Yesterday, I finished my fifty-third novel.
I’ve written more novels than that overall, but I don’t count the unpublished ones. If I did, I’d probably have to add maybe ten more to the total. And since this latest novel was written on spec (meaning I don’t have a publisher lined up for it yet), I guess it counts as unpublished too, but at this point in my career, I feel confident that someone somewhere will publish it. (I hope, anyway!)
Whenever people find out how many books I’ve written, they’re amazed. But I finished my first (unpublished) novel when I was nineteen. I’m fifty-seven now. I’ve written steadily for most of my life, so it doesn’t seem all that surprising to me that I’ve produced so many books. Whenever I announce on social media that I’ve finished a new book, I get a lot of similar responses, especially from fellow writers.
“I’m jealous of how prolific you are.”
“Can you lend me some of your productivity?”
“I wish I could write that fast!”
“What’s your secret?”
I’ve taught college writing courses almost as long as I’ve been writing, and as part of helping other writers, I think a lot about process – especially my own – and try to glean insights that I can pass along to my students, offering them craft tips and tidbits of advice. But whenever I think about what my “secret” is to being prolific, I keep coming back to the same answer: It’s just who I am. But that – true as it may be – isn’t helpful for anyone, so I thought I’d write a blog entry about why and how I’m prolific, for whatever good it might do for other writers.
So here we are.
First off . . .
What’s so great about being prolific?
I honestly don’t know why anyone would be jealous of how much writing I produce. I sometimes wish I wrote more slowly, that I could spent more time constructing plots, developing characters, honing sentences, sharpening imagery, revising multiple times until my fiction is the absolute best it can be. My output averages three books a year, along with several short stories and articles, but none of my work stands our particularly. Yeah, I’ve won a few awards, but it’s not like I’m a bestseller or a critics’ darling. My books come, and my books go, and while I’m gratified to know some people enjoy them, I don’t have a gigantic readership. In traditional publishing – even in the small press – if your book sales aren’t high enough, your publisher will drop you, and I’ve had this happen to me several times, and it may well happen to me again in the future. (So go buy lots of my books so I can avoid re-experiencing this terrible fate!)
My mind has always worked fast, and whatever I produce, I produce it fast. In grade school, I’d always be the first one done with a test, and teachers would chide me for it, tell me to go back to my desk and check over my work. I started waiting to turn in my tests until two or three other students had so teachers would leave me alone. But the point those teachers were trying to make was that fast does not always equal good. I like to create something, finish it, and then move on to the next thing as fast as I can, and that doesn’t always allow for my work to be the best it possibly could be. So those of you who write more slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully may well end up producing work superior to mine. Donna Tartt produces a novel every ten years, but they’re phenomenal, and they have a huge impact on readers and the field of literature. It’s okay to be the hare, but it’s just as okay to be the tortoise, especially in the arts.
I know that in the realm of indie publishing, putting out work at a fairly rapid pace is viewed as the key to success, but that’s a business decision, not an artistic one. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and a fast writer like me could probably do fairly well with this production model, especially if I wrote series fiction. But right now, I don’t have any interest in indie publishing. I like the challenge of traditional publishing, as well as its collaborative nature. And since I have a day job as a college professor, I don’t need to maximize my writing income. Maybe I’ll feel differently about indie publishing one day, but for now I plan to stick with trad publishing.
A lot of what allows me to be prolific are aspects of my personality and experiences that can’t be replicated, at least not easily. For example . . .
· As I said earlier, I think fast. Always have.
· I have ideas running through my head 24/7. Always have.
· I tend to live in my head most of the time, so in a sense I’m always imagining and creating. This means that when I sit down to write, I’ve already got a lot of fuel for my creative engine.
· I have a natural aptitude for language – which is why I went into writing and teaching writing.
· When I was nine, I almost drowned, and then a few months later, my great uncle – who was like a second father to me – died. These two experiences made me confront the fact that life is limited, and I vowed never to waste a moment of it, so I become more focused on getting things accomplished at an earlier age than most people probably do.
· I grew up with relatives – my dad and my maternal grandmother – who worked all the time, on the job and on tasks and hobbies at home. I internalized not only leaving the house to work at a job but working on your own stuff once you got home.
· My mother was an agoraphobic, so my family never went anywhere or did anything. I spent a lot of time living in my imagination – reading comics and books, watching TV, thinking up my own characters and stories, etc.
· I can make choices easily and quickly. On the Meyers-Briggs scale (yes, I know it has no scientific validity, just go with it) I’m an INFJ. My J helps me write fast because I don’t belabor or second-guess my choices (at least not until later).
· I’m generally physically healthy, and when I am sick, it’s pretty mild. So health issues don’t interfere with my writing.
