Being Prolific — Is That the Secret?

Should you aim to be prolific?  To be prolific as a writer means to be highly productive, to write a lot, and (one hopes) to be published a lot.  Should that be your goal? If so, what is the key to being prolific?

The ultimate aims of writers vary, but a short list of such goals could include:

  1. I want to be a famous writer, popular in my own time.
  2. I want my books to be remembered through the ages.
  3. I just have an inner need to tell a story.
  4. I want to maximize my financial earnings.
  5. I want to publish as many books as possible.
  6. I seek a combination of some of the above goals.

I was tempted to set up a graph with high quantity (being prolific) at one end and high quality at the other, and plot each goal on the graph.  For example, you might think goals 1 and 2 have to do with quality, while goals 4 and 5 are more concerned with quantity.  Such an analysis would have told you whether to churn out a lot of words, or self-edit like crazy to ensure each book is perfect.

Here’s the problem.  As Joseph Stalin was supposed to have said, (even an evil dictator can utter one true statement) “Quantity has a quality all its own.”  In a previous post, I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about becoming a genius in any particular field.  One element of that was practicing for 10,000 hours.  That implies quantity is a necessary step to quality.  To write well, you must first write a lot.

There are different ways to spend that 10,000 hours of practice, of course.  As I implied above, you might write your first draft, then do just enough editing to send it off and sell a mediocre story, then move on to the next one.  Or you could refine and polish every word, as a poet does, going over and over your story until you achieve earthly perfection.  At the end of that process, you might have a book that could satisfy goals 1 or 2 or both.

There’s a list of prolific writers and one of my favorites–Dr. Isaac Asimov–is on that list.  He’s not at the top, though.  That honor belongs to María del Socorro Tellado López, who wrote mostly under the name Corín Tellado.  She lived from 1927-2009 and wrote over 4,000 novellas.

If you hope to surpass her record, you’d better get busy.

Let’s examine the productivity of Corín Tellado.  She sold her first novel in 1946, when she was about 19.  Her publishing house contracted with her to write a novella every week.  When I read that, I thought, “Okay, I could see having a very organized schedule that results in a novella each week.”  But look closer at the numbers.  Say she wrote continually from 1946 until her death in 2009, a period of about 63 years, or roughly 3,276 weeks.  Only 3,276 weeks, and yet she wrote over 4,000 novellas.  She was cranking out a novella, on average, every 5.7 days.

Corín Tellado is the extreme example of being prolific.  You probably won’t go that far, but imagine the discipline required, the organizational and time-management skills, the need to fill all available time with writing.  Not to mention the necessity to dream up numerous plotlines and characters.  These are the keys to being a prolific writer.

Whatever your goals as a writer, whether you aim for quantity or quality, I think you’re still going to need (or at least aim for) the skills and attributes of a prolific writer.  Do you agree or disagree?  Leave me a comment.  But keep it short; I’m a busy man and have to finish my next novella in 5.7 days, or I’m not–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

Pioneers and Giants

For this blog post I’m dividing the great writers into two categories–pioneers and giants.  I define pioneers as those who start a new genre of fiction by themselves, and giants as those who come along later and take an existing genre to new heights and greater popularity.

Here is a table listing a few literary genres and some of the pioneers and giants in each one:

Genre

Pioneers

Giants

Adventure Heliodorus, Homer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, H. Rider Haggard, Victor Hugo, Emilio Salgari, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne
Comedy Aristophanes Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, William Shakespeare, R. L. Stine, Kurt Vonnegut
Crime Steen Steensen Blicher, Edgar Allan Poe Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie
Fantasy Homer Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien
Historical Chariton of Aphrodisias Pearl S. Buck, Ken Follett, Robert Graves, Eleanor Hibbert, James Michener, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ryotaro Shiba, Leo Tolstoy
Horror William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, R. L. Stine, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde
Mystery E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe Jiro Akagawa, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Kyotaro Nishimura, Edward Stratemeyer
Philosophical St. Augustine Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Soren Kierkegaard, Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis, Jean Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand, Voltaire
Political Plato Edward Bellamy, Benjamin Disraeli, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas More, George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Gore Vidal
Romance Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Ann Radcliffe Barbara Cartland, Jackie Collins, Catherine Cookson, Janet Dailey, Eleanor Hibbert, Debbie Macomber, Stephenie Meyer, Nora Roberts, Denise Robins, Danielle Steel, Corín Tellado,
Satire Aristophanes Ambrose Bierce, Anthony Burgess, Candide, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut
Science fiction Jules Verne Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, H. G. Wells
Steampunk James Blaylock,  K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers Paul Di Filippo, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Thriller Homer, John Buchan Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean
Urban Robert Beck TN Baker, Kole Black, De’Nesha Diamond, K’wan Foye, J.Gail, Erick Gray, Shannon Holmes, Pamela M. Johnson, Solomon Jones, Mallori McNeal, Miasha, Meesha Mink, Jeff Rivera, Big Rob Ruiz, Sister Souljah, Vikki Stringer, Nikki Turner, Anthony Whyte

