I didn’t know it at the time, but when I wrote my first novel I had so much on my side – copious amounts of free time, regular good night sleeps, a clear head, a reliable income, and none of the overwhelming stress and pressure that goes hand in hand with keeping a tiny new human-being alive. When I became pregnant with my son I knew these days were numbered and that my second novel needed to be put down on paper as soon as possible. It was with that in mind that I decided to leave book number 1 in draft form and return to it at a later date – a decision that has benefited me in more ways than I could have imagined, but I’ll save that for another post! I’m now pregnant with my second child and my son is one-year old. Joyfully, the first draft of my second novel is now complete, and following an overhaul of my first novel it has reached submissions stage – just in the nick of time too! Please note that whilst what I’m about to share is tried and tested with only one child I’m not convinced it’ll work this way when there are two + of them – but I guess I’ll find out in a few months’ time so watch this space!
- Give yourself a bit of time first – If you’ve just become a parent, the last thing you’re probably thinking about doing is writing a novel – and that’s OK! The newborn phase is brief, so be kind to yourself. It is enough for the time being to simply focus on your recovery, on bonding with your child, catching up on sleep wherever possible, and establishing yourselves in your new roles as parents and as a family unit. If you do want to work on your novel, I wouldn’t suggest so much as putting pen to paper or finger to key – if you really must do something perhaps work on developing a strong idea for your novel’s outline, because that will make your task ahead so much easier.
- If you can, get baby into a routine asap – Whilst I understand that for some routine can fly in the face of what it means to be a creative, for me routine is absolutely key to living a relatively anxiety-free existence. I like to have a vague idea of what to expect when in my day, and whilst so many factors can sabotage this when you have a baby’s needs to consider in addition to your own, overall I have been able to maintain quite a predictable routine for my son from about 2 months of age. This meant paying attention to his ever-changing awake periods and sleepy signals and using at least one opportunity that he was sleeping per day to write. I understand that not all babies are as routine-amenable as others though, so all you can do is try your best because a routine will benefit you if you can achieve it.
My son wasn’t a great sleeper until he was 15 months old, but I still had time to make good progress on my novel because fortunately he was a pretty consistent napper. I could fit in 30-60 minutes of writing most days, and I was equally satisfied whether I managed to write only a couple of sentences one day and a full chapter the next so long as I’d written something, and I didn’t feel bad if there were days where all I wanted to do was down tools and sleep while my son slept instead.
There are never any guarantees of how long your baby will nap for, so writing was usually the first thing I did once my son had fallen asleep in case he awoke sooner than expected. I could always wash the dishes that had been piling up or grab a snack later on – when baby is awake it can be extremely hard to get anything done. Later I found I could get away with extending my son’s nap-time 20 minutes or so by letting him stay in his cot amusing himself post-sleep whilst I finished off whatever it was I wanted to get done, provided he was content.
- Write a sequel – If this isn’t your first novel, I’ve found the easiest place to start writing when you’re a new parent is to come up with a sequel to one of your earlier works. After all, you have already created sympathetic characters and a believable world thus a large part of the hard work has already been done by you. For me, it was far easier to imagine what might happen next to the characters of my first novel than it was to come up with an entirely new concept. If I’d started from scratch I honestly don’t think I could have produced a second novel in my first year of motherhood unless I already had a very strong outline in mind (which I did not) – especially once the creativity-killing combination of writer’s block, cumulative sleep deprivation, and baby-brain had set in.
- Develop an idea or piece of work you’ve already started – If you haven’t already written a novel, similar to the advice above I believe you will give yourself the best chance of success if you choose to either develop a concept for a novel that is already strong in your mind, or revisit something you have written previously and potentially discarded or forgotten about to trigger your creative imagination. Like many writers over the years I have accumulated several story ideas and written numerous first chapters/scenes on my laptop that have not yet been developed into full-blown stories, but now I’m about to birth baby number 2 you can bet your boots it’s one of those pre-established works I will likely be returning to for ideas and as a potential starting point for novel no. 3.
- Create writing opportunities by getting help or utilising a local babysitting/creche service – Given I live 10,500 miles away from my nearest family members, babysitting opportunities have not been as forthcoming for me as they might be to other new mums. I therefore began utilising the creche service at my local gym twice/week to allow myself to focus on my writing. By the time my son had made the transition to only one nap this doubled my writing opportunities for the day because I could first take myself to a café whilst he was at creche and have almost an entire 1.5 hrs to make progress on my novel, then when we got home I could use his nap-time to do a bit more work if I wanted to or simply get the housework done or catch up on Outlander – whatever suited me best on the day!
- If you don’t feel like writing today, proofread or edit instead – I never wasted a writing opportunity, because even if I didn’t actually get any new words down on the page I would ensure I either proofread or improved upon what I had already written so far instead. Sometimes I would even squeeze in a little extra time to do this while my son was awake and occupied nearby with toys/snacks, but I would treat that as a bonus and stop for the day as soon as he got fed up (it helped if I was already in the swing of writing something that I just couldn’t wait to get down on the page). Any time spent on developing your novel, even if it is only on improving the existing content rather than coming up with something new, is time well spent.
- Use evenings – When I finished my second novel my son was around 15 months old, and I would use the first hour following his bedtime to do a bit of proofreading/editing on either that novel or my first one. I rarely feel creative after a long day of caring for and chasing after a highly active toddler, so I found editing a far more manageable task for those times that I was not functioning on all cylinders. By taking turns with my husband to put our son to sleep I was also able to gain an extra 30 minutes or so every other night – which could be used either as additional editing time or a chance to finish up a bit sooner so we could enjoy our evening together before I crashed.
- Enlist Daddy’s support – Once a fortnight or so my husband would look after our little one for me and I would head off to a café where I could be distraction free and focus solely on my writing (and a good cup of coffee!). I continue to really appreciate the time my husband gives me to pursue the things that are important to me, and I am equally happy to return the favour.
- Make use of work lulls – I used to work shifts after hours, and night-shifts could be particularly quiet at times which is when I would occasionally take advantage of a (brief) opportunity to either write, proofread or edit my novel. If you can do the same without compromising the quality of your work, your professional integrity, or your employment contract then by all means, do so! I always did like to have something to read alongside my midnight-snack!
- Know your story – Overall, I’ve found that the clearer you are from the absolute get-go about the story it is you want to write, the easier it is to put pen to paper and make good progress even when you have the additional responsibility and pressure of caring for a little one. A thorough knowledge of the plot for my second novel not only increased my motivation to write and the speed at which I did so, but made the entire process inordinately easier, which I sincerely hope it does for you too!
- Use your child as motivation – I want my children to grow up with the drive to pursue their dreams, and one of the easiest ways to teach them this is to role model it to them!
Best of luck! Gemma.
Are you a parent who writes? Do you have any tips of your own to share on how you balance parenthood with your writing?