by J.D. Rhoades
I like Duane Swierczynski. I really do. His books SECRET DEAD MEN, THE WHEELMAN, THE BLONDE, and the recently released SEVERANCE PACKAGE are among my absolute favorites, thanks to their breakneck pace and over the top plots.
Duane's a great guy, too. He was one of the first friends I made in the business after getting published, and he's a lot of fun to hang out with.
But right now, damn if the boy ain't bringin' me down.
See, I'm one of those people who thinks turning out a thousand words a day on a work in progress is a pretty good day. Twenty-five hundred and I become obnoxiously pleased with myself. You can ask around.
But last week, Duane started running a series on his blog about some of the old-school pulp paperback writers. The series was called "Legends of the Underwood" and it featured writers like Gil Brewer, Richard Matheson, Richard Bachman aka Stephen King, etc. And friends, I have to tell you, looking at their productivity makes me feel plumb puny. Brewer once wrote a book in three days. Matheson likewise wrote FURY ON SUNDAY in three days. Bachman/King wrote THE RUNNING MAN in 72 hours. Are you beginning to see a pattern emerge here?
Oh. sure these were shorter novels than we typically see these days; the ones I mentioned were about 50,000 words. This is what the famous NaNoWriMo project has people do in thirty days. But these pros did it in three.
Wait, it gets worse…Michael Avallone, who called himself "King of the Paperbacks," claims to have once written a book in a day and a half.
Suddenly, I don't feel like doing as much strutting over a twenty-five hundred word day. Now, to be fair, I still do have a day job, but if I could get on the kind of writing pace where I could write a whole novel in a couple of long weekends, I might be able to leave that behind a lot quicker. And I know people writing full time who tell me they end up doing about four or five thousand on the best day they ever had.
Okay, you may ask, but were these books any good? Well, I haven't read all of them but yes, THE RUNNING MAN is pretty damn good. I don't know if Richard Matheson could write a bad book. A lot of those old PBOs contained some great hardboiled and noir writing.
So what's the secret? how did these guys produce so much quality work, so fast?
One obvious answer suggests itself from the title of Duane's series: they were writing on typewriters, not computers. That cuts out a lot of things that can slow you down. They didn't have to fight the temptation to take a break and check their e-mail or who was SuperPoking them on Facebook. But writing away from the computer also takes away a more subtle productivity thief: the temptation to agonize over every word choice, to go back and rewrite the paragraph you just did, to back up and redo that last sentence to make it just a little better. Oh, certainly they'd go back and revise in the second draft, but when you don't have the backspace/erase or cut and paste functions, you just have to put your head down and go.
Not that I'm going to be haunting the junk shops for old Olivettis or Underwoods to write on. I've often said that, because I'm such a lousy typist, I don't think I'd be writing if it wasn't for the computer. Back in the Stone Age when I was in college, writing term papers and stories and the like on a typewriter was sheer torture. The WiteOut would get crusted on the paper so thick the pages would crackle. And the cursing from my room over typos and mistakes turned the air blue through many a long, late night. But I have found that when I write a scene or chapter in longhand, I can produce a hell of a lot more pages faster than I can on the computer. Then, when I go back and type the pages out, I can do the revisions I'd thought of when I was scratching the words out in my trusty Moleskine.
Another factor, I think, is that for the most part, all these guys had to do was write. I don't recall ever hearing of Richard Matheson or Gil Brewer doing a book tour. None of them ever had to do a trailer or a blog. Conferences were a lot fewer and farther between. They wrote the books, the PBO publishers like Gold Medal got them to the stores (usually in mind bogglingly huge print runs), everybody made money.
And that, I get, brings us to the heart of the matter: for these fellows, the writing was the job, and you spent the same amount of time actually doing it as you would at any other employment. You got to work and slaved away for at least eight hours, more if it was a rush order, the same way you'd do if you were selling insurance or making cars. They didn't look at it as art; they were craftsmen.
What's your take on this? Would you write faster if you could? How would you go about writing 50K in three days? How do you think they did it?
And, if you dare: what do you consider a good word count for the day?
Oh, man I wish I had their speed. A good day for me is 2,000 words. A more average day for me is about 800.
And not only do I love Duane’s books … I love his titles. This guy gives good title.
I think they’re full of crap, Dusty!
If you write roughly 700 words an hour for 72 hours straight, you’ll have a 50K word…mess.
I don’t think anyone can write a novel in three days, not even a young coked-up Stephen King.
I think two things–in addition to what Dusty mentioned–would allow for that kind of production: controlled substances and editors. Does anyone really believe their editors didn;t do a LOT of clean up to those manuscripts? Forget the quality of the story and writing; I’m sure they turned in manuscripts no publishing house would look at today because of the editing work needed, which no one does anymore.
I work a full-time job, so I’m happy with 500 words an evening, and 1,000 on days I don’t have to work, such as Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.
