How to write a novel on your lunch break

And why it’s a great way to work through a block

Amy Shearn
7 min readApr 2, 2024
An actual photo of Dear Edna Sloane joining me for lunch. I actually kinda miss this cafe’s overpriced avocado toast. Look at those PEAS!

I know, I know, you don’t have time to write a book, and it’s intensely frustrating. You have a job or you have 72 jobs or you have time-consuming hobbies like A Family. But hear me out: Do you have a lunch break?

As I may have mentioned (especially to people who have wondered why I seem stymied by ordinary life tasks lately I AM BUSY OK I WILL ANSWER YOUR EMAIL PROBABLY NEVER I AM SO SORRY) I have a book coming out on April 30th (it’s a novel called Dear Edna Sloane, please preorder, preorders are so important etc etc).

People who know me were a little surprised to hear about Edna because she did sort of just appear, in the way that everyone will tell you, including me, novels don’t usually operate. I don’t actually think this is a healthy instinct I have, to write books in obscurity and then emerge from the creative muck with the thing fully-formed. I know, from working with hundreds of writers, that many (most?) writers want company — and feedback, and accountability help, and structure ideas, and editorial feedback, and commiseration about the craziness of the task — along the way. People write books in book-generating workshops! I have taught some of them! It’s just not how I personally write books.

How I personally wrote this book was: nearly in secret, visiting it in stolen bits of time, as if it were a mistress.

Part of this was practical. I didn’t have a lot of time to play with. I had school-age children and a full-time job. While I had once been an early-morning writer, even before-work time was spoken for. What I had was: a lunch break.

I was amazed when I realized people at this place where I worked took actual lunch breaks. My previous full-time jobs had been in intense offices where everyone worked through lunch, sheepishly scarfing Sad Desk Salads over our keyboards. But at this place people took their hour-long lunch breaks, so I did, too. And nearly every lunch break, I took my laptop to a nearby cafe, donned my headphones, rocked out to Mozart, and tapped out a couple pages of what would become Dear Edna Sloane.

Once the book started picking up steam — there is this wonderful, addictive stage of novel-writing when it all just feels so inevitable and it’s all you can think about, like a very strange new lover — I found myself writing bits of the book on my commute, emailing them to myself and eventually to an email account I started just for Edna Sloane, the character’s heroine.

Reading the book, you likely would not be surprised to learn it was a lunch break novel. It’s epistolary, so by its very nature it’s divided into letters, texts, messages, and other lunch break-sized bits. This appealed to me as I was writing it because I was so busy and my time was so fragmented that I also liked reading very quick books that were divided into small sections or fragments. And in the end, you always have to write the book you’d want to read.

Here are some things that help, when you’re writing a lunch break book:

  1. Keep the story itself relatively simple. In my novel, Edna Sloane is missing, and Seth Edwards (a young editor) is looking for her. This was the amount of story my brain could handle, especially given the fragmented nature of my writing time. I knew, from when I started the book, essentially what would happen by the end, so my task during each writing session was clear: inch us towards that conclusion.
  2. Wait until the characters have distinct voices. I did mull over the book for a while before I began to write, and I waited until both Edna and Seth’s voices were crystal clear. I could practically hear them talking to me, and I knew what they wanted to say. They were the kinds of characters who I missed after I was finished writing.
  3. Have fun. I’ve written books that were difficult and knotty to write — that deal with troubled characters and characters in high-stakes trouble, that confront big issues and delve into complex histories. This one, though, was mostly a lot of fun. I wanted to write something funny and relatively light. (Look, even Virginia Woolf wrote a palate-cleanser of a biography of a dog.) I also love reading funny books, so it seemed like a good challenge to try to write one.
  4. Cut yourself some slack. I aimed to write during 4–5 lunch breaks a week. But also, sometimes a friend wanted to meet for lunch, or a meeting went over, or I had to, you know, go to the post office or something. Whenever I create a writing routine for myself — and it’s truly been different for every book I’ve written — I know I have to be kind of uptight about it in order to protect my time, but I also try to remember (sometimes) that I’m a human being, and that sometimes human beings need to get their tuna wrap to go and sit in the park and stare into the middle distance.

Another thing I should tell you, in case you too are thinking about writing a lunch break novel, is that the revision process was a whole other ball of wax. I have often, in fact, written novels in stolen scraps of time (almost exclusively, to be honest), and I really do believe that a lot of completing a draft of a book is simply a matter of having the will and the pain tolerance to work in imperfect conditions because let’s face it, who since Annie Dillard on her freaking writing island has had perfect conditions for creation.

But please note that I say “a draft.” Because when I had — so resourceful! so driven! so odd, really! — written my lunch break novel, over a year or so of lunch breaks, what I really had was a lunch break draft.

A lot of the revision process, in which these lunchy little bits were smoothed out into a cohesive narrative, took place during some DIY writing retreats, when writer-friends and I borrowed people’s empty homes, invested in a bunch of Trader Joe’s snacks (the scrappy writer’s Yaddo lunch box), and buckled down for large swathes of focused work time. (My dear friend Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is really good at this, I recommend befriending her or at least reading her books.)

Thank you, Miranda’s friend, for letting us squat in this dreamy apartment for a weekend! I still think about this window.

The final push of revision happened during a week-long residency at Hayley DeRoche’s magical but now-defunct (not because of me, I don’t think!) family-friendly, free, truly enchanting Unruly Retreat in rural Virginia, in the summer of 2020 — a good time for a week in a cabin. In the end, I did need bigger-than-lunch-break stretches of time to revision and think big about the whole book — I imagine any writer would, unless they had perhaps realllllly outlined their book before Lunch Break Time. No, even then. No book comes out right on the first draft, especially not if it’s been written quickly. You hear me, Jack Kerouac? No book.

The Unruly Retreat, which was a free, weeklong retreat for mother-writers, where I revised my book while my children engaged in farm-kid cosplay. RIP Unruly, you were truly a dream.

But just to circle back, as people at the aforementioned job used to frequently say, the practical considerations were actually only part of why I was writing a book on my lunch breaks. There was another reason, secret even to myself at the time.

I was feeling very, very stuck.

When I started this lunch break scribbling, my third book, Unseen City, which I had worked very hard on for many years, was in a kind of publishing purgatory. It’s a long story, but in this moment I was feeling that it might never find a publisher, and that my publishing life might really be over, permanently tanked by the tepid sales of my first two books. I was really frustrated both creatively and professionally. So I was going to keep writing, because that’s what I do, but I wasn’t going to acknowledge it because if literally anyone asked what was going on with my writing life I feared I would rip their head off or (more likely) blink back a tear and say quiveringly, “Oh… you know.”

And in this secret lunch break drafting, I was going to let myself indulge in both my fantasies (Edna Sloane has had outrageous success as a writer) and my frustrations (there’s a lot of satirizing the publishing industry and the literary industrial complex in there).

In a way, this was totally liberating. Writing something to amuse and interest myself, as if no one is ever going to read it, has been, for me, a way to write really honestly. To get back to the way I wrote before I’d ever published a thing: unselfconsciously, focused on the process itself, working hard and also having fun. Reconnecting with the joy of it. As Edna Sloane and countless others know, publishing is never quite as satisfying as you think it will be — the real satisfaction comes from working hard to write something that’s as good as you can possibly manage.

Even if that has to happen one hour at a time, at wobbly cafe tables, over overpriced avocado toast.

Preorder Dear Edna Sloane. I wrote it for you. No presh. Just saying.



Amy Shearn

Formerly: Editor of Creators Hub, Human Parts // Ongoingly: Novelist, Essayist, Person