Paulo Coelho: How I Write

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Paulo Coelho (Photo: Philip Volsem)

Paulo Coelho has long been one of my writing inspirations.

His work, of near universal appeal, spans from The Alchemist to the most recent Aleph and has been translated into more than 70 languages.

Few people know that The Alchemist, which has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide, was originally published by a small Brazilian publisher to the tune of… 900 copies. They declined to reprint it. It wasn’t until after his subsequent novel (Brida) that The Alchemist was revived and took off.

I, for one, have always been impressed with consistent writers. Paulo, who averages one book every two years, is staggeringly consistent. As I type this, I am under the pressure of book deadlines and often feel as Kurt Vonnegut did: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

My output is erratic at best, and I wondered: how does Paulo write? What is his process? How does he think about it?

I reached out to him, and he was kind enough to reply with the attached/linked audio. In it, he provides some gems and answers the following questions, which I posed to him (I provide my own abbreviated answers in brackets)…

– When on deadline, what is the first thing you do in the morning? What does your daily schedule look like? Do you take any days off, and what determines if you’ve had a “successful” writing day?

[TIM: 2-3 hours of fasted writing in the morning to Mozart and pu-ehr tea. Success is two shitty pages of drafts.]

– How do you capture ideas that might be helpful in your writing? These days, what software and tools do you use for writing?

[TIM: Evernote, Moleskine notebooks]

– How much of your books do you visualize/outline upfront vs. writing organically piece-by-piece? In other words, how much of the story arc have you decided before you start writing? Let’s take two books as examples — The Alchemist and Aleph. Otherwise, how did your process differ for these two books?

[TIM: Though it changes as I write, I outline everything before starting. I suspect organic writing is more common in fiction.]

– What are the most common mistakes that you see first-time novelists making? Most common weaknesses?

[TIM: NA]

– Do you base your characters on real people? Why or why not? If not, how do you develop those characters?

[TIM: NA]

– What are the 2-3 things you personally find most invigorating or helpful when you’re stuck or feel stagnated with writing/ideas? Do you have a team of any type (researchers, etc.) who help you?

[TIM: Rereading Bird by Bird when I doubt/loathe/chastise myself, deadlifting, and doing sprint workouts.]

Tim Ferriss – Paulo Coelho by Tim Ferriss

Paulo offered a few additional notes and resources further exploration:

As for the sentence in Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Three podcasts on his writing process:

1) On writing I http://youtu.be/vKBOKLF3Ul8
2) On writing II – the puzzle http://youtu.be/3_TJ4MIGeg8
3) Inspiration http://youtu.be/VWRmbSgS2Yw

For more musings, see Paulo’s Facebook fan page, with almost 8,000,000 fans (!)

###

If you write, what have you found most helpful for the first and last questions? Here they are, and I’d love your thoughts in the comments:

– When on deadline, what is the first thing you do in the morning? What does your daily schedule look like? Do you take any days off, and what determines if you’ve had a “successful” writing day?

– What are the 2-3 things you personally find most invigorating or helpful when you’re stuck or feel stagnated with writing/ideas? Do you have a team of any type (researchers, etc.) who help you?

###

Odds and Ends: Shorty Awards
A few readers have kindly nominated me to win the “blogger” category for The Shorty Awards. I figure, if I’m in the game, I might as well try and win it! If you like this blog (300+ posts since 2007), please consider taking a second to vote for me here. Thank you!

Posted on: February 15, 2012.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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119 comments on “Paulo Coelho: How I Write

  1. First thing I do in the morning: whatever is on my mind that is not writing, I try to do it first so I can make it Go Away.

    Daily schedule: varies.
    Days off: none.
    “Successful” day defined as: day where I get to an end point and not hate every word I’ve written. Bonus: discover something about the project I Did Not Know.

    Helpful when stuck: give my characters the problems to mull over. After all, it’s their damn story, I expect a little help in telling it. It got me through the last bout of writer’s block I ever had when writing my first novel…haven’t had an issue since. Also, keep multiple projects percolating so that I can move sideways into another to give the problematic one time to get over itself.

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  2. When on deadline, what is the first thing you do in the morning?

    I have to write, first thing. It’s so easy to distract yourself – “oh, I need my morning coffee” or “my head is still groggy, I’ll exercise first” – but as soon as I do something other than write it’s almost impossible to get back to.

