Chapter 1: Introduction & Is It Possible to be Both Prolific and Good?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

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Comments: 3





Let me say from the start that I am not qualified to write this book. Compared to the great writers we will study here, I am not prolific. At the time of this writing (August 2018) I have only come out with 54 full-length novels under my name and for various ghostwriting clients, plus several novellas, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and more than a thousand paid travel blog posts.

Considering that I started to write in 1999 and have been a fulltime writer since 2008, that’s an unacceptably slow pace. I wrote this book partially to give myself inspiration and insight into how more productive writers manage to hit phenomenally high word counts and yet maintain a steady level of quality.

It’s already helped. As I wrote this book, I felt inspired and intimidated in equal measure. Applying the habits of these wordsmiths has greatly increased my own word count. In the two years it took to research and write this book (the research took most of the time) I went from averaging about 15,000 words a week to over 20,000 a week. As of this writing, 22,000 words a week is becoming a reasonable goal for weeks when life doesn’t get in the way. I have become what the old pulp editors used to call “a million-words-a-year man.”

And that’s a lot of fun.  

For this book I’ve focused on writers who worked in the 20th and early 21st century. While there were numerous prolific authors before then (Dickens, for example) I wanted to look at writers who worked in a world more similar to our own. I also chose authors who are dead, so that we could look at their careers as a whole, and limited myself to writers working in English and Spanish, since these are the only two languages I can read with confidence. An important criterion for selection was that there needed to be good sources on how they went about their workday.

The sole exception to these rules is Ryoki Inoue, a Brazilian writer who is very much alive and still producing. Since he has only been published in Portuguese, I have not been able to read one of his books, but since he is one of the most prolific authors of all time, and certainly the fastest, I felt it would be a shame not to include him.

Many of the authors in this book are products of the pulp era, a time that in North America stretched from the advent of dime novels in the 1860s to the death of the pulp magazine in the 1950s. Others are the product of the paperback boom of the 1950s and ‘60s. Those were the days when a writer with a quick pen and a solid work ethic had dozens, if not hundreds, of hungry markets to choose from. An excellent history of this era, Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print, has a telling anecdote. “What was required was an ability to deliver the ‘goods’—to give editors the kind of never-a-dull moment adventure yarns they wanted, and to supply them with speed and relentless regularity. This meant writers had to plunge in, plotting as they went along and rarely bothering with the niceties of editing and rewriting. Allan R. Bosworth, a newspaperman who produced hundreds of pulp stories, thought the main trick for all pulp masters was writing a cram-packed opening paragraph that established a character, a setting, and a situation and closed with a ‘narrative hook’ that snagged the reader’s attention. This done, storytelling took care of itself.”

Most of these writers lived and died in the pulps, while others such as Upton Sinclair, Zane Grey, and Rex Stout rose to the levels of literary stardom. Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) was of two minds about his early years writing pulp yarns. In his autobiography, he wrote how it got him started in the field at the age of seventeen, paid his way while learning his craft, and taught him how to develop stories and write quickly. On the other hand, it got him in the habit of writing commonplace and exaggerated prose. The real break was when he started writing “serious” novels at the age of twenty-one. This made him look down his nose at his earlier efforts. Sales were slow with his early literary books, so he still had to churn out pulse-pounding tales of young soldiers in the Spanish-American War and similar fare, but he’d lost enthusiasm and it began to tell in his writing. Luckily for him, he did eventually earn a career in literary fiction. But no matter how high he rose, he never denied that his time with the pulp magazines had laid the foundations for his career.

Now we are in a new pulp era. The advent of the ebook and independent publishing has opened up new venues for writers who can write page-turning prose at a fast rate. Studies of the ebook market such as Author Earnings by Hugh Howey and Data Guy, plus anecdotal evidence from hundreds of writers I’ve spoken with, have shown that the writers who make the most money are the writers who write the most books of consistent quality. Virtually no one has made a living off only one or two books in this new world of publishing. Those who are making a living have twenty books, or fifty, or a hundred, often spread out over two or more pen names.

Writers who want to succeed in this new era need to study the great writers who have come before them.

And that’s what we’re going to do here. I’ve taken the liberty of adding my own observations and practices in the hope that they will help writers increase their word count. Of course I have come nowhere near the level of productivity of these great writers, but writing is a cumulative process. As one builds up a body of work and expertise, a good writer will see their rate and quality both increase over the years.



Is It Possible to be both Prolific and Good?


One of the main charges leveled against prolific authors is that they only churn out low quality, derivative work with little variation of theme or content. When I talk about prolific authors to fellow writers, many newcomers (often unpublished) screech in horror and say no one can write that fast, that the authors must have ghostwriters because it is simply impossible to write hundreds of books in a lifetime. The snootier among them, generally proudly toting an MFA and few to no publications, turn up their noses and say it’s impossible to write anything of worth at that rate, that writing must be an agonizing process of constant revision and polishing.

