I’m just about the most outlying example of balancing a home life and a writing career.
I have nine children. Rachel Huffmire, one of the founders of Writing Through Brambles, grew up in a situation of nine children and can probably tell you a lot about what that means for a family—it is not a small task managing the schedules, needs, and resources associated with a family of this size.
Add to it that I’ve chosen to publish independently. Any successful indie author will give you a long lecture about the importance of publishing fast. Fast releases are integral to the indie author’s marketing model. You keep an audience by making sure there are no more than 90 days between each release. Part of this has to do with the natural drop-off in audience interest and part of it has to do with Amazon algorithms. Because you are entirely on your own and your writing basically IS your marketing, this is important if you want to make a living. (Eventually. I’m not quite there yet. You don’t tend to get much for your work until you’ve got three books out in a series.)
Then, factor in the fact I’m publishing adult fantasy. Adult fantasy audiences want a high word count, 100,000 words or higher, or they feel a bit cheated. This makes sense. In order to have a satisfying experience with worldbuilding, plot, and character development, an adult audience wants a long book. This is a bit counter-intuitive for authors dealing with agents and traditional publishing houses. A long word count is a risk of investment for a big publisher, especially when dealing with a new author. So when you’re querying agents, you’re told to keep your word-count tightly around 90,000-100,000 for full-length, epic fantasy. And even then, expect to really sell it to have them take a risk on a word-count that high (printing costs).
It’s different in the indie world. More words in a book = a higher number of kindle unlimited page reads after an initial reading investment in your story and thus better profits. Like I said, what the epic fantasy audience actually wants is bigger books.
All this adds up to my task: trying to make it as an indie author in my chosen genre, with the natural workload I have as a mother of nine = nearly impossible.
How do I do it?
Simply put, it’s two things that often elicit groans and arguments from authors: outlines and word counts.
I know some will read this and say “nooooo”. No outlines. No word counts.
So, let me explain how this works for me. I’m actually the last person this should work for, because I’m a pantser extreme. I feel my writing. I’m not formulaic, I don’t stick easily to genre niches and I am an emotional writer.
About thirteen years ago, I started giving myself a daily word budget. I read somewhere that Phillip Pullman, author of the “His Dark Materials” series, gave himself an 1100 word-count daily, and once that was done in the morning, he went on with his day and pursued his other interests--woodworking, gardening, whatever his heart desired.
This seemed doable to me. Just force myself to bleed out 1100 words and move on. Even if they were crud and I had to rewrite them, the words would give me practice to develop and hone my skills.
This has proven to be the case. And still, when I go back and rewrite a draft, maybe a third to half of those words get tossed out. Even after 13 years of serious writing. That’s OK! Because you can count those words as study, skill development, and applied technique. To become a better writer? You have to write. It’s not a waste; it’s development.
Over the years, disciplined with my daily word-count, my capacity has increased. I went from 1,100 to 2,000. Then to 4,000. Now, my goal while drafting is 10,000 words daily. I’ll write them in chunks of 3,300 and take a “brain break” in between (usually reading a novel I enjoy for 30-45 minutes or getting up to do a mindless task, or even taking a nap). Because I’ve been disciplined, I can manage 10,000 words in a day now—which is vital if I’m going to release a 100,000 + word novel every two to three months. It takes me between five and six hours to do this, which fits into my schedule (barely) of prepping meals, doing school with my littles in the morning, and handling all my older kids’ needs when they get home from school. If I don’t quite manage it by then, I do another hour of writing or two in the evenings when the kids are engaged in after-dinner chores. For me, it works. Maybe it’s a miracle, who knows. I’ll take it.
One disclaimer I will make: I only keep up this word-count while drafting. Rewriting, and a break for some marketing upkeep, going over edits, will space out this high-intensity drafting a little and make it more emotionally manageable, and give me a chance to catch up on any household tasks that need extra attention.
People will tell you that outlines aren’t for everyone. I’m going to disagree on that point. And it’s OK if, even after reading this article, you’re firmly in the camp of no-outlines. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But hear me out.
Like I said, I’m the most pantser of pantsers when it comes to writing. My characters take over and bring the entire plot with them — sort of like someone who tosses and turns at night and takes all the blankets with them.
I. Can’t. Stick. To. An. Outline.
But several years ago, I read a book that changed my perspective. It’s called "Writing for Story", by Jon Franklin, who is actually not a novelist; he’s a short story writer. His perspective completely changed my approach to outlining. The point he makes in his book (which I think should be canon for any fiction writer) is that if you don’t have a plan, you end up in a big mess about two-thirds of the way through the novel. No matter how much you’ve got planned in your head, if it’s not written down and tracked, you’re going to have a giant pause and a blockage at about 60-70% that you’ll have to work through.
If you’re ok with that, great! Do it that way. However, if you’re rapid-releasing, you do not have time to make the full stop to re-evaluate, rewrite large sections, and stew for months over your 60-70%-of-the-way-through block.
I cannot afford that.
So the way around that, even if you’re a pantser? The secret?
Rewrite the outline each time it changes.
When your characters take over, bringing the entire bed with them? Stop. Look at what’s happening. And change your outline. Plan it out again. Take a few moments to understand where the story is headed now, what the natural conclusion should be, whether that changes at all, or you simply have a new route in the next few plot points to the same conclusion. Write it all down, scene by scene, plot point by plot point. Rewrite your outlines.
In other words, you’ve become an outline cultivator in addition to a word count maven.
I’m a gardener. Any gardener will tell you, you can plan all you want, but the plants, weather, pests, humidity, and quality of seeds decide what garden you have season to season. But any good gardener still plans, re-plans and visualizes a future for their crop or they don’t have a very good yield.
Every writer can outline! Even a pantser. The key is thinking of the outline as a living thing, to pay attention to on a daily basis, keep in sync with what is actually going on in the novel, and change as the book develops.
I’ve found that as I apply this principle, I avoid that 60-70% tangle and my story-development rewrites are at a minimum. And even if I do find I have to completely rewrite a novel from start to finish, my 10,000 daily word count makes it so this is a two-week enterprise, not an added 3 months.
It’s doable. It is. It might take practice, patience, and some hair-pulling, but guys? I’m a mom of nine, and I’m going to release my books 2 months apart. I’m on schedule. It’s working. And you, too, can manage the impossible.
About the Author:
Sarah Dunster is the mother of nine children, an outdoors enthusiast, a voracious reader, a rabid gardener, and an award-winning poet, and a novelist. Her debut novel, Lightning Tree, was released by Cedar Fort in April 2012 and won the 2011 Segullah short fiction prize. Her 2nd, Mile 21, was released in 2014, and won the prestigious Whitney Award in the category of General Fiction. Currently, Sarah is publishing two series independently. The Caldera Series; Urban Fantasy/Psych Thriller, and the Dumnonia series; Dark Rennaisance Fantasy. For more information, visit SGDunster.com or follow on Instagram @thedunsters, or on facebook /sgdunster.
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We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.