THE RUNNING MAN, which I’ve read, is a great story but if you notice the structure, it’s very linear. Man running for his life in a game show where everybody is your enemy. Very simple, very high concept, and shorter.
Stephen King said that everyone should be able to write a first draft of a novel in four months, and I agree with him. FIRST DRAFT. I’m sure that the 72-hour-marathons were first drafts. and Dana’s right–I’m sure their editors were heavily involved.
Or maybe they were just brilliant.
I do think you nailed it Dusty in that there were fewer distractions–no tours, no blogs, no email, no internet. And, not to sound like a disgruntled female, no kids. Most men in that era were not responsible in any way for the care and upbringing of their children–they were dads, but when they had to work, well, they didn’t have to take responsibility for the kids at all. There are few moms who can do that. I can’t.
I’ve written a novel in three weeks. NOT a novel I considered complete by any means. But it did have a beginning, a middle, and an end and the story was there–rough, but a complete story. It took me twice as long–six weeks–to take that rough novel and make it into something I was proud of. And I still made tweaks in the copyedits and more tweaks in the page proofs. My rough draft was 78,000 words. My final draft was 106,000 words.
For me, I consider a good day 10-15 manuscript NEW pages. That’s approximately 2,000-2,500 words. I also edit as I go, so I clean up what I wrote the day before and that doesn’t count toward my daily page goal. The most I’ve written was 91 pages in two days. It was hell. I don’t want to do that again. The pages were decent, but there were a LOT of typos and some of the writing was . . . lean. It needed a lot of clean up.
Dusty,I’m like you, with the Day Job, so during the week a good word count for me is around 1500 words, though I’ve been on Hiatus for WAY too long due to schoolwork (I agree with the kids…school would be much better if *I* didn’t have any homework). At the same time, if I really sit down and hammer, I can get 3500-5000 on a Saturday if the juice is flowing. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, though….
And I can honestly believe S.K. did churn out something usable in that short a timespan, editor or no. The guy said once, if memory serves, that his first completed manuscript was flat out unpublishable in his mind. It was later released under his pseudonym as RAGE, and it is still today one of my favorite books of all time. (yeah, I know it’s about a kid shooting his teacher, but she was a MATH teacher!)
Wow, I read the post and started to feel my average of 1200 words a day were measly. Then I read the comments and felt much better! I’m a stay at home mum and my writing depends greatly on whether my one and two year old decide to nap in the afternoon. When they do, I can crank out 2K in 2 hours. When they don’t, I write in my head and put it down the next nap time.I think the distractions and extra-promoting authors are expected to do makes a huge difference. We all know Stephen King is a genious, but I do wonder what the quality of that draft was. Not even a genius is perfect (or so I like to think!).This was a really great post!
My average is 1,000 a day, but when I’m closer to deadline that become 2-3000. My best day ever was 7000, and that’s was right toward the end of Edge of Black. It takes me about 4 months to do a novel, but I am doing it full time. And I’ve just taken a Facebook vacation until I finish the new one, just so I don’t have that added distraction. I honestly do think they wrote more, faster, because that’s all they were expected to do. I’ve found that touring is the biggest time suck away from my writing of all – and it’s making me rethink HOW I do that…
And Sweirzy gets credit for helping me get a foot in the door of the short story world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Good man, that.
They didn’t have Internet back then, or cable, or YouTube or a cell phone within reach.
JD, it’s not a typewriter you need but a computer with no Internet access (yes, I’d read you’d been trying that already). And I’m telling everyone to stop blogging (cause I have) and if you don’t write blog posts then you don’t feel obligated to read/comment on the blogs of those that commented on your blog.
I look at mega-sellers like Michael Connolly and Daniel Silva and see they don’t do any online promoting (other than a website) and they don’t make their email available for fans to contact them (another time-suck mistake I see a lot of published authors have made).
You’ve got to draw a line in the sand with the Internet and keep re-drawing it so it’s further and further away from you and your writing time.
It sounds like a lot of us write at about the same pace… somewhere comfortably between 1,000 and 2,500 words per day.
When I first started writing novels eight years ago, my pace was roughly 150,000 every six months. (about 822 words/day)
I maintained that pace through about one million words. So for about 3.5 years.
But then, I ran into reality. No one would publish the work.
Currently, my pace is about 5,000 words per month. Which equals a novel every year and a half.
This writing I’m doing for myself, though. I don’t expect to get published anymore.
If a publisher wanted my writing, I think I could return to 300,000 words/year… maybe as high as 500,000 per year.
But it makes all the difference in the world, when no one wants to read, publish, or represent your writing.
So, simply writing for myself with no hope of publication, my pace is about 60,000 words per year.
That’s an average of 164 words per day. I’m really only writing about once or twice per week, though.
Well, y’all are making me feel a lot better, that’s for sure.
Yeah, I can only do about 2,000 words a day consistently. And even with that I have to take a break every few weeks.
