How to write an entire novel on a plane


You may be the most productive at 30,000 with limited distractions. (iStock)

I’m rarely more productive than I am on planes. Even with the infringement of in-flight Wi-Fi and streaming satellite television, I still manage to accomplish more at 30,000 feet than I do on the ground.

This past year, I wrote a novel with my co-author Lucy Sykes. It’s called The Knockoff and it is a dishy take on the worlds of high fashion, magazine publishing, and technology. A friend and fellow author said it makes The Devil Wears Prada look like My Little Pony. That made me smile.

Choose an uncomfortable seat to stay awake and focused on the task at hand. (iStock)

People always ask how I had any time to write a novel at all. I’m a travel editor and rarely in the same time zone for more than a week at a time. That’s the secret to my success. I do all of my good writing on airplanes. Give me a flight from New York City to San Francisco, and I can get you a perfectly reasonable draft of a perfectly reasonable chapter.

Whether you’re working on your first book or your tenth, these are some practical tips for writing 30,000 feet in the air.

1. Stay off the Wi-Fi. The deterioration of in-flight Internet secretly gives me great pleasure, because it means there is no chance I can be sucked into a vortex of emails of cat videos and Pinterest wedding planning. The Wi-Fi situation on planes has gotten so bad that you’re lucky if you can even pull up a Google window, much less check your email or do anything productive on the Internet. The problem is that sometimes the Wi-Fi is just good enough that you will stare blankly at the loading screen for chunks of time, wishing and hoping and praying that you will be able to send a tweet.

The truth is that you won’t be able to send a tweet. Give up. Turn it off and just write.

2. Choose the uncomfortable seats. Plane seats these days offer just the right amount of discomfort to ensure you won’t zone out.

I once had high hopes for writing a few chapters en route to Turkey. I was flying in Turkish Airways’ Business Class. The best thing about this particular business class is that the individual salt and pepper shakers are shaped like diminutive minarets. But, I also didn’t stand a chance against their plush flat seats. I fell asleep for eight hours.

Selecting the most uncomfortable seat on the plane guarantees you will stay alert and focused.

3. Take advantage of the free coffee. They don’t feed you on planes any more, so there really isn’t the threat of going into any kind of food coma and wanting to take a nap. But every once in awhile, they do come around and offer you a coffee, which is nice, even if the coffee is stale and tastes a little like feet.

4. Let your seatmates inspire you.

Writing fiction can often be an incredibly lonely experience. The nice thing about being on a plane is that you are surrounded by people. But they’re people with noise-canceling headphones, not your friends and family. Which means you can ignore them… or you can allow them to inspire you.

On one flight, I sat next to a vulgar drunkard, a middle manager in a thin suit and too-bright tie who had the beefy face of a high school athlete got soft. While he put his hand on my leg and slurred come-ons, I wrote a whole chapter about a terrible drunk. Inspiration really can be anywhere.

5. Read everything available in your seat pocket. The best way to conquer writer’s block is to read something someone else has written. It gets you out of your own head. I’ve allowed entire sections of the Sky Mall catalog to inspire character development. Even the simplicity of safety instructions can be enough to finish that sentence that has been living at the tip of your tongue.

6. Bring along legal pads. It’s always a crapshoot whether or not a plane will have a power outlet at your seat. This means I typically have two to three hours of laptop power at most. I always bring along yellow legal pads to keep writing once my screen goes dark.

7. Chat with the flight attendants. Flight attendants are readers. There are some who clock so many hours in flight that they read one whole novel a day. They’re your audience. Take advantage of them. Go back in the galley and ask them what they’re reading, what kinds of books they like, and what they think about your characters.

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