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5 steps to successful juggling: a full-time job (Part 2)

3. Get help.

There are two kinds of assistance that can make your juggling more effective. One is help with child care, yardwork, bookkeeping–any task you handle yourself now that takes time and energy away from your writing. You might feel that, especially if you’re working on a novel or another long-range creative project that isn’t bringing in any immediate money, you can’t afford to pay someone else just so you can steal more writing time. But if you’re not getting it done because you’re too busy chasing a toddler or mowing the lawn, then the minimal fee you pay someone else to free you up for an hour or two a day will be well spent.

The other kind of assistance I recommend comes in the form of a class or a coach or an editor or a group that can help you improve your writing and make the time you spend at your computer more productive. You may feel that you’re juggling so many things now, the last thing you can squeeze in is another few hours a week taking a fiction-writing workshop at a community college or conferring with a writing partner. But especially if your time is limited, you want to make those few hours count-to write the best possible prose in the time you have and not spin out subpar work that will only need to be rewritten or scrapped. So the short-term investment in your writing skills now can actually save you time in the long-run.


4. Just say yes.

I’m horrified when I think of how much work I used to turn down because I thought that I didn’t have enough time, or that I wasn’t really interested in that assignment, or that they weren’t paying quite enough (or at all). I had more time and energy back then, I think, but less capacity to juggle a lot of work and more fear that I couldn’t handle it all.

  • Now, I just say yes. To almost everything. People are sometimes surprised that a much-published author is enthusiastic about spending an evening with a book group or writing a blog post for a small website, but I’ve learned that you can’t judge the benefits of projects purely on the basis of money, and having the chance to talk one-on-one with an enthusiastic reader or write something completely from the heart can be worth as much as a big payday.

I’ve also learned that I can handle a lot more time commitments than I thought I could. The more you do, I think, the more you can do, and writing faster, producing more, trying new things and taking risks all create energy rather than draining it. If you’re going to say no to something, make it the school bake sale or the lunch with the neighbor who only likes to complain. When it comes to writing opportunities, just say yes.

5. Take the long view.

You might feel so consumed with juggling every day, every hour, every minute, that you don’t think you have the time to step back and take a long view of what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing. But developing a vision of where you want to be in a year or what kind of book you’re trying to write down to how you want your cover to look and your author bio to read can help you focus what you’re doing with your precious writing time.

  • If the books you admire and want to emulate are hardcovers with a literary feel, then your preliminary efforts should be focused on enhancing the language and deepening the characters in your work, more so than on developing the kind of spine-tingling plot that defines a more commercial book.
  • On the other hand, if it’s a nice fat advance you’re after rather than the National Book Award, you should be constantly studying bestselling novelists like Dorothea Benton Frank and Harlan Coben for clues to what makes their books so widely appealing, and see how you might model that in your own work.

Then, if you want to be ready to send that manuscript to agents in a year, that means you need to produce roughly seven finished pages (or a scene or two) a week–or, more realistically, 15 weekly pages (two to three scenes) in order to finish a first draft in six months, get feedback from trusted readers, and allow yourself a few more months to revise and polish. Taking the long view can help you set realistic goals that will help keep you on track.

That way, all the effort you put into your daily juggling will get you, in the end, a finished product that makes it all worthwhile.

5 steps to successful juggling: a full-time job (Part 1)

Are you trying to juggle a day job, a family, and the writing of a book that lies close to your heart? So am I, despite having already successfully published 20 books–and that’s increasingly the reality for widely published writers as well as aspiring authors, rye got three books coming out this year–my historical novel The Possibility of You, a humor book about dogs called Rabid, and a collection of essays–and I also co-run a million-monthly-visitor website (the baby name guide Nameberry), pen monthly columns for two magazines and contribute regular features to several others. And oh, right, there’s the husband, the three kids, and the house that always seems to need something.


But making a living as a writer, stretching your creative horizons, and dealing with the realities of the tough economy and publishing atmosphere demand that you stay nimble. Few writers, no matter how successful, can afford to spend a few hours a day (or a few months a year), writing, and then take the rest of the time off to fish or tour the great bars of the world.

So how do you juggle a range of different writing projects along with the usual need to earn a stable income and care for the people you love? It doesn’t just happen on its own, I’ve found, but is definitely manageable if you follow the kinds of guidelines I’ve developed over 25 years as a professional juggler. Try these time-tested strategies, and you’ll find yourself seven steps closer to a daily life that lets you shake your moneymaker and satisfy your soul.

