or more a day. Reality is that most of us have other responsibilities. But that shouldn’t stop you from writing. Some days I just can’t find the time anywhere, but over the course of a week I can find it.

The bottom line is that I must write. In it I find purpose, I have control, I explore amazing characters, I live wonderfully romantic adventures, and I am fulfilled. When I finish a scene and step away, I am a better mom, better wife, better person because I’m doing what I love to do. And so can you!

I’d love to hear more ideas on finding time to write! How do you do it? I’ll be giving away a first chapter critique (up to 25 pages) or a fabulous Ruby Slippered Sisterhood mug to one lucky commenter.

52 responses to “How To Be “Mommy!” and Still Write a GH Manuscript”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Hurray, Heather! FOUR books written with no time…

    I’m trying to manage being Mommy plus full-time job, and the reminder that 15 minutes is enough time to write a couple quick pages is such a good one! Late last May, I told myself I was going to figure out SOME way to finish my first book, and grabbed any spare moments I possibly could, and lo and behold, I was done by December, and it finaled in the Golden Heart. I’m hoping to do it again, even if I have to write most of it with one of my kids (and probably also the cat) in my lap!

    • You know I’m still amazed every time I can write a paragraph that’s half way decent when I have three kids running around behind me! And they don’t run quietyly : ) I try to write when the older ones are at school and the baby is napping but sometimes it spills over to when they’re home. And yet I can still get words down. I must be getting better at blocking out the noise??

  2. Darynda Jones says:

    Awesome game plan, Heather! I love how you figured out how to find little snippets of time we wouldnt’ normally think about. I have a good friend who just wrote a manuscript in four weeks writing only two hours a day and it rocks! I was so floored when I read it. She really made those two hours count!

    Hugs and great post!!!

    • Hi Darynda!
      You must be a night owl writer to be up that late to make a comment : )
      Wow – 4 weeks – now that’s amazing! Makes me salivate just thinking how much writing I’ll be able to get done in three years when my little one goes to school! Although I would never wish those years away as they are just so precious when they’re small.

  3. Great post. I agree that you can’t sit around and wait for the “perfect moment.” I especially like the idea of “training” yourself to write while listening to an iPod. Thanks for all the tips.

  4. Hi, Heather! I can’t tell you how badly I needed to hear advice like this–thank you! I’m not a mother, but I can put myself in the (ruby) shoes of writer mums and appreciate how difficult it must be to juggle so much.

    I have a very short commute to work on the train, but in those seven minutes, I can put down at least two pages if I’m on a roll with a story. I’ve been very close to missing my station a few times after getting absorbed in the writing. Once, I almost lost a shoe in my haste to disembark. It makes for very exciting mornings!

    • Diana Layne says:

      Ha, Vanessa, that is a hilarious image! Love it!

      • Diana, I was soooo lucky with the shoe. It was *that* close to falling into the gap between the train and the platform. Another time I almost left my bag on behind. Now I keep the straps looped around my arm just in case.

    • That’s great, Vanessa, that you can use that 7 minutes. It really can add up. But do be careful – you don’t want to break a leg and end up in the hospital : ) Although – hmmmm – that would give you a big chunk of writing time ; )

  5. Diana Layne says:

    As a long (long, long, long) time mommy (my kids ages span over 20 years apart from the oldest to the youngest), I’ve learned a lot of these tips. Good of you to write them so succinctly and offer hope for those of us who hate getting up with the roosters (which I’m currently doing from no other choice at the moment, but plan on it being temporary). I love your tips for jumping into the story, and I’m here to say you can learn to write through anything. As I said yesterday I was writing with a 7 yo climbing on me, and then later I was holding my 4 mo old grandson and typing one handed. You learn to adjust and cope with practice, lol.

    Congrats on your sales! Yippee!

    • Thanks, Diana! I made a whole lasagna once with one hand while holding my infant. I figure if I could do that I could figure out how to type one handed too : )
      Congratulations on the grandbaby!

