Every new writer wants to know the secrets to publishing success, as if there is some magic formula that will guarantee a six-figure contract and best-seller status. There isn’t. Any established writer, however, knows two things to be true.
Your goal needs to be on finishing that manuscript. To that end, it can sometimes be helpful to see how other writers have gotten to the final page. Whether their process acts as inspiration for you or gives you ideas on to set up your own writing routine, at the very least it offers perspective. Did they set a daily word count? Did they outline their story or did they pants it? Did they use certain software programs that made it easier? Is it worth applying any of their techniques to your own writing routine? Here are what some of today’s most famous authors have to say on the issue.
The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1000-2000 words per day
I don’t know whether it’s a habit or an affection. I usually start writing books in longhand. I guess that’s a habit. I usually like to write with an implement that flows. A Rollerball or a pen with ink in it. It’s the way it moves across the page, that interests me.
Margaret Atwood has a daily routine where she transcribes what she wrote the day before she starts writing any new material by hand. There may be something to it. Studies show that pen to paper stimulates brain activity — handwriting improves memory recall, reading comprehension, and critical thinking — more than typing. Other authors like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen prefer to handwrite their first drafts just the same.
Tell No One, Fool Me Once, Missing You
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1 novel in 10 months
“But the fact is, if the book is 400 pages long, I’m rarely past page 250 with one month left. At the end, I’ll write as many as 150 pages in a week, as many as 50 in a day. I’ll break to take the kids to school or whatever, and that last day might be more or less a 96-hour day with a bunch of all-nighters.”
I had the good fortune to hear Harlan Coben speak at the Annual Writer’s Digest Conference in 2014. He talked about writing in coffee shops and libraries, mentioning how people would sometimes try to sneak a peek over his shoulder to catch a word or two. The rest of the time he says he sits around “brainstorming” on his couch. As long as you get the work done, as long as you hit the deadline, he says, follow the path that feels most natural.
The Harry Bosch series, the Mickey Haller series, the Jack McEvoy series
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1 novel in 11 months
I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline, I only carry in my head. At any given time I’ll have one or two other ideas percolating … I’m always writing one project while I’m researching the next one. It’s hard to describe how projects move into each other, or on the same planes … But a good chunk in the early stages where I’m either gathering string for the next book, or running it through my head, but I don’t put anything on paper. I’ll just know how my books are going to begin and end, and the stuff in between is ripe for improvisation.
Michael Connelly is the definitive pantser, i.e. he writes by the seat of his pants. He researches in depth, and that keeps his stories rich and impacting. Still, he refuses to write anything down until he’s ready. Without outlines, he allows the characters and the story to drive him forward. Not everyone can multitask two or more projects at once like that, but if it comes instinctive to you, have at it!
Kite Runner, And The Mountains Echoed, A Thousand Splendid Suns
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 2-3 pages per day
“I love to rewrite. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.”
Without outlining, Khaled Housseni finds writing the first draft to be “very difficult and laborious”. For that reason, he tries not to become too emotionally invested in it. Instead, he sees it as a tool, something to push through, before he can do what he really loves. It is the rewriting process that truly sparks the imagination. Don’t let yourself get blocked before you get to the good stuff.
Lone Wolf, Small Great Things, My Sister’s Keeper
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 23 novels over 25 years
“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.”
Jodi Picoult doesn’t just write to write. She writes because she loves it. She writes to leave behind a legacy. She writes to inspire her family to chase their dreams. Even on those hard days when the words struggle to come, she reminds herself why writing is so awesome. We should all do the same.
The Harry Potter series, Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 18 novels over years 27 years
“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
Like James Patterson, J.K. Rowling is a notorious outliner. You may find inspiration in one of her detailed outlines, hand-written no less, that has made the rounds online. However, her true success stems from her stick-to-it-ness. She commits time to writing and does not allow anyone/anything to interfere with that time.
Every new writer, or even established author, wants to know the “best” way to write a best-selling novel. Even Game of Thrones author George RR Martin asked horror junkie Stephen King, “How the f*** do you write so fast? I have a good six months and crank out three chapters, meanwhile, you wrote three books in that time!?”
I will save you the heartache. There is no textbook way to get the job done. You have to decide on the hows yourself and see what works best for you.
