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.
OK, that’s small potatoes compared with all the other crap going on, but it was the end of an era. I bet I’m not alone among Black Gate readers and writers in being a Black Sabbath fan. Unfortunately I never got to see them in concert and now I never will.
They did teach me a lot about writing, though. As an author I get tips and inspiration from lots of different sources, not just other writers. Sure, I have a fondness for the great prolific authors and the literary giants, but I often learn more from the greats in different arts. Perhaps that’s because there’s a certain distance that allows you to see what they do more clearly. With other writers I tend to spend a lot of time looking at the nuts and bolts of their work, while with musicians and painters that’s not the case. I know very little about playing the guitar, and nothing about painting a landscape, so I focus more on the philosophy behind the work rather than the techniques of the work itself.
Propaganda photo of the Volkssturm. This civilian militia appears to be well armed, but in fact borrowed their weapons from a regular army unit and had to give them back after the parade. The Volkssturm received castoff uniforms or no uniforms at all. The most appropriate uniform would have been a big bulls-eye on their chest
I’m in the process of researching one of my upcoming novels, Volkssturm, about the German civilian militia formed in October 1944. The Volkssturm called up all able-bodied men aged 16 to 60 who weren’t already in uniform. It also brought in some women. Most of these people weren’t particularly fit, or had been working in essential jobs such as armament factories and had been made redundant due to chronic shortage of material and Allied bombing. Even those who remained in essential jobs often served in local Volkssturm units charged with protecting their home area. The idea was to launch “total war” against the Allied invaders and save the homeland from devastation. We all know how well that worked out.
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.
My local produce seller, a farmer from one of the villages in the Rif
When the writing gets tough, the tough writers go to Tangier…
One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you have North Africa right at your doorstep. Sadly that region, with all its diverse cultures and beautiful landscape and ancient sites, has largely become a no-go area. Algeria and Libya are war zones and Tunisia and Egypt are highly unstable as well. That leaves Morocco, a safe and stable country that’s drawn me back several times to use as a writing retreat.
As I mentioned in a previous post about Living in a Moroccan Medina, I regularly go to the northern port of Tangier to get away from email and editors and take some time to do some serious writing. Not only does the city resonate with literary giants of the past like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and Mohamed Chukri, it also provides inspiration in the form of a large traditional medina, fine views over the Strait of Gibraltar, and a growing arts scene.
So what does a Canadian writer living in Madrid work on when he’s in Morocco? Read on. . .
Hello again, Black Gate readers! You may have noticed that I dropped off the blog, and indeed the rest of the Internet, for all of October. You did notice, didn’t you? You didn’t? Well, I was gone. I spent the entire month on a writing retreat in Tangier, Morocco. I’ve written about visiting Tangier before on this blog, but this time I decided to dedicate a longer time in the city to some writing. My current project, The Last Hotel Room, is a novel set in contemporary Tangier, and I thought it a perfect opportunity to try out my own version of a writing retreat.
Through local contacts I was able to rent a house in the medina, the old historic quarter. My house was a traditional building of northern Morocco — two stories and a rooftop terrace surrounding an airshaft topped with glass. Sunlight and ventilation came courtesy of the airshaft, the only other windows being small ones in the downstairs kitchen and upstairs kitchenette. The interior was cleverly designed so that each room felt open to the sunlight from the airshaft while remaining out of view of the other rooms, providing openness and privacy at the same time.
This sort of architecture has an unusual acoustic effect. Noises next door and on the street just outside sound like they’re coming from inside the house. Your neighbor’s door opening sounds like your door opening. It’s a bit weird at first, but it never makes you nervous because your house is a fort. Doors are made of metal and secured with heavy bolts. The airshaft has a cage-like barrier to keep people from dropping in unannounced. My two windows were both well above street level and protected with iron bars.
There are a lot of how-to manuals for writers out there–books about world building, books about grammar, books about finding markets, books about almost every aspect of the writing life. Sadly, there’s no book telling writers how to defend themselves if an axe murderer invades their home office.
A Guide to Improvised Weaponry is the perfect self-defense manual for any writer. It tells you just how to defend yourself when ISIS terrorists decided your work in progress makes you a candidate for their next YouTube video. It’s written by Terry Schappert, a Green Beret and Master sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces. This guy knows how to kill you with a pencil. It’s co-written by Adam Slutsky, a professional writer who probably had to explain to Terry that a disappointing advance, low royalties, and non-compete clauses are not valid reasons for killing an acquisitions editor with a pencil.
Each chapter focuses on a common object that you probably have in your home. I was especially interested in objects that are in my home office, ready to be picked up the moment one of my many anonymous online haters kicks in my door.
First, my coffee cup, strategically located to the left of my computer, ready to protect me and mine. Schappert makes the obvious suggestions, like flinging my hot Ethiopian brew into my attacker’s face or using it as a knuckle duster, with the caveat that there’s a good chance of hurting your hand with that second method. He also explains how you can use it to catch the tip of your attacker’s knife and deflect the blow.