  6. Katrina C says:

    Hi Heather. Brilliant post, and congratulations! I’m not a mom, but I sometimes struggle to work full time, be a good wife and have time to write.

    I carry a little notebook with me and jot down funny images or bits of dialog whenever I think of them. I’ve never heard of a Dana Alpha Smart before, so I’m going to check it out (just in time for Christmas!). I try to do research in my lunch hour.

    I’m sometimes kept up at night by scenes running through my head, which is great when it happens (they tend to happen in 1,000 word chunks, and I stay up to write them down in my notebook), but is terrible for my mental well-being when I have to get up for work the next day. And yes, it only happens on work nights. Why I can’t have a burst of creativity on a Saturday night, I don’t know!

  7. What great comments – thanks ladies! I’d love to respond but have to get the kiddies off to school first and encourage my 2-year-old to watch something on TV (okay – I’m not the Mommy of the Year).

    I’ll also be stepping out this afternoon for a bit to get my yearly mammogram. Remember how I mentioned that you MUST keep those doctor’s appointments – they’re important! And October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so if you haven’t booked your annual squeezing – do it! My mom is a 15 year survivor of BC so I’m super vigilent. Really, the mammogram is not that terrible an ordeal and it gives great peace of mind. So schedule it now!

    • Elise Hayes says:

      And bring your Alpha Smart for the waiting room 🙂

      By the way, Heather, this year I started bringing my (electronic) notebook to my hairdresser and it’s just *wonderful.* Two hours of virtually uninterrupted writing time!

      • I love to talk with my hairdresser about my books. She’s become one of my biggest fans : )
        I get my hair colored every six months (shhh – don’t tell : ) and it usually take 2 – 3 hours. It’s a great chunk of time to write!

  8. Aislinn says:

    I’ve done the waiting room thing! I try and set aside an hour a day (usually in the evening), but I don’t always do it. (Bad me, I need discipline.) I use a notebook and write on paper, because I find my laptop way too distracting. But I’m working on my fourth novel-length story and I’m hoping.

    • Wow – four manuscripts down! You’ve definitely figured out your “method”.
      Yes – e-mail, the web, etc. are so distracting. That’s why I usually write on my AlphaSmart. But now that I also have to edit a lot I’m starting to look into a lap top. I just need to turn the e-mail off : )

  9. Great post. Love reading how other readers handle their writing time. I have kids but they are older. They still manage to make loads of laundry for me each day and expect to find a home cooked meal when they get home (still don’t have a clue what to make for tonight, must think of something). My family and home come first but my writing is a very close second. I’ve found even when I have the time that I can’t write for hours at a time. I have to break my writing up into small chunks of time otherwise I seem to hit a wall. Instead I write for twenty minutes to a half hour then go away and do laundry or some housework. It’s like a mini-charge for my imagination *G* and then I go back to jot down the next section. I also *always* carry a small notebook with me and when riding in the car or waiting for dd to try on clothes, I work on my next scene. Can’t wait to read how everyone else handles their writing time.

    • Great ideas, Jennifer!
      Someday when my kids are all in school and I have a large chunk of time to write, I will probably have to take time away from the computer during the day too. It’s how I’ve trained my brain so far : )
      Sitting for too long without a break isn’t good for the body or the creative mind either. I know some writers who stretch and do some yoga type movements every hour or so. Perhaps I could “Downward Dog” my way over to the mountain of laundry I have waiting : )

  10. Elizabeth Langston says:

    Great post, Heather. Wonderful ideas. Thanks for giving us permission to sleep. That is one of my biggest stumbling blocks. I never seem to get enough of it.

    In keeping with the waiting room idea, sometimes I leave an extra half hour early for an appt just so I can write in peace. Then the receptionist will say, “We can take you now, Mrs. Langston” and I say, “What? My appt isn’t for another 7 minutes.”


