How to Write Like a Pro (By the Pros) Part 1

Image: Interview between Stephen King and George R.R. Martin at the Kiva Auditorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico (2016)

How to Write Your Best Novel

Every new writer, or even established author, wants to know the “best” way to write a best-selling novel. Even Game of Thrones author George RR Martin asked horror junkie Stephen King, “How the f*** do you write so fast? I have a good six months and crank out three chapters, meanwhile, you wrote three books in that time!?”

I will save you the heartache. There is no textbook way to get the job done. You have to decide on the hows yourself and see what works best for you.

That said, if you want to learn how the most successful writers of today work their magic, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some of their tips and quirks on how they make it in the business and how they finish their works of progress.

Neil Gaiman: The Timeless Writer

American Gods, Coraline, The Sandman
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 150-4,000 words per day

It would be easier to tell you the kind of writer that I’m not. I remember once being at a pub at a convention in England with a very well known fantasy author. I was saying, “Do you realize there are writers out there who are at their desks at 9 o’clock every morning, look up at 12:00, take an hour off for lunch and they’re back there at 1, they go till 5:30 and that’s it for the day? They don’t write anymore. Now if you wanted to do that, why not get a real job?” And this well-known, famous, probably richer then I am fantasy writer said “Well I was always at my desk at 8:30, instead of 9. But other than that, you’ve just described my work day.”

Neil Gaiman prefers to write when the mood strikes. He likes the freedom of inspiration, the lightbulb moments. That’s not to say he doesn’t hit the page on a regular basis. He simply does not put limits on when and where his writing will take him.

Tess Gerritsen: The Persistent Writer

The Rizzoli and Isles series, Gravity, Harvest 
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 4 pages per day

I don’t stop to revise — I just forge ahead, through thick and thin, and through some really rough work. Some of it is horrible. That’s okay — I’ll come back and fix those scenes. Since I don’t outline ahead of time, I don’t always know the solution to the mystery. So I’ll wander in the wilderness along with my characters, until I get about 2/3 of the way through and I’ll be forced to find answers. And then I can finally write to the end.

Like Michael Connelly and Khaled Housseni, she is against any kind of outlining, and like Margaret Atwood and James Patterson, she prefers to write her novels long-hand. What makes Tess Gerritsen stand out is that she does not accept no for an answer, not even from herself. She starts her writing day at 9:30 AM and pushes through until she hits her word count.

John Grisham: The Routine Writer

The Firm, The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1000-2000 words per day

Routine is what it’s all about … Same small office behind the house where I’ve been writing for the last 22 years. Same desk, same computer, same cup of coffee. It’s dark. I love it. There’s no phones, faxes, or internet—I work offline. So I’m in a cocoon.

Neil Gaiman may have been talking about a fantasy writer in the quote above, but he could as easily have been talking about the famous lawyer/author. John Grisham finds that the daily routine stripped of all distractions is what keeps the words flowing. It’s automatic pilot. If you are someone who is easily distracted, this could be an effective strategy for you too.

Stephen King: The King of Writers

The Dark Tower series, It, The Shining
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 6 pages per day

There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

There’s something poetic about Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King. Whatever genre he is writing in, he embraces it full on. He falls into a dream state and visits that brave new world, no matter how quirky or twisted … and with only a cup of tea! It is more than a routine for King. It is about passion. If you commit to writing what inspires you, it won’t feel like work at all.

George R. R. Martin: The Old School Writer

The Game of Thrones series, Fevre Dream, Windhaven
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1 chapter every 2 months

I still do all my writing on an old DOS machine running WordStar 4.0, the Duesenberg of word processing software (very old, but unsurpassed).

Some of the best writers like to go “old school”. That often means handwriting with a pen or pencil. At least pencils will always be available on the market! The same cannot be said for the DOS software that George R. R. Martin uses to write his novels. Is the use of such antiquated technology the reason Martin is so slow to release his novels? Who cares? If you find something that works for you, stick with it regardless of the naysayers.

James Patterson: The Master Outliner

The Alex Cross series, the Michael Bennett series, the iFunny series
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 10+ novels per year, at least 900 outline pages per year

I’m a fanatic about outlining. It’s gonna make whatever you’re writing better, you’ll have fewer false starts, and you’ll take a shorter amount of time. I write them over and over again. You read my outline and it’s like reading a book; you really get the story, even though it’s condensed. Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you’re gonna get the scene, and you’re gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work.

The man is nothing if not prolific. He finds that outlining not only adds to that productivity but that it helps to keep writing collaborations on track. He co-authors a great many books, and this approach keeps everyone’s expectations in check.

For more writing tips, see “How to Write Like a Pro (By the Pros) Part 2”.