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. She 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, leaving the darkness uninterrupted. After a couple of hours of writing in what he calls a dreamlike state, he goes back to bed. Then he rises at 8:30 a.m. to edit his work.
British novelist Hilary Mantel liked to write first thing in the morning, before she’d uttered a word or had a sip of coffee. She would usually jot down ideas and notes about her dreams. “I get very jangled if I can’t do it,” she said. She was an obsessive note taker and always carried a notebook. Odd phrases, bits of dialogue, and descriptions that came to her got tacked to a 7-foot-tall bulletin board in her kitchen. They remained there until she found a place for them in her narrative.
Richard Powers’ books are often concept-driven, intricately plotted, and stuffed with arcane science. He wrote those 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. She tacks up photos from 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. He did this 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 lyrics easily distracted him. 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.