The writing process: 5 top authors on their writing approach

Typewriter and glass of wine - writing process blog cover

Having a writing process is crucial to finishing a novel. There are several reasons that you need to develop a writing process that works for you:
Writing a novel takes a long time. If there’s one essential tip for how to start and finish a novel it’s this: you need a framework in place to get you there. This is just as crucial with writing long-form fiction as it is with any other long-term project such as training for a marathon, a house renovation or learning a language.
Developing a writing process also helps you to get a routine in place, and with a routine, you will find that ideas come easier. In time, writing will become an automatic part of your day or week. Developing a process will also teach you what you need to write at an optimal level such as whether or not you should outline or whether you prefer silence or noise.

Here are the processes of some famous writers. Reading about how they approach writing can help you start making conscious choices regarding your own methods:

Haruki Murakami’s early starts

The Japanese novelist, like many others, does his writing first thing in the morning. When he is hard at work on writing a new novel, his work day might begin at 4 a.m. After writing for several hours, he goes running or swimming and then goes to bed early every night. He describes the strictness of his routine as a form of mesmerism as well as a kind of training. For Murakami, a committed runner, his physical training mirrors the stamina and focus necessary to complete his novels.

In a 2004 interview with The Paris Review, Murakami reported that he starts books not knowing how they will end. He also said that he typically writes four or five drafts, with around six months to produce a first draft he describes as messy and seven to eight more on the subsequent drafts.

Murakami says that he is able to write that quickly partly because when he is immersed in a novel, it is all that he is doing. However, most writers must juggle other obligations such as jobs and families. Barbara Kingsolver describes how being a mother has been an important part of her development as a fiction writer:

Barbara Kingsolver and finding time to write despite other responsibilities

Barbara Kingsolver quote on the writing processLike Murakami, Kingsolver also describes herself as beginning her writing day at 4 a.m. However, in her case, at least one part of it is because she has no family responsibilities at that hour. Kingsolver says, ‘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.’

However, Kingsolver counts herself fortunate to have a family and says that she has found it useful in her writing process to be forced to stop and have dinner and reconnect with people.

Unlike Murakami, Kingsolver does extensive preparation before starting to write a novel. She says that “I was trained as a scientist — undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology — and I tend to think like a scientist and work like a scientist.’ She describes imagining her novels as beginning with a hypothesis. Kingsolver writes extensive histories for her characters and considers the narrative structure before beginning to write. She says that she writes hundreds of page before beginning on the actual novel.

Hilary Mantel and making sacrifices

Hilary Mantel has written several different types of books, but she is best known now for her historical series about Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Mantel describes herself as having to isolate herself from people in order to make the space to do her work and says that she can only associate with people who understand she may disappear for months at a time.

For her Man Booker Award-winning series on Cromwell, beginning with Wolf Hall, Mantel has the additional challenge of doing extensive historical research and incorporating it into her novel. As she described it in a Paris Review interview in the spring of 2015, ‘I start from a small core, a glimpse of someone or a little sound bite, and work from there. When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in the Cromwell novels or any historical material, I prepare for it. Whatever I’ve done before on that scene, I put aside. I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it. It’s like walking onstage—with the accompanying stage fright.’

In 2013, Mantel began working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their adaptations of her books, and this means she is often up until two or three in the morning, demonstrating that not all writers start their work before dawn.

Maya Angelou’s writing process – finding a room of one’s own

The late Maya Angelou had one of the more unusual writing approaches. She had a hotel room that she rented on a monthly basis, and she visited it daily. She requested that management move out any artwork or decoration and arrived in the room around 6:30 each morning. She kept a thesaurus, a Bible, a deck of playing cards and crossword puzzles in the room. Angelou said that when she played solitaire or worked on puzzles, her brain often worked out bigger problems. She did not allow housekeeping into the room because she often left paper about with notes, and she wouldn’t want to risk anything being thrown away. She used to drink sherry while she wrote as well. Angelou would leave in the early afternoon and go home to shower, edit and make dinner for people.

E.B. White on not waiting for the ideal writing conditions

E.B. White on the importance of writing now.E.B. White is famous for having written children’s books like Charlotte’s Web as well as the handbook used by generations of writers, The Elements of Style. His writing process contradicts the idea many may have of writers needing a quiet office. Says White in an interview with The Paris Review, ‘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. . . 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. . . My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. 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.’

White described himself as sometimes putting work away for a time after finishing it, including Charlotte’s Web, but admitted to being much more likely to want to rush a finished work into print. However, he said that he revised a great deal.

Like Angelou, White found that small distractions sometimes helped him with his work: ‘Delay is natural to a writer. . . I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor — as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.’

Among other things, choosing a writing process means deciding when and where to write, whether to use a computer or longhand and whether or not to outline ahead of time. While it can be helpful to investigate how other writers approach it, ultimately, you have to figure out the process that works best for you, and trial and error is the only way to do that. However, looking at other writers’ processes can also provide reassurance that there is no wrong way. Even if most writers prefer to work first thing in the morning or to write every day, that doesn’t mean that doing your writing in the evening three days per week instead of seven means that you have failed as a writer. The best process is the one that works for you.

Try the organised, step-by-step Now Novel process – it will help you start and finish your novel.

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