The 90-Day Novelists began writing their first drafts a couple of weeks ago. Through this workshop we are each discovering our own unique process, and more importantly, we are learning to trust that it is valid. Every writer has their own way of working, a process that has to be developed and honed over many years.
Margaret Atwood starts with a rough notion of how the story will develop, “which usually turns out to be wrong,” she says. She moves back and forth between writing longhand and on the computer. When a narrative arc starts to take shape, she prints out chapters and arranges them in piles on the floor, and plays with the order by moving piles around.
Nicholas Baker rises most days at 4:00 a.m. to write at his home in South Berwick, Maine. Leaving the lights off, he sets his laptop screen to black and the text to gray, so that the darkness is uninterrupted. After a couple of hours of writing in what he calls a dreamlike state, he goes back to bed, then rises at 8:30 a.m. to edit his work.
British novelist Hilary Mantel likes to write first thing in the morning, before she has uttered a word or had a sip of coffee. She usually jots down ideas and notes about her dreams. “I get very jangled if I can’t do it,” she says. She’s an obsessive note taker and always carries a notebook. Odd phrases, bits of dialogue, and descriptions that come to her get tacked to a 7-foot-tall bulletin board in her kitchen; they remain there until Ms. Mantel finds a place for them in her narrative.
Richard Powers, whose books are often concept-driven, intricately plotted and stuffed with arcane science, wrote novels while lying in bed, speaking to a laptop with voice-recognition software. To write Generosity, his novel about the search for a happiness gene, he worked like this for eight or nine hours a day.
Before she begins a novel, Edwidge Danticat creates a collage on a bulletin board in her office, tacking up photos she’s taken on trips to her native Haiti and images she clips from magazines ranging from Essence to National Geographic. Ms. Danticat, who works out of her home in Miami, says she adapted the technique from story boarding, which filmmakers use to map out scenes. “I like the tactile process. There’s something old-fashioned about it, but what we do is kind of old-fashioned,” she says. Sometimes, the collage grows large enough to fill four bulletin boards. As the plot becomes clearer, she culls pictures and shrinks the visual map to a single board.
She writes first drafts in flimsy blue exam notebooks that she orders from an online office supply store. She often uses 100 exam books for a draft. “The company I order from must think I’m in high school,” she said. She types the draft on the computer and begins revising and cutting. Finally, she makes a tape recording of herself reading the entire novel aloud—a trick she learned from Walter Mosley—and revises passages that cause her to stumble.
When writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy half a dozen times to get inside the head of his protagonist, an overweight Dominican teenager who’s obsessed with fantasy and science fiction. He often listens to orchestral movie soundtracks as he writes, because he’s easily distracted by lyrics. When he needs to seal himself off from the world, he retreats into the bathroom and sits on the edge of the tub. “It drove my ex crazy,” he says. “She would always know I was going to write because I would grab a notebook and run into the bathroom.”
Whatever you do to get to the end is valid.