Writing Practice: What Works for Me

by | Oct 15, 2010 | Writing Advice | 53 comments

By: Quill

Having written five books, I have naturally developed a vast catalog of practices that work for me. Perhaps sharing a few I can help shorten someone’s path to publication. Someday I even hope to have one of mine published.

Number one: organize your material. I keep mine in plastic garbage bags. Then my research, drafts, and yes, even manuscript are set to file (curbside) when the project is done. Almost as critical is the skill of outlining. I call it outlaying. In the early stages of a book, I’ll spend many hours outlaying in the sun. Sometimes I combine this with another proven technique, mind-napping.

With fiction, pre-develop your characters. I write the names of mine on the back of my hand. That way I think of them wherever I go. Sometimes I draw little eyes on my hand and ink lips around my thumb and forefinger. Then I ask them questions and get them to speak: “s’alright?” “S’alright!”

Free your characters. Encourage them to have lives of their own. Meet them at parties, then follow them, pen in hand, on adventures you could have never dreamed of. The hero of my last novel left me, wrote his own book. A bestseller. Oprah called him. Not me. Him. I answered the phone: “Hi, Oprah! Sorry, Dirk Blowhard is indisposed. I just drowned him in the tub.”

Choose subject matter carefully. My first book idea, about the Wright Brothers’ earliest plane, didn’t fly.

Then I wrote about sexual bondage. The editor liked my submission, but couldn’t get the chain stores to stock me.

Know your subject and market. I wrote a book about car engines and then couldn’t find a distributor.

Be controversial, but not overly. While living in England, I wrote an expose on the House of Windsor. Three agents in black suits appeared at my door. They weren’t literary agents. They told me I wouldn’t be getting any royalties.

Stick with it. My first novel, ‘SNOWMAN IN SPRING’ ended up in a slush pile.

I wrote a guidebook, “How to get Married”. The editor rejected my proposal. I must have misinterpreted her advances, (which, it turns out, were for another writer). It was all starting to have a familiar ring.

Sure enough, when I proposed a book on antique firearms, she shot me down.

In the publishing biz, rejection happens. Take it in stride. It’s not personal, though it can feel pretty personal, right? I sent an article to a horticultural magazine, on farmstead flowers and fowl. The editor called it poppycock. Said the section on composting was pure crap.

For a barbering journal I penned, “The Race Against Hair Loss.” The editor called it balderdash. Even the part about selecting a toupee. Said the whole thing was a ‘bad piece’.

To get serious, establishing a routine that works is really the most important aspect of writing. People often ask me what specific techniques I use. Actually I would like them to.

I stand on my head for twenty minutes before writing. Blood rushing to my head sets off a neuron frenzy, prompting right brain left brain intercourse and an overall spiking of metabolic function. Then prone I utter a secret Jedi incantation that ends with “best seller come to da, Dah!” From there I go straight to the kitchen, cram a quick snack, rich in iron—raisin bran, maybe a donut. Then I might get lured by the tube for a few minutes, some old sitcoms… But soon, neural activity positively peaking (or more often starting into a post-sugar-high nose dive) I leap to my keyboard, and write!

Words flow from thoughts pent up in my mind as ideas crystallize, as in perfect mid air simpatico my fingers fly. Then, after a bit, usually I remember to turn on the computer.

A few tips worth sticky-noting to your forehead:

Index cards can be useful for outlining your plot. If your plot is in a cemetery that is windy, use rocks to weigh the cards down.

If you are subject to excessive distraction (as I am), consider wearing blinders when you are at your computer. They are available and can be custom fit at most tack shops. Just tell them you like to play ‘horsey’ around the house. Reward yourself after a particularly good write with sugar cubes and carrots.

A word on plagiarism. With today’s web research and computer cut and paste tools, plagiarism can occur almost inadvertently. This doesn’t make it any less wrong. A good rule of thumb is, you can freely ‘borrow’, without reproach, single words from other works. “Plethora” is one of my favorites—it’s not mine, but I often grab it.

Tell me! What works for you?


  1. Liz Fichera

    For inspiration, keep plenty of chocolate and wine near your keyboard.

    Great post! Thanks for the chuckle.

  2. Mesmerix

    Very punny. Brilliant.

    I like to go to the shooting range before writing, to assure I have one hot piece.

    Get it? Hot piece? Oh… nevermind…

  3. John Jack

    When I'm thingumabobbing, I start with a fooferaw with good mummery. Rigmaroling a few whosits and whatsits whatnots for thingummies gives me a good start on the gewgaw.

    My first gizmo has a lot of befurbelowing. I spend a lot of time dewjiggering out the befurbellowed gizmo.

    Giving the gizmo a whatchamacallit means figuring out what the doodads are, but that comes to me before or after the gewgaw's parlayed for widgets.

    If my knuckleduster can stand up to all the gimcracks, the widgets will spare a whooping.

