Rituals, routines and writing tips from the most successful authors

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha
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You might be penning your first novel, looking to improve your writing or simply just wondering how authors conjure such gripping plots and thought-provoking words. Unfortunately, there's no rigid formula for becoming a successful author, but we pored through countless of interviews and articles to find the most common habits and tips the world's greatest authors share.

We round-up our findings below; a series of practical tips and timeless anecdotes to help you become a better writer...

1. Be a morning person

Alice Walker, author of critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple for which she won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

It's not that there aren't successful night owls, but as this infographic of the sleeping habits of famous writers showed, most successful writers are up and working before 9am.

For three decades, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple wrote every morning or at least dedicated that time to think about her writing.

Maya Angelou rented out a hotel room in her hometown and would work in it from 6.30am to 2pm.

For some notable writers, an early start is a necessity to combine their writing with the demands of a job or raising children, or both. "I get up at 5 a.m. and walk for three miles with a friend (I do it for the gossip)," said Jodi Picoult author of My Sister's Keeper, in an interview with The Daily Beast. "I come home, shower, get my daughter off to school, make coffee and a bowl of yogurt with banana, and head up to my office."

For others, it's a way to avoid interruption, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, "When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write."

2. Learn to work anywhere

Jane Austen one of the most widely read authors in English literature

Finding exactly the right environment to get down to work has indeed worked for some writers - Maya Angelou famously worked from a hotel room in her hometown and asked for all the paintings and any decoration to be removed (except for a bed, a table, a bath, Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible) and management and house-keeping not to enter the room. But surprisingly, many authors write alongside their normal routines.

During Jane Austen's most productive years at Chawton in Hampshire in the 1810s, she wrote mainly in the family sitting-room, often with her mother sewing nearby. She wrote on scraps of paper that could easily be hidden away when interrupted by visitors.

Journalists continuously asked Agatha Christie if she could be photographed at her desk, but the author didn't have one. She rested her typewriter on any stable tabletop.

J.K.Rowling is a firm advocate of this. "I can write anywhere," she said. "I made up the names of the characters on a sick bag while I was on an airplane."

Meanwhile, Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season and hailed as the new J.K.Rowling, writes in a little office surrounded by clutter.

3. It's okay to feel overwhelmed with research

Critically acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book," said Donna Tartt on her latest bestseller The Goldfinch, "You’d think, "This person is crazy. This could never be a novel".

"You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess," added Tartt. "That’s how all my books have felt when I started writing them. Trying to explain them to people was like trying to explain a dream."

"I joke a lot about nearly killing myself, but it really was very intense," says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah on writing short stories collection The Thing Around Your Neck. "I think I went out of my way to read everything that I could find that was published on this period of Nigerian history. I asked tons of questions of everybody: my parents, my relatives, friends of relatives. It became really difficult to turn all of that into fiction because I had huge files of research. I found things that were so exciting, I thought, "I didn't know the French government did that, it has to go into the book!" But then the problem was to find a way to use all of that and still make it a novel. The first draft was a disaster because it was just about how much research I had done and what I had found out. In the end the lesson was about discipline and saying to myself that it needs to be about the characters, because I realized in the first draft what was happening was the events were driving the narrative. I just thought, "No, it's not working. It has to be the characters driving the narrative."

Similarly, when Jodi Picoult conceives an idea of a book and its plot, she asks herself "What if?" before the writing begins. "I wonder, 'What would I do in that situation? What if this parameter or that one changed?' Eventually characters start talking to me—I can hear them in my head. I then do a ton of research—and finally, when I know I have the perfect first line, I let myself start to write," said the author.

J. K. Rowling started writing Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone the very evening after the idea for Harry Potter fell into her head on a train journey from Manchester to London. But, "Those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book," she says.

"You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is," says J. K. Rowling. "It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with."

4. Never start by mapping out a story, just write

"Some writers start from the beginning of the story, some from the end, some from a random point in the middle," says Samantha Shannon. "What matters is that they start somewhere. I think one of Jack London's quotes is relevant here: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

Author of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's advice is, "Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page".

When Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, started writing her second novel Her Fearful Symmetry, she started with the scene (where twin sisters land at Heathrow and get off the plane) that "for the first couple of years of writing it, I thought that was the beginning of the book," said Niffeneger. "And then I sort of slowly backed up and backed up until I got to the bit were Elspeth dies and thought, well really that’s what sets everything else into motion, so that’s where we’re going to begin."

5. Disconnect from technology to concentrate

J.K. Rowling, best known for the Harry Potter franchise

Many of writers today complain about the difficulties of focusing and technological distractions.

"You can actually write a chapter easily - say, if you’re writing a novel and it’s not such a long chapter — in your head, and then write it and have very few things to revise. But I think it’s harder for many people to do that now because of the fragmentation of the mind and the many gadgets we all have claiming our attention," said Alice Walker.

While Donna Tartt lives on a farm in Virginia part time, she has experienced this. "Since finishing the book [The Goldfinch] I’ve been thrown into having to check my cellphone more than five times a day," said the writer. I used to check it once a week. I’d leave it up in a corner of the house, because that’s the only place where there’s cellphone reception. Now it’s very different. Obviously I can’t do that right now or people from Little, Brown would come and break down my door."

Walker believes one-pointedness - a state of being completely focused or concentrated - is essential for writing. "I don’t know what people are going to do when they really lose all notion of one-pointedness. There’s no sense of focus. There should be for everybody a period in every day when you’re just free to sink into your own space, your internal space. And without that I think people have no true compass."

This holds true for Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy. "Some days all I do is stare at the wall,"she said. "That can be productive, too, if you’re working out character and plot problems. The rest of the time, I walk around with the story slipping in and out of my thoughts."

Margaret Atwood says she has two desks. "On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!"

When the idea for Harry Potter "fell into" J.K. Rowling's head while travelling back to London on her own on a crowded train, she had "had never been so excited about an idea before". But she didn't have a functioning pen with her and was too shy to ask someone for one. "I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn't know he was a wizard became more and more real to me," said Rowling. "Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them".

6. Be sparing with descriptive language

George Orwell’s famous six rules for writing are:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

"Cut out the metaphors and similes," says author Esther Freud, daughter of Lucian Freud and Bernadine Coverley. "In my first book [Hideous Kinky] I promised myself I wouldn't use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it."

Also, as American fiction author and The Shawshank Redemption writer Stephen King puts it: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops."

7. Avoid mixing the writing and editing process

"Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it", says White Teeth author Zadie Smith (pictured).

It's a timeless writing strategy adopted by many classic writers. "Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down," said John Steinbeck. "Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material."

Once Maya Angelou penned all she could in the morning, she would go home and read what she'd written in the afternoon. "I try to edit then. Clean it up," she said.

For Truman Capote editing was just as important as the writing, saying, "I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil".

8. Find your writing pace

What do you need to have produced in order to feel that you've had a productive writing day? The answer isn't clear cut.

While, Margaret Atwood can write between 1000 to 2000 words per day, Gertrude Stein said she had never been able to write for much more than half an hour a day. She added, "If you write a half-hour a day, it makes a lot of writing year by year".

J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings over 11 years, which calculates to 245 words on average per working day (almost a full typed page).

Meanwhile, some novels were penned in under a month. A Study In Scarlet, the book that introduced the famed detective Sherlock Holmes was written in three weeks by Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle, and On The Road was penned in only three weeks after Jack Kerouac spent seven years travelling across America and taking detailed notes the entire time.

Some writers write fast, some write slowly.

9. Read dialogue out loud

"If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech," advised John Steinbeck.

British poet, novelist and children's writer Helen Dunmore says, "Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don't yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices."

10. Have a tipple while you write

There is a long list of classic male and female writers who liked to drink alcohol. Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, Anne Sexton, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson are just a few of the latter.

Maya Angelou (pictured) used to drink sherry when she wrote. "I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry," she said.

Rising star Samantha Shannon has said she enjoyed a glass of wine while writing in the past, however she has since stopped. "I don't drink at all anymore, as I get migraines and alcohol tends to set them off."

(Words: Sejal Kapadia, Images: Rex Features, Getty)

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha

Sejal Kapadia Pocha covers stories about everything from women’s issues to cult foods. She describes herself as a balance between Hermione and Luna Lovegood.