18 January 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 32 comments

Early into my career I decided that I was going to write a lot. As in, seemingly impossible amounts, as my differentiator.

The reason I decided on that strategy, which many novelists believe is one that can only produce dross, is that when I looked at past generations of writers whom I admired as being particularly skilled, most of them came out of journalism. Why is that important?

Because journalists are always writing. That’s what they do. Before television taught entire generations to stare mindlessly at a screen, people read, and that required a lot of written content creation. Enter journalists, who produced much of it.

Writers in the old day became proficient at writing because they wrote a tremendous amount. They got lots of practice. And practicing, they improved.

I’ve been averaging about a novel every five weeks since I started self-publishing 37 months ago. Other authors look at me with the imbedded assumption that what I create can’t possibly be good – the quality has to suffer by virtue of the quantity and my publishing speed.

Which simply ignores how many famous authors of the past got that way. They became good by flexing their writing muscle a lot, constantly, for years.

Somewhere along the way the popular wisdom changed. The speed with which a publishing house could comfortably schedule a print run and a promotional push, which happened to be about once a year per author, defined the accepted speed with which a novel, and I mean a good novel, could be created. Any faster was crazy talk.

Which is pure bullshit, and an extraordinarily limiting belief.

If you want to get good at something, do a lot of it. Seems simple to me. Want to get good at writing? Write a lot. There. I’ve given you the keys to the kingdom. Use them wisely.

While I’m ranting, another thing that bugs me about our culture is that so few people read. I blame the media, of course. Specifically, TV and video games, and to a lesser extent, the web. Why? Because reading, especially reading deep or complicated or well-written material, requires that the reader be skilled at reading, just as it requires the author be skilled at writing. Reading stuff like David Foster Wallace or Pynchon or even Burke or Chuck P require the reader exert effort, because the material’s dense, or just more complex than simple sentences composed of monosyllables. TV and the like require no effort – they’re spectator sports, whereas reading engages the mind and requires intellectual commitment.

If you want to become a decent writer, you have to be a decent reader. That’s the first step in the journey.

And, beating the dead horse, you have to write. No substitute for that in developing respect for and facility with language, and honing a skill you can’t learn any other way.

That doesn’t mean you have to publish everything you write. I didn’t publish the first decade of my scribblings. But I wrote. Constantly.

Talent only takes you a little ways. It’s effort that takes you the rest of the distance.

So for authors who sneer at fast production speed, I’d offer two thoughts: Just because you can’t produce something of quality in X time, doesn’t mean it’s impossible – it just means you don’t think you can. And, of course, your mind will convince you that your deep seated belief is reality, and it will become yours. So believe you can’t, you’re right.

And a final observation: my average novel takes me between 150-200 hours for first draft. If you work 12-15 hour days and don’t screw around, you can quickly see that what might take someone who only has a productive hour or two per day will take a lot less time for someone willing and capable of working marathon hours. Now, I could divide those hours up and spread them across several months, but it wouldn’t make the draft any better. Same with second draft, which generally takes about 100 hours. I could make the whole process of creating a book take six months to a year, but the quality wouldn’t be any different, assuming I’m competent for sustained bursts. So the notion that the quickly produced novel is lacking somehow is actually based more on the limited ability to imagine serious application, than it is reality. Same number of hours. Just condensed into far fewer days. Or put another way, hyper-efficient use of time.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a business where there’s so much poor advice or lousy, limiting thinking than the writing business, nor so much misinformation. Good and commercially successful novels have been created in short time-frames for as long as there have been writers. Consider A Clockwork Orange, or The Running Man, or Mickey Spilane’s I, The Jury, A Study In Scarlet, Farenheit 451, Casino Royale, and on and on and on. To claim or believe that it can’t be done is akin to stubborn insistence that the earth is flat. Believe it at your peril – it’s your career, not mine.

Now back to work for me. Got another 5K words to write before I sleep…

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Comments

  1. Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Good blog. i particularly agree with: “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a business where there’s so much poor advice…”

    Reply
  2. Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 4:17 pm

    A few years ago I met Dan Abnett at a convention. He puts out several books a year, writes for several different comic books and writes for games and movies. His output was incredible. I asked him how he manages to get so much done and he said “I work very hard.”