    Get out of bed and start writing. Once you start, it’s quite easy to keep rolling, and your brain locks in right away.


    What are the 2-3 things you personally find most invigorating or helpful when you’re stuck or feel stagnated with writing/ideas?

    Ideas are not usually the problem, but motivation certainly is. I find switching up my process or what I’m working on provides the best results. If I can’t write any more I’ll swap to outlining, or searching for references. Something related to the project, but using a different faculty of the brain.

    I’ve also heard good things about working on simultaneous projects. Often a fiction and non-fiction piece of work. Swapping between the two when stuck seems valid, although I’ve yet to try it as I usually only deal in fiction. Maybe soon…

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  3. Thanks for sharing this. It comforts me that he too goes through the “inner ritual” of procrastination and guilt…and then, eventually, achieves productivity. I’m glad you asked these questions as I am currently trying to hit my stride with a project and haven’t really reflected on my own successful process.

    1. While truly on deadline, I have some coffee and pretty much get straight to work. This is after days of taking on tasks that I would never undertake if I weren’t needing to write…cleaning the garage, reorganizing the vase cupboard, filing paperwork, cleaning baseboard with a q-tip, etc. If I hit a page number goal, I break for a workout, eat, and then get back to work. Yes, I take days off, but will push myself if I want to get through a tough section.

    2. Getting into the habit of writing consistently is a struggle, but I know that once I create the habit, it will become easy all over again. So I try to recreate the setting that worked for me the time before. It usually involves early morning, a favorite beanie or pair of socks or shoes, good coffee, a cold room, and loud music on my headphones with great, lively beats (Deadmau5 and Miike Snow have worked in the past). Until I get into a rhythm, I force myself to swim in the information that is relevant to the book’s topic knowing that it will stimulate my brain and eventually enrich the content. Reading great fiction also helps when feeling stagnant.

    Good luck hitting your deadline!

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  4. When on deadline, I really try to get as much as possible as soon as possible done. Because that means that I will have a lot of time left to review my work and also to realize even more cool ideas that I pick up along the way.

    I take days off when I notice that I’m stressed out/unbalanced or when I’m just not having enough fun.

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  5. When on deadline, what is the first thing you do in the morning?
    My mornings are usually low key and meditative as I do most of my writing in the evenings.
    What does your daily schedule look like?
    I HATE schedules which is why I haven’t had a 9-5 job in years. Variety is the spice of life :)
    Do you take any days off, and what determines if you’ve had a “successful” writing day?
    It’s not like you can start and stop your imagination! I spend a lot of time walking and driving around the province so I have a lot of time to think about what my characters will think, say and do.

    – What are the 2-3 things you personally find most invigorating or helpful when you’re stuck or feel stagnated with writing/ideas?
    Going for a walk always helps.

    Do you have a team of any type (researchers, etc.) who help you?
    While I don’t have a formal team, people who read my work always spark ideas.
    ~S

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  6. The best time to write is in the morning, and when on deadline, this is when the most is accomplished as long as you can procrastinate your procrastination. This is when your brain is fresh and the worries of the previous day are wiped clean. I have my most powerful brainstorming sessions in the mornings, write down some really original ideas, and am much more likely to create something quickly and in an incredibly focused manner. When I get in one of these moods I skip breakfast and any other distractions and keep focused until about lunch time when I start to get hungry. (I feel really energized on an empty stomach in the morning, as if it were a kind of fast that you aren’t breaking…)

    Sleep is a very helpful thing to me that helps when I feel stuck. I just think about my subject while falling asleep and my creative subconscious does the rest while I sleep. This is another reason for why mornings are the best time to create/write. Among other activities, reading Tim’s blog is also very intellectually stimulating and motivational when I am feeling stagnant in my entrepreneurial and creative productivity. As far as a team goes, I have several friends whom I ask for advice on my projects, I listen to their harsh criticism and become very defensive of my work, then when that wears off I apply their suggestions and my work becomes all the better for it.

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  7. Hello, TIm!

    I am so happy for your post here because I’ve been wanting to become a writer ever since preschool! I was always the kid sitting in the back of the playground with notebook in hand, writing fantasy stories to imitate the latest Firewall book I had read.

