Setting the Table for Breakfast

I recently watched a writing master class given by Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame (and fortune). Dan writes suspense/thrillers, but his books also have a strong mystery element. I’m toying with a mystery premise (Miss Fisher meets Jane Austen), so I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The class was interesting, and also a good review of some basic writing wisdom: Try to write in an internet-free zone, or at least during internet-free times. Know when to ease up on the research because before you can sell those books, you have to, um, write them. Find a process that works for you, and then work that process without getting too hung up on tropes, fads, software, trends, or spiffy new equipment.

Dan writes in the early, early morning hours, from 4 a.m. onward, and one of his suggestions was to “set the table for breakfast.” He did not mean to literally lay out a place setting for the first meal of the day, rather he meant that before closing the document for the day, add a few lines about where the scene is heading or what needs to happen next. Leave yourself some questions or clues that will get your mind moving into the story when you first sit down.

I know one writer who purposely stops her words for the day in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a paragraph, in the middle of a scene. If defy anybody, writer, reader, or neither, to sit down in front of that document and ignore that incomplete sentence. Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours every morning, with his pocket watch open on the desk before him. If he was in the middle of a word when the clock struck 8:30 am, he stopped writing.

What stands out for me about these writers is that they are all successful. I suspect the “setting the table for breakfast” habit not only closes a writing session with the subconscious noshing on the next scenes, it also begins the writing session with all kinds of creative compression. I set the table for breakfast the way Dan Brown does, with a trail of bread crumbs into the next scene. I also try to read over my pages for the day last thing before bed.

Before I get out of bed in the morning, I turn my waking mind to the writing objective for the day and ask myself: What about this scene makes it essential to the book? How can I make this content surprising to the reader rather than predictable? I try to not be in a hurry to get out bed (luckiest woman in the world, that’s me), but to be patient with my imagination, until I can feel the ideas beginning to flow in a direction I want to capture in words.

Then I scamper downstairs and get writing. I do though, pause long enough to punch the microwave start button, because part of my setting the table for breakfast routine is also to prime a cup of jasmine green tea, so that all I have to do in the morning is hit start, and I can get to the writing.

How do you, mentally or otherwise, set the table for breakfast? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card, because cyber-everything will soon be upon us, and we’ve all been good this year.

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36 comments on “Setting the Table for Breakfast

  1. I have always been a “morning person” – my most productive hours are in the morning. Even though I have been retired for 10 years, I’m still up a 5:00 a.m. every day. While still in bed, I start my day with a prayer of thanksgiving, and then set some task to accomplish. Being increasingly disabled, that task is usually something very simple nowadays. But it’s the habit of a lifetime.

  2. I have to make lists for myself, with notes re list items to jog my memory. If it’s not on the list, it’s not gonna get done, because I won’t remember it!

  3. Ha! I actually set my table (for one) each night- coffee cup, cereal bowl & spoon!! I also set out my outfit and have lunch planned. Being organized helps me transition into work mode.
    I try to leave enough time to run the dishwasher or start the laundry before I leave.
    I wonder if will sleep in when I retire?
    I am much more productive at work in the morning. I can follow up on my notes or calls and get a lot accomplished before lunch.

    • I think most of us are productive in the morning, then we slump at mid-day, and somewhat recover as quitting time comes near. My mid-day is pretty much a bust, cognitively, so that’s when I’m more likely to go for a walk, answer email, or run errands.

  4. Because it took me ages to get into the retirement mode it took me a while to organise my self for the day.Now I have it down to a fine art.Firstly I look at the calendar to see if I’m to be somewhere if not I stay snug in my bed.I think what shall I get up today should I do housework or maybe exercise go for a walk perhaps do a bit of shopping___ but I don’t need anything!!’Well I will just have to read a good book by my favourite authors grace burrowes mary balogh julia quinn stephanie laurens.Life can be so simple.

  5. What a wonderful strategy! I am NOT a morning person AT ALL. Long about 10 am or so, my mind kicks in. If only the rest of the world would leave me alone until then. 🙂

    Knowing this about myself, I do prepare before I go to bed. I prime the coffee pot (I limit myself to only two cups of coffee a day but I NEED them!)so all I have to do is press a button. I get out clothes for the day, both appropriate for what I’ll be doing and the weather (a big thing here in the Midwest). When I wake up, I am ready to hit the ground running.

