JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

When A Writer Has “All The Time In The World”



When you’re retired, or no longer have, or need the day job that was standing in your way of “writing the novel” you wake up each morning knowing you have “all the time in the world” to get to your laptop or yellow legal pad.

That’s the first mistake you make because of course other things get in the way, and suddenly it’s 6 p.m. And you don’t have all the time in the world because now it’s time for cocktails, and another day has flown by and you didn’t write a single word!

All The Time in The World? Really?

I think it must be a universal truth that the less time you have, the more you fit into it. For example, more than 20 years ago when I wrote my first two (traditionally published) novels, I knew I had to slot in my writing in the few hours before my son came home from school. When I decided to try for a third (book, that is)  I thought it would be a snap since this time around I was a retired empty nester, and so had “all the time in the world” for writing. What I discovered is that you still need to set aside a specific part of the day to write. You cannot assume you’ll just fit it in somewhere along the way.

So, now my routine goes something like this:  Morning Joe (MSNBC-TV,) Tennis, Golf (one day a week instead of tennis) Forage, Write, Cook, Eat, Swim, Write (maybe) or Read- in- Genre.

Not Summer Camp

Tennis, golf and swimming may sound as if I’m slotting writing in between summer camp activities, but that’s not really the case. When I retired I knew I needed organized physical activity to get me out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, I knew I’d run the danger of getting fat, fatter and fattest while lounging around all day in a t-shirt and sweat pants. I’m serious about exercise. I have a Fitbit and blood pressure monitor to prove it!

As for foraging?  Well, these days it’s not enough to one-stop shop at the local supermarket for all your culinary needs, is it? No. Locally-grown veg and fruit are best purchased at the local farm stand; next stop, the fish store for fresh-caught sustainable fish ( especially since our fish store is located just a couple of miles from the second largest commercial fishing station in New York.) You need a butcher who will trim and prepare your chops and steaks for grilling; then Scotto’s Italian store for your fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, artichokes and imported prosciutto, and of course the bakery at Wild by Nature, for artisanal sesame sunflower loaf or tuscan boule (without preservatives.) Being within a couple of miles of all these fabulous stores and stands on the East End of Long Island makes it impossible not to take advantage — especially when you love cooking at home!

Switch Off

Multitasking on ipad, laptop and TV

I find it’s best to open my laptop or pick up my yellow legal pad without checking emails or texts, or the Twitter feed, or the Goodreads site, or any cable TV news channel. I’m now set in a routine where I am revising and/or rewriting a chapter a day in Part Two, more commonly known as that “middle” part of the novel that gets you from your very exciting- page-turning- opening to your stunningly -exciting- heart-palpitating climax and resolution.

Of course, some days it’s impossible to focus solely on one’s novel.  For example, when Sean Spicer resigns from his job in the Trump White House (on TV) and you rented The Zookeeper’s Wife for only 24 hours (on Ipad,) and you still have your weekly blog to schedule for publication (laptop.) Thank goodness, yesterday’s chapter was a mere 1,090 words long and I was done with it before all the madness in the White House started up again.

Writing Routines in Retirement

Last week, I wrote about the writing routines of my fellow writers from the Algonkian novel workshop who are still either working in day jobs or who have other responsibilities that take priority. This week, I share my routine along with those of  fellow retired writers, Greg Renz and Paula Zimlicki. Greg is a retired fire captain working on his first novel, The Thin Red Line. Paula Zimlicki worked as a medical writer and editor, and had completed a first draft of her novel, In The Summer of Defiance, before joining the writers’ workshop in St. Augustine earlier this year.


Greg Renz: “My day starts between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. I read one of my books on creative writing or whatever novel I’m into. When my wife gets up, usually around 6:30 or 7:00, we drink coffee, read our two newspapers, and talk while catching up on the latest tragic news stories.