    The most valuable thing I’ve taken from these two questions are:

    That “Success is two shitty pages of drafts.” Not only is giving up the serious pressure of making it “SUPER PERFECT” the first time allow the serious creative juices to flow, but it when you combine it with the state changes suggested by Tony Robbins in his Personal Power II series, you can make some amazing and wonderful content (right now I’m working on a scholarly journal for your muses for my Senior Seminar class…my aim = $1,000,000 by the end of this school semester with $100,000 contributed to your causes such as LitLiberation and various “Cancer Warrior” organization such as the American Cancer Society)

    And I can appreciate his method of overcoming personal doubt through reading (refocusing) and anaerobic workouts. The anaerobic workouts can definitely make a serious difference in one’s ability to focus with power and intensity simply because of the way we move our body!

    I really appreciate this almost more than everything else you’ve posted because, again, I’ve been wanting to become a writer all my life…an excellent writer. I can’t wait to devote what I’ve been working on to you and your cause.

    I’m so using my muse (there’s a way to test a muse for free on Google Adwords, I’ve found) to help your cause out. Can’t wait to see your process come to life!

    Talk to you soon, Tim. Have a good one!

    Aaron

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  8. Hi Tim. I have a unique system of writing, that I was forced to develop due to health constraints. 8 years ago I suffered a negative reaction to a prescription drug. It left me with severely drained and intermittent energy and focus.

    Recently I figured out a diet that allowed me to restore my health. But before that, I faced tremendous challenges in work, life and writing. I therefore experimented heavily with computerized personal information management systems and productivity algorithms. Even now that I am healthy, I continue to use the system that I developed during that time.

    In my view, writing a book is like building a nation in the Civilization video game (or Age of Empires or whatever game from that genre). One cannot simply start at the desired end state. Instead, one must proceed through a huge number of tiny incremental steps organized by a mostly automatic algorithmic process. To conserve cognitive effort, one develops rules that facilitate a fractal growth pattern.

    From the material I’ve seen, you have an excellent grasp of the mechanics involved in maximizing daily production, and a very poor understanding of how to minimize cognitive effort. Therefore, writing is extremely stressful for you.

    For me, it isn’t. And with good reason – due to my health condition, I couldn’t afford additional stress of any kind.

    With that introduction out of the way, I’ll just briefly list the major principles of my writing system.

    The first one you already know – immediate full capture whenever inspiration strikes. I assume you always carry a notebook and use Evernote to effect this. I capture inspiration even if – especially if – it is partially or fully redundant. Info redundancy is not a problem for my system.

    This practice does three things:
    1. It helps the brain move forward more rapidly in conceptual evolution
    2. It continuously improves expositional clarity
    3. It provides a huge reservoir of raw material upon which to draw

    From there, it is all a matter of rewriting, recombining and restructuring. As long as this is broken down into manageable chunks, the cognitive load never exceeds comfortable limits.

    I use several tools to assist with chunking, restructuring, and rewriting. They are WordPress, BrainStorm (the outliner at BrainStormSW.com), and Emacs Org-Mode.

    The advantage of this system is that one never experiences stress from cognitive overload. The disadvantage is the huge amounts of material one must handle and store in an organized fashion. Fortunately, WordPress and Emacs have virtually unlimited plain text storage capacity, and BrainStorm scales well enough for any practical purpose, although its performance degrades after several megabytes of text.

    I’ll stop there. Obviously there is quite a lot more that I don’t have room to share. I have a work-in-progress explanation of my method at cyborganize.org

    So, to answer your questions –

    1. I don’t believe in deadlines. I think one should let the material organically grow until it is ready. Successful writing days often see 5-10k words produced, or more. If I want to finish a project, I simply devote more time to restructuring and rewriting.

    2. I don’t get stuck or feel stagnated. If I’m wrong, I seek more info or do more experiments. If my brain is fried because I already wrote 10k+ words, I sleep on it. If complexity overwhelms, I modularize drafts into an outline structure via WordPress pages hierarchy, or write a new stream of consciousness draft describing the problems, or use BrainStorm to break down the concepts into a detailed outline. Generally speaking, I just slash the size of the cognitive hurdle until it becomes trivial. Procedural “busywork” steps are excellent for getting the mind moving forward again in these situations.