    He writes a lot and publishes a lot. Genius.

    There’s a legend that Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in
    three weeks because he was upset over some nuclear treaty the US did or didn’t sign. A book that’s been making waves for 60ish years, and he knocked it out in three weeks.

    Sometimes I can tell when a book went through way too many drafts. There was a three and a half year wait for Scott Lynch’s new book. It was caught up in a rights dispute during his divorce and the whole thing was just too polished. Why’d he keep working on that story when he could have said “good enough” and moved on to the next book?

    Dean Wesley Smith is blogging about his ‘speed of pulp’ writing year. Amazing what one can accomplish when they focus on writing good and plentiful words.

    Reply
    • Martin Meiss  –  Thu 22nd Jan 2015 at 1:50 pm

      What are the signs of writing being too polished? I sometimes see writing where the author seems to care more about saying things in a pretty way than about saying interesting things, or telling a good story, but I assume that is a stylistic choice or a natural inclination.
      So what is too polished? Not enough awkward sentences? Not enough redundancy? Dialog that feels too natural?
      I’m not trying to be snarky here; I’m really curious.

      Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 1:35 am

        Too polished is like being too thin or too pretty.

        When the story loses due to the intrusion or prose in an annoying manner, over and over, it’s too something. If an author fears his voice being lost by a competent editor? I’d argue his voice had shit going for it to begin with. A strong voice tromps over style or spelling adjustments. To me, the argument that something is “too polished” is shorthand for saying, “I found the voice anodyne.”

        Reply
        • Richard Fox  –  Sat 24th Jan 2015 at 1:14 am

          I had to look up “anodyne”.

          1. not likely to provoke dissent or offense; inoffensive, often deliberately so.
          “anodyne New Age music”

          Reply
      • Richard Fox  –  Sat 24th Jan 2015 at 1:13 am

        Have you ever seen a Michael Bay movie? After so long the explosions–which are supposed to be the exciting part of an action movie–just become too much. For the work in question, every single line of dialogue was overly snappy, imbued with snark and just too much.

        To mix my metaphor even further, comedy isn’t that great when everything is a punchline.

        Then there was a time shifted subplot that had no impact on the main plot and could have been removed without consequence. I suspect it was all added in when the manuscript was stuck in a legal dispute.

        Reply
    • Jim Johnson  –  Thu 22nd Jan 2015 at 2:20 pm

      No kidding! I started a private G+ group for writers who wanted to write at DWS’s pulp speed idea, and many of the writers, including myself, are hard at it. By focusing on getting out of our own way and just writing more better words, the word counts are flying.

      Reply
  3. James Rozoff
    Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 4:38 pm

    After reading your blogs, my daily word count never seems enough but does end up being more than it otherwise would have been.

    Reply
  4. Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Hack away, beloved hack. Even a grocery list is part of the creative process.
    The gift of reading, IMO, is the most important gift a parent can give a child.
    What I find interesting is this – my books that flash flood from brain to paper, or Works, are my favorites.

    Reply
  5. Allen Lewis
    Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Good points. I can think of dozens of writers who cranked out numerous GOOD books rather quickly. Among them are Asimov, Heinlein, and Harlan Ellison.
    Of course, there are exceptions, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkin, but they had other irons in the fire and were not primarily writers.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 8:38 pm

      Yes, it depends upon individual abilities, obviously, however my point was simply that after about 5 million words (including blogs and my 10 years of practice – maybe more than five million, actually) I’m quite capable of knocking out 5-7K a day if I’ve outlined the story and have a firm idea of what each scene needs to accomplish, and it has no bearing on the quality of the prose. After three drafts, the prose is what the prose is whether created slowly or “quickly” (which also ignores that if you’re putting in 12 hours a day writing, you’re actually not producing anything quickly, you’re merely applying a hell of a lot of hours to it). And I’m not alone in that. As you underscore, there have been numerous authors who could do the same, or better.

      Reply
  6. Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 6:28 pm

    For me, it’s 2 weeks’ planning, then 2000 words a day – 40 days. About 2 months per book all told, including rewrites and proofread. Now I’m doing it full time, I don’t understand how I’d do it slowly … though of course I don’t have to wait for an agent or publisher to reply to my query.

