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Researching the Habits of Highly Prolific Authors (and I could use your help!)

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Maxwell Grant writes the Shadow-small

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article here on Black Gate about the habits of prolific authors. The research I did for that post sparked an interest in me that’s only grown. Now I’m working on a book-length study of how some of the great writers of the 20th century managed to write hundreds of books, most of them while hammering away on manual typewriters. There are lots of books on increasing your word count, but none, as far as I know, focus on the actual methods of the most productive writers.

I’ve set myself some limitations. First, to be given a chapter in the book, the writer must have written at least 300 books. They must also have enough biographical material that I can gain insights into their work methods. Also, they must be dead so that I can look at their careers as a whole, they must have been active in the 20th century so their work is more applicable to the modern era, and they must have written in either of the two languages I am comfortable reading — English or Spanish.

At the moment I have the following list: Isaac Asimov, Walter Brown Gibson, Corín Tellado, Marcial Lafuente Estefanía, Lauran Bosworth Paine, Ursula Bloom, Enid Mary Blyton, Barbara Cartland, and John Creasey. Some writers who don’t quite fit the bill but who have something worth quoting are given passing mention. Frank Gruber is a good example. His book The Pulp Jungle is essential reading for anyone who wants to know the inner workings of a true wordsmith.

I’ve broken some of my ground rules to include a chapter on Brazilian writer Ryoki Inoue. While he writes in Portuguese and is still alive, he’s one of the most prolific, and certainly fastest, writers of all time.  He could churn out a 198 page novel over the course of a grueling all-nighter. More often he takes it easy and allows himself a few days, even a week. He’s written more than 1,000 books. While he hasn’t had anything translated into a language I can read, there are several good interviews with him in English that discuss his method, and it would be a shame to not include such a dynamo.

I’ve already learned some fascinating things, such as the fact that Walter B. Gibson, better known as Maxwell Grant, the author of The Shadow, kept a typewriter in every room of his house, each with a page in it of a work in progress. Thus he never had an excuse not to be writing! Some writers, like Isaac Asimov, spent most of every waking day at work, while others, like Barbara Cartland, kept to strict hours of intense creativity and took the rest of the day off. All of them laughed off the concept of writer’s block as a myth.

I am at the early phase of my work on this book, and I’d like your help. Right now I’m cloistered in the Bodleian Library here in Oxford and focusing on the British writers. This being a copyright library I have access to virtually all their work. The American writers are a bit harder for me to track down. So I have a few questions for you:

  • Isaac Asimov wrote several books on the writer’s life. Which one gives the most insight into his method?
  • Walter Brown Gibson, author of most of the The Shadow books, wrote an article for the March 1941 issue of Writer’s Digest titled, “A Million Words a Year For Ten Years.” Does anyone out there have access to this article?
  • Is there any writer I’ve missed who absolutely deserves his or her own chapter?
  • If you’re a writer, what would you like to know about these hyper-prolific writers?

Thanks!


Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles, including his post-apocalyptic series Toxic World that starts with the novel Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

8 Comments »

  1. Erle Stanley Gardner.

    Comment by R.K. Robinson - August 2, 2017 6:10 pm

  2. Walter Brown Gibson’s “A Million Words a Year For Ten Years” was reprinted in Volume 110 of the The Shadow reprint series:

    http://www.radiospirits.com/detailsv2.asp?mbprodid=57691&sid=MTAwOTM1OTY6&Svr=.62&l=1&source=&scode=F11CY10

    Copies are still available for $14.95.

    Comment by John ONeill - August 2, 2017 9:55 pm

  3. Hi Sean.

    Fredrick Faust/Max Brand seems like a natural inclusion.
    You might check out the book Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print, from Ohio University Press.

    John

    Comment by John Hocking - August 3, 2017 6:50 am

  4. Sean,

    I believe Andrew Offutt might fit your criteria. Including all his work under various pen names, he’s definitely up there. Unfortunately, while he wrote a good deal of well-regarded fantasy, the majority of his output was pornographic novels, so I don’t know if you want to include him for that reason. His son, Chris Offutt, wrote a fascinating book about growing up with his father: My Father, The Pornographer: A Memoir. It came out last year and was a PUBLISHERS WEEKLY Best Book of the Year, and offers some insights to his father’s working habits. If you do consider including him, I’d definitely look that book up.

    I would also make a case for Edgar Rice Burroughs. While he did not hit that 300-novel bar, he started writing relatively late in life (he took up writing at the age of 36 after several other failed ventures). From that point on, his output was right up there with the other authors you highlight.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - August 3, 2017 12:10 pm

  5. I’m interested to a point. Certainly want to increase my output.
    I found a copy of Pulp Jungle for $9.99 on Ebay, most were $30-$60.

