5-Minute Writing Tips

Sometimes you just have to admit defeat. No matter how hard you try, there’s simply no time to write. This September was like that for me. My granddaughter’s birthday, a major ceremony for my daughter-in-law, a trip to London and Paris, paying my respects at the Queen’s funeral, the New York Write to Pitch Conference, my regular Gotham classes. And chemo. I looked at the calendar and thought, this is going to be impossible. And yet, I still found time to write, and here’s how.

Yes, even watching the Queen’s Funeral, I found time to ask myself writing questions.

Every night, I examined the next day’s schedule and tried to figure out some micro-moment when I could write. Then I gave myself a writing question to answer.

1. When I was on the airplane, and had a bit of time, my question to myself was: How did my protagonist meet her husband? This wound up being so important. I’d always thought they were high school sweethearts, but turned out they weren’t. Turned out they met at a Christmas store. Trust me, that’s important to the book.

2. When I was at my granddaughter’s birthday, I had absolutely no time to think (nor did I want to), but I did have a few minutes at the hotel where I stayed and I asked myself, what type of clothes does my protagonist wear. I’d thought she’d wear black all the time, but I realized she’s someone who works with old books. They get dusty, so she wouldn’t want to wear black. She wears gray.

3. At the Queen’s funeral, surrounded by such a peaceful and reverent crowd, I focused on emotion. What does it feel like to mourn? What does grief feel like? It wasn’t so much somber, as respectful. I found myself paying attention to the way parents were being so gentle with their children, trying to get them to understand how they felt.

4. Paris was about food. My protagonist loves to eat, and so I perused menus, trying to figure out what she might enjoy. There was one particular tarte. 🙂

5. For some reason, I always get a lot of writing done at chemo. I go once a month, and I have to sit still for three hours. It’s the only time I can think of that I do sit for so long. (My doctor told me they’d be happy to let me use the chair whenever I want, but I said no thank you.) But I always save tough questions for chemo days. My protagonist is getting older and worrying about what that means. So this is a good moment to explore hard questions.

As the month comes to an end, I find myself surprised at how much I’ve done. I’ve come to a much better understanding of my protagonist. I’ve fleshed out some details that I wouldn’t have thought about. And I’ve had a fabulous time. 🙂

How about you? What 5-minute writing tips do you have? Join the conversation at Facebook and Twitter.

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home, in which she has a story, just won an Anthony Award. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Write to Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com


  1. Susan, I love your ability to make good use of snatched time!
    I always carry a tiny notebook in my backpack to jot down a bit of overheard conversation to keep dialogue sounding natural.

  2. Good stuff! When I was sitting in the cafeteria at a horrible and noisy video arcade, having taken the grandkids there for my grandson’s birthday, I brought my laptop and reviewed notes from the Cambridge book on gothic literature, having a desire to return to a project I dropped last year. I had been having trouble with one of the characters. She was turning into Cinderella. I ran across a question posed in my notes just as the laptop shut itself down because it was out of charge and that question lingered in my mind for some time until I realized the answer. It’s a whole different book now. Not sure how the 2d act climax will go but I have enough to get there and find out I suppose when I do.

  3. Awesome ideas! I always think I need more time than I actually do. Your questions are perfect and bring up others I could ask myself. We’re leaving for France in a matter of days. I’ll come up with questions.

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