  11. Ronempress says:

    Hi, Heather. I am one of those early risers. Not because I’m a sadist, but because I won’t sleep anyway. Even as a child, I didn’t take naps. I do always carry writing material and a digital voice recorder and they’ve come in handy for scenes, character ideas, plots, etc. But I can’t imagine writing entire books like that. I need my mornings, my solitude. Although I DO like the idea of a digital notebook. Can’t afford it, but I LIKE it! LOL It would be nice to lose the distraction of emails and “but I’m SUPPOSED to market!”

    • I so wish I was an early riser by nature! It’s so peaceful in the morning before everyone rises – a great time to write if I wasn’t so bleary eyed.

      I had a little tape recorder once that I kept in the car so I could record scenes and dialogue during my commute. Unfortunately it also picked up a lot of my road rage too : )

  12. Irene says:

    Awesome post Heather. Although I am not a writer, I found your suggestions to be relevant to my own life. Your idea of grabbing 15 minutes or an hour to focus on doing something you love is great. It’s so easy to put off doing something for ourselves when our lives are busy raising kids. Thanks for the suggestions and the reminder!

    • Thanks so much for posting, Irene! We can lose a sense of who we are when raising our kids for so many years. Remembering to do something for our own interests is important.

      Have a great weekend!

  13. I ask you, is it wrong to wander the aisles of the grocery store muttering dialogue to yourself? I’ve written in the waiting room of the dentist while my son was having his wisdom teeth pulled (and was a little disappointed by how quick the dentist worked). Shhh, don’t tell, but I’ve been known to write at work.

    • Definitely nothing wrong with that! I come up with my best dialogue when I’m walking or doing something mundane like showering – although then sometimes I end up with one leg shaved and the other one not : )

  14. Elise Hayes says:

    Great post, Heather! I heard Stephanie Bond this summer at Nationals for the first time–and was amazed (and inspired) when she said she wrote her books in 15-minute intervals. As someone who usually balances a 50-hour workweek with a preschool daughter, those 15-minute chunks are often all that I have. I used to think I “had” to have at least a 2-hour chunk of time before I could even sit down to write–otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. Now I know better.

    One more tip to add to the great ones you give above: “Club 100.” Basically, you commit to writing 100 words a day for 100 days. Now, 100 words is easy. It’s about the length of a paragraph (or maybe 8-10 lines of zany dialogue). Some days all you’ll write are those 100 words. But on other days, once you’ve sat down to write those 100 words, more will follow.

    And, most importantly (to me), writing 100 words a day keeps the story fresh in your mind, so that it percolates while you’re cooking, or driving, or sitting through a boring meeting at work. Even better, when you sit back down to write, there’s no need to re-immerse yourself in the story–your head is already in the game and you’re ready to write!

    For anyone interested, here’s a link to Beth Pattillo’s description of “Club 100” (and you can even formally join the club, if you’d like!):

    • Thank Elise for reminding me of another thing that helps me dive back into my work – keep it fresh in your mind. When I go for my walk in the morning, I listen to my soundtrack and let the drama take me over for the 30 minute trek. Then when I get home I jot down a couple reminders so that I can remember the dialogue or plot twist later when I get time to write.
      Keeping the story going and fresh in my mind throughout the day really helps me stay excited and ready to write.
      And isn’t Stephanie Bond wonderful! She even told us one time how she managed to strap her lap top to her tread mill so she could write while walking! Now there’s an idea for those of us who can pat our heads and rub our tummies at the same time. I’d probably fall off. (Don’t try this at home – tread mill writing should only be performed by trained professionals on a closed course : )

  15. Shea Berkley says:

    Wonderful post, Heather. And congratulations on finding the time in your busy schedule to write four books.

    Contrary to popular opinion, finding time to write isn’t easy when you’re a stay-at-home mom. There is always something that needs to be done right now. I found the most difficult challenge was putting my writing ahead of some basic chores.

    The one thing I will never give up is time with my kids. I write when they’re at school and stop when they get home. If I’m on a roll, I’ll ask if they mind if I keep writing, and usually they’ll be cool with that. They’re usually doing homework for about an hour after school anyway. But as soon as they’re done, I’ll call it a day and go play with my family.

