I used to envy writers who were independently wealthy, who did not have to get up to go to a mundane job to pay the mortgage and keep the heat on. I imagined a glamorous and indulgent life in which I could spend my days writing, reading, and having business lunches with my agent.
The truth is that life was impossible for me, as it is for most people. I am raising three children, and I have always had to work full-time because of pesky little things like buying groceries and having health insurance. I knew that if I would be successful, I’d have to find another way.
Hard, focused work produces results – this was something I knew. Octavia Butler’s words are taped above my desk: “First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” I was already disciplined as a writer – at least I had been, until I became a mother. When my children were infants, my good habits suddenly devolved into chaos – I was scribbling in a notebook while sitting at the pediatrician’s office and dictating into my phone while cooking dinner.
My “writing time” became so erratic that it was stressing me out, so I finally accepted that I would have to use the mornings. This was not an easy decision. In fact, I prided myself on being a “night owl,” a person who could write only when the house was dark and quiet. But the presence of babies in the home meant that I was too exhausted to stay up late to write. Besides, who knew what the night would bring? A colicky baby? An infant who was suddenly hungry at 2am?
It would have to be 5:00am.
For almost sixteen years, I have been waking up at 4:50, making a pot of coffee, and sitting down to do the hard work of writing. In this way, in the dark hours of the morning, I have written over 12 books, including two award-winning short story collections and a successful chapter book series. Below, I will describe some tips and techniques that have helped me perfect a productive and fulfilling early morning routine.
- Claim a space. It’s important to select one area in your home where you can write quietly (ideally a space that does not have a television). While a dedicated study or office space would be helpful, there’s no need for it to be a permanent space. For years, I wrote on a couch in my living room and carried around a bag containing my books, laptop, and pens. Now, I have a desk in the corner of my dining room, as well as a leather club chair that I call my “reading chair.” Between the two is a small bookshelf, where I keep my mentor texts (see below).
2. Prepare the space every evening. A good writing morning begins the prior evening. Before you go to bed, it’s vital to organize your space. Remember that you will be tired – be kind to your future, sleepy self by having everything in place. Stack your books, charge your laptop, make sure you have your special pens. Make it inviting: put out a favorite blanket, get your favorite coffee mug ready, place a lamp on the table.
3. Create a visual or sensory “trigger.” What will entice you to come to your space and write? What will pull you out of your bed? For me, it’s the coffee pot brewing (which I have loaded and set the night before, of course). For others, it’s the sacred act of lighting a candle and writing while it burns.
4. Keep mentor texts nearby. Mentor texts are books whose style, themes, or language inspire you. They are the books you want to emulate. Keep them nearby and consider starting your morning routine by reading through a passage or two to put you in the proper mindset.
5. Work in chunks of time. I use a version of the Pomodoro method. I will set my phone’s timer to 10-minute chunks, maybe 15-minute chunks if I feel good. When the timer goes off, I allow myself a few minutes to check Twitter (hello, #5amwritersclub) or re-read a passage from a mentor text that inspires me. Then I set the timer again and get back to work.
6. Stop in a good spot. This classic tip is attributed to Hemingway… when you’re in the middle of a great scene and you know what will happen next, stop there for the day. The next morning, you will be able to easily jump back into the writing again, thus avoiding a difficult return to the manuscript.
7. Prepare a reset strategy. There will be moments when your attention and energy start to flag. Get ready for these moments and have a strategy for resetting your focus. What works for me is to get up, brew a fresh pot of coffee, and while I’m waiting, read aloud from my mentor texts.
8. Honor the time. Let’s face it: you will have bad mornings. Your daughter’s softball game may have gone into extra innings the evening before. Maybe you were invited out to a celebratory dinner for a colleague. Maybe your child was up all night with a cough. The bottom line: you are exhausted, so the writing is not flowing. Don’t go back to bed! It’s important to honor that time. Going back to bed today means you’re more likely to do it again; instead, you must get to the end of your designated writing period. However, instead of trying to write, do those other things that all writers must do: Get out your mentor text, or a new book that was recently published, and read. Reading modern work – being familiar with the types of books you want to write – is an important part of the professional life of a writer. Perhaps you can scan through the websites of potential magazines where you might send your work to preview potential markets (the directory at the clmp.org site is a great resource). The idea is to do something related to writing in order not to waste it.
I hope these tips are useful! I’ll add more tips in the future. Follow me on Twitter/Insta to learn when I update them! @SusanDarraj