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A working mother's guide to writing a novel

A novelist and Times critic offers tips on how to write the book you've had in your head while not losing your mind or forgetting your family's needs.

September 26, 2010|By Mary McNamara | Los Angeles Times Television Critic

A dozen years ago, my editor at the Los Angeles Times asked if I wanted to interview novelist Mary Gordon, who was in Los Angeles on a book tour. Enormously pregnant, I said yes, partly because I love Mary Gordon and partly because her hotel was two blocks away from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center — if I went into labor during the interview, I figured I could just walk.

Given my state and Gordon's sympathetic nature, our conversation turned toward the difficulties of working and, in particular, writing mothers. I confessed that having tried and failed several times to "Write That Novel," I feared that now I'd never do it. Nonsense, she said. (I believe she actually used the word "nonsense.") She had written her first novel, "Final Payments," with two young children. Motherhood was exhausting, distracting and consuming, but it also made you very, very organized. "You will be amazed what you can get done in a free hour or two when that is all you have," Gordon said.

And she was right. That first child is a shock, but eventually six hours of interrupted sleep feels normal, you find day care you trust and accept that you now have two full-time jobs. You learn how to carry on three conversations at once while making breakfast, packing the lunches and getting ready for work. Your floor may be a mulch of cheese-stick wrappers, tangerine peels and stray socks, but you know how to dissect a day and work a calendar.

And so, eventually, I began to write fiction again. It took three tries — the first book was so bad I couldn't get an agent, the second got an agent but no publisher, and the third, "Oscar Season," was published by Simon & Schuster. Now there's a sequel, called "The Starlet." Both are Hollywoodish books, but while some readers want to know if the characters are based on real stars or actual events, more of them just want to know how I did it. How the mother of three children with a full-time job, an employed husband and no nanny managed to write a novel.

So here's the answer: It's very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon or any of the many other things working parents often manage to pull off. While it's tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it's just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools.

So like any good working mother, I'm offering you a list of what I think you actually need. (You will notice this list doesn't include "an idea"; I'm going to assume you have one of those.)

1. A supportive partner. I know single working mothers who write, and they are superhuman savants and out of my league. I couldn't have done it without my husband, who is also a writer. Rejection makes it easy to quit, particularly when you already have a job, but after that second book did not sell, he forced me to give it one more shot. I told him I would need three hours every day to do it, and because I cannot think before 8 a.m., it would have to come in the evening. So for more than a year, I went off the Mommy clock at 8:30. Richard was in charge of bedtime, and I sat down at the dining room table and wrote until 11 or 11:30.

2. Kids who read. It helped that the children could understand what was making Mommy so cranky — she's writing a book! (Frankly it made more sense to them than my job as TV critic, which they still refuse to consider work.)

3. Kids who are involved in activities that require practice of more than one hour. Somewhere in the editing process of "Oscar Season," our third child came along and the nighttime schedule stopped working — Mommy can't ignore a nursing baby no matter what time it is. So, much of "The Starlet" was written on soccer fields, gymnasium bleachers and during choir rehearsals.

4. A laptop. I used to believe in the organic power of the pen on paper, but unless you have your own personal transcriber, who has that kind of time? Laptops are the modern woman's equivalent of Virginia Woolf's famous room — they can turn any room you're in into your own. I blush to disclose that I did a lot of writing at our local Starbucks (memo to Starbucks: Turn down the music).

5. A daily goal. The important part of this phrase is "daily." You have to write Every Single Day, and I mean it. Obviously there are exemptions for death and illness, but it's like dieting or working out — if you start skipping one day or two, it's all over. Some writers go by pages — three pages a day seems common. I go by time. Two hours is ideal. One is better than nothing, three is the maximum.

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