· My spouse, however, does have a number of health issues, so we tend not to go out a lot. This means I have more time to write than I might otherwise. (I don’t view this as a positive. I wish my wife enjoyed good health.)
· I am, however, dysthymic, which means I suffer from a constant low-grade depression that can be become a much worse depression if I’m not careful. I take meds and have gotten counseling on how to deal with my depression, but writing – despite all its ups and downs – is one of the things that helps me keep the black dog at bay.
· I have two daughters, but they’re both in their twenties now, so I don’t have young children I need to care for throughout the course of a day.
· College was a hell of a lot cheaper when I went in the Eighties, and I had an inheritance that paid for almost all of it, and when I went to grad school, I had a teaching assistantship that did pay for everything, so I didn’t have to work to pay off student loans later.
· I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy. I don’t like to dabble in things, and I don’t enjoy casual relationships of any kind. This quality helps me focus on writing and producing writing.
· And probably the most fundamental aspect of my psychological makeup that contributes to my prolificacy is that I have to create stories. It’s as natural and necessary to me as breathing. It’s a core aspect of who I am.
But there are things I’ve learned along the way – or stumbled across by accident – that any writer can do. (Depending on their particular circumstances, of course. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience the same privileges I’ve had, and I know this.)
Principles Any Writer Can (At Least Try) to Put Into Practice
· I started out as an acting major in college. During one class, the professor said we should make a list of all the things that are important to us in life, and that the higher acting was on the list, the greater the chance we’d succeed at it. Well, acting with nowhere near the top of my list (which is why I changed my major), but I think writing was the second or third item. Having a family was the first. This taught me that I have to make writing a priority in my life – and keep it that way – if I want to be a success.
· When I first started writing, old pros used to say that “the first million words are practice.” (This was back before anyone could self-publish the first thing they wrote by uploading it to Amazon.) I internalized this advice as a need to start working and keep working steadily in order to improve, and that I need to write regularly in order to keep my writing brain in shape.
· When I decided I wanted to devote my life to writing, I decided to get an MA in English. (If I’d understood the difference between an MA and an MFA back then, I would’ve gotten the latter degree.) I knew that an MA would allow me to teach composition courses part-time, and that I’d have at least some time to write this way. I was married to my first wife at the time, so between our dual meager incomes (and not having any kids yet) we got by. This meant I had time to learn how to be a writer, and more importantly, what it meant for me to be a writer. So when I started regularly publishing in my thirties, I didn’t have to deal with a steep learning curve and could just write.
· I spent my twenties continuing to teach part-time and learning how to be a writer, without any expectation of publication (though I had hopes, or course!). Old pros used to say that it took around ten years to learn how to write and establish a writing career, so I’d made peace with the fact it might take me a while to get where I wanted to go. This kept me writing and producing regularly because I wanted to get through those ten years and start my career in earnest.
· My first daughter wasn’t born until I was thirty-one, and I didn’t land a full-time teaching job until I was thirty-five. This means I’d spent a long time learning how to be a writer before I had major responsibilities that would’ve made practicing, learning, and producing writing harder.
· Being a parent taught me a metric fuck-ton about managing my time. My girls came first, and I fit my writing in when I could, and I gave up all the stupid things I used to do that wasted my time – watching dumb TV shows I didn’t really care about, playing videogames that had no purpose, etc.
· Being a parent also meant that I stopped going out with friends. I didn’t have time, and when I did, I was exhausted. Plus what little spare time I did have went to writing. I prioritized my writing above any needs that didn’t relate to my family.
· I still don’t have any friends to hang out with. Not because I don’t want any, but because most of my friends are fellow writers who live a good distance away from me. We interact online and at conferences, but that’s about it. But since writers tend to be introverts, this arrangement probably works out well for us all.
· I had – and still have – no other hobbies or interests that take up my time. Everything I do is writing, teaching writing, or reading and watching stories to learn how to be a better storyteller. I don’t have what some people might consider a healthy work/life balance, but that’s because my life is centered on doing the activity I love above all other activities – which, as far as I’m concerned, is the healthiest way for me to live.
· My full-time job allows me time to write. I don’t work nine-to-five, so I can juggle my writing and teaching in such as way that I can write regularly. I don’t have to teach in summer, although I do for extra money, but I don’t teach as many classes, so I have extra time to write then. It’s not easy to find a job that allows you time to write, but if you can, it’s a massive help. Jobs that don’t require a lot of creativity or brain effort are good too, so you can save your creativity for your writing.
· My full-time job hasn’t made me wealthy, but I don’t have to worry about money usually. It’s difficult (to say the least) to be creative when you have financial struggles.
· I’m fortunate that my family understands and supports my need to write. I don’t have to struggle with them to get writing time.
I have learned some aspects of craft that I can pass along to you, though.
Tips for Being a Productive Writer
· I’m not a health freak, but I do my best to take care of myself. I try to eat right, get (some) exercise, and get enough sleep. Your brain can’t be at its best when your body isn’t at its best.