    I am at my best for writing after dinner. I write a column/blog for my professional organization’s website–700 words every week–and am often engaged to write program notes for various performing arts organizations. After the regular busyness of the day, I am able to sit down and write with almost no distractions. Sometimes, I work in the afternoons or even in the mornings, it depends on the deadline. After finishing a a piece in the evening, I edit in the mornings (after 10 am!)and that seems to work for me. I just finished 2700 words (2740 if you want to be accurate)for an orchestra’s MESSIAH performance December 8. WHEW, I’m glad that’s done!

    I am caught up until the end of December for my column so I can relax and gather my thoughts for the next round. And that’s a gift.

    • I do one cup of green tea, and more than the caffeine, the idea that I can start my day having what I want gives me a boost into a productive morning…usually. Sometimes, no matter how the stars are aligned to make it a great writing day, the words are just not there.

  6. Retired and living in the desert southwest, my day begins with vibrant sunlight. I stretch myself awake, pull on the clothes I left at hand the night before and start my coffee (Caffeine is a food group). After working a couple of crossword puzzles, my brain is ready to consider what will occupy the rest of my day. After 50+ years in the working world, the last 25 as a lobbyist, I revel in the freedom to pursue whatever interests me – reading is a primary activity, but I also find time for walking/hiking, volunteering with several groups, maintaining lifelong friendships and always being mindful of how incredibly fortunate I am to be well and able to enjoy this marvelous time in my life. Every morning feels like I’m opening a beautifully wrapped gift.

  7. When I wake up I always remind myself what day of the week it is, what’s on my schedule for the day – any appointments, plans, tasks I want to accomplish. I really son’t get much accomplished til I have at least a bit of breakfast – at least coffee & toast (usually Pepperidge Farms Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread). I do best if I gather the elements of my tasks the evening before – like the right color thread, wrapping paper for a gift, basket of sorted laundry ready for the washer.

    • Sometimes, I go nose down into a scene, and when I surface a couple hours later, I have to look at my cell phone to tell me what day it is. Not just the date, but the day of the week. I love it when that happens.

  8. Have a mini Japanese rice cooker that will let me preload steel cut oatmeal with dried fruit & freshly ground spices the night before. (Nutmeg junkie) Wonderful aroma to wake up to + warm food. Keeps it warm if you’re running late, as well.

    Plus I keep a little pad & pen in my bedside table drawer for jotting down my genius ideas just as I’m dropping off. Let’s me see them first thing as I’m reaching for my thyroid pill.

    • Oh, lordy… I too reach for the thyroid pill first thing, then roll over and hope for great ideas. Rather than jot them down in the a.m. I use them to get me up and at ’em… I do keep a pen and paper on the night table though, just in case…

  9. To trick myself back into awakeness, I leave off reading at night mid-chapter. Then when my alarm goes off I pick up my book and get to finish the chapter. By the time I am done with a chapter or two, depending on the length, I am awake and in a good state of mind. I am not a morning person, but once I figured out that waking 15 minutes early to read and getting up at the same time would improve my spirits so dramatically, I gladly sacrificed the sleep. I am much more productive in the mornings now too.

    I like the mug in the microwave idea, since I can not do caffeine for health reasons I have many delicious herbal options and getting a cup brewing quickly in the winter would be nice.

    Today is my 49th birthday. This is inspiring me to think about this year as setting the table for breakfast and not getting caught up in worrying about the approaching milestone. It will come and I’ll be ready for the next step I hope. I guess I’ll see how that goes.

    • Happy birthday! My fifties were a BIG improvement over my forties, so I hope the same upward trend manifests for you. I keep a lot of different teas and tisanes around, and you hit on a eternal verity: Sometimes the scent alone can work magic. This is me, off to find the peppermint tea…

  10. I try to visualize the end from the beginning and work backwards. It often doesn’t work, even with letters that end Respectfully yours, but it’s a starting point.

    • You know, this is a writer’s technique too. We think, “What makes this scene I’m about to write integral to the book? Why can’t it be cut?” And the answer is usually, “Welp, this is where she realizes he took to the puppy…” Or, “He admits he needs to find a wife…” And the general rule of thumb is, put the thing that makes the scene un-cuttable at the END, and then build the scene accordingly.
      It helps in writing to have a destination and a purpose for what’s going onto the screen. Sometimes, I fly blind, or have to stumble onward in complete darkness, but stating the destination can make a big difference.

  11. I check my calendar, including tasks/reminders, before I go to bed so everything is on my mind. In the morning, if I don’t have to be out immediately, I can look at the calendar and my tasks again to refresh. These days, I’m following Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ Sarah Wendell who says (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t think I remember it exactly): If it needs to get done, it goes on the calendar and if it’s on the calendar, then it gets done.