You can quibble with the names in the table and that’s fine; I don’t pretend that it’s 100% accurate or complete.  But as I look through the table a couple of things are apparent:

  • There are a lot of genres, and probably more for you to invent.  (I didn’t list all genres, or very many subgenres.)  There will be more pioneers.
  • Just because a genre is old (the pioneer long dead) doesn’t mean new, modern giants can’t emerge.  It’s never too late to be a giant.

In general, the pioneer lays down some of the rules for the genre and takes the first tentative steps within its boundaries.  The pioneer faces the difficulty of convincing a skeptical publisher to take a risk on a book that doesn’t fit in any known category.

But it is the giants who really explore the full extent of the genre and help to popularize it for more readers.

Perhaps one day you’ll be looked upon as a great author.  Which type will you be–a pioneer or a giant?  There’s glory in both.  Which would you rather be?  Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  Hoping to become one or the other, I’m–

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

September 18, 2011Permalink

When Things Mean Other Things

What do you think of symbolism in writing?  Most of us have been through English (Language Arts) classes where the teacher encouraged us to find symbols in some of the great works of literature.  This is a bit of a stretch for high school students, but school is all about stretching young minds, isn’t it?  Some of us had the unfortunate experience of guessing at a symbol and being told we were wrong.

This raises several questions.  Should writers use symbolism?  If they do, and readers detect and interpret the symbols correctly, does that enhance the reading experience?  If a reader picks up on a symbol the writer didn’t intend, is the reader wrong?

This site lists some of the more common symbols and what they often mean.  But almost anything tangible can serve as a symbol, as long as it relates to the plot, gives added meaning to the story, and is appropriate for the thing (usually something intangible) it’s symbolizing.

Here, writer John T. Reed makes the case that the exercise of looking for symbolism is silly, and no more than a parlor game.  The essay is persuasive, and he argues writers should strive for clarity, not make it a struggle for readers to decode hidden meanings.  Moreover, he says those who seek symbolism often find things unintended by the author.

In Isaac Asimov’s essay on symbolism, he wrote, “When I complained to someone who worked up a symbolic meaning of my story ‘Nightfall’ that made no sense to me at all, he said to me, haughtily, ‘What makes you think you understand the story just because you’ve written it?’… Sometimes it is quite demonstrable that an author inserts a deeper symbolism than he knows-or even understands.”

An intriguing exchange.  Authors have to remember that written storytelling is a curious form of human communication.  The purpose of communication is to convey information from one human mind to another.  But storytelling is one-way only:  writer to reader.  The writer need not even be alive any more, and often isn’t.  The reader’s enjoyment of a story is a personal, internal experience, without any possibility (usually) of asking for clarification or explanation.

Therefore, it seems to me readers get to decide what symbolism they discover in a story, and no one should say they’re wrong.  Not English teachers, and not even the author.

As to whether writers should intentionally use symbolism in their stories, that’s a question for each author to decide.  I’ve used symbolism purposefully in some of my stories, and not in others.  In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the human eye symbolizes the future, whether it’s the large eyes of Heron’s friend Praxiteles or the painted eyes on the Greek ships.  In “The Vessel,” the circle symbolizes the old unity of the previous Atlantean culture, but the ceramic drinking flagon symbolizes the attempt to preserve and spread that culture to other, more primitive societies.

One of my favorite uses of symbolism is in Jules Verne’s novel The Mighty Orinoco, which involves a mission to find the source of the river Orinoco.  Finding the sources of rivers was a major 19th century geographical pursuit.  One of the main characters on the mission is also seeking his father, lost somewhere along the river.  Note the symbolic parallel between the river’s source and the source of one’s own life.

