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Getting to Prolific

31 May, 2009

Prolific writers:  How do they do it?

  • Some write quickly. Stephenie Meyer literally dreamt a great plot, then sat down and wrote a complete draft in three short months. The result was her wildly successful book, Twilight.
  • Some find ways to free up more time for their writing.
  • Some excel at plotting and planning. When these writers start writing, they know exactly what they need to do.
  • And some writers get help. In his  New York Times article, Charles McGrath describes how famed novelist, James Patterson, can churn out so many novels. Patterson uses collaborators, giving each a detailed plot and character outline, which may run to 60 pages. The collaborator prepares the draft, then Patterson develops into yet another bestseller.

Prolific—or Productive?

Although we may never be super-prolific writers, we can become more productive. But if we define productive writing solely in terms of quantity, we are using a deficit model:   I don’t have enough time/creativity/ideas/support to produce a lot.

Synonyms for the word productive include these:  inventive, fertile, rich, rewarding. Instead of thinking of deficits, we can focus on the assets we bring to our writing:  My mind is inventive and fertile, my imagination rich, and I find it rewarding to write.

Characteristics of productive writers

In his article, Living the Prolific Life: A how-to guide, Clay Collins suggests that prolific artists share seven characteristics. I picked the three that I believe are essential for writers. Here’s my take on the big three.

  1. Productive people accept their artistic identity and are happy to tell the world. They do not have a problem calling themselves writers. An unpublished writer may sometimes feel more comfortable using the term emerging or beginning writer. But let’s get rid of derogatory descriptors for the unpublished, such as wannabee, aspiring or would-be writer. Published or not, people who identify themselves as writers honour the activity of writing, give it a firm, central place in their lives, and see themselves as serious writers. They do not waste energy worrying if others think they are a ‘real’ writer or not.
  2. Productive people establish the habit of writing as their work. A writing habit is a routine or groove, which helps writers reach their goals. For some writers, the routine is to produce so many words each day. For others, the habit is to write at a specific time and location. Creating a workable, productive routine helps trigger your mind to start producing. But remember, you want to develop a  groove, not a rut. If the routine stops being productive for you, try something else.
  3. Productive writers are intrinsically motivated. Productive writers write primarily because they love writing. They will keep writing, in some form, even if the external rewards are slow to arrive—or never eventuate.

Becoming more productive

You may never be a writer who can churn out zillions of words, but you can be a more productive one. Collins has four suggestions. Which works for you?

  1. Generate more to get more. Collect ideas frequently—daily if possible. How? Search newspapers or magazines for items that catch your interest and write down your ideas.  Carry a small notebook to record information, e.g., descriptions, topics, conversations, and then write in response.
    Not much of this material will end up in your finished work. The value is in the process, creating a way to stay attentive to writing possibilities and keep your writerly senses sharp.
  2. Strengthen creativity by demanding small, frequent outputs from it. Keep priming your creative brain by undertaking short freewriting exercises, perhaps using writing prompts found on the Web.
  3. Reduce variables and stresses.  Jettison commitments that are unimportant but time-consuming. Reduce whatever you find a distraction. Steer away from negative people or stressful situations.Even when life gets hectic, you can duck the stress temporarily if you can keep an inviolable time for writing. One successful author writes during the one afternoon each week when her toddler is in daycare. Another takes the train into the city twice a week in order to write in a rented studio. And another writer I know writes on the train, during her long daily commute.
  4. Find other writers, who do what you want to do. It doesn’t make sense to talk too much about your writing with people who do not write and who cannot help you. Look for people who have the knowledge, skill and passion for writing, reading, and editing. There’s always serendipity, such as discovering that the person on the treadmill next to you in your gym is an agent looking for just what you’re writing. But while waiting for such rare luck, find people who can help and encourage you as a writer.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 June, 2009 8:28 am

    I so totally agree with “what works for one person doesn’t work at all for another”, even what works close to a deadline, is useless at the start. Isn’t the diversity of human nature just wonderful?

