Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s routine (mine)

with 7 comments

I believe it was Dean Koontz who said that there’s nothing more boring than reading about somebody else’s diet, unless it’s reading about a novelist’s writing routine. Still, since you’re going to be hearing a lot about my writing life over the next six months, as Midrash slowly inches its way toward completion, I thought it might be useful—and marginally interesting—to tell you something about my own schedule, at least as it works on an ideal day. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from reading about the routines of other writers—like the fact that Gay Talese keeps a thermos full of coffee on his desk. (Feel free to skip this post, of course, if you couldn’t care less. I’ve got some good movie stuff coming soon, I promise.)

I wake up most mornings at eight, just in time to have breakfast with my wife, who works as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Breakfast consists of green tea, orange and pomegranate juice, and fresh fruit. (We’re trying to eat a little healthier these days.) Then, after she heads to work, I write up the day’s blog post—like this one!—and spend twenty minutes on the Wii Fit. After reviewing my notes for that day’s chapter, which I should probably read earlier in the morning, I shower, shave, put on my suit and tie (okay, not really, although I know that some novelists have done this) and start my morning’s work around 10:30, thermos of green tea at the ready.

Most days, when I’m actually writing—as opposed to outlining, doing research, or indulging in creative procrastination—I try to have at least a shitty first draft of the target chapter done by noon, which means typing nonstop for two hours or so. I don’t worry about elegance or structure, although I do try to be grammatically correct; all I care about is getting the basic elements of the chapter, which I’ve already outlined, into some kind of coherent form. Then I’ll go back and do a rough polish of the entire thing, with a short break for lunch (granola with blueberries, spirulina, and more green tea), generally finishing up around 3:00.

At that point comes my only real break of the day, during which I either run errands, read, or take a nap (which, as Mad Men knows, is an essential part of any writer’s routine). Then around 4:30 I start again, doing yet another polish—and a fourth if I have time—before my wife gets home around seven. Then I mail a Word file of the day’s work to myself, cross it off my outline, and try to relax for the rest of the evening, aside from writing a draft of the next day’s blog post before bedtime, which is usually around 11:30. The following morning, the whole process begins again. Repeat fifty or sixty times, not counting research, outlining, or revision—because every draft I write this way needs to be massively revised—and you’ve got a novel, or something like it.

Of course, this basic routine—which, incidentally, applies only to weekdays—can vary a lot. This week, for instance, my publisher is having the cover meeting for Kamera, which meant that I had to spend some time writing up my thoughts on cover art and filling out an author’s questionnaire. (I hope to talk more about cover art soon.) As much as I’d like to have evenings and weekends for myself, I’m not sure how often this will happen, given what has turned out to be a rather tight writing schedule. (In the old days, before I got married, I’d often take a longer break in the afternoon, then work until close to midnight.) So obviously there’s room for variation. But so far, this seems to be the routine that works best for me.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

7 Responses

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  1. Lucky you, getting to wake up so late and still share some time with your wife. If I want to see my husband before work, I have to get up at 4AM. >_> That’s assuming I can pry my eyes open enough to actually see him, and that I don’t walk into the walls nearest him instead of sitting down for breakfast.

    Ah well, can’t have everything right?

    A.M. Kuska

    March 9, 2011 at 9:31 am

  2. I’m very lucky at the moment. (I have a feeling that things may change when we have kids and/or I ever need to get a real job again.)


    March 9, 2011 at 9:48 am

  3. Hah! Mine is something like: wake up about 11am, drink large quantities of coffee, check emails, news feeds on the internet, do some chores. Work starts sometime around mid-afternoon, lubricated with large quantities of coffee, and keeps going with breaks for meals until about 2am (or possibly later if I’m on a roll). Maybe I should follow your example!

    Jon Vagg

    March 9, 2011 at 10:29 am

  4. Sounds like a good routine to me! I do sometimes miss working long into the night, which is something I had to give up—mostly gladly—when I got married.


    March 9, 2011 at 10:58 am

  5. But why green tea instead of coffee? Unless, of course, you’re drinking mate from Argentina … in which case, holy cow, a thermos full?


    March 9, 2011 at 11:28 am

  6. Antioxidants, baby. Inspired mostly by the example of this guy.


    March 9, 2011 at 11:34 am

  7. Sounds like a stellar routine and not unlike what you were doing back in Brooklyn. Now that I’m out of the magazine rat race I can appreciate your commitment to the slow and steady. Still, this idea of waking up before 10 am is intriguing. I must try it.


    March 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm

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