· I try to take care of my mental health. (I’m dysthymic, remember?) I’ve gone through a lot of therapy to deal with baggage from my childhood and my divorce and to generally make me a healthier person. I also have issues with anxiety, so I’ve learned techniques to deal with that, plus the antidepressants I take also help a lot. The healthier your mind is, the more stuff you can create, and the better that stuff will be.
· I’ve learned my creativity bio-rhythms. I discovered a long time ago that I run on twelve-hour shifts when it comes to writing, so instead of writing once a day, I write once every twelve hours (when I can; life doesn’t always cooperate). Learning this increased my productivity quite a bit. Find out when you have your most energy – early in the day, late at night, before or after you eat, etc. – and use your natural biorhythms to help boost your productivity.
· Over the years, I’ve learned to apply my creativity to how and when I write as well as what I write. So whenever the words aren’t coming, instead of stopping, I change things up. I write in a different place, at a different time of the day. I handwrite instead of type. I switch to writing story notes instead of prose. I switch to a different project for a bit. I leave the house and write offsite. I go for a walk or drive so that I can think. I bounce ideas off my wife. I seek out a book or film that I think will inspire me creatively. It’s kind of like juggling. If I drop one ball, I forget about it and focus on the ones I still have in the air. I can always pick up the dropped ball later.
· I once read a book by Brenda Ueland called If You Want to Write. In it, she talks about healing yourself through writing, and I’ve done this for years. When I’m not well physically or emotionally, I seek healing and solace in my writing instead of staying away from it when I’m sick or depressed. (This assumes you’re not in a coma or something – kind of hard to write then.)
· I constantly cultivate my imagination. I write down ideas in the notepad app on my phone whenever I think of something/see something cool. I take photos of cool/weird stuff too. I’ve always got material to draw on, whether I want to write a novel, a short story, or an article.
· I spend a lot of time visualizing scenes in my fiction, thinking about how I’m going to structure things, contemplating bits of dialogue. I do a lot of pre-drafting in my head, so when I sit down at the computer, the words come much more easily than they might otherwise.
· I outline novels. Sometimes I have a very simple list of events for short stories, but sometimes I just write them and see where they go. I always outline nonfiction. Sometimes I use PowerPoint to outline nonfiction – and then I have a presentation I can use for a workshop somewhere down the line. With novels, I have an overall outline and character/place notes. As I compose the novel, I write shorter, simpler outlines for scenes – sometimes just a few lines on a sticky note or maybe in a notebook. As I compose, I may write notes for what’s to come. I write those in all caps right in the scene and compose that material later, maybe during that writing session, maybe during another.
· I write linearly for the most part. I have macro and micro outlines to follow, so there’s no need for me to jump around, write things out of order, and figure out how the hell to organize them later. This saves me a huge amount of time. I’m not a writer who needs to write multiple exploratory drafts in order to figure out what I want to say and where I want my story to go. Nothing wrong with that approach at all, but it of course takes a lot of time.
· I set production goals. Because I usually have a contract in place before I write something, I have a deadline to meet. I figure out how many pages a day I need to make that deadline, and then I do my best to produce that amount of pages every day. Some days I produce more, some days less, but usually I make the deadline, sometimes with time to spare.
· The last few years, I’ve been getting up at 5am so that I can start writing by 6am. Years ago, I used to be a night owl, but having kids cured me of that! Even though I usually have time in the afternoons to write too, I produce what I can in the mornings and then produce more after I’ve taught my classes for the day. I can produce a lot this way.
· I tend to revise as I go. A specific work is always a single file on my computer, and if I realize I need to fix something, I go back into the earlier part of the manuscript and do it. I start each writing session re-reading what I created during the last sessions and cleaning up the prose and fixing any continuity problems, etc. Because of this, when I finish a draft, it’s close to being the final version. I go over it one or two more times after that to catch anything I might’ve missed, but I usually don’t find anything major.
· I do my best to avoid decision fatigue before I write. I read an article a few years back about how after humans have made a number of decisions, they become fatigued and, while they can still make decisions after that, those decisions are lousy ones. Writing earlier in the day – before I have any other decisions to make, such as when I’m teaching a class – helps me, as does writing later in the day or evening after my brain has had a chance to recover from making decisions.
· I try to think of writing as going to work. I don’t have to be enthused or full of energy or feel particularly inspired. I need to show up and start typing, and I need to keep typing until I’ve produced my quota of words for that session. Part of this attitude is approaching my writing as something perfectly ordinary and normal so I don’t get anxious about whether it’s good or publishable or whether people will like it, etc. Forward movement is what matters when I’m at the keyboard.