    • I know what you mean about wanting to spend time with your kids. My two older ones are starting to not need mommy time so much anymore. The more they don’t need it, the more I want it : )
      But when they’re out with their friends in the back yard or watching Sponge Bob, I can sneak to my computer for a quick dive back into my book. When I hear stirrings, I save and jump back off.

  16. Jennifer Hilt says:

    Another excellent post by a RSS! For a good ten years, I read books about writing, took classes and thought about writing books. I was waiting until I ‘learned how to write a book without actually writing and I ‘had time’.

    Then one of my sons developed a serious lifelong health problem. It was and is so difficult but in this time I learned 2 things: 1). Life will never become less hectic, so I have to make time. 2). Writing a novel is a messy business. I do not start at the beginning and write all the way through. (I thought this was necessary before).

    Now, I do it however darn way I can to get the story told. In writing, I have found a joy that really sustains me. Finding time? I totally agree with other posts–lower your standard on the Not Necessary Things, Focus and Take Yourself Seriously.

    To All the Other Writing Moms—-Keep Writing!


  17. Jeannie Lin says:

    Great tips! I’m always in awe of how people with families can find time to write.

    I always have a notebook with me to jot down outlines and small scenes, just because every time I have idle time, I think “I can be writing!”

    It’s made me itch for one of those little netbooks. 🙂

  18. Tina Joyce says:

    Love the post, Heather. Interesting that you trained yourself to write to music. I always said I had to have complete silence to write, but as a mother, that’s pretty close to impossible. My mommy-ear is trained to hone in on the sound of kiddie voices. Maybe listening to classical music (can’t have words, ’cause I end up singing along) will help me “get into the zone” without so many distractions.

    Great tips! And I have an Alpha Smart, too. It’s lightweight and the battery lasts FOREVER! I love it.

    • Do try the music. I was very skeptical at first but desperate too to block out the noise around me.
      Try different types of instrumental music. Try soundtracks from your favorite movies. Lord of the Rings and Pirates are great for battles. I wrote an Elizabethan manuscript not too long ago and found medieval festival music to listen to. There’s also Mists of Avalon songs and Braveheart. Now when I watch a good movie, I try to pay attention to the music in the background. If it will work with my book, I hunt for it later to download.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I absolutely HAVE to have music to write, and if someone ever figures out a way for the IRS to accept an iPod as a valid business expense, I’d be eternally grateful. I have a hard time blocking out background noise, and with a headset on, I have a single thing to listen to as opposed to many things, if that makes any sense at all to anyone but me.

      The headset itself also serves several functions. It’s a nonverbal ‘do not disturb’ sign to the other people atthe coffeeshop where I do most of my writing. Clapping the headset on my head is also a signal to myself that okay, it’s time to write – rather like taping my ankles before gymnastics practice back in the day.

      I also find that I type faster if I listen to music with some speed or crunch to it. I’m consciously trying to use this innate reaction I have to this music as a productivity tool as I crank out this first draft.

      This morning I’m listening to Alice in Chains.

  19. Kristi says:

    I steal time for myself. I have the 2 little kids, and soccer practice, and all that, and also a 32+hour a week job that provides half our family’s income + our health insurance. And I can’t write at work.

    So, I squeeze in an extra half an hour or two some days, pack those all together, and then leave an hour or two early at the end of the pay period (can’t write at work, do have semi-flexible hours). I go to Starbucks, and write like a madwoman for an hour before I pick up the kids.

    Or, I bring my netbook in the car while waiting to pick up my daughter from soccer–I can get 20 minutes in that way some days.

    I can’t do early mornings for writing, but I do sometimes get an hour after the kids go to bed (when I’m not so exhausted that I collapse almost before they’re down). I’ve written on a laptop in the car on long car trips (while my husband drives), and written in the hospital while my little one was recovering from surgery.

