Guest Post: Varian Johnson on Battling Time Suck

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Varian Johnson is not only a wonderful writer—you must read My Life as a Rhombus—he’s also an engineer who builds bridges. Real ones that you can walk or drive on. Why, yes, I am very impressed. Varian’s yet another writer who has a job in a completely unrelated field and still finds time to write novels. I begin to suspect that the one can be very inspiring for the other.1 Though writing at 5AM? Eeek.

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Varian Johnson is the author of My Life as a Rhombus and the forthcoming Saving Maddie. He’s a fairly lazy blogger, though you can find him on Twitter quite a bit. He is also active with The Brown Bookshelf, which he strongly suggests you check out as soon as you finish reading this post.

Varian says:

When Justine asked me to write something for her blog, I immediately said, “Yes.”

Then I said, “What the hell am I thinking? I don’t have time to write a post.”

After spending an hour or so thinking about how I didn’t have time to write a post, I decided to write about exactly that. Making time out of no time. Time management.

Because, Lord knows I’ve dealt with my share of time management issues. For all practical purposes, I have three “jobs”, all of which I’m juggling with varying degrees of success. Among other things:

1. I’m trying to write a new novel (due to my editor in seven months, which may seem like a long time, but as this is the first uncompleted novel I’ve sold, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time completely freaking out).

2. I’m teaching a course on Children’s Literature at a small liberal arts university. (Love the students, love the teaching, but the grading . . . grrr. I’d rather eat Lucky Charms.)

Lucky Charms

3. And I happen to also design bridges. (And “bridges” isn’t a metaphor—I mean honest to goodness, concrete and steel structures, like this.)

Of course, I haven’t listed all the other writing-related things I do—promotion for the new book (which hits stores in March—eek!!!), author events, tax stuff, etc. And I have a lovely, beautiful wife that I actually like to see every now and then, and a lawn to maintain, and—well, you get the picture. I have a lot going on.

So, clearly, I should know a few things about time management. Except I don’t. I mean, I have a few tricks that work from time to time, but in general, I often fiddle with my schedule, trying to tweak it just enough so I can make it through the next book without a nervous breakdown / heart attack / dismemberment by axe-wielding wife.

For what it’s worth, this is what I try to do:

SET UP OFFICE HOURS: I write—or at least attempt to write—every morning, at the ungodly hour of 5:00, when I’m the freshest. I type away a bit on my manuscript, answer a few emails, send a few twitter messages, and down a gallon or so of coffee. From 8:00 to 10:00 that night, I wash, rinse, repeat. Ditto for Saturday and Sunday mornings. It’s a bit painful, but it works. And slowly but surely, I chop away at my novel.

Of course, there are times when I have to miss office hours, but I really try to plan this in advance, so I can still get my core hours in. So, if Mrs. V wants me to spend ALL DAY SATURDAY looking for the perfect shade of (overpriced) granite for our kitchen, I’ll do this, as long as I get those hours back on Sunday.

And here’s the other thing with office hours—you have to be heartless when it comes to distractions. If the phone rings, don’t answer it. If the spouse knocks on the door, promising chocolate and ice cream, don’t open it. If you hear little Johnny attacking little Kevin with a baseball ball, well, let them go at it, and consider it a life lesson (and really, little Kevin will be just fine with one kidney).

When it comes to protecting your writing time, you have to be cold. Heartless. Merciless. Ruthless. Remember, you’re not Fredo Corleone. You’re Michael. 

SET UP REALISTIC GOALS: I used to think I was the type of author that could crank out 20,000 words a month. Ha! If I get 30 decent pages written, I’m usually ahead of the game.

TURN OFF THE INTERNET: I find Twitter, Facebook, and blogging an important part of being a published author. But when I find myself spending more time on Wikipedia than on my manuscript, I turn off the Wi-Fi on my laptop. And when that doesn’t work, I unplug the router.

DON’T GET JEALOUS OF OTHER AUTHORS: Everyone’s situation is different. Some authors make enough money from their books or have a home situation which enables them to write full-time. Some don’t. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point in pouting about it, because I’ve tried that, and believe me, that crap doesn’t fly with Mrs. V. All you can do is figure out what works for you, and do it.

FIND A WRITING COMMUNITY: You can’t stay holed up in your writing cave forever. You eventually have to come out, bath, and interact with the real world. When you do, it’s helpful to hang with other people that feel your pain. I consider my critique group meetings like a form of group therapy, where we spend the first hour or so either celebrating successes or talking about how screwed up this industry is. Plus we drink a lot of wine and eat chocolate.

MAKE TIME HOWEVER YOU CAN: In order to stick around in this business, you have to really want to do it. You have to want to write more than you want to play Wii Sports, more than you want to sleep, more than you want to hang out with your friends as you watch Matthew McConaughey movies.

It’s lonely. And a lot of times it sucks. But sometimes . . . it doesn’t suck. And sometimes it’s even fun. And if you work hard enough, and maybe with a bit of luck, you’ll finish a manuscript or two or three.

Again, this is what works for me. I’d love to hear if anyone else has any ideas.

  1. At some point in the future I will write a whole post about it. []


  1. scott on #

    I had to lie down after reading this. Yes, a nap, I think.

    But it’s true, the average USian watches four hours of TV a day. At the crawling pace of a word a minute, that TV watching turns into 87,600 words a year. To adapt your refrain, you just have to want to be a writer more.

  2. Varian Johnson on #

    Scott, I love this part of your comment: “…you just have to want to be a writer more.” I think that’s the essence of being a modern writer–when it boils down to it, despite the distractions, you have to find a way to put words on paper. Writers don’t just think about writing–writers write.

