The Working Mom’s Tricks to Writing a Novel in Your Free (!) Time

By Alina Adams

Got kids? Got a job? Got a life? Also got a burning need to write a novel? Yeah. Me, too.

Got a problem? Yeah. Me, too.

In the two years prior to the birth of my oldest child, I’d published three romance novels, dozens of magazine articles, and a non-fiction book on figure skating, while working a full-time job. In the four years since the birth of my oldest child, I’ve published one romance novel, one non-fiction book on figure skater Sarah Hughes, and one mystery novel . . . although it’s certainly no mystery why my output has dropped so precipitously.

It took a lot of trial and error (and crying over spilled breast-milk on a computer keyboard) before I even began to figure out how to balance the mothering with the mystery, the toddler with the typing, and the wailing with the writing.

However, four years later, I can honestly say that I’ve managed to work out a few “Working Mom Tricks For Writing a Novel in Your Free (!) Time,” which I am eager to share with those interested in forgoing trivial matters like eating, sleeping, and the facade of sanity, all in order to indulge that elusive muse and squeeze a satisfying writing side-dish on to an already overflowing platter.

Trick #1: Think First. In Stanley Kubrick’s film “The Shining,” aspiring writer Jack Nicholson goes ballistic when wife Shelley Duval interrupts him with the excuse, “I didn’t hear you typing, so I thought you weren’t working.”

“Just because you don’t hear me typing,” Jack roars back, “Doesn’t mean I’m not working.” (And then he goes on a killing spree. Just ignore that part.)

The homicidal lunatic has a point.

“Writing” is the act of actually sitting at a keyboard and tapping keys to produce words that might one day form sentences and then actual, coherent thoughts. “Writing” is an act that can and often is interrupted by someone wanting to sit on your lap and visit, “Noggin.com, please!” (one would hope that’s your child and not your boss), as well as by someone asking you to watch his phone while he pops out to lunch with his latest girlfriend (one would hope that’s a co-worker and not your husband).

“Working,” on the other hand, consists merely of thinking about what you’re going to write, and thus can be done while driving, washing dishes, doing laundry, making beds, giving baths, standing in line at the grocery store, packing lunches, showering, breast-feeding, pushing a carriage, standing on a subway platform, cooking, and even while reading “The Cat in the Hat” for the umpteenth time, since you probably can do the whole thing on auto-pilot by now.

The best part is, “working” works. You don’t have to be in front of a computer to think about a scene, to decide what you want it to be about, where you want to set it, how you want each character to approach it, and where you need it to lead. Remember reading “The Cat in the Hat” until you can trill it by heart? Playing the same scene in your head over and over again, polishing the dialogue, tightening the structure, picking just the right word to describe a key plot point makes it much, much easier to maximize your precious computer time once you do get the squatters off your lap.

Trick #2: Skip Lunch. And on-line solitaire. The law mandates that every employee receive a one-hour lunch every day. The law does not mandate what you can or should do with it.

Look at that computer on your desk. It can be used for reports and spreadsheets and schedules. It can also be used for writing your book. In your free time.

What free time? Well, there’s lunch for a start. A good hour to sit in  relative silence and get your thoughts together — on paper, no less!

Plus, let’s be honest, here: Lunch aside, how much of those seven other hours at work do you use for getting the job done, and how many are spent playing solitaire, surfing the web, chatting with co-workers and forwarding e-mail jokes and petitions?

That’s all prime writing time. No one is suggesting shirking your duties and risking your job. But if you’re going to take breaks anyway, why not get your high from writing instead of caffeine?

Trick #3: Write Longhand. Even the most lightweight laptop is a tricky thing to schlep to the playground or Gymboree. However, a notebook and pen fit easily into the most crowded diaper bag (strong suggestion: Attach the pen to the notebook or you’ll loose both in the Desitin Depths). Write longhand while you’re sitting on a bench at the playground. Write longhand while you’re standing and rocking a stroller with your foot. Write longhand while breastfeeding and while waiting for your pasta to boil and while waiting outside of “My First Karate Class.” The best part is, entering your text into the computer later will give you the chance to revaluate your work with a fresh eye, fix those mistakes made on the first go around and, best of all, also counts as an official second draft (i.e., you’re that much closer now to a polished manuscript!).

Trick #4: Get Your Kids into the Act. Experts say that reading to your children is the best thing any parent can do to bond, raise IQ and otherwise earn their Mother-of-the-Year stripes. Sure, toddlers and up would probably rather hear “Winnie the Pooh” than “Mommy’s Work in Progress.” But, can an infant really tell the difference?

Nothing gives writers a better idea of whether a scene, especially one featuring lots of dialogue, is working, than reading it out loud. It can be an ego-crushing experience as you realize that the brilliance you heard in your head doesn’t quite match the drivel you seem to be articulating now, but that which does not kill you gets you ready for more editorial rejection later on. And that’s a good thing. Probably.

So grab that baby and that manuscript and read it out loud until the prose finally shines. Or your infant is old enough to start requesting a different title.

Then start again with the next book — and the next child.

Alina Adams is a New York City-based working mother of two boys (a four-year-old and a newborn), the author of four romance novels, two non-fiction books, multiple magazine articles, and her first mystery, Murder on Ice (Berkley Prime Crime 11/03). She is usually exhausted, and doesn’t really recommend her lifestyle to anyone but the most writing-obsessed. Alina Adams has a website