I think that’s because I work largely in isolation since good fortune allowed me to become a full-time novelist 16 years ago. I have the freedom to avoid the things that plague people with “real” jobs. I don’t drive in rush-hour traffic, seldom find myself in a grocery store on Saturday. And that’s good. I don’t want to do those things, but I don’t want to forget them, either.
But my life is still firmly rooted in the quotidian because of my 6-year-old daughter and my husband’s out-of-town gigs, which have made me a de facto single parent. It’s funny: I didn’t realize until my daughter arrived that there were people in my life who deeply resented my ability to write a book in 10-14 months. In the months before her birth, I heard from these people. “Your life is going to change,” they said, and not kindly. “You won’t write a book a year anymore.”
And yet: I do. It’s harder because I’m a morning person and I have to give the first two hours of my day to my daughter. Packing her lunch, getting her up, feeding her, standing guard while she dresses, brushes her teeth and hair, feeds her fish. Her school is a mere five minute drive from our house, yet every day has the suspense of a novel, and not one of mine, something much more high stakes. Our daily routine is a tick-tock race-against-the-clock thriller. Will we get out the door in time? Why are those two traffic lights so idiosyncratically timed, so you always miss one of them? Will there be a parking spot convenient to the school? WHY AM I THE ONLY PARENT WHO CAN PARALLEL PARK SWIFTLY?
On the worst morning, I am free by 8:35, but I need some decompression and caffeine. Then my mother calls at 9 a.m., a daily ritual that I instituted after my father’s death in 2014 because she lives in a tiny beach town that is largely deserted nine months out of twelve.
But by 9:15, the blank page — technically, computer screen — waits for me, waiting to be filled. I shoot for a minimum of 1,000 words per day. That’s a conservative goal for a former newspaper journalist; I once reported and wrote an 800-word front page story in less than 15 minutes. If I can write 1,000 words a day, five days a week, for 20 weeks — well, that’s a first draft in less than six months.
When I began writing crime novels, a-book-a-year was the pace to hit. A previous generation of writers — Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain — had written at a much greater clip. Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason’s creator, once estimated that a writer had to be able to produce a million words a year to make a living, which made his friend and admirer Raymond Chandler despair. At any rate, I produce about one-tenth of that and while it can be challenging, it’s not something I’m going to complain about. I have found over the years that I can’t go much faster than I do, but I’ve also seen no advantage in slowing down. I think writers have innate metabolisms, if you will. The trick is to know yours and to honor it.
It was important to me to prove the naysayers wrong when they said I could no longer write a book a year anymore. That said, I did know women — only women — whose writing careers were sidelined by parenting. And I was fortunate enough to be able to afford help, which made a big difference. There’s a reason that my babysitters are always acknowledged in my author’s notes; one book was dedicated to the woman who cared for my child until she started school. “Do men ever thank their children’s caretakers?” a female writer once wondered on Twitter. No one could come up with a single example.
I run out of creative gas by noon. My hunch is that few people are creative between the hours of noon and 4. I use that time for the three E’s: exercise, errands, emails. I play a bit on social media, the stay-at-home writer’s version of the office coffee pot. Once upon a time, usually when a book was nearing completion, I would find a second wind around 5 o’clock and go back into my work. Those hours are given to dinner prep now, then bath time and bedtime. I can go to sleep in a dirty house, but I hate waking up in one, so there’s usually an hour of cleaning and tidying. That leaves about two hours for television, reading. Asleep by 11, up by 6:30, no alarm clock needed. And then, like Groundhog’s Day, it begins again.
But then Groundhog’s Day happens to be one of my favorite films, so I’m OK with that.