Orhan Pamuk Writes By Hand. Hillary Mantel, Before Her Coffee.

The arts section of the WSJ is turning out to be a must-read for writers—kudos to whoever the editor is. This week brings us the writing habits of 11 top authors. I liked this section on the habits of Dan Chaon, who works very differently from me:

Dan Chaon writes a first draft on color-coded note cards he buys at Office Max. Ideas for his books come to him as images and phrases rather than plots, characters or settings, he says. He begins by jotting down imagery, with no back story in mind. He keeps turning the images over in his mind until characters and themes emerge.

His most recent novel, “Await Your Reply,” which has three interlocking narratives about identity theft, started out as scattered pictures of a lighthouse on a prairie, a car driving into the arctic tundra under a midnight sun and a boy and his father driving to the hospital at night with the boy’s severed hand, resting on ice. He described each scene on a card, then began fleshing out the plotlines, alternating among blue, pink and green cards when he moved between narratives.

During the early stages of writing, he carries a pocketful of cards with him wherever he goes; as they accumulate, he stores them in a card catalogue that he bought at a library sale. It often takes two years before something resembling a novel takes shape. He eventually transcribes the cards onto the computer and writes furiously from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.

from How To Write a Great Novel, by Alexandra Alter


  1. Ha, I just finished reading that article! I sent it to everyone I know, writers or not (which I also did with your post about studying with Annie Dillard, FYI).

    Good to know I’m not the only one with weird writing habits; in fact, maybe if they were a little weirder my writing would improve.

    1. Ha. Thanks Anne. And as Lee points out below, you just have to get in there. What I loved about this was that it proves the success of what I call the “be your own freak” mentality, where letting yourself do all of this kind of stuff gives you permission to do all of the other things, like… writing the book.

  2. The best thing, I think, about articles like this, about evidence such as this, is that it proves to young writers, who are at home in their attics and bedrooms and unbearable day jobs and sad lonely night shifts, that there is no “way.” The “way” is just to do it, however it gets done, however it becomes the most possible to you, the writer. It frees you from what you think the rules are.

    And yet, it also proves that there is really only one way: work. It’s just you, and the paper, and the words, and the doing.

    1. Work, work and more work. But as I said to Anne up above, letting yourself run into the bathroom and write there, I think that eventually turns into letting yourself write the whole thing.

    1. Heather, that link is going in the favorites file. Thanks so much! I’m currently reading Jane Smiley’s essay and loving it.

      I see a lot of ‘useful procrastination’ in my future…

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