· I try my best to remain in a calm, relaxed state when I write so that my own brain doesn’t get in my way. Having simple rituals – getting up, making coffee, sipping coffee while I check email and peruse social media – helps. For others, meditating before you start writing might be effective. I think a lot of what people call writer’s block is really writer’s anxiety, and the calmer we can be when we write, the easier the words will come.
· I think story when I write; I don’t think publishing. I’m aware someone will (hopefully) read my words, but I don’t think too much about reader expectation as I write. It’s too easy to become self-conscious that way, and then the words come harder.
· My publishing history gives me confidence. I’ve published (or will soon have published) fifty-three novels, three nonfiction books, around 200 short stories, and dozens of articles. Knowing I’ve successfully done this thing before helps me relax and write when I’m afraid I may not be able to do it this time.
· I don’t listen to the darkest part of me. I’m not talking dark in the sense of writing horror, but dark as in the negative part of myself that is always critical, always depressed, always doubtful, always lacking confidence. Part of me believes that I’m worthless and that anything I create will be worthless. This part will always believe these things, no matter what I do and no matter what anyone says to me. No matter how many things I publish, how many awards I win, how much positive feedback I get from reviewers and readers, this part will still believe I’m nothing. I’ve accepted that this part of me exists and will always exist, that there’s nothing I can do to change it, but I’ve learned I don’t have to listen to it, amplify it, and give it power, and I write anyway. This isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking a tightrope, but most days I manage. I can’t help but hear the darkest part of me when it speaks, but I tell myself it’s a liar, and I keep going.
· Years ago I learned about strengths theory. This is the idea that no one can be good at everything, so we should identify what our strengths are, work on improving those as much as we can, and then just try to get competent at the other stuff. An extremely successful and accomplished actor, singer, athlete, etc. maximizes their strengths and is competent enough in areas they may be weak in. They don’t waste time trying to get excellent at everything in their profession because they can’t. No one can. Over time, I’ve learned what my strengths are through my own analysis of my work, but also from feedback from agents, publishers, reviewers, and readers. This is why I always read reviews of my work – so I can get a better feel for what my strengths are and continue to enhance them and learn what my weaknesses are so I can try to get good enough at those areas. Thinking of my writing using strengths theory means I don’t worry about all the things my writing isn’t and likely can never be. That sort of worry – Why aren’t my characters more distinctive? How come my prose isn’t more musical? Why can’t I write something funny? – can really mess with your head and make it harder to get any writing done.
· Lastly, I have a sticky note in my writing space that has two simple sentences on it: Writing is a choice. Writing is a commitment. When I don’t feel like writing, I re-read those sentences and remind myself that I need to commit to this session’s work, that I need to choose to sit down, begin, and keep at it until I’ve produced my quota. I know that not everyone can make this commitment or make this choice every day for whatever reasons. But the more you can, the more you’ll produce.
In the end, being prolific doesn’t mean anything, though. What matters is that you find fulfillment in your writing, however fast or slow it comes to you, or however much you produce in your lifetime. If you’re not fulfilled – if you’re not having fun, not growing as a person – why write at all?
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My novelization of the latest in the Halloween saga comes out next month, and it’s now available for pre-order!
Minutes after Laurie Strode, her daughter Karen, and granddaughter Allyson left masked monster Michael Myers caged and burning in Laurie’s basement, Laurie is rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries, believing she finally killed her lifelong tormentor.
But when Michael manages to free himself from Laurie’s trap, his ritual bloodbath resumes. As Laurie fights her pain and prepares to defend herself against him, she inspires all of Haddonfield to rise up against their unstoppable monster. But as a group of other survivors of Michael’s first rampage decide to take matters into their own hands, a vigilante mob forms that sets out to hunt Michael down. Evil dies tonight.
Barnes and Noble Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/halloween-kills-tim-waggoner/1139229840?ean=9781789096019
Barnes and Noble Nook Book: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/halloween-kills-tim-waggoner/1139229840?ean=9781789096194
My latest novel for Flame Tree Press is still available!
“If you like your horror to be dark, deeply themed with a sly smile on the pulse of Barker and Lovecraft whilst making his own unique addition, you cannot go wrong with Your Turn To Suffer. An Excellent read.” – The Literary License Podcast
“While having some grisly splatterpunk elements this novel maybe leans more into weird fiction, and reminds me of classic 80s horror (think Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser.) It was a lot of fun.” – Only the Darkest Reads
Lori Palumbo is harassed by a sinister group calling themselves The Cabal. They accuse her of having committed unspeakable crimes in the past, and now she must pay. The Cabal begins taking her life apart one piece at a time – her job, her health, the people she loves – and she must try to figure out what The Cabal thinks she’s done if she’s to have any hope of answering their charges and salvaging her life.
Flame Tree Website
This is my page on the Flame Tree site, where you can order any of my Flame Tree novels, including Your Turn to Suffer.
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