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?