In closing, I think it was Sigmund Freud who reminded us, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but I suspect Groucho Marx would have replied, “Just?”  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the use of symbolism in fiction, so feel free to leave a comment for–

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Reading Your Way to Better Writing

What book should you read that will make you a published author?  Surely someone has written down all the little secrets in a handy volume, right?  I mean, that’s how I learned to do some household plumbing.

In earlier blog posts I’ve stated that the how-to books about writing do have some value.  You can read them to learn or re-learn a few tidbits, but do not expect that reading a book will make you a great writer.  I’ve stated that I put more stock in critique groups.

Even so, I have read a few books intended to help writers.  The following list of books I’ve read is in no particular order.  I recommend them all, but read them for the occasional “golden nugget,” not because they will make you famous.

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • How I Write:  Secrets of a Bestselling Author by Janet Evanovich
  • Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
  • Your Mythic Journey:  Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox
  • Manuscript Submission by Scott Edelstein
  • The No-Experience Necessary Writer’s Course by Scott Edelstein
  • Story Starters by Lou Willett Stanek
  • The Elements of Storytelling:  How to Write Compelling Fiction by Peter Rubie
  • Creative Writing: Forms and Techniques by Lavonne Mueller and Jerry D. Reynolds
  • The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova
  • Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg

I will single out three more for special mention.  Zen in the Art of Writing:  Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury is one I read many years ago, but the essence of it still rings in my mind.  Bradbury conveys the passion for writing, how it grabs you and carries you along on a crazy ride.  You can enjoy your writing pastime, but you can’t control it.  A good book.

Consider reading Hooked:  Grab Readers at Page One by Les Edgerton.  That book will help you begin your stories the right way.  Edgerton’s book is new, with fresh insights about what works in modern stories and what the editors of today are looking for.

 

Lastly, and best of all, you must, must, must have The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.  That’s the formal book title, but everyone knows it as “Strunk and White.”  First published in 1918, this very short book will remind you to keep your writing succinct and to always make things easy for your reader.  You’ll want to re-read this one every few years.

If you’ve read a book on writing that you recommend, let me know.  For all I know, maybe someone has written a book with no-fail, sure-fire advice for making its readers into great writers.  Such a book, if it exists, has not yet been read by–

Poseidon’s Scribe

A Stroll through My Mental Library

Why would you read a blog post containing a list of writers who influenced me?  My aim is to provoke you to think about (perhaps even write down) the list of those who inspired you.  It’s a useful exercise.  Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is to describe those writers as well—what they mean to you.

Come on, walk along beside me now through the library of my mind.  The shelves have all the books I ever read.  My apologies for its small size; a busy life interferes with reading, unfortunately.  But I’m trying to read more.  For the purposes of today’s tour the books have been arranged by author, and we’ll be viewing busts of the more prominent ones.  Engraved on the pedestal of each bust are the author’s name and a few words describing his or her works.

Ah, I see you noticed the 30-foot high bronze statue just within the entrance.  Kind of hard to miss.  Yes, that’s Jules Verne.  I’ve read most of his works that have been translated into English.  His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the only book I ever re-read, and I do that every couple of years.  That book inspired me both to join the submarine service and to major in naval architecture in college.  To me, he represents scientific accuracy, exotic voyages, high drama and adventure, and a glimpse of a time when technology seemed on the verge of making everything possible for the first time in human history.

Over here is the bust of Isaac Asimov.  I’ve read only a fraction of his published work but it’s still a lot, both fiction and non-fiction.  The words engraved beneath his name are scientific accuracy, easy-to-read writing style, clever ideas, and love of wordplay.

Walking along, we’ve come to Arthur C. Clarke.  To me, he too symbolizes scientific accuracy, but also an optimistic view of mankind’s future, and various ways we could deal with aliens of far greater and different intelligences.

That bust there depicts Robert Heinlein.  Hard-edged style, a strict morality, a libertarian viewpoint, and success through struggle are the hallmarks of his writing, to me.

Watch your step; this area is not well lit.  Here, take my flashlight.  That bust you just bumped into is Ray Bradbury.  He has the most poetic prose of any author here—a flowing style that seduces you into his stories with the sheer magic and power of the words.  Then he often slaps you hard with some dark and twisted surprise.

