Squeezing into the Gaps

by Chris McMahon

We’ve all seen the lists of writing tips – things to do to develop as a writer – e.g. read widely, experience life, research etc. . .

Chief on the list is often to write every day. This has always been a tall order for me, balancing work and family and running two businesses on the side. In the periods where I have managed it there has certainly been a beautiful flow in my expression and effortless connection to the work, but this has (for me) unfortunately come at the cost of connection to the people in my life.

On the other side of the coin, there are periods in life when it is legitimately impossible to write anything. For sanity and the sake of not taking the skin off my back via self-flagellation, this was an import thing for me to acknowledge. It might be work, family bereavement, illness. . . a host of things. I guess I believe that if you were stamped at birth with the hidden sigil that marks you as a writer, after the dust settles you will always gravitate back to the written word when you are capable of doing so.

But for that middle zone, when you are trying to live a life and squeeze writing into the cracks and gaps, how do you manage it?

One of the best pieces of advice that I had was ‘do it first’. I guess that generally works well for me as more of a morning person, but the general gist is to try and get some runs on the board with the writing (sorry Cricket term there) before the other ‘urgent’ things in life take over – like paying the bills and eating.

One of the useful things I have discovered is that my laptop works fine on the bus. This gives me up to an hour a day during the week, and it all goes surprisingly well (when the battery does not run out). I remember one story about a British Thriller writer who managed to have a whole career and publish a dozen novels while doing his writing commuting on the train (1 hour each way) to his office job as an accountant in London. I guess a predisposition for travel sickness might knock that one on the head.

Carry a notepad: I used to do this religiously, and ended up with about twenty of these stuffed full of ideas for stories. Many were penned in the middle of industrial plants while wearing full PPE — ear muffs, steel-capped boots, hardhats etc. A writer friend of mine also filled up notepads with ideas – that and writing in the emergency stairwell during his half-an-hour lunch with pen and paper were all he could manage between work and a sick wife for well over a year. He went on to win awards and break through into mainstream publishing as a novelist.

Unplug the TV set: Well, here is where I don’t take my own advice. I am a bit of a movie and video addict – although I limit myself pretty well – and I don’t watch live-to-air. I record and watch the programs at night before bed as a wind down when I would not be physically capable of even sitting at a computer terminal.

Use Auto-pilot: Use the mundane tasks of the day as brainstorming time – doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, ironing, painting, handyman stuff etc

By the Pets a Toy: OK. I don’t have pets, but I guess you could include spouses in the general idea – get them a hobby? I went to a workshop with Zoran Zivcovik here in Brisbane a few years ago (this is where the anthologies Devil in Brisbane and Fantastical Journeys to Brisbane emerged from), and he told a story about his cat, who every morning sat on his keyboard and would not move without a dedicated 10 minutes of petting. After that he had to learn how to type one-handed, as the cat required him to continue stroking with one hand while he worked.

How do you squeeze your writing into the gaps?


  1. 1980 B.K. Before Kids. It was easy. We both worked, we had together hobbies and separate hobbies.

    1983 A.K. After Kids. The dreaded, and very busy, middle part of life. Even when I wasn’t employed, I seemed to be doing a whole lot of volunteer work. I’ve got a stack of notebooks produced during this time. Every once in a while I raid them for ideas or plot complicators. At the time . . . it wasn’t really important, a hobby. I wasn’t one of those _good_ writers, you know? It was late in that period when I started putting it on a computer–and finishing it. As the kids gained independence, the word counts grew.

    E.N. Empty Nest Period. WOW! This is so cool! My husband travels quite a bit on business. So I happily fill the time with writing. He’s learned that I really don’t mind being left alone, and I gave up feeling guilty long before that.

    But. By not taking my writing seriously in those middle years, I’m starting this career very, very late. Which is one reason I stopped waiting for traditional publishers to real my brilliance (Har, har!) and went Indie.

    I think you’re wise to not agonize during rush periods when something has to be dropped for lack of time, energy, or emotion.

    Write at night, write in the morning. If you sit the kids down to do their homework, sit down with them and do yours. If you’ve just got a bit of time, don’t think about the whole story, think about a single scene. Cut out one little block that needs to be done, and tackle that small task. Don’t worry about finding the time to write a whole book. The scenes will add up, and there it is.

    1. Hi, Pam. It’s amazing how powerful that technique is of breaking big tasks down into small ‘chunks’. And it’s amazing how I always forget to think that way! Everything is always a mammoth thing somehow in my brain. Thanks for the insight & the reminder. All the best,

      1. Yeah, I have all the time in the world, or close to it. And I look at the mountain of stuff I need to edit. The book that needs a final polish, the book that’s stuck in the middle, and I need a cover for that one, and is it ready for the Beta Readers . . . and I can’t seem to even get started.

        But if I can put my blinkers on and say “OK, time for the MC to meet the Bad Girl . . . ” I can get a lot done.

  2. I use the between bits to catch ideas or solve problems with plot or characters. I’ve mentioned that i keep a little idea book. I also use it for problems – where does the story go from here, how do I introduce a new character – because ideas pop up when I’m not concentrating on them. Sort of like how the rare bird that you are looking for or the 20-point buck only appear when you are “answering nature’s call.” With the little notebook I can write down the idea, or at least enough so that I remember it later.

    1. That’s a good idea. Although with problems I tend to be a bit of a dog with a bone – I tend to get obsessive and worry at until I get a solution. I need to think of something similar though – maybe new concepts or storylines I can develop in parallel with my current work. Cheers:)

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