Victor Hugo: How to finish writing a masterpiece


Legend has it that that’s the shortest letter ever written. Victor Hugo sent a single question mark to his publisher after “Les Miserables” was published – to know how well it was doing. His publisher replied equally pithily with a single letter:


The book had sold out its first printing of 6000 copies on its first day in Paris alone! But the book was close to not being published at all!

The story of Les Miserables

Victor Hugo had the idea to write a monster of a book in 1845. He was already a famous author. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” had been a huge hit. It had even got the French government to restore the neglected Cathedral of Notre Dame because of all the tourists that would come to see it after reading the book!

But then when Napoleon III seized power in France, Victor Hugo denounced him. And as a result, he had to run away from France. Hugo spent 25 years in exile and the book came to a pause for the first 15 years of it. 

In 1860, when a publisher offered Hugo 150,000 francs for the rights to his book, Hugo declined. Because, just for the sake of creating a record, Hugo wanted more than had ever been paid for a book!

In 1861, upcoming publisher Albert Lacroix agreed to create this record. And gave an advance of 300,000 francs to Hugo for the rights to reprint the book for 8 years. It was more than any author had ever received! But Hugo had to deliver the book in 6 months.

The book was more than 1500 pages long. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Hugo had a problem with procrastination. He loved living the good life. He threw a party every night with 20-30 people invited to his home. And he was a sex addict – and escaped to brothels during the day time (legend has it that all the brothels of Paris closed down for a day when Hugo died so that all the sex workers could go and pay their respect to him.)

How was Hugo going to avoid all the distractions? How was he going to finish writing his masterpiece in time?

Victor Hugo’s strategy to meet the deadline

To meet the deadline, Hugo came up with an eccentric plan. He had employed this plan while writing the Hunchback of Notre Dame too. He asked his servant to take away all of his clothes. And only leave behind an ugly shawl!

There was no way Hugo could attend any parties or invite guests over without clothes. Hugo confined himself to his house – making it impossible for him to go out for his escapades as well!

And as a result, he got the book done before the deadline!

Creating obstacles to get work done

What do you do to reduce undesired behaviour? You build friction. Create obstacles and your bad habits will break!

Best selling author James Clear says that habits have 4 stages. The cue, the craving, the response, and the reward! Add a step of friction before any one of those 4 stages and quitting bad habits becomes achievable.

  1. Cue: make things invisible
  2. Craving: make it unattractive
  3. Response: make it difficult
  4. Reward: make it unsatisfying

By hiding his clothes, and making it difficult to mingle with others socially, Hugo managed to finish writing a masterpiece. A book that changed France. A story that became the symbol for the growing movement of democracy. The book helped spark debates about social injustice and heavily contributed to the resurrection of third French Republic in 1870.

Victor Hugo earned his record advance. Roads were named after him in France. Parades were held when he turned 80 years old. And France prospered – all because his clothes were hidden!

Action Summary:

  • Make a list of all your undesirable behaviours. Bad habits and addictions and distractions. And then see how you can add friction to them. Make bad tasks difficult, and you’ll stop doing them.