We’ve gathered together some useful tips from the writing routines of some of the most successful authors in the world – but perhaps the biggest clue to their success is the word ‘routine’ itself?
1. Tip: Write First Thing In The Morning
The early bird catches the worm – or at least gets a few pages down before breakfast. Ernest Hemingway said:
“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."
The prize-winning Japanese author Haruki Murakami says,
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours.”
Another early riser is the Pulitzer prize winning Barbara Kingsolver – who also demonstrates that motherhood doesn’t need to put an end to your writing dreams.
“I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head.
For the whole of my career as a novelist, I have also been a mother. I was offered my first book contract, for The Bean Trees, the day I came home from the hospital with my first child. So I became a novelist and mother on the same day. Those two important lives have always been one for me. I’ve always had to do both at the same time. So my writing hours were always constrained by the logistics of having my children in someone else’s care. When they were little, that was difficult. I cherished every hour at my desk as a kind of prize. As time has gone by and my children entered school it became progressively easier to be a working mother. My oldest is an adult, and my youngest is 16, so both are now self–sufficient —but that’s been a gradual process. For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and am eager for and make the best use of. That’s probably why I get up so early and have writing time in the quiet dawn hours, when no one needs me.
I used to say that the school bus is my muse. When it pulled out of the driveway and left me without anyone to take care of, that was the moment my writing day began, and it ended when the school bus came back."
Kurt Vonnegut seems to have followed many of the tips in this article, starting with early rising. He wrote in a letter to his wife:
“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands…”
2. Tip: Write Anywhere You Can
E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) didn’t seem overly bothered about where he wrote.
"I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.
In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper"
Another rather successful children’s author, J.K. Rowling agrees saying,
“Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there…I can write anywhere. I made up the names of the characters on a sick bag while I was on an airplane."
3. Tip: Find Your Ideal Space to Work
If you’re not the kind of person who can write on the back of a Tesco receipt while waiting for a bus, then you need to create a workspace for yourself with as little distraction as possible. It could be an office in your own home, or if you’d like to get away from your house, then the library, or a coffee shop. It can be useful to either turn off your phone and disconnect your laptop from the internet, or go somewhere where getting online is problematical. E.B. White may have had his family tramping through his working space, but he didn’t have the distractions of smart phones.
Sheds, summer houses and log cabins have worked well for many authors as shown in our previous article 8 Writing Sheds of Famous Authors, but Maya Angelou had a different method of getting into the groove. In a 2013 interview with ‘The Daily Beast’ she said, “I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning.”
(Another early riser then)
“I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible…I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!” But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up."
4. Tip: Concentrate On One Project At A Time
Henry Miller, created a work schedule of “Commandments” for him to follow as part of his daily routine, published in the book, Henry Miller on Writing. These included:
Work on one thing at a time until finished.
Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
When you can’t create you can work.
Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
5. Tip: Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
Early riser Haruki Murkami has other healthy habits – and seems to regard writing a novel like a episode of ‘SAS-Who Dares Wins’. After getting up at 4am, the author says:
“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…Writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
Kurt Vonnegut, again, in the letter to his wife, mentions going for walks, going to the swimming pool, and says,
“I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.” The ‘maybe not’ part may be related to the next tip.
6. Tip: Turn To Drink
As Henry Miller said above, “Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it”. Ernest Hemingway was also famously keen on a snifter or seven.
Joan Didion writes during the day, but by the evening needs “…an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages.”
Kurt Vonnegut agrees, saying “When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water”
Maya Angelou, said that in her hotel room, she might have an alcoholic drink “at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.”
In contrast, the rock’n’roll years are over for Stephen King, who struggled with drugs and drink until giving up in 1980s. He says:
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write… I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.”
7. Tip: Work Hard And Keep Going
A ‘no-brainer’, you would think, but as author of ‘The Kite Runner’ Khaled Hosseini emphasises,
“I have met so many people who say they’ve got a book in them, but they’ve never written a word. To be a writer — this may seem trite, I realize — you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not. Perhaps most importantly, write for an audience of one — yourself. Write the story you need to tell and want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your skin and keep you up at night.”
And Barbara Kingsolver, not content with getting up at four in the morning, just can’t stop writing. She says,
“It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else. I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”
Best selling author, Jodi Picoult, has some pithy words for those who feel ‘stuck’ with the dreaded ’writer’s block’.
“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
We hope that this inspires you, if not to get up at the crack of dawn, then at least to keep writing regularly through 2020 and beyond.