A Writer's Holiday Survival Guide, Part One

It’s hard to find time to write. It’s hard to clear your mind, sit down, sit still and focus. It’s hard to tell family, friends and co-workers, “No. I can’t go to that party, no I can’t have another round, no I can’t marathon Orange is the New Black all weekend. I have to write.

And during the holidays, it’s a lot harder.

There are parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow. Okay. Maybe there won’t be caroling. Or snow. Maybe you don’t like marshmallows. Maybe your family, like my family, turns Christmas Eve into a cousin-wide tournament consisting of rounds of hunting for a pickle ornament on your grandma’s Christmas tree (it’s a German thing . . . I think). But, no matter how or what you celebrate, the six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s are packed. Writing time is scarce. And your mom’s not going to like it when you say, “No, I can’t help baste the turkey; I need to re-work the dialogue in chapter 16.”

Do you want those to be your last words?

Of course not! You want to help your mom, or dad or sister or best friend or room-mate. You want to run the turkey trot (or . . . walk briskly). You want to go out for peppermint martinis with your co-workers. You don’t want to miss out on the most wonderful time of year because a side character went AWOL and you have to get her back on track. 

But you also want to write.

Here’s a few tips for flourishing in the most wonderful time of year without losing your writing muscles, your friends or your life.

Envision the End

The first thing we need to remember is that the holidays are going to end. In Stephen R. Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (which I recommend to any writer), the first habit, the bedrock of the other six is “Begin with the end in mind.” And we all know what the end of the holiday season is: January. Miserable, cold January, when we’re all trying to forget that we’re sad about no more ugly sweater parties by looking toward a fresh, new year.

Picture it: January 1st. You’ve got a list of writing goals. This is the year you’re going to finish the book. The year you’re going to query. The year of the agent. The year the story is going to be in a magazine. This is the year you’re going to develop the habit. This is the year you’re going to read a book a week. And start a blog. Oh, and also lose ten pounds.

And it’s seven in the morning on January 1st. You got a haircut. You’ve just been for a run. You still have an hour before work. You feel incredible. You sit down at your desk to write, because this is the year, and it starts now. And you realize you haven’t written in six weeks and barely remember how.

We all know the feeling, the feeling of not having written in a while. The feeling of not knowing where to start. The confusion and listlessness that turns into Twitter scrolling and long hours on YouTube. The dread of the blank page. If that’s not where you want to be, think about where you do want to be. Before Thanksgiving, take fifteen minutes and write down some goals.

Plan to Pull Back

If you’re a writer, you’ve set a goal before. It might be as simple as writing something everyday. It might be a word count. It might be finishing a novel. But if you write, you’ve pictured an accomplishment and worked toward it. If you’re just coming out of NaNoWriMo, you know the power of setting BIG goals and the joy of achieving them.

For the next six weeks, consider setting a few smaller ones.

Writers need to write and read often. Just like athletes, we can’t take long breaks without losing stamina and strength. If we take six weeks off, or only work in sporadic bursts, we’re going to get rusty. But if we set too big of goals, and don’t account for the inevitable busy-ness, we’re going to get discouraged. When making your list of goals, try for achievable instead of ambitious. And remember that, come January, there will be plenty of opportunity to reach for the stars.

Here’s a few ideas:

1) Cut down your word count

Shoot for 500 or even 250 words a day instead of 1,000. Getting some words on the page will keep you in the habit of writing without getting you attacked by your sister when she wants help stringing popcorn all over the house.

2) Start a small project

Novels can take up a lot of head-space. Sometimes, it can be hard to work on a book without a set schedule and a good amount of time. Consider setting your book aside and working on a short story or a poem for the next six weeks. You’ll get space away from your story (always healthy!) and yet still be working your writing muscles. Come January 1st, you’ll not only have new stuff, you’ll have a new story.

3) Carry a notebook

Often, we’re on the go during the holidays. We have parties after work or school functions before dinner. It can be hard to find time to sit quietly in your office or at your computer. Plan ahead by doing something old-fashioned (and I don’t mean caroling!). Carry a notebook and a pen. Tell yourself you’re going to fill a page a day. This is doable, even on a crunched schedule. You can fit it in anytime, even waiting in line on black Friday. And you’ll be stretching yourself by writing in a new way.

4) Outline

December is International Plot Writing Month. Writing can be all-consuming, but planning can be a little easier to manage. Have you had another story idea simmering in your head? Put it on paper, but in outline form. You can un-tangle plot problems while you untangle fifty strands of twinkle lights. If you’re naturally a pantser, this can be a good exercise. Come January, you’ll be ready to write the book.

Do you have a list of goals? Good! Preparation is half the battle. Check out Part Two for a few moree tips and tricks to achieve your goals while still celebrating.

A version of this article was originally posted on DIYMFA.com on November 22, 2013.