‘There’s no one way, there’s too much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place. You suit yourself, your nature…. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.’- Bernard Malamud (1914–1936)

Legendary authors and their writing rituals (PART 2)

Their schedules and idiosyncrasies

Mary Good Books
6 min readNov 23, 2023


This is another short article on how some renowned writers made their time each day to do their best literary works; how they organized their schedules in order to be creative and productive.

1. Joseph Heller (1923–1999)

His Ritual: Heller was a slow writer. While he was writing his book ‘Catch-22’, he used to work in an advertising agent. He used to write for two or three hours in the evening after work. After his first book, it took him thirteen years to publish ‘Something Happened’ where he would write for two or three hours in the morning before going to the gym.

Writing Idiosyncrasies: Heller wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads and reworked passages carefully, often numerous times by hand and then on a typewriter before handing them off to a typist for a final copy. While working, he liked to listen to classical music, particularly Bach.

I write very slowly, though if I write a page or two a day five days a week, that’s 300 pages a year and it does add up.

His notable works: Catch-22, Something Happened, Closing Time

2. Victor Hugo (1802–1885)

His Ritual: In 1851, Hugo moved to a British island off the coast of Normandy where he would write several novels and poems. Hugo rose at dawn, awakened by the daily gunshot from a nearby fort, then he would have a freshly brewed coffee and wrote until 11:00 A.M.

Writing Idiosyncrasies: He wrote standing with a desk in front of the mirror. Hugo swallowed two raw eggs, enclosed himself in his lookout until he finished writing for the morning session. After his writing session, he stepped out onto the rooftop and washed from a tub of water left out overnight, pouring the icy liquid over himself and rubbing his body with a horsehair glove.

A writer is a world trapped in a person

His notable works: Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

3. Charles Dickens (1812–1870)

His Ritual: Dickens was highly productive he produced fifteen novels, ten of which are longer than eight hundred pages, and numerous stories, essays, letters, and plays.

In order to be this productive he observed three conditions: First, he needed absolute quietness in his study. Secondly, his study had to be precisely arranged, with his writing desk placed in front of a window. Thirdly, he observed a strict routine: he would wake up at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch.

On an ordinary day he could complete about 2,000 words, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount.

Whatever I have tried to do in in my life, I have tried with all my heart to do it well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest.

His notable works: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield

4. Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)

His Ritual: Tolstoy liked to worked in isolation, no one was allowed to enter his study. He usually slept at 1 A.M. waking up at 9, and he would write throughout the afternoon.

I have found that a story leaves a deeper impression when it is impossible to tell which side the author is on.

His notable works: Anna Karenina, War and Peace

5. Mark Twain (1835–1910)

His Ritual: Twain had a simple routine: he would go to his study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours. Twain smoked cigarettes from breakfast to bedtime. He worked every day except on Sundays where he relaxed with his wife and children, read, and daydream in some shady spot on the farm.

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way.

His notable works: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

6. Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977)

His Ritual: Nabokov pictured an entire novel in complete form before he began writing it,he then composed first drafts in pencil on ruled index cards, which he stored in long file boxes. He would then shuffle the cards around to rearrange paragraphs, chapters, and whole swaths of the book. His file box also served as portable desk and he would go with it anywhere.

Nabokov woke around but he’d lie in bed mentally revising and planning things. Around eight he’d shave, have breakfast, enthroned meditation, and bathed — in that order. Then he worked till lunch around one P.M. Then he went back at his desk by half-past one and work steadily till half-past six. No work after dinner.

Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name

His notable works: Lolita, Mary, Pale Fire

7. George Orwell (1903–1950)

His Ritual: Orwell kept a part-time assistant job at a London secondhand bookshop. Waking at 7:00, Orwell went to open the shop at 8:45 and stayed there for an hour. Then he had free time until 2:00, when he would return to the shop and work until 6:30. This left him almost four and a half hours of writing time in the morning and early afternoon, which, conveniently, were the times that he was most mentally alert.

I do not wish to comment on a work, if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.

His notable works: 1984, Animal Farm

8. Stephen King (b. 1947)

His Ritual: King is known for writing every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays, and he almost never lets himself quit before he reaches his daily quota of 2,000 words. He works in the mornings, starting around 8:00 or 8:30. Some days he finishes up as early as 11:30, but more often it takes him until about 1:30 to meet his goal.

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

His notable works: It, The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Misery, Pet Sematary, The Dark Tower, ‘Salem’s Lot

9. Patricia Highsmith (1921–1995)

Her Ritual: Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day.

Writing Idiosyncrasies: Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. Highsmith was also in the habit of having a stiff drink before she started to write.

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publisher and the readers can and will come later.

Her notable works: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Price of Salt, Deep Water

10. Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938)

Her Ritual: Oates who has published more than fifty novels, writes from 8:00 in the morning until 1:00 in the afternoon. Then she eats lunch and allows herself an afternoon break before resuming work from 4:00 P.M. until dinner at around 7:00. Sometimes she will continue writing after dinner, but more often she reads in the evening.

Keeping a journal sharpens our senses. It’s like an exercise in writing. If you’re describing a scene, you are practicing the act of writing — which is very important — and thinking in language.

Her notable works: Them, Blonde, A Garden of Earthly Delights, Do with Me What You Will, Black Water

“Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Joyce Oates