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  9. I just started writing. The goal is to post an article that’s valuable for at least 10 years from publishing. I’m new to this (still working the 9-5), but this is how I find balance.

    In the morning I wake up before my family (I have a wife and two kids) gets up, brew a pot of coffee, and go outside. I grab a laptop/notepad and just make a list of things I want to talk about. I’ll put everything out there, you might not see a period for a page, just get everything out on paper. And I’ll let that marinate for the day (have to work), taking notes. At night, I try to make a sub-list of the list I did earlier and sleep on it. Always sleep on it. The next morning I know exactly what and how to do it.

    Being able to smile while you close your laptop at the end of the day defines success in my book.

    Best things to get me motivated/inspired:
    – Walk away and run, the longer the better
    – Get an opinion from a close friend/spouse
    – Watch the sunset or sunrise, quite reinvigorating

    My time is short so I have to make the best of it.

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  10. Great that you reached out to him, and that he answered. Not often we get an insight into such prolific experienced authors (although you’re becoming one of those now!)

    I write best in the morning, too: I need to do it before I get distracted with other things, and I try and chunk it into distinct pieces of work. 1 blog post, 1 chapter, or whatever it may be.

    Just voted for the shorty awards. Good luck!

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  11. Listening to Paulo’s podcast made me laugh, and I wanted to add a couple of things:

    I was surprised to hear the first thing he said was “I don’t use deadlines!” I thought that would be the line that everyone dismissed me for.

    I also enjoy morning procrastination, except I don’t think of it as such. There’s no guilt associated. I’ll scan my email and RSS – not to actually DO anything, but just to generate actionables and take notes on things of interest. This gets me writing immediately – small driblets of typing. It gradually transitions into full blown composition. In fact, that’s exactly what happened this morning (I’m in a different time zone) and led to the writing of the above essay.

    My favorite breakfast is either nothing or cold lean meat leftover from the night before.

    I smoke heavily while writing, handrolled cigarettes. Tea or other stimulants are unnecessary. I listen to Pandora electronica.

    “It’s a decision from the book rather than from the writer” – I agree. There’s a perfect form waiting to be uncovered. Like Howard Roark did his architecture. Or at least an algorithmic local maxima.

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  12. My 2 Cents – I love the Alchemist! I thought it demonstrated the most profound spiritual insights ever. Paulo Coelho found a way to empty himself from the many distractions of the world, and sharpened the tools (Insert the medium of your choice here) that allowed him to express himself in all his glory. We should all strive to empty ourselves, and sharpen the tools we have with laser focus, daily, so we can all be the best we can be, and hopefully inspire and help others along the way. Just like Paulo and Tim! Yes, i’m throwing my XBOX controller in the garbage as soon as this is posted. =) ps. did anyone else find that Paolo sounds just like Tony Montana? lol

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  13. Talk about weird timing… I’ve just started my first novel. (Although I don’t like to call it that yet! I’m only a few pages in.)

    I’m actually having an inner debate on whether to write organically or create an outline. So far, I’ve been writing organically and have had wonderful, wonderful results. I never fully understood when writers said that symbolism isn’t consciously integrated and that it’s much more subconscious. Now I get it! And what a feeling…

    I think fear is what is driving me to consider an outline. I constantly have the fear of not having the next part to write, of not feeling creative and being stuck. So far I haven’t gotten there, but I feel like it waits on every next step! An outline would be an escape from that fear. But the question is: would it be as beneficial/as quality producing as organic writing? Obviously I’m trying to write the best novel I can. I think it might be valid that it would be better for me to confront that fear, deal with the gaps of writers-block, and create the environment (which, so far, is writing organically) that allows me to produce the best work.

    I think I would make an outline for non-fiction, but personally I don’t want to make an outline for this novel because I don’t think it would be creatively healthy for me to give in to this fear.

    Also, side note: “A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce.” – David Shenk

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  14. I am most invigorated by a general consensus that is wrong. I love being a contrarian, because I feel I am making a meaningful contribution to the marketplace of ideas. But it’s really deeper than that. When you see a popular consensus forming that you feel is misguided, it keeps bugging you, and even if you don’t really want to write about it, you feel pulled back to the topic until you have published.

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