Everyone can agree that producing a lot of material in a short amount of time does not guarantee success.
So why do writers and bloggers continually inundate the internet with articles and blog posts titled, “Write 100 Blog Posts.” Or, “Write An 80,000 Word Novel in Three Months.” “Write A Novel in a Month!” “6 Ways to Outline Your Novel Faster.” Mind you, these articles are not aimed at seasoned writers who are already established in their craft and have a writing schedule they’re comfortable with. They’re aimed at young, impressionable writers who desperately long to get their writing career off the ground. They actually try to follow the advice of these articles because they feel pressured to produce material as fast as possible in order to build a platform and cultivate a loyal following of readers. They believe they can accomplish this goal faster when they have more to offer than if they took longer to write and subsequently had less to offer.
I take issue with this because, well, I am a slow writer. At 32 years old, I have three novels to my name and am working on my fourth. Not bad, you say, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that I am a slow writer. Not slow in the sense that I can only type with two fingers, or that I can only muscle out a few sentences a day — it’s the time it takes for the story and characters to fully develop in my head and subsequently on the page. Then there’s the editing process. No one ever factors in the editing process, which, ironically, takes the longest amount of time and makes me feel like a very slow writer. Once I have everything just right and the manuscript is edited to my satisfaction, I send it off to my editor, who marks up every page with a lot of red and then sends it back to me, and the editing process starts all over again.
The journey of writing your first novel is daunting. Heck, writing your fourth novel is daunting. Why? Because you’ve never written it before. I will tell you right now, every novel you write will be a new experience, because you only know how to write the novels you’ve already written. When a slow writer is pressured to write more, to write faster, and “be more productive if you want to be successful in today’s competitive literary market,” they find it annoying and overwhelming. Of course, when you are a young writer, you expect this attitude from people who are older than you, but it really stings when it comes from writers in your own peer group.
In 2013, at the tender age of 24, a year after I had published my first novel, I remember meeting the girlfriend of one of my step-cousins at a family wedding. She heard that I had published a fantasy fiction novel and wanted to talk to me. The step-cousin introduced us, and she asked about my book. I told her that, yes, I was a writer, had published my first novel a year ago, and was working on the second book in the trilogy. She wanted me to tell her every little detail about the book: what it was about, how long it had taken me to write it, where I’d gotten my ideas from. I graciously shared this information with her. She then explained that she, too, was a writer. In fact, she couldn’t stop gushing about how much of a writer she was. “Oh, I love it. Writing is all I do. I write every day!”
She then asked if I wrote every day. No, I said, feeling self conscious. I did not write every day. I loved writing, but it was not all that I did. She then told me that she was actively working on no more than 45 different novels, all with unique storylines and characters. No two were alike, she said.
Naturally, I was suspicious. It had taken me nine months, not to mention every ounce of creative and emotional energy I had, just to write the first draft of my one book. Spirit of the King was a slow developing story for several reasons, primarily because the most engaging and dynamic aspects of the book were inspired by revelations gained from the deep healing journey I was going through, and at 24 years old I was still going through the thick of it. If she was looking to compete with me, well, she had me beat. There was no way I could compete with her level of productivity. To be actively working on 45 different projects sounded crazy, and I silently questioned not only the quality of her writing, but the depth of her character development and complexity of the storylines she placed them in.
Still smiling, she pulled a piece of paper from her purse, unfolded it, and showed it to me. It was an Excel spreadsheet itemizing all 45 of her writing projects. One column contained the title of the manuscript, the next contained a one sentence summary of the plot, the next listed all of the main characters. It went on and on across the top of the page: current word count; expected word count once completed; where the manuscript needed work; research required to complete the book.
Still smiling, she then asked me about my agent and where I finally “got one”. I told her I didn’t have an agent, that I had to invest in Westbow Press — who, at the time, was a division of Thomas Nelson — in order to publish my book under their imprint (fancy way of explaining I self-published). I don’t remember if she said she had an agent who was soliciting her mostly completed manuscripts to publishers, or that she was submitting her mostly completed manuscripts to literary agents because by that time I had completely checked out. Was she so intimidated by my modicum level of success that she was determined to impress me by showcasing her writing prowess? I mean, writers often carry around notebooks to jot down their ideas, but who in the world carries around a spreadsheet?
The conversation ended. I remembered feeling completely defeated and, quite frankly, inadequate. I had finally achieved my childhood dream of publishing a book, my first novel, through a respectable publishing house, but as I thought about her spreadsheet, I remembered wondering if there was something wrong with me. Why wasn’t I a more productive writer? Why didn’t I have a spreadsheet of my own story ideas? Why was I so completely fixated on this one story?
Because I was very young and super nice — too nice for my own good, really — I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. I chose to believe that she was a socially awkward super nerd who had no idea that shoving her 45+ novel spreadsheet under my nose was inherently demeaning and dismissive in the face of my small accomplishment. Perhaps, she thought that I, too, had an impressive spreadsheet or an agent fighting valiantly on my behalf. She didn’t want to feel inadequate or unprepared because none of her work had actually been published yet. Mine had.