Naps allowed

At 8:00, if the weather is good, I head out to our deck in the woods and do 30 minutes of yoga followed by 15 minutes of Tai Chi. At 9:00 it’s off to my writing room where I begin by meditating for 15 minutes. Total silence except for chirping birds outside  my window. Every morning, I put on Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park at a a barely audible level. The poetry and music of their songs puts me in the mood and alerts my right brain that it’s time to create. For me, the morning hours are the most productive. I usually start by editing the last two pages from the day before, so that I get in the flow of the story. Some days the boys in the basement refuse to send anything up and other days they flood me with ideas (Stephen King’s metaphor).

After lunch, I take care of any chores or business, then a nice nap, followed by a walk in our quiet, wooded neighborhood. Sometimes ideas come out of the blue during these walks, and if I don’t write them down they are lost forever. I always carry a small notebook for this. After the walk, it’s time for wine while I read over what I wrote in the morning. That ends my writing day, except for waking in the middle of the night on occasion to observe a scene playing out in my head.

Started Writing After Retirement

I’m in awe of people who are able to write while holding down a full-time job or profession. I didn’t start writing seriously until I retired, and following four years’ of creative writing classes at the University of Wisconsin. My mentor at the UW informed me that if I was to be a serious writer, I needed to have set work hours. So at 9:00 a.m. every morning, I turn off the news, put away the paper, and head to my office where I will work until at least noon, sometimes longer, if the words are coming. Some days can be a real struggle, but I found if I stick to this schedule, the scenes will come.
My routine resulted in a massive 176,000 word first draft. I’m sure I’d still be slogging through that first draft if I didn’t stick to a routine. I’ve also needed to diligently stick to my routine in order to trim the manuscript to 113,000 words.

Easier in Retirement

Paula Zimlicki

Paula Zimlicki: ” I wrote the first draft of my novel while working fulltime. It took me five years of writing nights, weekends and on lunch breaks.  Because I made my living as a medical writer and editor, the last thing my brain wanted to do when I came off my day job was work on my novel. What kept me going was a strong commitment to achieving a goal I had since I learned to read. I just decided to do it. I had to retire prematurely because of a hearing and vestibular disorder, and I find it easier now to work on my revised draft. However, I’m a night owl and my brain awakes at night. When my characters are really in my brain, I cannot sleep even when I desperately want to do so.

Office Away From Home

I love working at my local Barnes & Noble in River Oaks, Houston  because of the atmosphere and the café crew. When I need a break, I can get a bunch of magazines and peruse the books. I come here at least four days a week, late morning or early afternoon, and stay for at least four hours, but often staying up to six hours.

My favorite spot is to the right of the divide in the B&N cafe (pictured.) The café crew knows me. They know my order and start fixing it before I even get to the counter. Venti iced tea, black, unsweetened, don’t cut the tea with water. Multigrain bagel toasted with two cream cheese.  And, on those writing days when words just will not come, I sometimes succumb to ordering a s’mores cookie!

Bookstores Are Special

I have always loved bookstores. When I was little, if I got separated from my parents at the mall, they knew where to find me: a bookstore! That was back in the days of many bookstores, independent and chains. I miss those days with endless variety of bookstores.


I have a helper when I work from my home office. His name is Harley, and he is a mixed breed but mostly Maine Coon. He loves to sit up on my desk and watch me. I also do art from this desk and his favorite thing is to play with the pencils. Speaking of art, when the writing muse is just not flowing, I turn to art. I find that using a different part of my brain helps with the writing. Inevitably, I will get a thought about something to write and then I turn back to the computer. Harley loves to sit on the keyboard!

I hate exercise, other than yoga. But, like my desire to write a novel, my desire to lose weight is strong. I’ve started using the treadmill in the gym in our building, and listening to music at the same time. My main challenge to exercising is that it takes time away from writing.



  1. I should have waited until dinner to read your blog, Joanna. I am now ravenous and it’s not even lunch time yet. How fortunate for you to have all these wonderful places to get what sound like incredible incredible food selections. And thank you for posting all of our routines. I feel like this has allowed me to get to know everyone a little bit better. And it’s quite a cast of characters.

  2. Definitely a good group! As for the food, well, you can probably understand now why exercise is a big part of my day!!

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