Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How To Be A Prolific Writer

By Dr. Peter Clement

When I found Carolyn’s @FrugalBookPromo on Twitter last week, she responded, “Pleased to meet you, Peter. You are prolific to be sure. Maybe you’d like to write an article for my blog on how you do it!”

I was pleased with the invitation, but taken aback at being called prolific. That was a term I’d associated with the masters: Tolstoy; Dickens; Dick Francis. Just a few days ago I read an interview with Stephen King where he revealed that his novella Ur had taken him three days to write, but that he’d then released it as an e-book, and quickly earned himself $80,000. “I’m very prolific,” he added to explain this feat. The word that also came to my mind was profitable.

Then there is the most prolific writer I ever met in the flesh. Forget about Sue Grafton or Michael Connolly. Seven years ago I’d been invited to speak at the Oklahoma Writers Festival, and one of the events was the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Dusty Miller, a real life cowboy who’d written well over a hundred novels about life on the range, all of them published. I later found myself beside him in the men’s room and after congratulating him on his win, asked, “How many books do you write in a year?”

“Well, son,” he said in a rasping drawl as he hitched up his jeans, “one year I wrote nine, and that was too many.”

At this point in time I’d published six novels in six years, and simply gave him a wan smile.

So in turning my thoughts to prolificacy, I can only offer my own pedestrian insights.

I think the first necessity to being a writer at all, prolific or not, is to have been a prolific reader. It is only by reading everything that, magically, a person can find his or her voice. I have no idea how this cognitive miracle works, but it is a widely stated truism. In my own case I tried to write in my twenties and the result sucked. Twenty years of inhaling two books a week later, I wrote my first novel, Lethal Practice.

But even then, there are a lot of prolific readers who never write anything, despite many having a vague intention to do so. And according to a psychiatrist friend who also is a writer, those who start a novel and actually finish it are one in a thousand. My own opinion is that writers must write. We have this magical compulsion that grips us without mercy and compels us to tell our stories. We do it because we have to. This is what I call prolificacy as a disease.

However, there also were some practical steps that I found useful:

First I quit my job, at least, the half of my job that was in ER [Emergency Room]. I’d just finished an eight-year stint as Department Chief, and with twenty years of working shifts under my belt, I figured it was now or never that I make time to take a flyer on a plot idea that had been grumbling in the back of my mind for half a decade. In more genteel terms, I took a two-year sabbatical. This also granted me a chicken-out clause, because I could have the shifts back if I flopped as a writer. (Peace of mind as to future employment goes a long way to unleashing creativity. So does keeping food on the table. I maintained the half of my work-week that involved family practice in a private office.) Two years later I’d finished the manuscript for Lethal Practice, and a year after that, had sold it to Ballantine. Prolific or not, I felt I’d hit a home run.

Then I discovered the second ingredient: A deadline. Before they’d publish the first book, I had to sign a contract to produce a sequel, the delivery date being in one year. “What happens if I don’t make it?” I asked.

“Don’t even think about it,” my agent said, filing the contracts in triplicate.

I had visions of burly men kept in the basement of Bertelsmann wielding shears, their sole purpose being to track down delinquent authors and collect digits, a phalange at a time for every day overdue.

One year later to the day, with twenty minutes to go before the UPS pickup cut-off, Death Rounds was in the mail.

By then I’d started to trust my writing process. Probably the most efficient technique I adopted was to punch through that first draft. Once the story is complete in rough, then the real writing begins. As the cliché says, great stories aren’t written, they are re-written. My own humble version of this adage is, at the end of the day, I’m further along staring at a page that needs a lot of work than at a blank page.

The second draft is where I do the heavy lifting, and cutting. Eighty percent of editing, I think, is clearing out the verbal clutter.

During the third draft I still cut a lot, and rewrite to shade and polish the characters. But even then I’m not ready to hand off to an editor. At this point I always recruit at least a dozen readers. They are a broad spectrum of people, some super-smart book lovers, some more mundane in their literary tastes, and I give them two tasks: mark any passage where I’m not clear and any passage where they find themselves skimming pages because I am boring them. This feedback I incorporate into the fourth draft, and it lifts the manuscript to a whole new level where I can then get the best use of a professional editor for the fifth rewrite. Finally, I let it sit a month, and do a final, fresh read through for polishing.

A few other comments:

It’s important to keep the stories themselves fresh. I did seven books in seven years with Ballantine, and with each novel treated myself to a topic and theme I found exciting. The challenge to exhilarate oneself is, I think, absolutely essential to being as prolific as one can, that definition being very personal for each individual writer.

The other issue is time. In my latest novel, The Darkness Drops, I took on a very rich and complex story that, to do it justice, required much more work than my previous novels. It simply would not fit in the one-year deadline. Yet as a writer, with the story’s demand for a large canvas—the various levels of plot, the blending of past and present events, a big cast in a strongly character-driven narrative, the potential for creating fast-paced suspense and an intriguing mystery at its center on a global scale--I couldn’t resist the challenge. The first draft took me two years. Major cuts, rewrites, and shortening it by a hundred pages without losing the heart of the story took another year. Showing it around to my stable of readers for their feedback, then, with the help of an editor, polishing, making some final trims, shading the characters and fine-tuning the all-important unique structure of the novel, took a few months more. By the criterion of time alone, all this might make me seem less prolific. But as writers, when we tackle our most ambitious stories, no matter how long or difficult the path, we accomplish a necessary push beyond our comfort zone. I brought The Darkness Drops to life. As long as you, the reader, find it to be full of passion, drama, adventure, fun, and entertainment, I’ve achieved my goal.
~To learn more about Peter Clement and his books, visit: The Darkness Drops is also available for Kindle.
the mutant

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor . If your followers at Twitter would benefit from this blog post, please use the little Green widget to let them know about this blog:

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