    I think the thing that helps the most is to prepare mentally before I get to the keyboard. If I know I’ll have 60 minutes of quiet time at 4pm, then I’m thinking about my book up until then. Yes, I have to think about work, but there’s the commute time, and when I’m going to the restroom, and nuking my lunch in the office kitchenette…All those little 5 minutes of time adds up. I can’ write the words down then, but I can rehearse a scene in my mind, play with “camera angles”, think up witty dialogue. So when my fingers do hit the keys, it’s 1000 words or 2000 words.

    • I think that really is the key Kristi – thinking ahead of time about where you are in the book. I sometimes rewrite scenes in my head from both points of view to see which one will have more impact. Then when I sit down to write I know immediately which head to be in.

      Thanks for the extra tidbits. You definitely know how to squeeze the writing in : )

  20. Dara says:

    I love the idea of a collage of character pictures! I’m going to have to do that.

    One way I inspire myself to get writing is compling a mock book trailer and watching it right before I start writing.

    Sure, it may have taken a few hours to put together that I could’ve used for writing but it actually made me more excited about my novel, especially when I went on the image hunt and looked for pictures of my characters. Putting it together with music and words really helped. Now I can sit back and watch the short 2 minute clip and feel energized to write!

    • I love the idea of a book trailer! It’s another creative outlet that invigorates you and pulls you into the world of your manuscript.

      Now I just have to learn how to make one (eeks – I’m not very technical – this was my very first blog : )

  21. Katrina W says:

    “I know that you need permission to do something for yourself before you’ll do it. ” This is so true. I feel guilty every time time my son asks me to use my computer and I say no – because it’s during my time to write. Thanks for giving me the permission!

    Your 15 minute advice is timely. I need more writing time and was bemoaning how to get it. But I have an extra 15 minutes several times a day. I am one with difficulty in getting back into it so I never tried it, but I will now. I so appreciate your advice.

  22. Tina Canon says:

    Hi Heather–

    Great tips! I wrote my first book when my son was an infant and then the next two books by squeezing in a page at a time. Being a mom is great training for writing on the spot. LOL

    I also use soundtracks and scented candles the same way you do. Little things like that really put you in the moment and get you moving on the writing!

    I love the idea of doing collage of your characters and book on file folders. That’s a great idea!


  23. Helen Hardt says:

    Great advice, Heather!

  24. Heather, awesome tips! I needed the reminder that I CAN find the time to write. I just need to budget my day better and take advantage of every spare second. I love your tips for jumping back into the book! That’s always been one of the hardest things for me to do and why I continually tell myself that 15 minutes is not enough time to get anything done. I’m going to try some of these next time i want to use that excuse! 🙂

  25. Jenn! says:

    Hi Heather! What an inspiration you are!!!
    Many of your tips on finding time to write I already do! Great mommy minds must work alike! I can’t tell you how much I can accomplish while sitting in the carpool line. I also do most of my editing it the bathtub!!!
    Great post!

  26. Rita Henuber says:

    I have an incredible amount of respect for you all. You are wives and mothers. Home makers and in some cases, you take care of aging and ill parents and siblings. Work outside the home and yet find time to write. Not only do you accomplish this with grace and style, but you do it all well.
    I am in awe

  27. Vivi Andrews says:

    I love this, Heather. You want to be a writer, so you make it happen. What a wonderful mentality.

  28. Great post, Heather. With fours kids of my own and the Kool-aid house to boot, I wrote my first three novels the same way. I never have hours to write–only minutes.

    I wish I had a local bookstore to go to. Do you think Wal-mart would mind if I show up and stake at a spot near their book display for an hour or so? sigh.


  29. Ami Weaver says:

    I’m a little late here, but this is a great post. I’ve got 4 kids of my own, and got nearly totally derailed when they were all home for the summer–my teen seemed to need all my time! But now 3 of them are in school and I’ve gotten better at grabbing time and making the most of it. Not perfect–if I’m home, laundry beckons, etc., but I’m learning. 🙂 And at the end of the day, it all adds up to more pages than I’d had that morning.

  30. Sorry I couldn’t read your blog on Friday, Heather. I was at the NJRW conference this weekend which was a blast. Great article!

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