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Coffee, people-watching and Scrabble: the daily writing routine of best-selling author JoJo Moyes

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She's sold over 20 million books worldwide and is one of the very few authors to have had three books on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. Here, Stylist.co.uk talks to bestselling author JoJo Moyes, who lives in Essex with her husband and three children, about her daily writing routine, from a three-coffee morning ritual to a specific love of fine line black pens and a penchant for doodling...


jojo Moyes

6am: My husband makes me a coffee and puts my laptop in my lap while I’m still in bed. I’ll write for about an hour, accompanied by a second coffee at 6.30am.

7.20am: My kids go to school and I’ll walk the dog – usually in pyjamas as we live on 22 acres of land so I don’t have to go anywhere public. I’ve got two dogs - a Great Pyrenean rescue, who is enormous and weighs 55 kilos, and a little border terrier – so they’re called big dog and little dog.

7.45am: I always think it’s a bit tragic that I’m on my third coffee by quarter to eight, but I’ll have another cup with breakfast, which is usually an omelette with tomato, goats cheese and asparagus.

9am: If I don’t have any promotional stuff to do then I’ll drive to my little office in town or head to a local café where they know me and I have my own table.

I take my laptop and an unlined hardback notebook (I always buy a new one for every story I work on), and I’ll either plan or write.

With planning, I work on the plot less than the characters but once I’ve got a rough idea of what I want to do with a book I plot it on either a whiteboard or in a large A3 book, including things such as the big crisis points or when the characters bump into each other. It’s quite useful to see the main arcs of your story visually and it helps to clarify points in your mind. I also doodle a lot while I plan too, which helps flesh things out in my head.

With writing, I try to do 1,000 words a day, although I don’t beat myself up if I can’t. However, if I go more than three days without writing when I’m supposed to be, I do get quite anxious. It’s like people who physically need to go running – I need to be writing.

Once I get to 30,000 words of a book I’m fully committed to it (and if I’m not, I bin it!)

11am: I’m not really a grazer as such, but the café do amazing homemade bakes, such as honey polenta cakes, which can be a disaster.

I’m a people-watcher – which is a polite way of saying I’m nosy – and I’m permanently fascinated by why people do the things that they do, whether they’re my friends or just someone I’m sat next to. Those things often spark ideas for characters or plots in my books.

People-watching often sparks ideas for characters or plots in my books

While no-one I know has directly ended up in one of my books, there are certainly variations of people in there. It’s funny, because the people who tell me they think they’ve seen themselves in one of my books are never who I think they would be. I once put someone who’d behaved really badly into a book, safe in the knowledge that she wasn’t aware she was behaving badly, and sure enough she didn’t recognise herself.

1pm: I’m not great at writing fiction in the afternoons so I’m lucky if I write through to 1 or 2pm. Then I’ll eat lunch and read over what I’ve written.

I don’t show anyone what I’ve been working on throughout the day. Your work is really tender until you’re sure of it so you have to be careful – with 50% of the books I write I end up deleting the initial chapter and replacing it with something else, so there’s no point showing it to people before it’s done.

I’ve also learnt that, once I’ve finished a book, distance is crucial. You need to give yourself at least a month, or preferably three or four, away from your book. Then when you go back to it you have a fresh eye and can see the weaknesses and holes. It’s a key part of my process now.

I’ve never really celebrated finishing a book, or treated myself to a handbag or anything. Although I did buy a beautiful, bling-y ring in LA last year when Me Before You went to number one in the US book charts – I wear it everyday and now the platinum has started chipping off. But someone once said to me, always wear and use your best stuff every day and I absolutely hold with that: after all, you don’t know where you’re going to be tomorrow. 

typewriter

3pm: I head home and do admin type stuff – there’s always tons of that – or I’ll work on script writing.

On my desk I’ve got thank you cards that I buy from New York and absolutely love, because there’s always someone to say thank you to, whether it’s readers or events that I’ve been part of.  I’ve also got a stash of my favourite pens – black fine liners, no thicker than 0.1 or 0.2.

6pm: I’ll stop working to cook supper and hang out with my kids.

The only time that doesn’t apply is if I’ve taken myself off to a hotel for a couple of nights to really focus on my writing, which I do a few times a year. I tend not to come up for air: I won’t get dressed, I’ll order room service, I’ll work around the clock. It’s a dream –  being allowed to work for 18 hours a day on your writing is an absolute luxury.

A few times a year I take myself to a hotel for a couple of nights so I can really focus on my writing

Don't get me wrong, I miss my family, but I couldn’t do what I do unless I have a few times a year where I can really think about nothing else. My kids understand – it’s a pay off, I’m not a mum who does a normal job where I might be gone from 8am to 7pm. I’m largely around if they need me to be there, or if they’re sick I can take a day off with them. It’s a trade off.

The working mother thing is interesting. I always hear women writers saying they feel guilty for going off on tour, or that they feel they’re not devoting enough attention to their kids. And I just don’t think it’s a conversation we have about dads. My husband was once asked by a German interviewer how he felt about my success and he said, “I’ll answer that when you would ask that of my wife,” because in that case it would just be a given.

8pm: I’d like to think we don’t drink during the week but since American politics turned into an episode of Black Mirror I do tend to have a gin and tonic in the evening.

I also play online Scrabble incessantly. Its my middle aged equivalent of online drug taking – I self soothe with Scrabble. I have four or five people in different timezones that I play against so if I wake up, because I’m a bit of an insomniac, I can always play someone in LA or somewhere else. I also play against my husband so sometimes we’ll lie in bed and play against each other.

I probably spend at least an hour a day on online Scrabble. It’s important for a writer to keep expanding their vocabulary…

10.30pm: I head to bed. I don’t read enough books for pleasure while I’m writing because it can be quite destabilising, and I might find myself emulating someone else’s voice quite unconsciously. Instead I read short stories, the New Yorker and magazines.

Paris for One, by JoJo Moyes, is published this week (£8.44 from amazon.co.uk)

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