    Yikes! Word verification, quill? No way that's random?

  4. Layla Fiske

    Hey Quill,

    I think you "penned" it just write!!

    BTW…forget writing, you should be a stand-up comic!!

    Great post!!

  5. bcomet

    "Just tell them you like to play ‘horsey’ around the house."

    Had me ROFL!

    I'm so glad you're on this forum/blog/literary community.

  6. abc

    wow! Thanks, Quill!

  7. Down the well

    Quilled again.

    Very funny. And useful. I think I'll try painting eyes and lips on my hand and see what it does for my character's development.

  8. D.G. Hudson

    Friday is a good day for humor. It serves to lighten the mood of the 'serious' writers and reminds us that we can interpret what we see in many ways.

    You do have some good advice mixed in there — outlining (or outlaying if one is inclined) helps a writer organize ideas and know where their characters are supposed to be in the storyline.

    My routine is basic — have fresh coffee or hot tea at hand, and start writing. If I've spent enough time 'outlaying', I may refer to notes before starting. I don't always wait for the muse, she drops in when she can.

    Thanks for the post, Quill.

  9. Douglas Morrison

    L.Ron Hubbard "mind-napped" and that led to Scientology, so you're on your way….Lol

    Absolutely Great Post! Informative too… I now know Poppycock isn't flower-porn.

    I would love to read some of your manuscripts. Hard to believe with a sense of humor like yours they haven't gone over yet. Maybe Howard Jacobson's success with "The Finkler Question" will open more comedic doors?


  10. Scooter Carlyle

    So, Ghandi was a spiritual leader that didn't eat much, so his health was poor, and also had bad breath. He walked everywhere without shoes, which made him a….


    Super-callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

    So many great puns, so little time!

  11. JoAnn

    At first I thought this was going to be a plethora of golden insights…well it was much much more. Thanks for posting.

  12. Anonymous

    That was pretty funny.

  13. Livia

    Oh, the puns, the puns!

  14. Leila

    I agree with Mesmerix – very punny! What a great post for a Friday.

  15. Deni Krueger

    Umm. Well nothing yet. If it did I'd be published.

    Da, da, dum.

  16. Sophia

    LOL! Very well done, Quill!

  17. The Red Angel

    These are some great tips! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insight and experiences on writing, though to be honest I wouldn't organize material with trash bags. xD For me, to be able to stay confident about my work and think that my writing even has a chance, I have to treat it all lovingly and with care. Erm. That means organizing my work in a stack of various folders with stickers and swirly words of encouragement on them, LOL.



  18. TKAstle

    With such well defined and disciplined practices as yours it is absolutely shocking you have not been published yet.

    I must rush to adopt them as well. Surely this will work.

  19. ed miracle

    My pants are one kind of Velcro, my chair the other kind. Keeps me in the saddle, as Roy used to say.

  20. Chris

    That was very clever… but, shoot! I was hoping for some practical advice. Great post, and I actually *got* some tips, too. Thanks!

  21. Mira

    ROFL. This is so funny. Love your dry wit, Quill. I felt like I was reading/watching stand-up comedy – I don't know if I've ever read humor written that way before.
    It's impressive.

    You're being funny on the forums, too, Quill. Really enjoying your postings. Except the one where you annihilated me with a woman with long hair in stick figures. That was just wrong. 🙂

    This is subtle – I'm so glad Nathan picked it!

  22. Tom M Franklin

    what? no "take my wife, please"?

    i'm crushed.

    — Tom

  23. Nate Wilson

    Quill, you're a man after my own heart.

    But seriously, if you don't stop following me around with those surgical tools, I'm calling the police.

  24. Susan Kaye Quinn

    Now I have a serious need to use plethora in my WIP. Darn, there goes the afternoon.

    Thanks for the friday funny! 🙂

  25. Kristy

    You must have had a fun one with this! Loved it.

    There was a gem in there though, about characters. Turning them into people in your mind and developing them so completely can only benefit your story.

  26. Anonymous

    Quill here (my Google acct isn't working! I type in the funny word and it keeps telling me it's wrong)

    Thanks so much, everyone. I wrote the piece a few years back for a writer's gathering and delivered it there live.

    What a hoot to be picked for one of Nathan's guest blog spots. I am really enjoying being part of his forum and blog community.

  27. Tom Geller

    Worthy of Jack Handey, although of a different style. Bravo.

  28. RLS

    i liked the line about iron rich food– maybe a doughnut– funny stuff

  29. Michael Clutton

    First, thanks to Nathan for allowing us to take a peak inside the mind of Quill.

    Second, thanks to Quill for allowing us to take a peak inside… well, you know. Inspiring, informational, uplifting insight! Awesome.

    I knew when you helped shatter some of my query work on the forums that you were a man after my own heart.

    Humor… when done right… is the best lubrication for any form of art.

