Writers’ Superstitions

Writers are a weird lot. We have unshakeable superstitions and habits carved in stone. Isabel Allende began writing her first published book on January 8, so that’s the day she has started all subsequent books. I understand that. If something worked the first time, why push your luck? Some successful authors who began their careers writing during their lunchtimes still take their laptops to a neighborhood diner, grab a back booth, and order countless cups of coffee while they knock out a chapter. That’s how they began, and it feels right to them to smell french fries and listen to the hum of conversation and clinking plates while they write.

My own writing career started when I was a single mother in graduate school and a professor asked if I’d like to ghost a textbook for him. I’d never written anything longer than a term paper, but I needed the money and I figured a book was just a bunch of term papers strung together, so I said yes. Oh boy, was I naïve. Since I had to write late at night after everything else was done, I did it in bed. Since computers didn’t exist then, I wrote it in longhand on legal pads. And since I couldn’t Google things when I needed to research, I piled reference books on the side of the bed I didn’t sleep on so they would be handy. All the legal pads got stacked there too, and when I began typing drafts, the drafts lived on my bed. Eighteen months later, shaken, humbled, and a lot tougher, I handed in a manuscript that stayed on the best seller list for many months and went through countless reprints. I didn’t share the profits, and it wasn’t my name on the best seller list, but I knew what I had to do to get published: I had to sleep with my work.

I finally broke myself of the need to write it all on legal pads, and I’m happy to use the web for research instead of all those big books. But for every manuscript, the day comes when I think — like the Godfather under siege — “It’s time to go to the mattresses!” The Godfather meant to hide behind them and shoot enemies, but I mean to stretch out on my bed with the first printed draft of a manuscript. Not the entire manuscript, just the first two-thirds because that’s how I did it for my first best-selling mystery, and now that’s how I’ll always do it. Because. You know.

So I’ve gone to the mattress with my current mystery, and for several days I’ll be stretched out with the manuscript, a fistful of pens, teensy post-its for marking pages where something needs to be checked for accuracy or consistency, and legal pads for writing scenes that I think should be inserted here and there. On the table next to me I have a thesaurus, some specialized reference materials, and several bottles of water because for some reason going to the mattress is very dehydrating. At bedtime, all that stuff gets moved to the side of the bed that I don’t sleep on, just like I did it the first time I ever wrote anything. (That may be one of the reasons why I sleep alone, but that’s another topic.) Normal people probably think it’s weird to sleep with a manuscript, and it probably is. But hey, it works for me, so I’ll keep doing it.

I’ll bet every writer does something equally weird. Want to share what it is????

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