They’re both wrong. It is possible to write more than a book a month, and hundreds of books over the course of a career, and it is possible to write them well. While the naysayers dismiss these writers, saying they’re churning out routine fare, I ask why, if their stuff is so mediocre, have editors bought them by the metric ton? If their stuff is no good, how can these writers entertain millions of fans over the course of decades? That’s a mark of quality in my mind.

Arthur J. Burks (1898-1974), who wrote more than 1,200 stories for more than 140 different magazines from the 1920s to the 1940s, said, “I don’t feel like apologizing for writing to an audience of 25 million people.”


The biggest victim of the “If you’re fast, you’re mediocre” stereotype is probably Enid Mary Blyton (1897-1968), the hugely successful children’s and young adult writer who has captivated generations of young readers with characters such as Noddy, and the young adult series The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. During her lifetime many schools and libraries wouldn’t carry her work, saying it lacked literary merit, while the BBC banned her from the 1930s to the 1950s on the same grounds. That didn’t stop her sales, though. Kids didn’t notice the establishment’s snobbish opinions at all, except for millions of them whining, “Mummy, why don’t they put Noddy on the radio?”

In later years her books, especially her young adult series, have been accused of being old-fashioned, and rife with racist, xenophobic, sexist, and elitist ideas. Here the critics are on firmer ground. Several books feature Gollywogs, a horrible caricature of black people, while foreigners always end up being stupid or evil or both. Reading through many of her titles, it is clear that they are products of their time, but what books aren’t? It is interesting that the critics have ignored Blyton’s extensive support for pediatric and animal rights charities. Helping sick kids doesn’t balance out having old-fashioned ideas, apparently.

A contemporary example of this prejudice against having a work ethic is Stephen King (born 1947). The author of more than 60 books and some 200 short stories, mostly in the horror genre, he has been a publishing phenomenon for more than 40 years. While he has won numerous awards, made millions, and has a host of devoted fans around the world, he has constantly been dogged by critics who call him a hack. The fact that such a successful storyteller is called a hack by people who have never written a novel says more about the prejudices of the critics than the abilities of Stephen King. These critics point to the fact that he writes genre books, and a lot of them, as somehow being proof that he is an inferior writer.

While these criticisms must have been nettling, the prolific authors of the past hundred years had the last laugh—all the way to the bank.

So let’s take a look at the lives of several of the most productive, and most successful, writers of all time. After that, we’ll look at what these writers have in common and how writers today can emulate them to up their own word count without sacrificing quality.

Submitted: May 08, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Sean McLachlan. All rights reserved.

Check out Sean McLachlan's Book


Writing Secrets of the World’s Most Prolific Authors

What does it take to write 100 books? What about 500? Or 1,000? This book examines the daily habits of more than a dozen of remarkable writers to show how anyone with the right mindset can massively increase their word count without sacrificing quality.


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Add Your Comments:


Alexander Byrne

Nicely written and quite insightful. Outside of essay writing, I'm a slow writer of fiction. Opinions are easier to vomit onto a page than crafting the ideal chapter.

Sun, May 8th, 2022 3:03pm


Read the later entries and you'll learn how they did it! the next one will go up this week.

Sun, May 8th, 2022 10:36pm


Funny you didn't mention William Shakespeare. He wrote some 37 plays (his hand has been detected in a few more), & a couple of collections of poems in his lifetime -- all to make a living. Yes, Hamlet & King Lear were written for filthy lucre! Nevertheless, Shakespeare is considered by most experts the greatest playwright & poet of the English language. Makes you wonder what delicate snowflake some literary critics would prefer to have at the apex of the English literary pantheon.

This doesn't mean that some prolific writers, like Earle Stanley Gardiner, weren't hacks. It just means that if one writes a lot of material, & for money, that author should be considered with the same disinterested seriousness as someone with an MFA & tenure at a prestigious university.

Mon, May 9th, 2022 1:43am


Thanks for the review. I limited myself to writers from modern times to make it more applicable to today's writer. I skipped Dickens and many other prolific Victorians, and the greats of earlier centuries too.
I wonder how many quill pens good old Billy went through?

Sun, May 8th, 2022 10:32pm


You've got a sale. I'm a big believer in emulating the behavior of the successful.

Your 53 books also sounds quite impressive (and I know you're a great writer). It at least puts you up there with Stephen King whom you mentioned in terms of volume. A year and a half working on a novel for me and feels like I've spent all this time wandering in circles in the desert... Though I know that with each abandoned draft I am getting closer to the promised land.

Mon, May 9th, 2022 5:40am


These old pros will teach you how to walk straight through the desert.

Mon, May 9th, 2022 10:25pm

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