    I would like to formally nominate Nathan for Secretary of State and Quill for President.

    Anyone want to second that?

    I guess we'll throw in the Query Shark for Secretary of Defense.

  30. Anonymous

    Reading helps me out a lot. I find it easier to write if I also spend time reading, which I usually do at lunch and before I go to bed.

  31. wilderness

    I'll follow up your witty word plays with a masterful retort:


    Okay, so maybe I need to work on it. Thanks for the amusement Quill!

  32. Brendan J. Paredes

    One word: Booze. I know, I know, it's been done. But it works for me, especially when coupled with my other favorite writing tool: Dodging actual work.

    Now, granted, the people you work for might have a proble with this, but you just need to get right up in their faces and start talking about ART… the guy in accounting who sleeps at his desk instead of working on payroll, which is why you need to drink and write during work hours instead of whatever they THINK you are supposed to be doing!

    You just need to remind them that since you are busy, making art, and a little too looped to really complain about Art being late with your check, you are really one of their more productive employees. Best of all, you aren't complaining about Art, who they can't afford to retire, since they spent the pension fund on a new Corporate Jet, or fire, since his severave check with all his seniority might break the company!

    After that, they'll just leave you alone to pursue your writing thinking, "Wow, what a great employee… never complains… always busy… sure he weaves a little by lunch time and you can't understand a word he says, but he's not hanging around the coffee machine griping about his check being late…"

    …now, if you will excuse me, I have some writing to do… where did I put that bottle…

  33. Michelle

    ROTFL!!! If the Rangers' game weren't on right now, I would have even belly-laughed! Thank you for reminding us of the joy and deep-rooted humorous reasons that we right.

  34. lexcade

    that was brilliant, quill. thanks for the laugh!

  35. DLCurran

    Omigoodness! I laughed so hard I had tears running down my cheeks while I was trying to read it outloud to the hubs! Thanks or the laugh!

  36. J. T. Shea

    A pun my soul, Quill! I hereby resign as (self-appointed) Jester at the Court of King Nathan. Although you stole my patented writing technique.

    Was the editor who liked your sexual bondage submission the same one who rejected your marriage proposal? Maybe you should have tried domination. Take her to a tack shop and play ‘horsey’ around the house with her.

    Snacks rich in iron? That’s probably where the car distributor went.

    John Jack, you speak my language! Whatever it is…

    Layla, Quill is already a sit-down comic.

  37. Joyce

    My, you're in a punny mood today 🙂 Thanks for the help and laughs, as usual.

  38. k10wnsta

    The puns were real groaners, but aren't puns always? We can't expect too much from the lowest form of comedy.

    However, everything around the puns (that is, the beginning and end of the post) was brilliant. Seriously, I laughed out loud thrice. Good stuff.

  39. Nancy

    ha ha! I needed a laugh today, thanks.
    Mostly my writing practice is preceded by watching Jersey Shore, for research about guido's because I never knew they existed and I might need to write about them one day. Also 19 kids and counting because I simply have never met anyone so weird as these people on TV and weirdness seems to inspire me. Sometimes I take all my characters and try to make them into a Sims family and then let them wander around doing whatever they want and see if it helps me figure out something new for them to do or be if I'm stumped. That never really works though. But I have a great city full of guido's and families with 19 kids.

  40. Anonymous

    Is this Nathan's journey ?

    There seem to be a lot of books for an agent who didn't want to become a writer.

    I suppose it doesn't really matter, but if I were a client, a post like this would have me worried. As a writer, I'm simply disturbed.

  41. Moyrid

    Love this post. Was having a rough morning until I read it I'm still chuckling.

  42. John Jack

    J.T. Shea,

    They're English dialect usage for those on the tip of the tongue words that won't float up from the back of the mind. One or two of them might even be in a dictionary.

    "Uh, the car won't start. The…the…what do you call it, you know, the doohickey that charges the battery–"

    "The alternator?"

    "Yeah, it's bad."

  43. Tran Kratzke

    Don't forget a glass of wine.

  44. Jeanie

    Wine. Prayer. Index cards. Brain-storming with other writers. Weekly word count goal. Butt-in-chair.

  45. Eileen Andrews

    hahaah! I loved this! I read so many articles about authors using intense writing practices to pen their material. But the truth is what works, works. One day that'll be writing while standing on your head if that's what you got to do.
    Thanks for the laugh!

  46. Kathryn Magendie

    *LAUGHING* – I am so glad I kept reading, because honestly, I first thought "not more advice from a writer–I've heard enough already so I'll move on," -and that includes my own advice– *laugh*. . .but I glanced down and thought, wait a minute!

    This made my morning …

  47. Thermocline

    I love puns. And this post. Thanks Quill!

  48. johnny

    All the advices from every writer I've read says the same thing: writing is a pain. No one seems to enjoy writing.

    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blog, and I hope you enjoy writing it.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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