Diana Gabaldon on Writing, Parenting, and Time

As an aspiring author and dad whose scarcest resource is time, I was motivated by this interview with Diana Gabaldon, author of Outlander fame. The first thing that struck me is how Gabaldon doesn’t plot out everything in advance: “I don’t write in a straight line and I don’t plan stories out ahead of time. I, in fact, don’t actually know what’s going to happen in a book.”

Of course, she’s by no means the first or only author to work this way, but I found her words refreshing because I’ve personally found outlines to be of limited use, and yet there can be a general sense among writers that they’re essential to success. So it’s nice having a little validation from a writer as talented as Gabaldon.

Image result for diana gabaldon outlander
Image Source: Outlander TV News

(Aside: If rigorous outlining is your lifeline, more power to you. I have always envied writers who can look far into the future and create a clear picture of where things are going in their stories. I end up changing my outlines dramatically while in the heat of writing, so for me outlining is at best a tool in a dynamic, iterative process.)

The other thing that inspired me is that Gabaldon had far less free time than I do when writing her first book. Listen to this:

When I decided to write a novel, I had two full time jobs and three children under the age of six, so I don’t want anyone telling me they don’t have time to write a book, but I learned to work in the middle of the night, and I still do that. So usually I’ll tuck my husband in bed around 9:00 or so, and then the dogs and I lie down on the couch for a bit, and I’ll fall asleep for an hour or two. And then I get up and the dogs get a bone. I get a Diet Coke. We go back to work until 4:00 in the morning. So that’s the main time. I can write at other times of the day, it’s just that’s when people leave me alone.

Gabaldon simply refused to give into excuses and worked at it like a pro, burning the midnight oil. You might think, well, that’s not very healthy. How on earth does she stay sane on that kind of schedule? Better to organize your time some other way so that you can sleep and capitalize on your energy. Right?

There is something to that objection. I don’t think I could write and function on as little sleep as Gabaldon does.

At same time, as anyone who’s a working parent knows, your options are extremely limited unless you have a lot of money. You can do things like agree with your spouse to have a writing night once a week in exchange for watching the kids on another night, but that is seldom enough time to get into a flow state and make progress on your work.

Anyways, Gabaldon challenges me to quit the excuses and figure out how to push myself to the limit. To be sure, it’s critical to balance effort with mental and physical health. At present, though, I am more prone to the excuses than to ruining my health over too much writing.