    I was not implying that “Dad’s time” happened easily, at the start it was a strain on myself as well as everyone else. It was important and I stuck to it, slowly it has become a family habit.

    I will be posting about plotting with a spreadsheet(s) in the coming months, and why it works for me. I will let you know when it goes up.


  2. 10 June, 2009 1:10 am

    I have so little time that I doubt if I could ever be a prolific writer. Couple this with a slow pace then my fate is doomed.

    To combat this I have to control my time rigorously and the quality of the actual work I do. It is not for me to blast away without a plot or direction; I can little afford to throw an interesting three thousand word subplot aside. No if a character is in the story he is there for as many reasons as I can wring out of him and to do this I need to know his role in advance. It is the same with the sub-plots, I love sub-plots, twists, parallel developments and the like, but if they are not originally placed with a reason that progresses the story… then I have no time for them.

    This week I will be on a plane for hours, already in my bag is a printout and a red pen, four hours of undisturbed editing, oh the joy.

    Writing has been forged into a habit and because I take it so seriously I have discovered that my family and friends have slowly accepted it as “Dad’s” time and are now living around it in much the same way meals may move around a favourite TV programme.

    This year I started my blog in order to mentor anyone that could learn from me and also to find mentors for me, who would have the wisdom to lift my work higher than I could do by myself.


    • 10 June, 2009 6:43 am

      Hi Andy, Thanks for the link to your website. I’ve had a quick look and will definitely get back to it to read more.
      It’s odd how little material there is about the kind of rigorous plotting you talk about. Especially when some of the most prolific writers of genre fiction obviously do this kind of preparation in order to produce so many books.
      The more I read of the how-to books about writing, the more they seem like dieting books: what works for one person doesn’t work at all for another. I pick up writing help from various sources, then test to see what’s useful for me. We all find our own path.
      Sounds good that others honour your writing habit–not easy! Marsha


  3. 9 June, 2009 11:09 pm

    I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. I started out with a pencil, then graduated to my mother’s old typewriter, and now I have my computer. I’ve won a few awards here and there, but for the most part, the work I’ve created as an adult has gone largely unnoticed by anyone.

    The opinion I have of myself, offhand, is that I am not a *great* writer. In other words, I doubt I will ever write something profound or be on Oprah’s Book Club list. And that is okay by me. What I do have is an ability to tell a good story without asking the reader to invest too much of her (my stories probably don’t cater to men) brain. I have three kids. They exhaust me. When I sit down at the end of the day, I want a book on which I don’t have to focus too much energy.

    My mother said, after reading the Twilight series, that our writing styles (Stephenie Meyer’s and mine) are similar. I took that as a compliment. However, I can’t help but feel a little apprehensive of those who say her work is shite. To me, it’s entertaining. And, um, she’s not doing so bad these days!

    I’m currently editing book #1. I had no intentions of writing it for anyone other than myself and my mom. But I had a friend read the 1st draft, and she’s convinced me to at least self-publish as an e-book. I started it back in November 2008. I recently began writing book #2, and that one, I actually can envision going somewhere. The only goal I’ve set for myself is to try and write at least one chapter a week. I’ve enlisted a small group of close friends who fit the demographic to read my 1st draft. They’re the ones who keep me motivated and whose feedback I use to ensure I stay on the right track. Otherwise, I’m likely to let “life” get in the way of completing the story.

    As long as I feel writing is something I *need* to do in order to stay sane, I’ll do it. But I don’t necessarily feel the need to write strictly for publication. It’s more for personal reward and to say “I did it!”

    (sorry I hijacked your comment space!)


    • 10 June, 2009 6:34 am

      Hi Lis, That’s great that you have such a positive sense of yourself as a writer. So many people think because they may never write a bestseller, they can’t call themselves a writer or even give themselves permission to write. But at the grassroots, there’s so many writers–writing on their own, writing with the support of writing groups, enrolled in writing classes, etc. Some want to become famous but others, like you said, write to stay sane and for the personal achievement. Best of luck on your latest project. Marsha



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