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Prolific and Super-prolific writers

23 May, 2009

At the Katoomba part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, novelist Michelle de Kretser said she sets herself a daily goal of 500 words. This habit must work for her because in the last eight years she has published three acclaimed novels: The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case, and The Lost Dog.

A pretty good output? I thought so until I read about writers who are not just productive but awe-inspiringly prolific.


In his NY Times essay, Can’t. Stop. Writing (19 Feb 09), Geoff Nicholson identifies famous writers of literary fiction and nonfiction noted for their long  productive careers:

  • Joyce Carol Oates: 100 books in 45 years
  • John Updike:  60-some books in 50 years, plus poetry
  • William T. Vollman: not only 20 books in 20 years, but, according to Nicholson, they are ‘mostly whoppers: an 800-page novel here, a seven-volume study of violence there.’

Nicholson wonders if prolificacy results from writers judging each published work, even if it is successful, as ‘a sort of failure’. They keep writing, trying to make a a better job of it the next time. He applies a  famous quote from a Samuel Beckett play to describe this writerly quest: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Nicholson also suggests two kinds of prolificacy: normal and extreme. The normally prolific writers control their output, but for the extremely prolific, their writing controls them.

Genre fiction

Nicholson has two suggestions for writers if you want to be prolific: Live longer, which gives you more time to produce, and write genre fiction.

In David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace’s list of the 20 most prolific authors and writers in literary history, most wrote genre fiction: westerns, children’s adventures, romance, and crime. It makes sense. A genre provides a familiar framework, freeing writers from having to invent every element each time they write.

Perhaps genre writers may be prolific because they have to be. These days, their publishers and their fans expect a new book each year. The more the newer writers in the genre produce, the more chance they have for the insatiable readers of the genre to find them and become fans.

Crime/detective lit: Crime writers of series establish their characters, milieu, and style in their first book, then draw upon this for their subsequent books. The queen of crime writing, Agatha Christie, was prolific, with 55 detective novels, plus her short stories and screenplays. Currently, Sue Grafton is up to the letter ‘T’ in her alphabet series and Janet Evanovich is up to 15 in her number series.

The prolificacy prize, goes to Georges Simenon, who featured his character,  Maigret, in 75 novels and 28 short stories. Simenon also wrote approximately 300 other novels and novellas, plus pulp fiction (under more than two dozen pseudonyms) and nonfiction. According to Wikipedia, he was ‘capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day.’

Romance lit: The romance genre also provides a set framework for writers—girl meets boy, girl loses or misunderstands boy, girl reunites with boy. A current prolific writer in this genre is Danielle Steel, who has written about 100 romance blockbusters.

Her record pales when compared to that of Barbara Cartland. Cartland published 700 books, sometimes 20 in one year. Admittedly, her novels were smaller than Steel’s. She dictated many of her plots, which meant that when she died she still had 160 novels in the pipeline. Impressive?

What about Spanish romance writer Corin Tellado? When she died recently, aged 81, she had published 4,000 books, many which were turned into radio serials, movies and television soap operas. She published her first novel in 1946 when she was 19 and finished the manscript of her last novel in April 2009, three days before her death.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. glitchunter permalink
    27 April, 2012 5:07 am

    “A genre provides a familiar framework, freeing writers from having to invent every element each time they write.”

    Then Literary Fiction is far more of a genre than Sci-fi or fantasy, which would defy the classic definition. After all, for a science fiction or fantasy work, you have to create an entire world, with a different culture and different ways of doing things, whereas literary fiction is usually set in a more familiar place and time.


    • 28 April, 2012 8:45 am

      Interesting way to look at that. Others would say that sci-fi fans would still come to a new sci-fi novel with expectations, the same way that mystery readers look for familiar elements in a new mystery novel. With literary fiction, you’re right that the time and place may be familiar (or not, depending on the culture the novel it set in), but the plot itself may not follow any kind of familiar line. Of course, there are hybrids, which complicates any sense of defining each area distinctly.


  2. HASSAN AUDU (FILIYA) permalink
    26 October, 2011 8:21 pm



    • 27 October, 2011 8:43 am

      Hi, This is not the same as a chat session, so don’t expect replies from blogs.
      As fr writing, if you’re serious about it, keep writing down your ideas and see what happens. I like your description of ‘writing the way thirsty men drink’–thanks for that image.


  3. 7 November, 2010 5:23 am

    Hello and many thanks for your response Marsha. Actually, at the moment, I’m getting a bit more stimulated as this month I’m trying the NanoWriMo challenge where one has to submit 50000 words of anything one’s written. The whole point of the thing is just to submit the 50000 words – no matter how badly spelt, ungrammatical, unstructured and downright rubbishy the written content may be!

    And so I’m having a lovely time pouring out a great big rambling synopsis of my latest fic = which should really help me get my story/characters/plotlines etc into shape, and is such fun to do because one can just let it all hang out – or, rather, pour out!

    So, however grotty I’m feeling, I find I can still produce some writing that I like.

    Another writer suggested writing Fanfiction – which in fact I most enjoyably do. (You might shudder…!? Fair enough). Trouble is my particular Fandom (as they’re called in is a very obscure one so doesn’t get many visitors. But at least I’ve got a bit of stuff up on the Internet so there’s slightly more chance of it getting read than if I hadn’t posted this up.


  4. Kate Barber permalink
    19 October, 2010 9:03 pm

    First, to say this is a Great website, Marsha, and I’ve saved it to my Favourites.

    I LOVE writing, description and words – but, frustratingly, I’m both slow and UNprolific! I often procastinate, lose focus and lose motivation – probably because I’m too perfectionist!

    Below-par health doesn’t help either: Both mentally and physically I tire easily and – if I’m lucky – I might manage a hour or so’s writing a day, mid-morning. Evenings, annoyingly – when I have the most time – tend to be a dead-loss, energy-wise.

    I love the idea of a Mentor or, what I call a ‘writing therapist’, but am nervous of asking for one because of my health. And my one-off kind of writing which has no genre that I can ascertain – unless there’s one for ‘whacky’ maybe….

    Sorry if this has got too long – procrastination again as I LOVE to talk about my writing!


    • 4 November, 2010 10:55 am

      Hi Kate, I’m glad you enjoy my blog. It’s nice to get feedback.
      I imagine a number of writers would agree with you about procastinating and/or losing focus and motivation. Many writers get charged up about writing, keep it going for awhile–and then life intrudes in different ways. One hour a day devoted completely to writing–not thinking, doodling–is pretty good if you keep it up. Perhaps you can use your low-energy evenings to jot down some ideas or think more about your characters or plot? Not having to write during this time may actually free you up to think through issues.
      All of us have to work with what we have in terms of time, health, technical ability, and other commitments. The challenge is to work out a way that supports our normal life and still enables us to write–and that’s often as difficult to achieve as writing. It can be helpful to search how other writers deal with these issues and then test drive some. In this way, you can identify what works best for you and also what does not help at all.


  5. 30 May, 2009 10:31 pm notoriously slow in writing, so the output of these writers are astonishing (and envy-inducing). Got your link from Quirk, by the way, and am enjoying your posts.


    • 31 May, 2009 9:57 am

      Thanks very much, Eliza. I’m a relatively slow writer as well so perhaps I should write about the benefits of a slow process. Will give it some thought. Marsha



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