I was fascinated to talk to someone the other day who asked me what my writing schedule was. Different writers have different approaches, apparently. Stephen King, who has written fifty novels and has sold over 350 million copies in a career that spans over 40 years, writes six pages a day. He said, ‘I work every day — three, four hours, and I try to get those six pages, and I try to get them fairly clean.’ I read somewhere that he balances working at the laptop with a daily walk, which makes absolute sense in terms of physical wellbeing, mental too.
Many writers believe in getting up early; they think that there is something magical that happens in the first few hours of writing. Salman Rushdie is a great exponent of early morning writing. Toni Morrison believed that getting up early and drinking coffee in the dark is the best way to get creative juices flowing. Will Self proclaimed that rituals – smoking, drinking coffee, tea – keep him going. Each to their own.
Maya Angelou used to write in the morning, then go shopping, cook, and in the evening she’d read what she’d written and edit cruelly. She could save two or three of the nine pages she’d completed earlier. Haruki Murakami gets up at four o’clock, writes for five hours then goes swimming. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Truman Capote spent a lot of time on his back, drinking cocktails, smoking cigarettes, claiming that it was impossible to do any serious thinking in an upright position. We’re all different animals.
I think the best advice is to have a routine of some sort and stick to it. The alternative for many people is to be hopeful about writing something, to have best intentions, to become distracted and then get very little done. Most novelists are disciplined because that’s how you eventually complete the word count. Edgar Allen Poe might agree; he was a great procrastinator, but he got the job done eventually. He said, ‘I am excessively slothful, and wonderfully industrious—by fits.’
I think it is important to include some kind of different mental and physical activity around writing. It can’t be good to be in one hunched position for many hours, or for the mind to be focused on one thing. I go to the gym at seven, work from half eight until ten thirty, have breakfast, work until two thirty and decide if I should carry on for the whole day. Sometimes I do, or I’ll go out, read, do something else, but I give myself permission to be flexible.
Some writers will edit as they go; others will simply write page after page in order to ‘get it all down.’ I like to write a chapter and then read it back, to understand the flow of it, and to make adjustments. Then every so often, I’ll go back to the beginning of the novel and read the whole thing again, for continuity and sense. Everyone will have their own way of working; it’s about knowing ourselves and what suits our creative type. Self-knowledge is key.
I’m very keen on external stimuli – talking to others, reading, listening to music, being outside. I find that will feed my creative ideas, and working in isolation at the laptop is fine as long as I can get a good dose of fresh air, others’ good writing and intelligent banter.
I hear so many people who say, ‘I could write a novel but…’ and it’s the but that is the impediment. There are intrusive things: work, family, holidays, chores, life. It’s important at the outset to decide if you really want to put all those good things on hold to write a novel.
And if you do, get the support of the people who mean a lot to you. Having them on board is vital. You’ll need them when the going gets tough. Like childbirth, not all novels pop out the same.
And once you’ve decided it’s for you, and you have a routine, you’re on your way. Let the creative process rock and roll. Good luck.
And more than anything else – enjoy what you write and then hopefully, your reader will enjoy it too.