And that one over there is Ayn Rand.  She’s the only woman on the tour; I wish there were more.  Her writing is characterized by emotional power, uncompromising philosophy, and a deep belief in human freedom coupled with strict ideas about how to live one’s life.

We’ve come to the bust of Larry Niven.  Amazing ideas, compelling characters, and the most well-thought-out aliens of any author in the library.

Here we are in the Children’s section—quite dusty, I know.  This next bust looks a little strange, with no discernable features.   Maybe you don’t recognize the name, Victor Appleton II. It’s a pseudonym used by many authors.  I grew up reading the Tom Swift, Jr. series written by the various “Mr. Appletons.”  With fondness I recall the high adventure, the marvelous inventions, and the use of science to solve problems.

One more and I think we’ll wrap up the tour.  Clive Cussler’s bust bears the following descriptions on beneath the name on its pedestal—engaging adventures set at sea, a writer with an easy-reading style that really puts his characters through hell.

That’s enough for this trip.  Perhaps we’ll continue the tour in a future blog post and examine busts of authors we missed.  I should mention you won’t necessarily see the influences of all of these writers in my own stories.  Also, I don’t necessarily agree with the viewpoints of all of them—I just enjoy reading their books.

Thanks for stopping by for a tour today.  Hope you enjoyed strolling through the mind of–

Poseidon’s Scribe

Shortcut to Greatness?

When we watch magicians perform, we’re smart enough to know there’s no real magic involved.  We know there’s a perfectly logical trick.  In fact, we’re sure if that magician would only reveal the trick to us, we could do the act too.  Magicians guard each trick with great care so that knowledge of how they do it doesn’t spoil the show.

Think it’s the same with writing?  What if we could beseech a great author to teach us his tricks, reveal the secrets she’s been concealing?  “Make me a best-selling author, too,” we’d say, “I don’t care if it takes all day!”

I’m not a best-selling author (yet), so for all I know they are withholding the secrets from us, hoarding their tricks and special knowledge, unwilling to spill the beans and open themselves up to a little more competition.

If those no-good, stuck-up top shelf authors really are keeping secrets from us, then they’re not only guilty of that, but of lying as well.  Writer after writer has claimed there are no secrets, other than hours and hours of practice.  Writers as diverse as Isaac Asimov, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy all say there are no shortcuts, no simple tricks, and no keyboard sleight-of-hand moves that will make you a great writer.  W. Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Apparently the number of rules is three, though, so that’s progress.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims the secret to genius-level greatness in any field is a combination of luck and a lot of time spent practicing.  How much time?  Gladwell says around ten thousand hours.  Yes, ten thousand. That’s a lot more than the solid afternoon we were hoping to devote to it.  More like fourteen months, continuously, without sleeping.  If all you can spare is two hours a day for your writing, then you’ll need nearly fourteen years to achieve greatness.

At this point, you may be yearning for some easier path.  What about writing courses, writing conferences, workshops, how-to books, critique groups, and the online versions of these?  I’ll give my perspective, having tried many of them.  I think all of these aids have value, some more than others.  In particular, I believe critique groups have been the most beneficial for me.  However, it’s important to embark on each one with the right attitude, the correct level of expectation.

If you pay for a conference, a how-to book, etc. thinking you’ll emerge out the other end as a pro market author, I suggest you ratchet down your hopes a few settings.  Each of these venues is fine to partake on an occasional basis to learn different viewpoints, refresh knowledge you might have forgotten, etc.  But make you a superstar author?  Doubtful.  Not impossible, just improbable.

There are expenses involved with each of the venues, too.  On the other hand, the long hours of lonely practice are nearly free, except for the amount of time spent.  I urge you not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because the last writing course (or workshop, etc.) you took didn’t result in instant success, surely the next one will.  Now that I think of it, I’ve never heard of a Great Author attributing his or her achievements to a how-to book or a conference, or any of those things.  Many of them do talk about reading a lot, especially reading the classics.  But they all say there is no substitute for writing, writing all the time, writing constantly.

So maybe one day some successful author will take you down a winding staircase into a hidden hideaway, enter the little-known combination into the locks, swing wide the series of creaking vault doors, and open the chest containing the secrets to easy writing greatness.  If you know those secrets, e-mail me here.  Until that day, I suggest practice.  But what do I know?  I’m just…

Poseidon’s Scribe