To date, the most ridiculous productivity claim I have ever heard was in an independent publishing forum. Go figure, right? A genre fiction writer was using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to publish her novels. KDP was “so easy to use,” she said, that she was able to publish 40 novels that year! According to other posts by her on the same page, she was a “jack of all trades” fiction writer, pumping out novels in whatever genre captured her fancy. And they were all “doing great,” she said. New writers will read this young woman’s touting and either burn with jealousy or shrink from a sense of inadequacy. At what? Her alleged productivity. Seasoned writers — independent or otherwise — will just openly laugh and keep scrolling. Why? Because whether or not her claim is true is irrelevant. Whether her writing quality is walk-on-water fabulous or not is also irrelevant. What is the point of boasting that you published 40 novels in multiple genres in one year? What are you even trying to prove?
To young or new writers, I say this: you will encounter people like this your entire writing career and you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with them. After my conversation with Miss Excel Spreadsheet Super Nerd, I consoled myself by first humbly assessing where I was, personally and creatively. The task before me was: (1) to heal; and (2) to finish penning Spirit of the King. I remember thinking to myself, “If it’s going to take me another five years to finish this trilogy, then I may as well accept it now because the only other options are to start a new project or stop writing.” And I had to write the trilogy. It was consuming me from the inside out. Second, I knew that many successful authors had gone through painful and arduous life journeys before reaching admirable levels of success, so I consoled myself by researching their author pilgrimage and discovered a lot of inspiring underdog stories along the way.
If it takes you five years to finish your book, so what? Several articles on the internet feature a list of painfully slow writers who have gone on to achieve monumental success and are now household names. You can find them with an internet search, so I’m not going to recite their findings here. If you’re a writer and you’re in this business for the long haul, the wisest option is to examine a novelist’s productivity level over the course of their entire career.
It took Stephen King 47 years — his entire adult writing career, thus far — to publish 63 novels. (This does not include his short story and novella collections, his works of non-fiction, or children’s books.) 47 years. On average, that’s less than two novels per year. Granted, he had a life outside of writing… but then so do you. He also wrote other works during this time… but then so will you, be it blog posts, short stories, or straight up creative writing experiments. My point is, Stephen King is a household name in genre fiction and has won numerous writing awards, including several lifetime achievement awards. And guess what? For a full-time writer, his productivity level is entirely reasonable. It’s also achievable for you, too.
But what about those insanely productive writers who publish, like, six novels a year and are commercially successful with a loyal following of fans? Okay, let’s talk about Danielle Steele.
Danielle Steele is a bestselling author and an insanely productive writer. According to a blog post on her website titled, “Writing”, she explains in detail how she has worked like a racehorse her entire writing career. For example, in the heat of her writing sprees, she works 22 hours per day, just writing. And this can go on for weeks. She admits to making a pre-arranged agreement with her spouse that she will go to bed the same time that he does, but as soon as he falls asleep, she is going to get up and write all night long. For years, she has foregone outings, vacations, any kind of social life, really — all for the sake of her writing. She is constantly writing, constantly sending outlines and projects to her editor, and constantly creating new material. The thing I admire about Danielle Steele is that you can tell she writes because she needs to write. She loves the craft. Her insane writing schedule is a core part of who she is. According to the website, fantasticfiction.com, between 2000 and 2017, she consistently published six novels on average per year. That’s a new novel every two months. And she continues to meet that average. In 2018, she published six novels. In 2019, she published seven novels. In 2020, she published six novels. And for 2021, she is scheduled to publish five novels. The average word count for her bestsellers are approximately 98,000 words. Those are good sized novels to get lost in. If you suspiciously believe that she has a team of writers or editors working for her, think again. This woman legitimately writes.
After writing for 10 years, I have been able to make an objective assessment of my own writing habits:
- I can’t write for more than six hours at a time, and that’s on a good day when I have an open schedule devoid of pressure to complete something or be somewhere at a certain time.
- I can write in the morning, afternoon, or night; it doesn’t matter.
- I do not set a word count. The story is the story; I am going to be true to the story, not manipulate it or add a bunch of filler in order to achieve some rudimentary industry standard word count.
- I get my best ideas when I am doing regular, everyday things. Honestly, the best ideas come to me when I’m commuting or doing the dishes. These tasks are so monotonous that all the things brooding in the back of my subconscious begin to crawl out of their hiding places. Before I know it, the most fantastic ideas are waltzing across my mental landscape. I capture them and quickly write them down.
- I always settle on a main project. Occasionally, I will get ideas for the next two projects I have lined up and will make sure to add them to my notes for that project. I may go so far as to tinker with a scene or two, but I eventually return to my current project. I also do not work on more than three projects at any given time; I just don’t have enough brain space.
- Most importantly, I want to write stories that leave a lasting impression on peoples’ hearts and minds, the kind of stories they remember and ruminate on years later.
When I’m finally able to write full time, I doubt I’ll be as productive as Danielle Steele or even Stephen King. But if I can publish one quality book of enduring value a year, I will feel tremendously productive.
It took me seven years to write the Spirit of the King trilogy. I wouldn’t trade those three books to have 10, 15, or God forbid 40 novels to my name. Any book that bears my name bears my essence. I write for the sake of exploring my own soul and processing the world around me through my characters.
Whether you write five books in a year or it takes you five years to write your first book, love the craft. It’s why you started writing in the first place. And all writers can agree on two things: (1) Don’t do it for the money, do it because you love it. (2) Be satisfied with your own work. Your name is on the cover; you’re either building up or tearing down your own reputation.
I say write your book, no matter how long it takes.
Amy Hay is an independent author of fantasy fiction and seeks to share unique, powerful stories with her readers. Her work has been described as moody, transformative, psychological, and genre bending.
She is the author of the Spirit of the King trilogy and is currently working on her fourth novel.