    Reply
  7. Gerald Hartenhoff
    Sun 18th Jan 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Another great post Russell. Thanks.

    Reply
  8. Mon 19th Jan 2015 at 9:17 am

    You just shot my planned day all to hell. I was going to wash the car and even cook something nourishing. But now, I say “Let them eat cake,” (after all, I am Austrian); going to hit the keyboard instead.

    Reply
  9. Mon 19th Jan 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Great post! I’ll send all the nay-sayers here when they say I can’t be writing good quality because I’m cranking out a novel a month.
    I also think every author needs to hear: “Want to get good at writing? Write a lot” over and over until it finally sticks in their heads. Not enough writers seem to get that writing every day for as long as they can will work better than making some numerical goal per day. The big word counts per day will come once you can write for a sustained amount of time every day.
    Again, great post. Thanks for writing it.

    Reply
    • Martin Meiss  –  Thu 22nd Jan 2015 at 1:59 pm

      Wrting a lot doesn’t mean you won’t write a lot badly. Without some sort of feedback that tells what works and what doesn’t, it seems like one would just repeat mistakes over and over. I use a weekly critique group for feedback, but that process would be overwhelmed by such high-volume output.

      Any suggestions?

      Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 1:39 am

        Read more, and be far harsher on yourself than your group could ever imagine. Be the demonic asshole pointing to your prose and mocking it for its lack of merit far before anyone else gets a shot at it. The job of self-improvement is not up to a village. It’s up to you, every day, doubting what you just wrote is fit to wipe your ass with.

        Do that for about a million words, and you’ll start to get the hang of it.

        I know. I’m a douchebag, and mean, and buzz killing all these tender snowflakes with so much to offer, etc. So’s the world. Think of me as its handmaiden.

        Reply
      • Jim Johnson  –  Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 10:36 am

        Trust yourself and your writing. Read a lot, take workshops, talk to other writers, pick up nuggets of technique here and there and everywhere. Constant learning plus regular practice.

        Best feedback is your own gut instinct, your beta readers and/or editors, and your readers.

        Reply
  10. Mon 19th Jan 2015 at 7:10 pm

    I love your work ethic. More is better. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 6 weeks. I write 2 novels a year and I have a 50+ hour a week other job. Plus, lots of kids. It’s all about discipline. 500-1000 words a day add up. This being said I’m officially jealous of anybody that can write one novel per year an make a living…

    Reply
  11. Tue 20th Jan 2015 at 10:22 am

    “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a business where there’s so much poor advice or lousy, limiting thinking than the writing business, nor so much misinformation.”

    I couldn’t agree more – and writing groups and MFA programs are the biggest culprits of the dissemination of bad information.

    But I also think it’s ironic that even those who put in the hours and produce 5-7k words per day still use terms like “crank” and “churn” and “knocking out” to describe their work effort.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 20th Jan 2015 at 11:41 am

      Well, those are the accepted euphemisms. I also refer to mine as crap. And what of it?

      Reply
      • Merrill Heath  –  Tue 20th Jan 2015 at 12:32 pm

        Well, crap is crap. Of course, since you refer to your own work as crap, then it’s obvious you’re being facetious.

        But in regard to the other, do the terms of reference change after the perception changes or does changing the terms of reference affect perception?

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 20th Jan 2015 at 2:24 pm

          Proof’s in the pudding. Call a duck a swan, it’s still a duck. Likewise, call a swan a duck…

          Reply
  12. Thu 22nd Jan 2015 at 3:31 pm

    This is spot on.

    Kevin J. Anderson wrote a great post on this topic a while back called “The Mathematics of Productivity,” which gives his numbers in hours. Find it here: http://kjablog.com/the-mathematics-of-productivity/

    Instead of quoting how long it took for the book to be published, authors should be quoting and tracking writing hours.

