By Dave Butler
5 a.m. arrives extremely early. In the summer, when the sun rises at the same time, it’s tolerable. But in the winter months, here in the shadow of the Rockies, when it’s dark as I leave for my day job and dark before I arrive home, an early start is at its most challenging.
Like most authors, I have two jobs – an 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. bill-paying job, and a whenever-I-can-find-the-time-to-work-on-my-next-novel job. For the latter, I set the alarm for 5 a.m. every morning. After making a steaming mug of Kick Ass coffee in the French press, I climb
the stairs to the office, ignoring the cellphone and tablet on the kitchen island, both of which call to me: “I have news for you! You need to know about the Royal family, and Donald Trump, and the latest pandemic, the latest climate crisis. Come, spend time with me. Become worldly and well-informed. Don’t look ignorant in front of your co-workers.”
Perhaps I’m still in a dream-state then, or perhaps the day’s distractions have yet to overwhelm my brain, but I find that time to be the most productive. With nothing else to intrude, I simply go … filling the page with one word, then another, then another. Eventually, a cat staggers in, giving me its daily what-the-heck-are-you-doing-up-at-this-time-of-the-morning? look, before settling on my lap, her ears repeatedly brushed by my forearms as they move across the laptop.
However, the writing is not always easy at that time of day. When the cursor blinks, and nothing comes, I return to my writing from the day before. Because I purposefully stopped 90 minutes after I began, I may have ended in the middle of a sentence, at the end of a paragraph, or at the cliff-hanging conclusion to a chapter. I do a light edit, clarifying confusing sentences, tightening by removing words or by substituting words that better express my intent, or by making dialogue more authentic. While I’m doing that, part of my brain is already ahead of me. And then what? Where does the story go from here? What if…”
One of the most satisfying yet surprising experiences that flow from this pre-sunrise approach is when I read my previous work afterwards and wonder if it was written by someone else. I know that my brain was in its optimal creative mode when I can’t remember writing passages that are now firmly embedded in my story. Am I the only one to which this happens? Am I the only one who reads their own work and thinks: “when did I write that…?”
After I arrive home from work, and after dinner is done, I climb back to the office. But it’s not for more writing. Instead, I try to do one thing each day to market my Jenny Willson mysteries. We all know, I’m sure, that writing is only half the battle – we must also sell our books. So, I sometimes I pitch to media or writer’s festivals. Other evenings, I write a blog post, or post on social media about something that’s relevant to my work. For example, my most recent novel – In Rhino We Trust – focuses on rhino poaching. As a result, I’ve posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram about new conservation approaches in countries that are keeping rhinos alive.
Every writer has her or his own system that works. There’s no right answer. But when you’re juggling a day job and a writing job, you must find what works for you.