How to Write a Book When You Have a Job, Kids, or Your Life is Otherwise Crazed

by Kate White

Cover of Over Her Dead Body by Kate White

Probably the question I get asked most frequently when I do book signings is "How do you manage to write fiction when you have a full-time job?" I've often thought the question should be "Why do you manage to write fiction when you have a full-time job?" Because there are moments when it seems insane to be writing a book a year while running Cosmopolitan magazine -- and parenting two teenagers.

But if you're like me -- and I suspect you are since you're reading this -- you fantasized for years about writing books. From the time I was little I had a secret dream to publish a mystery series, and I just hated to think I was never going to get around to it. For financial reasons going on a sabbatical from my job as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan wasn't an option (and besides, who would want to give up writing cover lines like "Mattress Moves So Hot His Thighs Will Burst into Flames"?), so one day I decided to take the plunge regardless of the fact that my plate was heaped pretty high.

At first I was crazed, but over time I've learned a handful of tricks that have made writing my books easier. I've also relied on a few nifty time-management strategies that I came across while writing articles on the subject back in my twenties. If there's a book you're dying to write, but you're not sure how the heck you can pull it off, some of these tips may proof useful.

  • Don't keep waiting for the right moment or you'll wait forever, but accept that there are some stages in life when it's next to impossible to pull off a book. I could never have written fiction when my kids were small. My life as a working mom was just too nutty. My husband worked nights, making it even trickier because there was no one to lend a hand at critical moments in the evenings. My husband Brad and I were laughing lately as we recalled one incident from the time our firstborn was about a year old. Brad called one night to see how things were going and I gave him a short recap: "Fine, fine," I said. "I took Hudson for a walk in the park and then we ran to the grocery store and then we had dinner and now we're just hanging out at home, playing on the floor." There was a long, odd pause and finally my husband announced quietly, "Kate, his name is Hunter."

    It's seems funny now, but it also reflects the fact that there were always a few blown out fuses in my brain back then. Not only would it have been impossible for me to write a book, but also I wouldn't have wanted to sacrifice any parenting time.

    Today, however, it's a different story. My kids are 15 and 17 and they sleep till noon on Saturday and Sunday. Tolkien could write another Lord of the Rings trilogy in a writing block this big.

    Just know that there are some periods in life that you simply will have to view as your prologue to being a writer.

  • Find a genre that will pull you like a magnet. When I was younger, I made a stab at literary fiction and I used to dread my writing time. It had about as much allure as washing out two-weeks worth of pantyhose by hand. When, years later, I decided to try the crime genre, my agent suggested stand-alone thrillers because they have the potential for big sales, but I opted to do a whodunit instead. It just had more appeal for me and I wanted to do everything in my power this time to make my computer beckon me each day -- or at least not repel me.

    And it does beckon (for the most part) because I really do enjoy writing mysteries. Though my mysteries have a contemporary protagonist (Bailey Weggins), they're really what are called cozies -- classic whodunits with lots of suspects, clues and red herrings. I get a huge kick from working out the puzzle in the plot, laying down the clues and doing everything in my power to keep the reader guessing. I'm not saying that writing isn't arduous and tedious at times, but the mystery element somehow pulls me along, keeps me from hitting the snooze button too many times on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

    So experiment a bit with different types of fiction (as well as the first person versus the third) until you find the one that's the most seductive. For instance, maybe the police procedural would hold appeal for you because you're a nut for details. You don't have much time so you really need to want to spend it on your book.

  • Really, really write about the world you know. Books on writing always urge that you write about what you know. That said, there are plenty of examples of fabulous books by authors who didn't start off knowing a subject but did a ton of research. But if you've got a job or kids, you don't have the time to study dinosaur DNA or the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Finding a story in the world you inhabit will make it so much easier to reach the finish line.

    I always wanted to write about a female private eye. But because I had no time to explore that realm, I set my books in the world of magazines and made my character a crime writer and amateur sleuth.

    I still have to interview cops and forensics experts -- I do that on my lunch hour -- but I don't have to spend any time investigating how a magazine works. Plus, I overhear great lines right at Cosmo and stick many of them right into my books.

    And what if your world seems a bit dull to you? Just make it more fascinating when you write. Populate it with riveting or terrifying characters that compensate for any dullness of environment.

  • Make a list of all the things you can unload from your life that will leave you more time for writing. There are some things I absolutely can't do because I've chosen to have a full time job and write books, too. I don't do any crafts. I practically never shop. Oh, I stop off at stores and grab clothes in this kind of blitzkrieg way, but I never spend a Saturday poking around little boutiques and topping the experience off with a double latte at Starbucks. There are some things I wish I didn't have to sacrifice, but others I don't mind having given up. I hired a college student to help me deal with many little jobs -- like ordering books online and planning family vacations -- and that's been a godsend. My greatest unloading strategy involves exercise. I don't like to exercise, but I want to look and feel good. I read this book called The Power of Ten that suggests that if you do it the right way, you only have to work out once a week for under an hour. I feel in really good shape from following the guidelines in the book, and even if I stopped writing, I'd never give up this approach.

