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