    • Sarah is a smart cookie! (Also another attorney whose vocation turned out to be romance.) I used to need lists much more than I do now, but I also get into times of the year when I’m list-dependent. I don’t enjoy those phases, but I do tend to be more efficient.

  12. My days seem to go better on the weekends. On Saturday and Sunday, I will sleep in, have two mugs of hot tea, write in my journal, read some inspirational books and my day seems to go better.

    • I am certainly enjoying a lifestyle that lets me rest if I need to, though even now, I can think I’ve gotten enough sleep, and find that my tailfeathers drag all day. I’m not attuned to what fatigue feels like yet, but I’m getting better at it. I find no matter what I’ve done with my week, Friday still needs to be a kind of half-mast day. Lower expectations and lower productivity, but then I’m set up for a good working weekend.

  13. I’m still in hamster-wheel mode, unfortunately, so my mornings are chaotic, trying to take care of animals and other house humans and still get to work on time. Setting my breakfast table includes laying out everything I need to wear the night before: the exercise clothes I put on immediately and the real clothes I put on after my never-long-enough shower before my quick exit. Writing plans, for now, are always sadly left for after dinner or during the weekend 🙁

    • Some of my most demanding years were horses-in-the-back-yard years. I could leave some chores (throwing hay, unloading grain) for weekends, but twice a day, no matter the weather, I had to be in the barn feeding and mucking. That was hard, though I was probably in better shape as a result.

      For me, the writing is best done first thing, even if I have to get up at o’dark-thirty to make it happen. I just don’t have the brain waves to tear into it as productively at other times of day, and then I can move onto other tasks feeling like, “Well, I’m ahead by 1000 words, even if the rest of the day goes widdershins…” Which it often does.

  14. I am not a morning person. To get a head start on things, I will frequently lay out my clothes the night before. If I’m doing laundry in the morning, I may sort the loads the night before, so they’re waiting for me. Any pre-planning I can shift to the evening (when I function better) is always a good thing! Thanks for the post and giveaway.

    • I seem to have two bursts of clarity, one in the morning, one around 11 pm. This has always been so for me, even as a kid, which was not so easy on my parents.
      I’m surprised at how many of us get the clothing questions answered even before we go to bed–I do that too, but it’s much simpler when the options are among yoga pants and riding breeches.

  15. In considering the morning routine … It occurred to me that you might enjoy the Vivienne approach to creating working wardrobes; if only from the psychological aspect of it as well as the joy of color, etc. So, just in case you haven’t run into Janice’s work, here is a viable link that I hope brings you some fun, and perhaps an interesting thought or insight into the psyche of women, and a creative take on something we all fuss with in our day-to-day lives. A little color is very good when winter comes, and can add to our comfort and happiness.

    • My sister is actually a fan of this blog, and I drop in here occasionally to see what’s going on. My other sister recently marched me into J. Jill, where putting together a conference wardrobe took about 90 minutes and the good offices of some very patient sales ladies. I would NEVER have accomplished a conference wardrobe raid without a sister to make it happen.
      I do like the palette in this one though. Would love to see for whom it was chosen.

  16. I started with “A Rogue of Her Own” and fell in love with the romancing of Sherborne and how his stiff upper lip folded into the quiet smile behind the soft kiss as his heart was stolen. I looked up the website and got the whole list in order along with your newest story about my favorite banker Quinn. I added a couple that weren’t listed because I just needed to know about Tresham, Casriel, Anselm and the bonus of Henrietta with Brenner. Throw in some Christmas treats and like those bunnies, my heart was hopping along. Now I await your next installments and perhaps a new series with intrigue the way of Sherlock Holmes or James Patterson. Thank you for my reading pleasure.

    • Edith, thank you for those kinds words.
      I’m fooling around with series for a Regency era widow who has a knack for being in the middle of mysteries. A girlhood friend turned brooding marquess is renewing his acquaintance with her, even as she investigates Possibilities with some other fellows who bring various skills to the picture–a physician/botanist, an artist who can do what we think of us police composites, a handwriting analyst… I’m having fun, and so is Lady Violet!

  17. “Setting the breakfast table”, for me, involves lists. If I don’t write out what I need to do, shop for, calls to make, etc., I’ll forget everything until the end of the day, when it’s too late to do it all! Works for me!

    • One place I MUST immediately document details is with Facebook parties. If I’m giving away chocolate to two people, books to three people, gift cards to three other people… I MUST make a list, check it twice, and write legibly, or I’ll be getting some polite notes asking me where the heck to goodies are!