That said, if you want to learn how the most successful writers of today work their magic, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some of their tips and quirks on how they make it in the business and how they finish their works of progress.
American Gods, Coraline, The Sandman
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 150-4,000 words per day
It would be easier to tell you the kind of writer that I’m not. I remember once being at a pub at a convention in England with a very well known fantasy author. I was saying, “Do you realize there are writers out there who are at their desks at 9 o’clock every morning, look up at 12:00, take an hour off for lunch and they’re back there at 1, they go till 5:30 and that’s it for the day? They don’t write anymore. Now if you wanted to do that, why not get a real job?” And this well-known, famous, probably richer then I am fantasy writer said “Well I was always at my desk at 8:30, instead of 9. But other than that, you’ve just described my work day.”
Neil Gaiman prefers to write when the mood strikes. He likes the freedom of inspiration, the lightbulb moments. That’s not to say he doesn’t hit the page on a regular basis. He simply does not put limits on when and where his writing will take him.
The Rizzoli and Isles series, Gravity, Harvest
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 4 pages per day
I don’t stop to revise — I just forge ahead, through thick and thin, and through some really rough work. Some of it is horrible. That’s okay — I’ll come back and fix those scenes. Since I don’t outline ahead of time, I don’t always know the solution to the mystery. So I’ll wander in the wilderness along with my characters, until I get about 2/3 of the way through and I’ll be forced to find answers. And then I can finally write to the end.
Like Michael Connelly and Khaled Housseni, she is against any kind of outlining, and like Margaret Atwood and James Patterson, she prefers to write her novels long-hand. What makes Tess Gerritsen stand out is that she does not accept no for an answer, not even from herself. She starts her writing day at 9:30 AM and pushes through until she hits her word count.
The Firm, The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1000-2000 words per day
“Routine is what it’s all about … Same small office behind the house where I’ve been writing for the last 22 years. Same desk, same computer, same cup of coffee. It’s dark. I love it. There’s no phones, faxes, or internet—I work offline. So I’m in a cocoon.”
Neil Gaiman may have been talking about a fantasy writer in the quote above, but he could as easily have been talking about the famous lawyer/author. John Grisham finds that the daily routine stripped of all distractions is what keeps the words flowing. It’s automatic pilot. If you are someone who is easily distracted, this could be an effective strategy for you too.
The Dark Tower series, It, The Shining
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 6 pages per day
“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. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
There’s something poetic about Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King. Whatever genre he is writing in, he embraces it full on. He falls into a dream state and visits that brave new world, no matter how quirky or twisted … and with only a cup of tea! It is more than a routine for King. It is about passion. If you commit to writing what inspires you, it won’t feel like work at all.
The Game of Thrones series, Fevre Dream, Windhaven
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1 chapter every 2 months
“I still do all my writing on an old DOS machine running WordStar 4.0, the Duesenberg of word processing software (very old, but unsurpassed).”
Some of the best writers like to go “old school”. That often means handwriting with a pen or pencil. At least pencils will always be available on the market! The same cannot be said for the DOS software that George R. R. Martin uses to write his novels. Is the use of such antiquated technology the reason Martin is so slow to release his novels? Who cares? If you find something that works for you, stick with it regardless of the naysayers.
The Alex Cross series, the Michael Bennett series, the iFunny series
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 10+ novels per year, at least 900 outline pages per year
I’m a fanatic about outlining. It’s gonna make whatever you’re writing better, you’ll have fewer false starts, and you’ll take a shorter amount of time. I write them over and over again. You read my outline and it’s like reading a book; you really get the story, even though it’s condensed. Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you’re gonna get the scene, and you’re gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work.
The man is nothing if not prolific. He finds that outlining not only adds to that productivity but that it helps to keep writing collaborations on track. He co-authors a great many books, and this approach keeps everyone’s expectations in check.
I am a proud resident of Windham, NH, and have been since 2013. Not that I ever lived all that far away. I am a New England girl through and through. I’ve lived only in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.
For me, there’s something about the change of seasons, a hearty (pronounced “hah-tee”) Boston accent, and a wicked good clam chowder (“chow-dah”) that does it for me.
This will be my third year registering for the Windham Turkey Trot (unfortunately, I was injured last year and could not run), and although I have had the choice of either a 3- or 5-mile route through the streets of this suburban town of 13,500, I usually stick with the 5K. I plan to up the ante this year.