  3. Sam on #

    I fight that battle constantly. I’ve never published anything, but I still want to write. I enjoy the creative release that writing brings, and hope that one day I will get something into a state where I can submit it for consideration. With family and job commitments the only time I can find to write is, like you, in the wee hours. I tend to write around midnight, before going to sleep, rather than waking up and writing first thing.

    I know I don’t write nearly as often as I should. I don’t know if it’s laziness or not being able to find a better time to write in my schedule, or just a general lack of motivation, or what. It’s easy to say “you just have to want to be a writer more” but it’s hard, sometimes, to follow through. I’m trying, though.

  4. Belongum on #

    Bugger… now you’ve gone and done it Scott – I now have to go and write!

    Blast it…


  5. Lyn on #

    Time management is often a challenge for me and, as you can see, I’m on the Internet instead of writing this morning. My biggest challenge is dealing with procrastination which, most of the time, is the result of fear: of my work being pedestrian and, ultimately, of rejection. If I don’t fix that scene I’m working on, then I can’t finish the manuscript which leads to zero submissions….thus, there’s no chance of being rejected.

    Time to go manage my fears and just get to writing.

    Thanks for the post…great info!

  6. Lynn Flewelling on #


    I love your post, and I stand in awe of your self discipline. I have the opposite problem. I’m a full-time writer, but an embarrassing amount of that time seems to be spent (wasted) promising myself that I will write my next 1000 words “right after this.” Which could be anything from a “Cold Case” rerun to a poorly scheduled doctor’s appointment. My eighth book is coming out in a few months, so I do get the work done, but as you say, you have to block out that time when you want to write more than you want to do anything else. I find taking my laptop to a local coffee shop away from household distractions really helps on those days.

    I think one problem novelists like me face is that we are forced to be long distance runners, not sprinters, and we run in a nebula. Our reward is out there in the mist somewhere, not tomorrow, be it finishing a long project or waiting for a the royalty checks to show up. We have no control over how our work will be received by readers and critics, or if it will sell. Some days it’s easy to lose sight of the goal, even with a shelf of published books and foreign editions right there beside you in the office. I call it “What have I done for me lately?” Syndrome. Not only that, but as soon as we celebrate the rush of bringing a new book into the world, a new project is (hopefully) already clamoring for us to buckle down and get back to work, a new deadline looming.

    I loved what you said about needing a community of fellow writers. It’s such a relief to be able to talk shop with people who understand. My writer friends and I also love to get together and complain about things like the above, in great part because it is underscored by the realization that we are deeply grateful to have such problems. It means we really are genuine, committed, successful working authors. As a friend of mine says, we are off the porch and running with the big dogs.


  7. Lynn Flewelling on #

    Correction: By “novelists like me” I meant people not good at working with long term as opposed to short term goals. Sorry not to have made that clear.

    Also, love the unicorn.

  8. Karen Strong on #

    These are some great tips, Varian. My day job is a shade of crazy right now and sometimes I don’t have time to write at night.

    Although I don’t really like it. I write in the mornings now. At first I’m grumpy but when I find that I do get words on the page, I feel like I’ve accomplished something and I’ve given priority to my writing before my regular day starts.

    Can’t wait to read SAVING MADDIE!

  9. London on #

    Yay for this post. I shall go add office hours to my google calendar. 🙂

  10. aquafortis on #

    Ditto to what Lynne said about being in awe of your time management abilities. I’m constantly struggling with time management–the push and pull of fiction projects vs. freelance projects, the distractions in my house, etc. etc. I waste a lot of time on indecisiveness, too, debating with myself about what’s a higher priority or what I would rather do or should be doing. Sometimes it’s hard for me to prioritize novel writing as much as I know I should. I’ve been making the deliberate (and sometimes painful) decision lately to turn off the Twitter and e-mail when I have to get things done–it helps minimize distraction, at least.

    Thanks, Varian and Justine, for a great post!

  11. Rebecca on #

    Forcing myself to make the time….yeah, that pretty much describes what I’ve been doing. Took me long enough. I only got regular about it at the start of this year. But it’s made an immense difference. Haven’t quite mastered turning off the distractions yet, though. Hah!

  12. Akilah on #

    Yes, grading is the least fun part of teaching. I wish there were some way to get around it.

  13. Kristi Bernard on #

    This is a great post. I do my best to write every night, but working and writing is tough.

  14. Belongum on #

    Varian, I neglected to say thanks to you too – my apologies – it had been a long day here on the West side of Oz. I think your last comment on seeking out a community of other writers is a very useful point.

    I work across a lot of regional Western Australia – and it’s a long way between towns here. Most of the community of writers I bond with are on-line. So we used a forum as a pin-up board if you like – or a place to store useful tidbits – and used email to keep connected. But as you said – being connected to the internet is quite a blackhole on your time.


  15. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Great post, Varian! I’m in awe of your self-discipline. And jealous!

  16. delmetria - thawriter on #

    This post pulls an amen! from me. I struggle with a few obstacles in the time management area:

    1-It’s a real challenge trying to manage your time when both you and your husband work from home. Can you say get out of bed before 3 p.m.!?

    2-As a freelance journalist, sometimes, I find myself writing more query letters and looking for publications than I do writing articles.

    3-I really need to learn to become heartless. I spend so much time writing for other people, I’m missing out on writing opportunitis and income for myself! Family members and friends suck with this! “Since you write so well, can you help me with my resume, school paper or bio?” I have to learn to say no.

    4-Blog time? Yeah, right. I think I’ll go blog about saying no.

    And finally, on the writing community, I always wonder if they’re getting anything out of it..sigh.

  17. Nichole on #

    Ah, Varian. As always, full of great advice. Just another one of the reasons why I love him.

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