Writing in Scraps

November 24, 2020 § 8 Comments

This is my book in my phone

Writing advice often starts from the premise that we’re all going to sit down and bang out our word count for an hour every morning—or we should be. But not only do you not have to write every day, a lot of writers can’t write every day. They have families. Or they’re caregivers. Or demanding jobs consume their creative brains. This does not make them—or you—any less a writer.

Plenty of excellent books have been written in short spurts. Books are built from blogs. Or from texts. Or from writing a little at a time.

But how do you assemble a set of scraps? And how will you envision the assembly of those scraps into a book when you have no time?

Start by honestly assessing where and when you can write. Not when you’d like to or wish you could, but when you actually can. Seven minutes waiting for the pot to boil? Twenty minutes before the kids wake up? (Only you can’t get out of bed because that will wake the kids up.) While pretending to watch and enjoy peewee soccer? Waiting in the carpool line?

Once you know when and where, choose how. I dictated the rough draft of this blog on my phone en route to an appointment,* and finished it in the waiting room on my laptop. Does your phone have voice-to-text? Can you hold a baby with one hand while composing sentences with the other? Could you carry an index card and a golf pencil in your back pocket everywhere, as Anne Lamott does? Is it better to have a small notebook in your bag, or a big one on your kitchen table? Could you type your memoir into the notes app on your phone as memoirist Esme Weijun Wang did?

If you’re working in scraps, strategize how to stay connected to your story’s thread. Try reviewing the most recent day’s work first—reading usually takes less time than writing. Start each writing session with a particular song, or even a flavor of tea to trigger your work. Perhaps set a topic each week and use the snowflake method, or mind-map moments from the event or person you remember first.

Our brains are marvelously adaptable. If you commit to writing in small bursts regularly, it will get easier. You’ll be able to pick up where you left off. Your book will become your best friend from high school who you haven’t seen in years, but the conversation flows like it was yesterday.

Maybe you’re a binge generator instead of a scraps gatherer. When you’re lucky enough to take a retreat week, or a weekend in a local AirBnb, or send the children for a weekend sleepover, you churn out several thousand words in one breathless go.

Retreats often take the first couple of days to “settle in.” But it’s possible to hit the ground running if you come in with a plan. Before bingeing, use your time scraps to map out your work. You could outline, start a list of topics, or note scenes to write.

Enlist your family. Instead of feeling guilty for taking time away, tell your kids or spouse you’re thankful for their support as you do this exciting thing you care about. (You would support them, right? Give them the honor and responsibility of choosing to support you.) Small children build maturity when they understand mom or dad has artistic work important to them and needs people who love them to say it’s OK to do it. Model this behavior for your kids, and they’ll learn to do it for you.

Enlist your friends, both writers and readers. Can someone give you a socially distanced day in their guest room? Lend you a whiteboard to plot your memoir?

What happens when you have to assemble your scraps or tidy your binged words into a new draft, something closer to an actual book?

Plan ahead. Every time you write, drop a quarter in a piggy bank. By the end of your first draft, you’ll have enough to get a half-day of childcare, or take a half-day off work. Use that time to map the book. With a clear structure in mind, you can still work in scraps, or take another binge when the time is right.

Consider an app like Scrivener for your phone, or a to-do program like Evernote, Things or Notion. Apps allow you to organize while writing, and see an overview of your book throughout the process.

Every writer needs a room of their own, and many of us don’t get one. But constructing a metaphorical room from method, intention and support can be the next best thing.

*Brevity does not recommend writing while driving, and you absolutely should not get a bluetooth headset for this exact purpose. Eyes on the road, people!


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Stuck in the slush pile? Join her June 23 for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected, co-taught with Jane Friedman. More info/register here.


§ 8 Responses to Writing in Scraps

  • Such good advice! As always, Allison.

    My writing time has varied, but really was not mine until my children were out of the house. However, even in the days I was teaching full time and had two teenage boys in the house, I used the minutes before getting out of bed and again in the evening instead of watching television. (My family was already used to me scoring essays for 10-20 hours a week + prep time every day.) I thought about writing every spare minute, planning specific passages and drafted them during the week, and didn’t look until Friday evening when I could work through the mess.

    I cut an hour from my sleep schedule of 8 hours, which I have never been able to regain. That was a mistake even though I can’t see how I could have avoided it. (Sleep was what kept me sharp and stable.)

  • AH says:

    I’m so intrigued by the picture posted here with this (terrific) essay. Can you explain more about your organizational structure? Is each folder a different version of the same writing project?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It’s a screen shot of the Scrivener App on iPhone – each of those folders is actually a chapter, and inside each of those are sections of the chapters. The book is called Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book and it will be out in March 🙂

      And lol now that you mention it I can see how it looks like subsequent drafts of the same book!!

  • tapastango says:

    useful advice, thank you

  • Amy Grier says:

    I love the idea of lots of little things adding up to one big thing. It feels so much more organic than pounding out one big thing, then reworking it over and over. Even though that’s what I’m doing. 🙂

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