Come Thanksgiving morning, a giant clock is strapped onto the top of a ladder, and the crowd counts down to the start of the race. There are no race bibs, no official times, and no trophies to show off running (or walking or biking or rollerblading) prowess. Instead, a community simply gathers for a good cause.
It’s too easy to get caught up in what’s not going right, whether that’s in our personal lives or around the world. The truth is there’s also so much that is going right.
Do you have a family that loves you? Friends that support you? Are you in good health? Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have food to eat? Have you had the benefit of an education? Do you have a job?
Not everyone will have all of these things, but odds are you have at least some. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to slow down and take stock of all the good in your life. Even in our darkest days, there is always something to light the way.
Louise Peltz and Heidi Reever knew that more than most.
When it comes to the Windham Turkey Trot, all thanks go to these thoughtful women for starting the event back in 1995. They knew to appreciate their health as runners. They knew to appreciate their time together as friends. They knew to appreciate the wonderful town they lived in. They used that gratitude and shared it with everyone around them.
Now, what started as 50 runners coming together before their holiday feast has grown to more than 1,400 runners burning calories and making memories before the celebratory meal hits the table.
An annual race does not come together on its own. It takes the coordination and patience of its runners, and I don’t necessarily mean the people running IN the race. Sponsors have to be gathered, advertising and marketing efforts have to be planned, volunteers have to be gathered, and the event website needs to be updated. There are even some nifty T-shirts designed for the trot each year.
Most importantly, it is about charity.
At first, the Windham Turkey Trot gathered canned goods for donation from its participants. It has since become a 501c3 organization and accepts monetary donations, 100% of which go to local charities. As it has every year, the event will support Shepherd’s Pantry, a food pantry in Windham that assists needy families in southern New Hampshire. This year’s event will also support Windham Helping Hands, an organization that has literally helped senior citizens and families in need in so many ways since 2003. Please visit their websites to see how you can help.
I want to personally thank Louise Peltz and Heidi Reever for inspiring a community. By paying it forward, you have established a tradition in Windham that makes a real difference.
When Bridget finally knows what she wants, it seems all too late. She arrives at a party only to hear the announcement that not only is the love of her life, Mark Darcy, moving to New York for a new job but that he is going to marry another woman. It doesn’t help that the woman is beautiful, thin, and a successful lawyer, everything Bridget is not.
Silly Bridget, don’t you know that those things don’t matter? That someone will love you for YOU.
“No! No!” She cries out.
The room grows awkwardly silent and all eyes fall on her.
“It’s just that … it’s such a terrible pity …”
Oops, that’s not much better.
“… for England … to lose such a great legal brain. For the people of England, like me and you, to lose one of our top people. Our top person, really.”
Bridget, Bridget, Bridget, why did you wait until it was too late?
There is a natural tendency towards waiting. It’s a sickness really, one of our worst human traits.
We too often wait for the perfect time to chase after what we want, and our procrastination becomes a sort of self-sabotage. I should know.
How many years have I been talking about publishing a novel?
It all comes down to our excuses, those falsehoods we keep telling ourselves. These justifications litter our brains with tomorrow-isms that will never come to pass if we don’t act.
Admit it. You’ve used at least one of these excuses and more than once. I know I have. While there may be some truth in some of these statements, there is no absolute truth. You always have room to grow and change. You can overcome any obstacle, but you first have to make an effort. When you sit back on the excuse, you only fail yourself.
Regardless of our excuses, one thing holds true. They are based in fear. Fear that we will embarrass ourselves on the journey, fear that we are somehow not worthy of the success, or even fear that we won’t know how to adjust to life if and when we do succeed.
To be honest, most people are afraid of the unknown. That’s unfortunate because life is insecure. There are no promises, no guarantees. If we refrain from taking any risks, then the things that could potentially make us happy will remain elusive.
Don’t sabotage a hopeful life with your insecurities.
Bridget finally spoke out when she saw it all slipping away, when she saw what waiting almost cost her. She was lucky enough to still snag Mark Darcy in the process (ah, the joy of a rom-com!), but not all of us will be so lucky. Sometimes late is too late.
Sooooo, what are you waiting for?
I am already working on my novel.