Successful Author: How Did You Write That Novel?

I love love LOVE going to book signings.

First of all, it’s just so nice to sit down in a chair, facing forward, and listen to the dude (or lady) in front. It’s been way too long that I’ve last gone to school.

But what I also immensely enjoy at a book signing is reveling in that person’s success story. As a fellow writer, you know just how hard they’ve toiled to get there. The weeks and weeks of too little sleep because you’ve gotten into a habit of waking up at 2 am with an idea and needing to type it up that instant. The times you sit in front of the keyboard and have nothing to say. The other times you sit in your middle schooler’s carpool lime with a billion things to say, but no opportunity to write it down. The endless rounds of editing, the doubts, the rejection… But here they are at their very own book signing, meaning they’ve had some measure of success and possess that most coveted thing of all, a PUBLISHER who actually schedules book tours for them.

The question I always, ALWAYS ask the author at a book signing: What is your daily writing routine?

I’m not sure what I hope I’m going to hear. That they, too, sit down first thing in the morning and check their Kindle sales, the pageviews on their blog, their Facebook followers? And that they then get sidetracked and spend the next hour on Facebook following up on interesting links, then posting those again to their Facebook page in hopes to attract new followers? That they then go upstairs to start a load of laundry, update their grocery list, check emails, get stuck going through emails in vain hopes that the inbox might be whittled down again below the magic number of 100 messages which perversely makes them feel good? That they finally sit down by 2 pm to start writing, which gives them about a good hour before they have to hop in the car for school pickups…

Or perhaps they’ve found the magic bullet. Perhaps they’ve run away from their family and are in hiding on the island of Malta, which I just read has the happiest expat population, where they proceed to write undisturbed from 8 am to 12 pm every single day within a stone’s throw of the sparkling blue sea before they seamlessly segue into the mother of all Happy Hours topped by sundowners on the beach.

Where was I? Oh, book signings. So the other day I went to Parnassus Books for a book signing featuring Bradley Somer. He of the book Fishbowl, which from what I’ve gleaned is an intriguing plot of a tale involving a goldfish falling from a building and the fate of the various tenants on the different floors somehow tied together by the goldfish’s precipitous rush towards the ground. Bradley spoke intelligently in his pleasant Canadian accent, eh, and after I patiently waited in line to get my book signed, I was rewarded with the nicest conversation. If Bradley were a doctor, he’d have a great bedside manner: He wasn’t rushed at all. We chatted about his debut in a writing contest – mental note: must research writing contests! – and his participation in an awesome writer’s retreat – mental note: must research writer’s retreats but darnit, have already forgotten the name of one he mentioned! – and how to obtain an agent – mental note, must research agents! – and then we chatted about, yes, his daily writing routine.


Here he surprised me with some very practical advice. Get Scrivener, he said. It’s a program that lets you manage your project much better than just typing it up in Word alone. You get to somehow set everything up like a storyboard, you get to view your building blocks and random thoughts at a glance and rearrange them at will, and you instantly get to monitor your word count. Whether it also automatically chains you to the computer and only releases you once you’ve reached the magic 1,000, and whether it instantly slaps your wrist when you even just THINK about checking Facebook real quick, that I don’t know. But since super-nice and successful Bradley  recommended it, I’m making a mental note to look into it.

I’m also making  a mental note to contact Bradley should I one day roll into Calgary with my own successful-author-book-tour.

I shall end this already-too-chatty blog post to shine a brief spotlight on another author, Melissa Siebert in South Africa. Here is an excerpt from an interview where Melissa shares her observations on writing her first novel, Garden of Dreams:

Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?

My writing process…well, as I say, it could change, but for Garden of Dreams – which is forty chapters long – for the first sixteen chapters, I found I could write only four chapters at a time, no more. Like driving in the dark with your headlights on – you can see only so many metres ahead, no further. Once you advance, you can see the same distance ahead again…But, as I prepared to start Chapter 17, I sat down and wrote out a plot outline for the remaining twenty-four chapters, all in one afternoon (a paragraph on each chapter). It was like an epiphany, really. I never fully believed what writers said about their characters coming to life and ‘taking over’, calling the shots, but that is pretty much what happened. After sixteen chapters, my characters were ‘alive’ enough to guide me in plotting out the rest of the book. Magic! I think every writer is different, though, in terms of process. Probably most of them, though, end up shuffling chapters around, and even dropping a chapter or two.

Read the full interview here.

I loved the part about her characters coming alive and taking over to dictate the rest of the outline. Stephen King has said as much in his memoir On Writing. This gives me hope that one day I, too, can write fiction. I have some ideas but can’t envision anything beyond the first chapter or two. A good plot always makes me say “duh!” afterwards but seems so hard to all think up on your own. Instead of fretting that I don’t have a detailed plot in mind, it seems like I just have to plunge in and write that first chapter already.

Excuse me while I first put in a load of laundry.


  1. Your day sounds identical to mine!!! But reading this. I REALLY want to get back to my novel. Where yes, the characters did take over. But I seem to have event less free time here than at home! Our shipment only arrived yesterday though so I’m still holding out for a bit more free time once that’s sorted… Ps Writer’s Retreats are great! I wrote so much of my book at one in Devon.

    • Ohhhh, Clara, what’s your novel about? I haven’t even started one. Also, I understand your quandary. It’s an illusion that you have more time in SA because of domestic help etc. All that time goes into extra activities and travel, it seems, let alone having to sort out bureaucratic stuff at the beginning. You’ll never run out of blogging material. And no need for fiction – the nonfiction of every day can be stranger than anything you can invent:-)

      • It’s a drug smuggling thriller set in the Caribbean revolving around a young diplomat, a British police officer, an mi6 guy and a corrupt politician. Plus a side story about a drugs mule. It’s got waaaay too many characters at the moment and some storylines that basically need to be shown the door. But I know more or less how it ends now. I actually started writing it when my youngest daughter was two… She’s now nearly eight! I’ve barely touched it in four years. Thinking of doing n online novel writing course to help me work on it as I know there’s a lot of work needed!

      • As a friend of mine just reminded me, November is coming up with NaNoWriMo, you know, the novel writing thingy. Only 1700 words per day, piece a cake! What do you say, we should form a pact and get going. Love your plot! You know, funny, I just had this inspiration the other day that I could write a novel set in Joburg that has a drug smuggling/corruption/illicit love story revolving around Fifa and the World Cup. Somehow featuring an expat wife drawn into all of this… But that’s just about all I know right now. And you know how gave me the idea? Friggin’ Ernest Hemingway and his terrible writing. He has not plot in Sum of All Fears, set in Paris, and I thought, that could be done so much better. I as in ME ME ME could do it better!

    • Oh, and yes, I really do have to get myself to a writer’s retreat. Or maybe I just need an internet desert with just a word processor parked in the middle…

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