Not Prolific

Some truths are harder to admit than others. When I started to write with an eye toward publication, I wanted to be a prolific writer. This should be no surprise to people who know my history. I have been, to a large degree, influenced by unusually prolific writers. Isaac Asimov is perhaps the best example, and greatest outlier, even among prolific writers. But even before Asimov, there was Piers Anthony, whose endless Xanth saga is still producing books (though I stopped reading them 20 years ago) more than four decades later.

Being prolific, in my mind, means producing a great deal of published writing. I say published writing because my goal has always been to write for paid publication. Therefore, what counts is what is paid for, what appears in print (or e-form). For me this is often the tip of the iceberg. Much writing I do never sells, and never sees the light of day. So I may be prolific in the sense that I write a lot, but I have recently come to face the fact that I am not a prolific writer in the sense that make frequent sales.

This is an important realization for me. I grew up reading writers who could produce stories quickly, and I have, for many years, felt that is the way one should produce stories. But it is simply not the way that I work, and I have at last come to accept that.

I started a new story this year, a novelette of around 12,000 words. It has taken me the better part of four months to get out the first draft. I could say this is because I have been busy with work, and family, and the process of selling our house and buying a new one. But the truth is, I work slowly. There is even evidence for this. Over the period of 8 years where I was actively selling stories, I sold just about a dozen. During that same period of time, I sold perhaps three times that many nonfiction pieces. Still, about 50 sales of short pieces over a span of 8 years is far from prolific.

When I started to write for publication, I produced a massive outpouring of stories and submitted all of this. This was during a time in which I had a plethora of ideas and no internal regulator of which of those ideas was good and which was bad. They all got written. Over time, the superfluity of ideas continued, but I became a better judge of them, and instead of writing all of them, selecting only the ones I deemed the best ideas. My production slowly began to decrease, but the quality of my stories increased. My evidence for this is nothing more than the fact that I began to sell stories. (The stories may have been bad, but the point is they sold to professional markets, which is the only objective way I can judge the quality of my own work.)

With story sales under my belt, one would think that I would immediately plunge in with more. The door had opened a crack. Now I needed to burst through. That was, I admit, my intention going in, but that is not how things worked in reality. When I rushed a story, I tended to lose control of it. Despite my deep desire to want to be like my idols and write stories quickly and prolifically, I simply couldn’t do it. That particular talent didn’t reside within me.

That said, I like to think which each story I did complete, was an improvement on the previous. And what I have discovered over time is that while I write my stories more slowly, I do so because I carefully consider the lessons I’ve learned by previous experience and weave them into the story to make it better. For me, that just takes time. I can’t even set a goal: write one story a month, or twelve stories a year. That doesn’t work for me. A story takes as long as it takes, but when it is finished, is the best possible story I could have written at that point in my life.

It is difficult to describe what a relief it is to admit this to myself. I no longer feel pressure when a story takes a long time. It takes as long as it needs to take. I suppose if I depended on my writing for my living, this would be a problem. It indicates that I probably couldn’t make it as a full-time writer. Fortunately, that is not my situation, and I can take my time to get a story right. This discovery has dramatically increased my empathy with someone like Patrick Rothfuss.

How do I know if a story is right? I can’t say. If it sells, I suppose it is right. If, when I complete the last words of the final draft and there is nothing more to do, I suppose it is right. Writing is, as is often said, a lonely business. The first part of the new story I’ve been working on (the story is divided into three parts) is being critiqued by my writers group this week. Their feedback doesn’t necessarily tell me if the story is right, but it does give me my first glimpse of reader reaction. And since I am not as prolific as I once hoped I would be, this kind of feedback becomes ever more valuable.

2 thoughts on “Not Prolific

  1. It took me a while to get to being comfortable with not constantly working on projects. I think with Asimov and writers of his time, it was possible to make a living off writing, as long as you kept pushing out content. So that was a big motivation for them. The same is not true today for most writers. Most writers will never be able to make a living off their craft.

  2. JM, even back then, at a penny a word, it was difficult to make a living. L. Ron Hubbard reportedly had a spool of butcher paper above his typewriter and tore off pages as he wrote in order to save the time it take to manually insert a new page into the typewriter, all so he could spent more time writing as fast as he could to maximize that penny a word.

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