Thursday, February 28, 2013


Several years ago I posted a piece on the importance of “Quantity Before Quality” in writing. The focus was thriller-mystery master John D. MacDonald. Coming home after World War II, he taught himself to write—starting with pulp fiction—by working “12 and 14 hours a day, seven days a week.”

That self-imposed apprenticeship, as I pointed out , was very much in keeping with Malcolm Gladwell’s now celebrated formula (in Outliers) of 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a chosen field. Gladwell cites a surprising spectrum of exemplars, from Mozart to the Beatles, Bill Gates to the top Canadian hockey players.

In his first four months of writing, MacDonald completed 800,000 words of typed manuscript, kept  “at least 30 stories in the mail to the magazines at all times,” papered his small workroom with form rejection slips and lost 20 pounds. In short-story format, he estimated he wrote the equivalent of 10 full-length books in those four months—a “classic example of learning by doing. Had I done a novel a year, it would have taken me ten years to acquire the precision and facility I acquired in four months.”

Even so, after that grueling startup, MacDonald was barely eking out a living. By the second year “extreme financial pressures were eased” and he continued to labor forward on a decades-long path to best-sellerdom.

For years, battling my own laziness, I marveled at this four-month chrysalis of effort in which JDM metamorphosed himself into a great storyteller. From what source did he summon the “true grit” to work himself that hard day after day—and where might I find a similar motivation? It was only the other day that I came across an additional paragraph* that helps explain what made Johnny write:

(*In John D. MacDonald by Davod Geherin, p. 3)

It turns out he simply didn’t know any better. Having encountered no other writers (he had just returned home from the war), MacDonald had no clear idea how a writer ought to go about his work. He recalls: “I thought you got up in the morning and went to work and worked till lunch and then went back to work until the day was over—with good business habits, as in any other job. It wasn’t until my habit patterns were firmly embedded that I discovered that writers tended to work a couple of hours and then to brood about it the rest of the  day.”

MacDonald, in other words, treated the creative process as a job of work.

Other literary prodigies obviously shared MacDonald's work ethic. At his peak, Georges Simenon produced six novels a year and churned out his best-selling mysteries featuring Inspector Maigret a chapter a day for eleven or twelve days running. During this time, the Belgian master remained reclusive: “I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take phone calls—I live just like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels.”*  By the time Simenon typed “Fin,” he was utterly exhausted. This is writing as performance (which reminds one of two great writer-actors, Shakespeare and Dickens).

(* Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, p. 151.)

John Creasey, an English crime writer, seems to have outstripped both Simenon and MacDonald in output. In 1937 alone, twenty-nine of Creasey's books were published. According to the John Creasey Online Resource, the author “was so prolific that a comprehensive catalogue of his work has never been completed. Even the man himself lost count of the number of titles that he wrote.” But here’s an estimate: ”He published 562 books following 743 rejection slips, with worldwide sales [as of November 1971] of over 80 million copies in at least 5000 different editions in 28 different languages.”

London (l) and L'Amour
Like MacDonald, and Dickens, and many another novelist, Creasey worked assorted jobs, including clerical, factory, and sales, while trying to establish himself as a writer. For more colorful employment histories, check out the CVs of Jack London and Louis L’Amour.

 Of course, sheer antlike industry is no guarantee of success. I offer a cautionary tale from the Guinness Book of World Records (between 1976 until 1982) of one William Gold, labeled the world‘s “Least Successful Author” who “has earned only 50 cents after 18 years of unceasing labor.”

Maybe that’s some support for Simenon’s advice: “I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else… Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness.”


Notables names from a Wikipedia list of writers of prodigious output: Isaac Asimov (who wrote as fast as he could type, which was 80 wpm; I know, he once dictated an article to me over the phone), Barbara Cartland, Alexandre Dumas and R. L. Stine.


  1. Yes.

    I'm a cartoonist, and I totally relate to this article. Nothing proves your talent level like productivity. Artists use perfectionism to mask a fear of failure. Productivity forces us to embrace our flaws and work through them.

    It's the only way.

  2. Thanks, samax amen. Well said. I knew a very talented writer, and he was very productive, too. Ceaselessly so. But he would never actually finish anything. Nearing the finish line, he would veer off and start something new. So I think it also necessary to finish, meaning submit it in final form to the public or whatever audience for feedback, judgment, appreciation, criticism. Another toppic, though.

  3. Stunning info. You get to the heart of the matter. MacDonald is one of my heroes. He inspired me to write Sonoma Knight: The Goat-Ripper Case. For the male mind, I think it's more a labor or obsession than it is a labor of love.

  4. Inspiring article. With writing we should never put off until tomorrow what we can do today, but it's easy to find excuses as to why we need to!

  5. The post is pretty much a "reminder to self," since these are lessons I need to learn, again and again. Thanks to all commenters.

  6. Although editing makes me feel like I'm losing the will to live, your article has put everything back in perspective. Thanks!

    1. Me, too -- I need to keep inspiring myself by these examples.