1. Never do the laundry.

After my first three months writing at home when my daughter was a baby, my house was clean, my child was happy, and I felt calm and organized–but I hadn’t gotten much real writing done. That’s when I made Rule No. 1 for myself.” Never do the laundry. Not during your writing hours. Do not just throw in one teensy load, do not merely switch the wet clothes to the dryer, do not simply fold these few shirts before they get wrinkled. It’s a slippery slope, and if you let laundry–or any other household chore, no matter how seemingly light–intrude on your writing time, you’ll end up with pristine clothes and a blank page.

Whether you realize it or not, part of the lure of any nonwriting project that is crying out to be done-paying your bills or balancing your checkbook, raking the garden or organizing your bookshelves–is that it’s so much easier to accomplish than typing your way through the climax of that difficult scene.

But your writing time is your writing time, and in a practical as well as a psychic sense, those hours will be most productive if you let no other tasks intrude on them.


2. Set goals by scene or passage, not by words.

Daily goal-setting is a time-honored staple of writing advice: Sit in the chair and don’t get up until you’ve written 1,000 words. Or until you have two or five or 10 pages neatly stacked on your desk.

But for me, and I bet for you, too, it’s much more effective to think in terms of scenes of your novel or memoir or screenplay, or passages of an essay or article.

Writing one complete scene each day-and by scene I mean a dramatic unit with an inciting incident, rising conflict, a climax, and an ending that includes a new question or kicker into the next scene–is an excellent goal if you have an entire morning or afternoon to devote to your fiction. If you get to write only before the rest of the house wakes up or when your baby takes a nap, you might aim to complete a scene or two every week.

The typical scene unfolds over four to eight pages, so you’ll build up pages at the same rate as if you were driving toward a word or page goal–but the extra benefit will be in the results themselves: well-thought-out scenes that make up a more cohesive first draft. Try it and see for yourself.

The Best Way To Do The Dishes

Ask Esky

Question: What’s the best way to do the dishes?

Answer: “Put on an apron,” advises home and lifestyle expert Martha Stewart. “Then organize the scene, putting like things together.

“Take a rubber scraper and scrape the dishes, carefully if you are using your nicest china. At this point, I always rinse the dishes in hot water. Then stack according to the dish. Then rinse the silverware and put it in a tub of soapy water in the sink. All glasses should be rinsed and lined up on the counter or on a tray somewhere out of your way.

“Then you must determine what can go in the dishwasher and what can’t. This is somewhat of a mystery to a lot of people. I never put knives, wood, plastic, or things with pearl handles in the dishwasher. Ever. And by wood, I mean anything that’s wooden-handles or a plate with wood on it. Also, antique plates with gold, silver, or platinum or things made out of soft clay like faience. These things never go in the dishwasher. You don’t put fine crystal in the dishwasher, either.


“Stacking the dishwasher is also an art form that eludes a lot of us for our entire lives,” says Stewart. “Just open it up and look at it.” Before you do anything, figure out where the dinner plates go and where the glasses go. Some of the upper racks move up and down to accommodate longer stems.

  • “Then you wash the delicate stuff. For this, you line everything but the drain of your sink with terry-cloth towels. While you’re washing the dishes, if you drop one or hit it on the sink, it won’t break. You have a tub filled with soapy water for your sponge, and you rinse under running water.
  • “I use dishwashing liquid and a soft, natural sponge from Williams-Sonoma. And you need nice, clean cotton dishcloths. My favorite dishcloths are the great big cotton ones called Flour Sack, also from Williams-Sonoma. They dry the best and leave no lint. Dishcloths must be 100 percent cotton or linen. Polyester won’t dry as well.

“Another thing I do is cover my counter with terry-cloth towels. I can just stand things there to dry fully right out of the sink after wiping with a dishcloth. Same with the silverware. Dry it immediately to avoid spots. All of this stuff your wife can put away the next day, because she knows where it goes and you don’t. Save the pots and pans for last.


“You must also put on really good music. And pour yourself a good glass of wine. A sauterne, maybe a Chateau d’Yquem, 1983. And it’s nice if your wife sits there and talks to you. It’s a good time to hash over the party. For me, that is sometimes the nicest part of a party, if I had a good time. If I had a bad time, guess what? The dishes get rinsed and stacked, and I go to bed.”