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Writing A Novel On Your Lunch Hour

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table

Okay, so I didn’t really write a whole novel on my lunch hour. But I did develop a lot of the characters, locations, and plot by taking a half-hour out of each workday to sketch some ideas. You’d be surprised with what you can get done in just thirty minutes a day.

First, a little background. I had a job that was driving me crazy. Corporate priorities at the company I worked for changed on a weekly basis. Projects I managed got canceled halfway through development, blew up on the launchpad, or went on indefinitely without any measurement of success. My job had become more about shuffling papers and schedules than creating great work. I was frustrated. My thoughts turned to that novel I’d never managed to write.

But how was I going to write it? I never had time. When I got home from work every day, it was late. I was tired and cranky, unable to do much but eat dinner and go to sleep. Weekends were filled with taking care of the house, doing laundry, seeing family. I needed to come up with some kind of plan if I was going to get anything done. I began by promising myself I’d take a half-hour break each day at work, pick up a notepad and pencil and write down whatever came into my head.

Some days I went out for lunch, sat by myself at the juice bar or taco stand, and wrote as I ate. On days when I’d brought lunch from home, I’d drive to a distant parking lot or side street and sit in my car, making notes. And on days when I couldn’t get out for lunch, I’d make sure to reserve a private half-hour slot in the corporate calendar so no one could schedule me for a meeting. At the appointed time, I’d pick up my notebook, find a cubbyhole in some corner of the building where staff rarely went, sit down and start writing.

At first, it was difficult to put aside thoughts of work. But soon enough, by implementing some simple strategies, I was able to write at least a couple of pages each day. Some days I just scrawled out lists of phrases, adjectives, names and on others, I managed a few paragraphs of tolerable prose. But the more I did it, the easier it became. After three months I’d filled two notebooks with ideas for characters, situations, locations. My novel had shape. Rough shape, to be sure but shape nonetheless.

There were other benefits, too, ones I hadn’t expected. Writing in my notebook for half an hour gave me a sense of satisfaction that helped alleviate the stress of my job. My afternoons became lighter, less dreary. I dare say I developed a spring in my step that hadn’t been there before. It also gave me the confidence to look for a new job, one with less time load, so I could dedicate myself to completing the work.

So if time is a problem for you, here are ten suggestions on how to start a lunch-hour writing routine, including some tips to keep you on track.

#1 Character sketches

Pick a character you’ve thought about. Or invent a new one on the spot. Start with a name. Is the character male or female? How old? Single, attached, or married? What color eyes? What color hair? What do they do for a living? Where do they live? Start with the city or town, then add details. What does their house or apartment look like? Details make a difference. Keep adding as many details as you can. What kind of car does your character drive (if they drive)? What do they eat for breakfast? What kind of clothes do they wear?

#2 Location sketches

Again, start from the general and work your way down to the details. You can start with a real location or imagine one, or start with a real one and move to an imagined one. Is the location outside or inside? Who’s there? If it’s outside, what kind of plants and animals might there be? Once you’ve come up with the idea, take a tour of the location in your mind. Walkthrough it, pause, look around. What do you see? Step through your senses as you look around. How does it smell? What does it look like? What do you hear?

#3 Mix it up

Once you have a dozen characters and locations or so, try putting them together. What would happen if character A and character D met at location C? Why would they be there? Are they meeting there for the first time or do they already know one another? How does each respond to the meeting?

#4 Schedule your sessions

Put it in your calendar system. It’s easier to make yourself write when you treat the process like all your other business meetings.

#5 Get out of the cubicle

There’s too many distractions in your workspace. How are you going to be creative with all those responsibilities staring you in the face?

#6 Turn off your cell phone

There’s nothing so important it can’t wait for a half-hour.

#7 Get a pad of paper, and a pencil or pen

Computers are great for making things look nice. They’re not great for brainstorming. A pad of paper allows you to write in the margins, scrawl anywhere.

#8 Pause, but don’t stop

Don’t spend twenty minutes deciding if your character prefers donuts to bagels. That can come later. Just pick one and see what happens. Writing things down, anything pushes you forward.

#9 Don’t worry about “writing”

This is not the time to critically assess the quality of your prose. In fact, you may not want to ìwriteî at all in this first phase. Make lists of character qualities or location features. Make lists of names for characters. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to start writing, either. Go with whatever feels right that day.

#10 Don’t worry, period.

If nothing much happens at first, don’t worry about it. It’s just a half-hour out of your day. At worst it was a quiet break. And you get to come back again tomorrow.

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