I’m working on trying to write more organically, more easily, with less judgment, because it’s the judgment that really slows me down. And I’m hoping that that will lead to better, quicker first drafts and less editing.
I’m getting there … 🙂
JT said it–we do it full-time. When you have a day job, you really need to cut yourself some slack–but not too much. It’s too easy to procrastinate.
A book in three days, huh? Sheesh, and here was I feeling – how did you put it, Dusty? “Obnoxiously pleased with myself” – having just written 6000 words in the last two days.
But, the latest book is heading for the finish, and if there’s any time when the damn thing is supposed to pick up speed, now is it.
Under normal circumstances, day-job willing, around 1000 words a day is a good day’s work for me. I edit a lot as I go, so by the time the book’s finished I might be on what is, to me, version three or four, but it’s the first draft as far as my agent/editor is concerned.
I’ve taken to writing a chapter at a time in note form. No Moleskine – just an old clipboard stuffed with reversed scrap paper and a pencil. Then I use those notes to write to computer, fiddling as I go.
But, the most important thing about productivity, I think, is to remember that you are unique. If you don’t write as fast or as slow as the next guy, that’s because the next guy is not you, and is not writing your book.
Be gentle on yourself.
(OK, that’s enough of that – back to beating myself up for not writing the latest book fast enough …)
72 hours! Holy crap! I usually get about 500 a day – if more than that, then I’m thrilled. But in an odd way, that’s sort of encouraging – makes me want to get home and cracking on this first draft.
A book in three days? Not for me. Although, Dusty, it’s interesting you mention the typewriter. I tend to type my short stories on my typewriters and it DOES go much faster since I can’t keep going back and rewriting the same paragraph until it’s “perfect”. And of course the day job gets in the way too.
The books we’re talking about here were definitely first drafts, and as other people have pointed out, they were probably in sore need of complete rewrites and major editing when they were done.
But, and here’s a big but, if you’re revising a book on a typewriter, it’s like writing the whole thing over again. So, most of these authors did not revise endlessly, like many of us probably do when we’re on the computer. Our revisions are just too easy now.
As one of the other commenters said, too, publishers wouldn’t look twice at the submissions of these authors today. Now our work has to be dead-on perfect, and even then, we’re lucky if they’ll read the first page.
I have to say, I write in fits and starts. I have completed NaNo successfully three times, although only once as part of the official contest. When doing NaNo, a good day for me is about 5,000 words. Otherwise, I write a couple of times a week, and I don’t keep track of word count during those times. When I’m in the middle of a revision, word count is irrelevant, anyway.
There’s just not enough caffeine out there for me to produce a novel in that amount of time! Possibly because I can’t have caffeine but, more likely, because it’s not even reasonable. I’m happy to see that I am average in word production. I can do 1200 most mornings and, on a really good day, up to 3000. I’m betting those guys not only didn’t have the techno crap,but also didn’t have to run carpool, take care of sick kids, deal with the pets, do the laundry, etc. Ladies, 1200+ daily with all we probably do is great!
Gaaaahh . . .I just started drooling.
To think of writing that much that quickly and have it be anything but crap is, well, it’s astounding.
I’ve been revising/editing the last few days — which involves quite a bit of original writing as well — and I’m averaging about 4-5 pages an hour . . .
Drugs, no family and caffeine might allow me to write a book in a couple of weeks, but not in days.
Between the fulltime job and obligations at home, I never think in terms of words per day. Words per hour I can calculate, and that ranges from 300 to 700, depending on what I’m writing.
most i ever wrote in one day – 11,000 (published in True Story over ten years ago)
average when i’m working on a first draft – 2.5K per day
most I ever wrote in a week – 30K
average when I’ve stupidly taken a few days off – 400 words, ’cause the whole secret is to never ever take a day off 🙂 You lose all your momentum. At least I do.
Sophie, I think you’re my long lost sister . . . you are SO right about taking a couple days off. That’s the surest way for my productivity to hit rock bottom.
Because I’ve written 540 books in 28 years I can answer this–I had a family who liked to eat, and writing–from age 30 on–was the only job I ever had. I did 27 books in 1984, under 4-5 different names. This was because the 4-5 editors I was working with didn’t know about the other names.
And I have written a book in 3 days, although I’m NOT saying it wasn’t crap. It was an adult western, after all.
As a young man I had a natural writing speed of 10 pages an hour,and I resisted when other writers I knew said, “You can’t erite that fast!” I tried to slow down, and it affected my work. So sorry, but I do write quickly. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have liked to write LESS books for MORE money, but at least I’ve been able to make a living for close to 30 years.
P.S. I DO go through a lot of computer keyboards, because I end of wiping the letters off. Didn’t happen with typewriters.
Poverty is a great (expletive) motivator, especially if you were paid by the word and the royalty rates were next to nothing or bupkes. I do wonder though, if they had something akin to Erle Stanley Gardner’s plot wheel to help crank out the story in a quicker fashion?