by Kris Maze
Have you wondered what other authors have done to be more productive? What unusual methods they used to finish their novels? Read about seventeen famous writers and their quirky hacks to get words on the page.
Many of us have figured out our best writing routines, honing our schedules and bribing our muses with ceremonious gifts. Even so, I am compelled to study the habits of successful writers and see what lies behind the curtain. Perhaps it is an attempt to reverse engineer their productivity and enhance my writing life. Maybe these tips can make you smile and appreciate your own writing life as it is.
At the closing of this year-that-shall-not-be-spoken, here is a collection of some of the most interesting habits I’ve read about, followed by the famous authors who use(d) them. See for yourself what worked for these well-known scribes. Could these routines help you write more in 2021? You decide.
Using a long sheet of drawing paper, or scroll, is one of my favorite planning tools. I use it during my early drafts to sequence a novel and I know of other writers who spread their manuscripts throughout their dining and living rooms as space dictates. But it seems we did not invent this method.
Writers who used a scrolling system:
Edgar Allan Poe - He attached the pages of his final drafts together with sealing wax. Open with caution.
Jack Kerouac - He envisioned his novel, On the Road, in a burst of inspiration. In order to type the book quickly, he taped pages together, so he wouldn’t have to reload his typewriter. Kerouac would have been a future fan of the dot matrix version of word processing.
Eudora Welty - Poet and Pulitzer Prize winner, she preferred stick-pins to put together her drafts. She wrote to a friend, “I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as a whole and at a glance — helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction . . . I like pins.”
Vladimir Nabokov - He wrote Lolita from the back of a car, using a carrying case full of notecards. Having the full novel in place in his mind, he wrote various scenes on the cards, putting them in order in the case which also doubled as his desk. When asked why he wrote in his car, he said, “it's the only place in the country with no noise and no drafts.” I guess that’s important when writing a novel on tiny slips of paper.
Agatha Christie - The quintessential mystery writer ate apples while taking long baths. Not that that isn’t eccentric enough; she examined murder photos for inspiration at the same time. (And I thought adding bubbles and listening to writing podcasts was inspirational.)
Friedrich Schiller - Known for his close friendship with Goethe and his own poetry and philosophical writings, Schiller kept apples in his desk and let them rot. He liked the way they smelled and found it made him more productive. Did Schiller also invent a precursor to potpourri?
Virginia Woolf - She would compose her prose while standing. She compared this method to painting with an easel and it eased her into her writing mode.
Truman Capote - He lay in bed for his best thoughts. He explained in a 1957 interview with the Paris Review, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy… No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
Dan Brown - The writer of the Da Vinci Code series shared in an interview with the Guardian that he hangs upside down to clear his head and defeat writer’s block.
Alice Walker - The American novelist thinks of her writing time as inviting her muse to tea as the guest of honor. She states, "If you are expecting someone to come to tea but you’re not going to be there, they may not come, and if I were them, I wouldn’t come. So, [writing a book is] about receptivity and being home when your guest is expected, or even when you hope that they will come."
Edgar Allen Poe - He argued with the authors of written books... by putting notes in the margins. He wrote about the benefits of writing in books he read: “In the marginalia … we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit.”
Lewis Carroll - The writer of Alice in Wonderland couldn’t overcome his days in academia. As a math teacher at Oxford, he used a colored pen to correct papers. He kept this habit while writing fiction, using purple ink.
Alexandre Dumas - He was an organized writer and used different colored paper for his types of writing. He chose blue for fiction, yellow for poetry, and pink for articles. Once, he was forced to write fiction on cream-colored paper, which he claimed made his writing terrible that day.
James Joyce - The Irish writer used large blue pencils on his drafts and wore a white coat when writing. More than superstition, it helped with his poor eyesight. Some writing habits are simply pragmatic.
Dr. Seuss - The beloved children’s author owned over 300 hats, which he wore for inspiration while writing. Yes, one of his favorites was a tall red and white striped hat, a la the Cat in the Hat.
Victor Hugo - It’s easy to imagine the writer’s success, considering that under a deadline he once wore nothing but a shawl to force him to stay in his house and write. Hugo self-imposed this constraint and asked his friends to steal his clothes in support. How Miserables.
Maya Angelou - She worked out of a hotel room and asked the staff to remove all distractions like artwork and barred anyone from disturbing her during the day. She rented a room on a monthly basis. This is one way to keep from getting interrupted.
Could you relate to any of these writing productivity habits? What extreme measures have you taken to make a deadline? What is your favorite writing hack you use to get into the Writing Zone? Help us celebrate the writer's lifestyle and share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Kris Maze is an author, freelance writer, and teacher. She enjoys writing twisty, speculative fiction with character driven plots. After years of reading classic literature, mysteries, and thrillers, she sought to write and publish her own books.
