Writing Routines

Marlon James’ Writing Routine: “I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel.”

Marlon James is a Jamaican author, best-known for his novels John Crow’s DevilThe Book of Night WomenA Brief History of Seven KillingsBlack Leopard, and Moon Witch, Spider King.

Writing is work for me. I just don’t have the luxury of waiting until the mood strikes. I don’t have the luxury of waiting until inspiration strikes.

Marlon James Needs Noise to Write (and Other Revelations) | Literary Hub

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Marlon James is terrified of writing. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Man Booker Prize-winning author. It doesn’t matter that he’s published five successful novels. It doesn’t matter that he lectures at St. Francis College’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing. He is still terrified whenever he sits down in front of the computer.

“Writing is something I still approach with fear,” he admitted in 2019. “I reach every blank page thinking this is the story where it will all crash and burn.”

But that fear hasn’t stopped him. In fact, it’s been quite useful in his writing career. “There’s a part of your brain that springs to action when the stakes are high,” he explained. “You have to write like this is going to be your last book, that they’re coming to take your pencils if you don’t write. Even if you have to invent stakes, you have to believe it matters. You’d better bring your best game.”

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, James left the country to escape its poor economic conditions as well as the violence happening against homosexuality. He settled in St. Paul, Minnesota to work at Macalester College, where he still teaches literature to this day.

“I packed up my entire life — my books — to ship to the States,” James recalled in a 2015 essay for The New York Times. “It may have been only a one-year contract, but I was never going back. I felt no emotion. I didn’t see anything of Minnesota until the day I showed up for work.”

After his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected 70 times, the book was eventually published in 2005 by Akashic Books in New York. Since then, James has gone on to publish a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the 2015 Man Booker Prize and has been optioned by HBO for a future series.

Marlon James’ daily writing routine

When it comes to his writing routine, James approaches his craft like a job. As terrified as he is each time he stares at the blank page, the author is adamant on showing up each day ready to work. “To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up,” he told Mike Vangel in a 2019 interview.

While his writing time may vary — The Book of Night Women was written between 5-9am every day, while A Brief History of Seven Killings was done between 10am-2pm — the constant factor is his daily writing schedule. In a Vanity Fair profile off the back of the success of his 2014 novel, the writer described his writing routine to Keziah Weir.

I’ve never worked from home. I’ve always had a separate office. I think I need separate spaces. There are too many records at home. There’s too much distraction. I just can’t do it at all. I get there at around 10, 11, and I write till 6. I can be in the middle of a sentence. I don’t care; I stop. I’m very big on putting in a day’s work. One of my writing teachers, Nancy McKinley, once said, “If you develop a routine, the muses will show up.” I developed a practice. There’s people saying, “Routine has too many negative connotations.” I can write pretty much anywhere now. My second novel I wrote when I was on tour for my first. And Brief History, my third novel, I wrote in pretty much every café in Minneapolis.

Marlon James Finds Inspiration in Greek Tragedy, Ethiopian redoubts, and The Affair | Vanity Fair

For his outlining process, James will use Muji pens and Mnemosyne notebooks to initially flesh out the ideas for the novel’s plot. He also needs a lot of noise when he writes. “I grew up in a noisy house, in a noisy town, in a noisy country,” he told Vanity Fair. “When I’m at the office, I immediately open the window so I can hear traffic. I need energy. I feed off energy.”

People ask me about my process. My process is: having a really cool bunch of friends who will say random stuff, and somehow I end up with a novel. That’s why I don’t believe in the myth of the reclusive author. There’s no good reclusive author. You need people. Writing is a very solitary profession that can only happen in a community of people.

A Lesson From Marlon James, Epic Storyteller | Macalester College

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