8 Famous Writers Spill Their Secret Writing Routines

Filed in Author Inspirations by on February 5, 2016 9 Comments

8 Famous Writers Spill Their Secret Writing Routines
I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over the daily routines of notable writers and learning what inspired their creative energy to pour out onto paper in the form of writing. Much like a baseball player won’t wash his lucky socks during a long stretch of wins in fear of breaking the streak—writers develop their routines and don’t dare deviate, for the fear of showing up to type with no words bouncing around in their heads is terrifying!

We’re all busy: family, jobs, a social calendar, favorite television shows. We use these things to make excuses to avoid the keyboard, but the notable writers below wrote long-hand with pencil and paper, on manual typewriters, when they didn’t feel like it, when they didn’t make a dime, when they felt like giving up, when everyone was telling them they couldn’t do it. They kept writing. So, let this post serve as your last excuse to avoid your keyboard, find some motivation below, and beat the cursor! (Remember, it could be worse—John Steinbeck wrote his books in pencil.)

 Ernest Hemingway

Quote: “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Writing Routine: When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

Henry Miller

Quote: “Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.”

Writing Routine:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places […]
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

 John Steinbeck

Quote: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”

Writing Routine:

My choice of pencils lies between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four more dozen of them for my pencil tray.

I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.

In the very early dawn, I felt a fiendish desire to take my electric pencil sharpener apart. It has not been working very well and besides I have always wanted to look at the inside of it. So I did and found that certain misadjustments had been made at the factory. I corrected them, cleaned the machine, oiled it and now it works perfectly for the first time since I have it. There is one reward for not sleeping.

Haruki Murakami

Quote: “I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.”

Writing Routine:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

Jodi Picoult

Quote: “You can’t edit a blank page.”

Writing Routine:

I get up at 5 a.m. and walk for three miles with a friend (I do it for the gossip). I come home, shower, get my daughter off to school, make coffee and a bowl of yogurt with banana, and head up to my office.

On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there. I also have Wonder Woman paraphernalia from when I wrote five issues of the comic, and pictures of my husband and kids.

E.B. White

Quote: “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”

Writing Routine: Except for certain routine chores, I never knew in the morning how the day was going to develop. I was like a hunter, hoping to catch sight of a rabbit. There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

Maya Angelou

Quote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Writing Routine:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.

Shauna Niequist

Quote: “I write when it’s writing time, and generally that’s it. I try to take good notes the rest of the time, so that I can avoid the dreaded page/blinking cursor.”

Writing Routine:

I know there are lots of writers who try to beat the day, to shut out the world for a while, then rejoin it after the writing’s done. For me it works best to do the opposite: I like to clear away the business of the day, and then circle down to a deeper writing place. I get up with Henry. We have breakfast together and watch the Backyardigans. After he and Aaron leave for school and work, I run through emails, check Facebook and Twitter, read my favorite blogs. I make or adjust my to-do list, deal with anything that needs to be dealt with–upcoming events or deadlines.

And then I’m ready to dive into writing time. Again, I know this is opposite from what a lot of people tell you, but it’s what works for me. It wouldn’t work for me to cocoon away first thing in the morning, and deal with all the details of life when the writing’s done–I’d worry the whole time: “How’s Henry this morning? Did I forget something for school? Is Brannon or my editor waiting on me for anything?” For me, it’s better to know that the details are taken care of–that lets me disconnect for a little while without worrying.

Mostly, I write at home. I have a desk in our guest room, but I mostly sit in a huge old chair-and-a-half in our living room. I love all the windows, especially all this time of year, all the green. If I’m feeling antsy, there are a few coffee shops I like, and if I’m feeling desperate, there’s a little office at church that I can hideout in–my way of telling myself I really mean business.

Sources:

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4156/the-art-of-fiction-no-45-continued-john-steinbeck

Henry Miller on Writing

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182-haruki-murakami

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/03/jodi-picoult-on-writing-publishing-and-what-she-s-reading.html

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4155/the-art-of-the-essay-no-1-e-b-white

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2279/the-art-of-fiction-no-119-maya-angelou

 

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About the Author ()

Erika Bennett, Editorial Manager for Xulon Press, has been a freelance editor for nearly half a decade. Before joining the Xulon team in 2010, she worked with several first time authors who wanted to test the waters of self-publishing. Her aim is to make sure great books find their way into readers’ hands.

Comments (9)

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  1. avatar Brenda Lee Barclay says:

    Thanks for the reminder to WRITE!

  2. avatar Patricia Nordean says:

    This is a good piece and quite helpful. It is interesting to know how others “do it”. Thanks!

  3. avatar JOAN HOPSON says:

    I am in the process of writing a manuscript and these suggestions from the authors have helped me very much and given me the incentive to start on it again. I have lost three computers while writing this (from electrical surge in the old home where I lived), and now this computer is not adequate. Best Buy inserted a program they said I should use but it doesn’t even have double space in it so a computer friend of mine is building me a new computer. Now my printer has stopped and it is brand new. Seems like the devil doesn’t want me to write this story, which is about a miraculous healing my daughter had at the age of 15 when her brain ruptured due to a malformation. It is a beautiful story though she was neglected and lied about at school, in the ER, and sent home in a coma to recover from an “overdose”. I am promising myself I will finish it this year but a move may be in my future in a few months. I will work on it until then and after I am settled in the new apartment I will continue until I finish. I have promised myself 2016 is the “year of the manuscript”.

    • Hi Joan,

      The issues can wear us down; as writers we need all cylinders to work in order to feel like we’re making progress. Maybe try John Steinbeck’s approach and write your story long-hand. Then, when your computer is back up and running, all you have to do is type it up. That way, you don’t lose time, you’re still writing, and you’ll have a neat, handwritten version to keep in the family.

      Sincerely,
      Erika

  4. avatar George Busby says:

    Erika, I enjoyed reading your writers hands on writing routines and all that you can do for me. I’m still thinking about who’s going to publish my book; But for now I’ll just keep on writing & reading.
    Thank you ! from George Busby

    • Hi George,

      I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this post. Writing and reading are key! I hope you find a great publishing partner, and I wouldn’t be mad if you chose Xulon Press.

      Have a great week!
      Erika

  5. avatar bill says:

    The test is to find what works for you.

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