Some writers agonize over every line. Some are prolific like Andre Norton. Others are hyperprolific like Isaac Asimov.
But Lionel Fanthorpe stands alone. He isn’t the most prolific author out there, having written “only” about 200 books, but he had the distinction of having written 168 books in less than a decade. Many he wrote in a week. Some he wrote over a three-day weekend.
This fervid output was the result of his association with Badger Books, a cheap-as-they-come UK publisher that emphasized quantity over quality. The publisher would commission the cover art first (or steal it from some old American paperback), send it to the author, and have them write a 45,000 word novel, usually with a deadline of one week.
Fanthorpe wrote 168 books for Badger between 1961 and 1967, dictating his tales into a reel-to-reel recorder and sending the tapes into the publisher’s typist. Often he’d stay up late into the night, covering his head with a blanket so he could concentrate. The results were overwritten, padded, and compellingly bad.
The only biography of Lionel Fanthorpe, Down the Badger Hole by Debbie Cross, has long been out of print but has now been revised, expanded, and released as a free ebook on the TAFF website.
And what a book it is! Cross gives us generous helpings of Fanthorpe’s prose, including masterful examples of padding through repetition.
Last month I posted here about Researching the Habits of Highly Prolific Authors for a book I’m working on. Black Gate reader John Hocking kindly suggested in the comments section that I read Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print, by Ronald Weber. I took him up on his advice and I’m sure glad I did.
This book looks at the careers of writing and editing from the nation’s earliest days until the end of World War Two. Weber shows us a parade of successful writers and editors — many well-known to this day, many more now forgotten — who found success in the ever-changing market for American popular periodicals.
Until the middle of the 19th century, American writers were hampered by the lack of international copyright laws. Newspaper and magazine editors filched English publications for free and saw no reason to pay homegrown talent. As the population grew and both American and British writers managed to get their governments to set up legal barriers to such theft, the market for American writing blossomed.
These writers certainly didn’t waste their time moaning about their lack of inspiration and hoping the muse would visit them. As prolific and successful Western writer Zane Grey said in a letter to a friend:
This morning I had no desire to write, no call, no inspiration, no confidence, no joy. I had to force myself. But when I mastered the vacillation and dread, and had done a day’s work — what a change of feelings. I had a rush of sweet sensations.
This is a common thread throughout the book. In example after example, we are shown that writer’s block is a myth and that writers should not — indeed, must not — sit around all day twiddling their thumbs. These writers worked hard.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article here on Black Gateabout 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 haven’t written this many books, but I’m working on it
Last year I wrote an article about making a living as a ghostwriter. I talked about how a plethora of small presses have created a new pulp era, in which ghostwriters put out large numbers of stories and short novels under house names. It’s a world that rewards hardworking writers who can hit high word counts and deliver in a variety of genres.
That was more than six months ago, and I thought I’d share some more insights I’ve had from the crazy new world of wordsmiths.
I manage 1,000 words a day at the start and an average of 3,000 words a day once I’m underway. Sprinting – 5,000 to 7,000 words a day; that’s for the last half.
Many newbie writers would screech in horror and say no one can write that fast, while most MFA snobs would 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, as Page’s own writing attests.
The fact is, however, Page’s speed is rather modest. Mine is about the same, so I’m not knocking him. I know how hard it is to keep up a good momentum while maintaining your responsibilities to family, not to mention the distractions of the Internet and local pub. I’m fortunate enough that writing is my day job, so at least I don’t have a separate career getting in the way of my productivity.
Page and I may both have a bunch of books to our name, but we are mere henchmen, mere spear carriers to the great Deities and Demigods of publishing — the truly prolific. Dean Wesley Smith, who has written well over 100 novels and about 500 short stories and only seems to be picking up speed, recently shared a link to an interesting blog post titled 17 Most Prolific Writers in History. I have a lot of quibbles with this list, as I’m sure you will too, but while it isn’t authoritative or entirely accurate, it’s certainly inspiring and daunting in equal measure.
Many, many years ago I worked at a used bookstore called Bookmans in Tucson. Everybody from Arizona knows Bookmans. They have several stores around the state and they’re all as big as supermarkets, filled with used books, music, and games. Most books are half cover price, and employees got a 50% discount. Sometimes the manager would be like, “You did a good job today, Sean, take a book.”
I realized that I would never get another opportunity like that in my life and took full advantage. My library exploded with books on every topic imaginable. I also learned the joy of collecting vintage paperbacks, with the added joy of getting them for next to nothing.
So when I came across Ted Mark’s I Was A Teeny-Bopper For The CIA I just had to get it. I’d never heard of the title or author before (I wasn’t about to forget that title!) and figured this would be something I’d never see again. I was right, I’ve never seen that book again, and now, 20 years later, I finally got around to reading it.