Don Winslow, bestselling author of ‘City On Fire’, on how to write a book when you have a day job

Don’t worry, we’re about to get practical.

So, second, set reasonable, doable goals. If you set unrealistic goals, you’ll fail and become discouraged.

I was working as a safari guide (photographic safaris, thank you), trying to make a living, not getting my first book written, when I heard a radio interview with the great Joseph Wambaugh.

He was a Los Angeles homicide detective who wanted to be a writer, so he decided to write 10 pages a day, no matter what. I was, and am, a big fan of Wambaugh’s, and I thought, “I can’t write 10 pages a day, but I can write five.”

I promised myself that I’d write five pages a day no matter what. I wrote early in the morning and late at night. I wrote in tents, hotels rooms on trains and plans.

Two years later, I had my first book. (The first 15 publishers I felt it to disagree, but the 16th bought it. As I said, never give up.)

Look, maybe you can’t write five pages. Maybe one page is a more reasonable goal. That’s fine. Do the math: if you write a single page a day, you have a book in about a year.

A sentence a day

The key to writing a book when you can’t write full-time is to not try to write a book. Write a page, a paragraph, a sentence. They stack up.

Not to traffic in clichés like “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step” – but it does.

You have a job, you have a spouse, you have children – I get it. But I know that you can write a sentence a day. And I promise you that pretty soon, that sentence will turn into a paragraph, those paragraphs will become pages, and those pages will become your book.

If you start now. Like, today.

Which brings me to the third thought – Spend your time, don’t waste it. Time is all we have. That’s it, that’s our life. If you want to write a book, you have to carve out the time for it.

The screen rights for Winslow’s latest book have been acquired by Sony to be adapted into a television series.

The book that finally allowed me to become a full-time writer? I wrote it on a train. I had a 70-minute commute to and from work, so instead of reading a book, or napping, or playing cards, I decided to write a chapter each way. (Yes, they were short chapters.) Those train trips were sold to the movies on a Friday and to a publisher on the following Monday, and I haven’t been on a commuter train since.

If you don’t have the time, you have to make the time. That’s the bad news. The good news is there’s more time sitting around out there than we sometimes realize.

I know aspiring writers who have good ideas for books, and they spend hours a day on social media. The book never gets written. A lot of tweets, texts, Facebook meanderings and Instagram messages get written, but not the book. And there’s a perfect place for a writer’s PlayStation 5 – it’s called the rubbish bin.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was “Never waste 10 minutes”. Do you know when you have a few minutes before you go somewhere? And you’re trying to “kill time”? Instead, sit down and look at a single sentence. I’ll bet you can make it better.

Look, if you can carve out an hour, great. But if you can’t, don’t worry – find half an hour, 15 minutes, or 10. The point is that you commit to it and do it. It’s better if you can do it on a regular schedule, but if you can’t, it’s all right. “Catch as catch can” is still caught. Just do it.

Please don’t wait for inspiration. Here’s something that’s never happened to me: I’ve never been walking in a field of flowers with flutes playing in the background when a muse landed on my shoulder and whispered my next book. What I have done is sat down at my desk and typed until I wrote something decent.

Last – and this is important – define yourself as a writer.

Whether you’re published (yet) or not – if you sit down to the blank page, or screen or whatever, and commit to laying down words, you are a writer.

Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you.

You have a community of sisters and brothers out here, you’re our colleague, and you belong.

Writers write. Full-time, part-time – it doesn’t matter. So write. What you can, when you can, and you will write that book.

Don Winslow’s new book is City on Fire (Harper Collins).

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