Writing Routines

John Boyne’s Writing Routine: “I’m not quite sure what to do with days off.”

John Boyne is an Irish author, best-known for his 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was later adapted into a 2008 film of the same name.

I was fortunate enough to study under Malcolm Bradbury during his final year teaching the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia and always remember his advice that we should write every day, “even Christmas Day”, and for the most part I stick with that. I’m not quite sure what to do with days off.

John Boyne: ‘I began on Wednesday morning and wrote for 60 hours’ | The Guardian

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John Boyne remembers exactly when the idea came for his best-selling novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It was a Tuesday, on April 27th, 2004, when the image of two boys sitting on either side of the fence popped into his mind. “I knew where the fence was, I knew what each boy represented, and I wanted to write about them,” he remembered.

From there, it was a mad dash to get all his thoughts down on paper. He began writing the first draft on Wednesday morning and continued working on it for 60 hours straight, with only breaks and hardly any sleep. Boyne was afraid that if he stepped away from the computer, he would lose all momentum. The first draft was completed by Friday lunchtime — which also happened to be his 33rd birthday.

Boyne’s story is the cliché image of a tortured writer who is suddenly struck by a bolt of inspiration, and then has to lock himself up in a room to frantically type up his thoughts. This was actually a once-off occurrence for the Irish novelist. On the contrary, Boyne works with a disciplined writing routine; one that he says evolved from his time as an aspiring writer trying to balance his passion with a full-time job.

John Boyne’s daily writing routine

“I worked in Waterstone’s in Dublin and would rise every morning at about 5am in order to write before going to work,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “In the two decades since then, I’ve never shaken off that routine, and while I don’t get up quite so early these days, I’m usually at my desk by about 7.30. I’m at my most creative, my most optimistic and my most enthusiastic in the early mornings.”

While he hasn’t written another first draft quite as quickly as when he wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a whole, the first version of his novels do come quickly. “I don’t like to plot a novel out too deeply in advance, preferring to start with a basic idea, a character or a theme and let the story guide me,” he explained. He’ll usually write roughly seven or eight drafts of a novel before even showing it to his editor.

In a 2018 interview with Goodreads, Boyne was asked what an average writing day for him looked like.

There isn’t really an average day, but I usually try to be at my desk by 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m., and if I don’t have other things to do, then I divide the day between writing and reading. I’ll work for maybe an hour, an hour and a half, then I’ll stop, then I’ll read maybe for an hour, and I’ll just kind of bounce back and forth between the two. I really enjoy those days when I have nothing on my calendar and I can just devote myself to that. I can get so much done, and I do feel that reading and writing are very much connected in that way, that I have to be reading all the time as well as writing. It’s just a very important part of my life.

John Boyne Explores the Dark Side of Literary Ambition | Goodreads

For Boyne, it’s all about having a whole day that he can dedicate to his craft. Morning appointments and afternoon plans can often ruin his entire day because they interrupt the rhythm of his writing schedule.

“A bad writing day would be one where I have to be somewhere in the middle of the day, like at noon, so I can’t focus in the morning because I know I have to go out, or concentrate in the afternoon because I’ve already been somewhere else for two or three hours,” he explained.

When it comes to whether or not he runs into writer’s block, Boyne believes that his disciplined writing routine helps him create momentum and always generate new ideas.

Generally I’ve been lucky. I just don’t give myself the luxury of having writer’s block. I’m very disciplined – I’m at my desk by 8.30 am and tend to work every single day, and I’m always working on a new book. I’m not one of those writers who see it as a chore. Even after all these years I love doing it. By the time I’m coming to the end of a book a new idea is already bubbling away in my mind that I’m getting excited about. So as soon as I finish a book, within a week or two I start on the next one. I don’t have another job so this is what I do every day.

Where do you get your ideas? John Boyne answers the question all authors hate | News24

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