She is currently working on a futuristic YA trilogy and writing short stories. She also writes for various publications including a regular post at the award winning Writers in the Storm Blog.
When she isn’t spending time with her favorite people and pets, Kris Maze is taking pictures, hiking, or pondering the wisdom of Bob Ross. You can follow her author journey at her website at KMazeAuthor.com
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Thanks for sharing these ideas, Kris. I realized I have no productivity strategy, so my New Year's resolution is to give this some thought and make a plan!
When I found these 'hacks' I found it comforting that famous authors also were intentional about their work time. It's so easy to lose sight of the fact that writing is a tricky puzzle for everybody!
LOLOLOL, Karen. Me neither. I'm only productive for the day job right now and I need to find a way to work writing back into the schedule.
I like to go to a themed hotel nearby. I can choose from a number of differently themed rooms, from jungle to igloo. It's like being in a different location without ever leaving the state. I get some of my best ideas there.
Wow, Maggie. This hotel sounds like an adventure in itself. How lucky to have it close by. I wonder if you could write a different story from each room.
Hmmmm, we have the Madonna Inn in Central California. This is a good idea. I might have to plan a weekend there after Covid to see if I can borrow some of that magic for my own work.
Thanks, Kris. I adapted my "ritual" for starting my work day, back when I was an Engineer. Put on my shoes. Get a cup of coffee. Check my email. Then open Scrivener, review where I left off, and begin.
Sounds like a good start of the day. I definitely include coffee in my daily morning ritual.
I take a long walk ... but hey, Kris, where do you unearth all this cool stuff?? I'm fascinated to know where you learned all this 🙂
Hi Barb, I did some casual research and have a list of posts that I gleaned from.
A couple sources were excepts from - Daily Rituals - How Artists Work. https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781529059960?gC=098f6bcd4&gclid=CjwKCAiA8ov_BRAoEiwAOZogwXRYezx_DqAGABR99ES_giCGYJw8Dhb1sL05U-dWp86o1d4gz0vN6xoC5VkQAvD_BwE
And several posts from Maia Popova's newsletter Brain Pickings. I love her work - it is definitely like falling into a web rabbit hole, though.
I debated about adding a bib at the end, but it seemed to spoil the fun vibe. But the sources are available if you want more info!
I follow the Truman Capote method of thinking while horizontal. If blocked, I stretch out on the bed or floor and ponder. When our black lab Bailey was still with us, he'd stretch out with me. He was an awesome book therapy pup.
A game of solitaire helps, too!
I thought of you playing solitaire when writing this. You're not the only one who found a mental break by playing cards. 🙂
I usually have my watchful German Shepherd at my feet and underfoot. She usually makes a good companion for writing. Then we take long walks - also a good way to process scenes and such when writing.
Awwwwww. You and the puppy on the floor is such a great image. Thanks for the smile!
I had so much fun reading this, Kris! It's nice to see the lengths authors go to for their writing. 🙂
I want you all to know that the noise cancelling headphones (even though I still hear a little around me) are perfect! I think wearing them prompts others to let mom work. Great suggestion!
Yes, I've been astonished at how much better they let me stay in my own head.
I like to listen to quiet piano music (David Nevue channel) on Pandora. My mind relaxes so I think more clearly.
I find that the study and concentration playlists on Spotify are helpful tools to get me in the zone.
One useful playlist that surprised me is the 'for good sleep' type playlist. It may not work for everyone, but it helps me focus for sure.
Thanks for the suggestion - I'm trying Nevue out now!
Fun to read. Of course, a few of these writers had mental health issues or substance abuse addiction which may have added to the quirkiness they used for productivity.
Yes, the madness or the genius can be traced to mental health at times, too. It's good to take care of our peeps, check in on family and friends, since everyone is a little fragile right now.
I'm glad you thought this was fun! We can't underestimate how entertainment can move our own writing forward by lightening up the mood.
Hi, Kris. I've been AFK - holidays. Not that I saw friends and family very much. Anyway, what strikes me about your fascinating essay is how much all of these writers wanted to finish their work.
They let nothing stand in the way. It's inspirational! There's an anecdote in the introduction to the electronic version of The Guns of August where Barbara Tuchman's daughter tells her, "Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda want to talk to you!" "No, I can't. I have a book to finish."
I love the quote, "No, I can't. I have a book to finish." This.
And now, I'm looking up the Pulitzer Prize winning series by Tuchman to share with the hubby. 🙂
Even when we are asked to stay home and limit our activities, I personally still find distractions to keep me from moving as quickly as I want on my WIP. I'm glad you enjoyed the essay and hope the words flow freely for you in 2021!