  • Decide on your writing time and make it sacred, even if you don't use all of it. Some people may be great at grabbing moments to write at odd times here and there, but I'm not one of them. If I were to wing it and wait for the right moment to summon me, I'd only be up to about page 16 on my first mystery. There's got to be a certain inviolable period each day for me to write. In picking your time, it helps if you figure out when you are most likely to get into "the zone," that period during which ideas and words just seem to flow. I've always been a night owl, but oddly I've found that writing fiction comes easiest to me in the mornings. I also need absolute quiet and a big flat surface -- though not everyone is so particular. I've heard Scott Turrow say that he wrote his first book, Presumed Innocent, on the commuter train each day.

  • Learn how to slice the salami. Does this scenario sound familiar? The weekend approaches and the forecast is for rain. You tell yourself, "Perfect, I'm going to use all day Saturday to write. I'll get my whole first chapter done." Saturday dawns and you mean to settle down at your desk but the idea of writing all day starts to seem overwhelming. You putter around a bit, pour a second cup of coffee, scrub the grime off the stovetop, watch the rain, skim the paper, field two phone calls, telling yourself all the while that you will find your way to your computer eventually. But it never happens.

    Years ago a time management expert named Edwin Bliss told me that the biggest mistake we make with a big project is to make it too daunting. He says the key is to break big projects down into manageable segments. It's a little big like cutting a big old ugly hunk of salami into appetizing slices. That's what you need to do with your writing time and or else will avoid it like the plague.

    I used Bliss' brilliant little strategy to trick myself into writing each day. For the first six months I told myself I was only going to write for 15 minutes a day. Fifteen minutes was my personal salami slice, and it was never hard to manage. Over time it became easier so I extended the fifteen minutes to thirty and then sixty and then to about two and half hours on each day of weekend. Sometimes I write even longer than that but I never plan on more. On weekdays I aim for an hour. There's something else that I found is helpful if your time is limited. Set a goal of pages to accomplish during your writing block. It pushes you to that amount. And if they aren't great, you can edit them later.

  • Plot your books while you are standing in line or driving or cooking or waiting for the bread to pop out of the toaster. If your have a full-time job or you're a stay-at-home mom, you don't have lots of desk time but you don't have to be plopped in front of your computer in order to plan out your chapters, create characters, untie the knots in your plot, etc. Use odd bits of time to do the non-writing parts of writing. I've found the shower to be a fabulous place to work on dialogue. I do it out loud -- though I hope my next door neighbors, whose bathroom wall abuts ours, aren't too alarmed when they hear me shout things like: "You killed her, you bastard, didn't you?"

  • Let ideas flow from the outside in. Though I find writing tough at times, one part of the process that I absolutely love is sitting in my little home office with a notebook, getting inside my head and thinking of ideas for my books. But I don't have the luxury of doing that very often because I have to use my writing time each day to actually write. Thus I end up doing much of my idea generating when I'm out. But here's the amazing thing about that little sacrifice. I've come to see how many fabulous ideas come from the outside in, when I'm traveling or driving through Central Park or sitting in a restaurant. Over Her Dead Body, my brand new book and the fourth in the Bailey Weggins series, is about the world of celebrity journalism and I got the idea while standing at a fashion show, watching someone devour one of those magazines. There's one trick I learned that facilitates it. You have to think about what you need creatively and form it into a question. For instance, "Where does the killer hide the weapon?" Trust me, you will be standing at an airline counter one day and someone next to you will say the weirdest thing that offer the answer to you right there.

  • Write every day, even for just five minutes. This will be tough, because you've got that damn job of yours, or those kids needing rides to soccer practice, but if you force yourself to write every single day, even for just a little bit, it makes it so much easier to do it the next day.

    Good luck!!!

    Kate White ** Kate White is the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. She is also the author of the Business Week bestseller Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do and Nine Secrets of Women Who Get Everything They Want.

    Kate began her career in the magazine business by winning Glamour Magazine's Top Ten College Women contest and appearing on the cover. She was an editorial assistant at Glamour and later became a feature writer and columnist for the magazine. She went on to hold key jobs at several national magazines, including Mademoiselle. She eventually was named editor-in-chief of Child and then later Working Woman and McCall's. Before joining Cosmo, she served as editor-in-chief of Redbook for four years. White became editor-in-chief of Cosmo in 1998. She recently received the Matrix award, which honors "extraordinary achievements of outstanding women in the communications field."

    Her latest novel is Over Her Dead Body. Ms. White lives in New York City and can be reached at

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