    Reply
  13. Thu 22nd Jan 2015 at 7:39 pm

    The thing is, when you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t seem like a lot of hours. My family tried telling me that I was often writing and editing 80-100 hours a week. I would laugh and tell them that couldn’t be right. So they kept track of my hours one week and I was totally surprised to find that I worked 100 hours. I tend to do a lot of multi-tasking as well, such as ‘writing’ using my Dragon Naturally Speaking while doing housework and cooking. I also set my laptop up to use it while on my treadmill. I try and take regular 10-20 min breaks so I guess that also added to the illusion that I wasn’t doing as many hours as I actually am.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 1:52 am

      Avril, here’s how I’d frame it:

      Imagine writing paid nothing.

      Ever.

      No chance of it doing so. Like graffiti art or something, before asswipes got hold of it and made it the new thing.

      Most people writing today wouldn’t if they thought it would never pay.

      Word count implies the words you’re producing don’t suck the water out of shit. Many do. Most do. Even mine. My job is to not delude myself that my wild productivity equates to any sort of quality. I write at the pace I write not to serve as an example, other than as a bad one. It’s just how I do it. Perhaps it’s better to do it at a third the rate. I have no idea. I can only speak to my method. It’s like arguing over how yo yo Ma could be a better cellist if he did more or less or whatever of anything. He’s fucking yo yo ma. He’s that way through a combination of years of application, desire, and just being him.

      I tell aspiring writers to go learn to play the cello and then come back after you can play even close to him. That would be after about a decade and a half of eight hour days doing it.

      So my motto is shut the fuck up in the meantime and catch up to yo yo. “Whaaah. It’s so hard to be one of the top cellists in the world! I saw him on TV and wanted to be him, and couldn’t afford a cello, but got a cardboard cutout, and nobody’s inviting me to play at the Met. Life sucks!”

      Yes. It does. Now go gather your toys and stop complaining.

      Avril, of course you clock those hours. I do too. Most of the authors I know who are killing it do. That goes with the gig. Writing a lot, and being intensely focused on improving both prose and storytelling, is the journey. It never stops if what you want to be is a storyteller. You always have it in you to be that much better the next time, the next paragraph, the next few words. It’s a neurotic and totally self-absorbed pursuit, and the wonder is when others are willing to read it, much less pay to do so. That’s why it feels like you’re naked on a tightrope, about to fall, when you’re doing it right. Because you are. There’s nowhere to hide. The wonder to you, and the reader, is that you’re still on the wire.

      I’d still do it if it paid almost nothing. In the end, find the thing that makes you complete, and do it. No excuses, no regrets, and no religious zeal. Just make your circle close, and enjoy the ride till it ends. The rest is gravy.

      Reply
      • Avril Sabine  –  Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 3:54 am

        “I’d still do it if it paid almost nothing. In the end, find the thing that makes you complete, and do it.”
        I can thoroughly relate to that comment. I’m lucky I figured it out early in life.

        Reply
  14. Robert
    Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 3:03 pm

    I don’t often comment anywhere, but I’ve been following your blog a while and wanted to let you know how much I enjoy it. Half the time I don’t agree with you – but that’s part of what makes it so entertaining.

    That was all.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 23rd Jan 2015 at 3:44 pm

      Being right half the time isn’t so bad, I suppose.

      Reply
  15. Sun 22nd Mar 2015 at 1:20 pm

    After reading this post, I went back to work on book projects. First, I went to KB for only the second time in a year and read your recent post there. While moving back to my projects, I still thought about your views. I also thought about H. L. Mencken and the declining work ethic in much of modern society.
    Therefore, I decided to visit your blog and tell you to keep up the great work. I haven’t read all of your books yet, but all will remain on my list until I do. As I have my own work to do and your are certainly prolific, I may die trying.
    As for journalists being the underpinning of the book world, I offer this: there are indeed many journalists putting out books today but given the overall quality of journalism, don’t expect too much.
    As Henry Mencken said; “The common man knows what he wants and he deserves to get it, good and hard.”
    I sure as hell could give a damn about what the politically correct think. Never have, never will and I am fairly sure that you won’t bother yourself with their presumptions about what an author should do, be or write.
    I salute your dedication to entertaining your readers.
    Ken Rossignol

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 22nd Mar 2015 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks, Ken. Fear, desperation, and greed. Powerful motivators!

      Reply

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