    And I do have something to contribute, though perhaps a bit off…

    The RPG “Thrilling Tales” – by Adamant Entertainment – good RPG you can get on DriveThruRPG… It has a random Pulp adventure generator (using dice)… It literally uses the same method used to make “Doc Savage” adventures for so many years. Just roll dice for … mad scientists… kidnapping women… turn them into gorillas… hideout in jungle of savage cannibals… plot twist is old friend (who suddenly appeared) is … Russian Triple Agent… With cyborg arm…

    The thing is, for “Content” alone anyone can just type stuff. Work out a framework, some random tables for variations, have the same tried and true characters, themes… Type like a man (or woman) possessed… Penny a word ain’t what it used to be so type until the cost of ink and paper is so expensive that the penny doesn’t pay for them… Must we really flood the market to make the content more prolific and therefore the attention and the compensation even less?

    And where is “The Story”?

    BUT – what are you creating then? Or are you just typing?

    My reality check is the words of a philosopher I like which I’m paraphrasing-

    “And when I walk into the bookstore and see all those books and think of the crime of adding another page to that PILE of print…” (he quotes “Dot Dot Dot” when reading from his work!)

    He’s actually (by modern standards) a prolific writer but not by pulp standards. Still he cares what he writes, from anarchist poetry to interesting takes on the sidelines of history.

    I’d certainly like to increase my output – more a matter of being very busy in my RL. But also it is because I’m trying to make stories that are more than the surface. I could in an instant do the ‘random generator’ for plot ideas and -using some well worked out characters- type out a novel a week even on my schedule. type type type… But I’d only make surface only stuff.

    To me the written word is an artform and while the tools are different should be seen as perhaps a painting. Won’t flood with a mini essay, but say go from “Conceptual” (crude spatterings, disgusting and blasphemy) to abstract, to plein aire watercolor to comic book/illustration level – to master (Frazetta, Picasso)…

    But – look up “Isle of the Dead” – a notable symbolist painting… Look how the simple but well done image strikes the imagination on so many levels.

    This is where writing can start – when it leaves the surface only level. Traditionally stories (good ones that are actually recited and remembered) should have multiple levels of meanings – yet still be readable and accessible.

    How about – for one example – Arthur C. Clarke’s “Exile of the Aeons”? On the surface just a pulp filler story, it also was a poetic curse on Nazis (then a living memory) using Cryogenics to escape punishment for their crimes. (an actual fear of scifi, now Hellboy fodder) It also played with the texture of time in the story, and differing perspectives.

    Arthur C Clarke was very prolific, and a working scientist too. But there’s no way a story that deep could be included in one of thousands of cliche ‘pulp’ stories typed out at blistering pace. This would be more the realm of the sporadic and not as popular at the time ones like Clark Ashton Smith. On the other hand it would be one remembered for decades after.

    I’d like to increase my output, I’ll say again – but if I went hyper prolific I’d exhaust my stories in a few years – and I’d read them and go “hey! I left that out…” and realize I’d left out everything I’d wanted to say in them and only ballooned the plot outlines to many pages.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - August 3, 2017 1:29 pm

  6. This article caught my eye due to the photo of Walter Gibson who wrote a huge number of comic books stories as well as other characters-at leats two different magicinas Norgil and the other to be honest I do not recall. However had this one thought. Would you consider authors that produced VOLUME rather then QUANTITY. I volunteer at local hospice once a week at the office and ina library set aside for patients and visitors are bookcases and one entire shelf was a set of Alexandre Dumas collected works and I amazed having only read the Musketeers saga and Count of Monte Christo. The set was NOT complete and failed to find a copyright but I suspect from condition of them they MIGHT be from the 1920s/30s. There were over 20 thick volumes with titles I never heard of and I have been coveting them ever since. I seem to recall Dumas dictated while secretaries wrote the words down though this may be a false memory mixed with the above referenced Erle Stanley Gardner or perhaps Gaston Leroux. At my age memory starts to go-sigh. Jack Williamson was also prolific writing well in to his 90s but not certain of the number of published works. Hugh B. Cave

    Comment by Allard - August 3, 2017 5:48 pm

  7. You might consider covering thriller author Edgar Wallace and his plot wheel device (also employed by Earl Stanley Gardner?). Edgar Wallace was prolific enough that an entire European film genre is named after his works – the krimi:

    http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/10/11/a-genre-between-genres-the-shadow-world-of-german-krimi-films

    http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/10/nanowrimo-erle-stanley-gardner-perry-mason-plot-wheels.html

    I think he only has 130 novels but wrote in other formats as well, so his overall output is quite high.

    Comment by Doc Red - August 4, 2017 8:38 am

  8. I would include Andre Norton in a list of super-prolific 20th century authors.

    Comment by Jeremy Erman - August 8, 2017 8:59 pm


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