How to Write Like a Pro (By the Pros) Part 2

Image (from left to right): J.K. Rowling and Stephen King attend a news conference for “An Evening With Harry, Carrie and Garp” at Radio City Music Hall on August 1, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

How to Write Your Best Novel

Every new writer wants to know the secrets to publishing success, as if there is some magic formula that will guarantee a six-figure contract and best-seller status. There isn’t. Any established writer, however, knows two things to be true.

  1. You will never get published if you don’t complete your manuscript.
  2. What works for another writer may or may not work for you.

Your goal needs to be on finishing that manuscript. To that end, it can sometimes be helpful to see how other writers have gotten to the final page. Whether their process acts as inspiration for you or gives you ideas on to set up your own writing routine, at the very least it offers perspective. Did they set a daily word count? Did they outline their story or did they pants it? Did they use certain software programs that made it easier? Is it worth applying any of their techniques to your own writing routine? Here are what some of today’s most famous authors have to say on the issue.

Margaret Atwood: The Paperback Writer

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1000-2000 words per day

I don’t know whether it’s a habit or an affection. I usually start writing books in longhand. I guess that’s a habit. I usually like to write with an implement that flows. A Rollerball or a pen with ink in it. It’s the way it moves across the page, that interests me.

Margaret Atwood has a daily routine where she transcribes what she wrote the day before she starts writing any new material by hand. There may be something to it. Studies show that pen to paper stimulates brain activity  — handwriting improves memory recall, reading comprehension, and critical thinking — more than typing. Other authors like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen prefer to handwrite their first drafts just the same.

Harlan Coben: The Procrastinating Writer

Tell No One, Fool Me Once, Missing You
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1 novel in 10 months

But the fact is, if the book is 400 pages long, I’m rarely past page 250 with one month left. At the end, I’ll write as many as 150 pages in a week, as many as 50 in a day. I’ll break to take the kids to school or whatever, and that last day might be more or less a 96-hour day with a bunch of all-nighters.

I had the good fortune to hear Harlan Coben speak at the Annual Writer’s Digest Conference in 2014. He talked about writing in coffee shops and libraries, mentioning how people would sometimes try to sneak a peek over his shoulder to catch a word or two. The rest of the time he says he sits around “brainstorming” on his couch. As long as you get the work done, as long as you hit the deadline, he says, follow the path that feels most natural.

Michael Connelly: The Improvisational Writer

The Harry Bosch series, the Mickey Haller series, the Jack McEvoy series
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 1 novel in 11 months

I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline, I only carry in my head. At any given time I’ll have one or two other ideas percolating … I’m always writing one project while I’m researching the next one. It’s hard to describe how projects move into each other, or on the same planes … But a good chunk in the early stages where I’m either gathering string for the next book, or running it through my head, but I don’t put anything on paper. I’ll just know how my books are going to begin and end, and the stuff in between is ripe for improvisation.

Michael Connelly is the definitive pantser, i.e. he writes by the seat of his pants. He researches in depth, and that keeps his stories rich and impacting. Still, he refuses to write anything down until he’s ready. Without outlines, he allows the characters and the story to drive him forward. Not everyone can multitask two or more projects at once like that, but if it comes instinctive to you, have at it!

Khaled Housseni: The Happy Rewriter

Kite Runner, And The Mountains Echoed, A Thousand Splendid Suns
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 2-3 pages per day

I love to rewrite. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

Without outlining, Khaled Housseni finds writing the first draft to be “very difficult and laborious”. For that reason, he tries not to become too emotionally invested in it. Instead, he sees it as a tool, something to push through, before he can do what he really loves. It is the rewriting process that truly sparks the imagination. Don’t let yourself get blocked before you get to the good stuff.

Jodi Picoult: The Inspired Writer

Lone Wolf, Small Great Things, My Sister’s Keeper
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 23 novels over 25 years

On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there. I also have Wonder Woman paraphernalia from when I wrote five issues of the comic, and pictures of my husband and kids.

Jodi Picoult doesn’t just write to write. She writes because she loves it. She writes to leave behind a legacy. She writes to inspire her family to chase their dreams. Even on those hard days when the words struggle to come, she reminds herself why writing is so awesome. We should all do the same.

J.K. Rowling: The Committed Writer

The Harry Potter series, Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling
Estimated Word Count (Goal): 18 novels over years 27 years

Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.

Like James Patterson, J.K. Rowling is a notorious outliner. You may find inspiration in one of her detailed outlines, hand-written no less, that has made the rounds online. However, her true success stems from her stick-to-it-ness. She commits time to writing and does not allow anyone/anything to interfere with that time.

For more writing tips see “How to Write Like a Pro (By the Pros) Part 1”.