What Is Possible?
How Much Can You Write?
I have always wondered why writers can’t produce more words. Back to that evil “Why?” question I talked about a few posts back.
In fact, that question about why we can’t write more is the torture of all writers I know. And I am clearly no exception. I always think I should be doing more.
Satisfaction with my writing never comes in making the number of words I wanted to write in a certain time. I always fall short.
So for fun I thought I might ask what is more? What is the ceiling? What has been done in the past and what can be done now?
You know, questions designed to torture us all.
So what is the top?
The answer to that is going to depend on how you look at the question. If you are looking at entire careers, then the numbers are upwards of 800 or more books published. A couple authors have over a thousand, one over four thousand. To get inside the top ten, you need to be over 600 books published, basically.
If you are looking at a shorter time frame such as one year, then the numbers change. Dame Barbara Cartland supposedly holds the world record for the most novels written in one year. That would be 23.
She had over 700 published and left another 160 unpublished novels on her death at 99.
So lets say you have a year free from most life issues, you have cleared out all the myths that are stopping you, and you are ready to go.
What would be possible?
Cartland novels, as an example, were around 60,000 words, so that’s about 1,400,000 words in a year. (23 x 60,000 words)
I’ve had numbers of years bigger than that, but that included all my writing, including these blogs and e-mail. Not just novels or short stories. Closest I ever got to that number on just fiction was 1,200,000 words.
So clearly that’s possible for anyone if I can do it with my short attention span issues.
So to the math…
Say you write 1,000 words of finished fiction in an hour. Taking breaks every hour, and a nap and lunch, you average in eight hours time about 6 hours or about 6,000 words a day. You have a family and a life, so you don’t work weekends and you take two weeks off a year on vacations.
You know, standard easy corporate job without the commute.
So you write 30,000 words per week times 50 weeks equals 1,500,000 words. If that was all 60,000 word novels, you would write 25 novels and beat Cartland’s record.
Let me repeat that…
Working an eight hour day in which you manage to write for six hours and get 6,000 words a day done. You work five days a week. And you take not only the weekends off, but two weeks for vacation.
And that would get you one-point-five million finished words.
And that is at 1,000 words an hour for six hours. Many of you write far more than that per hour.
(If you had an assistant or a spouse doing the production and promotion, you could be making some pretty nice money in a year or two at that pace in this new world.)
Let me put that into perspective for what I published last year in production of books.
I published 27 major books last year. I published 14 novels last year, 2 nonfiction writing books, and 11 issues of Smith’s Monthly. I do not count that I was also the co-executive editor last year on five Fiction River volumes. (Asimov would have counted those. I might going forward since my name is on the cover.)
I will be doing more than that number of major books in 2017 by a ways. Today alone I put together six short story collections. And my writing speed is picking up.
So back to the question…
In this modern world, with all the ease we have of production, what is possible if we actually get out of our own way, clear all the myths, and just enjoy telling stories???
I honestly don’t know.
—How much actual time can you clear?
My example is 40 hours per week. If you are a full-time fiction writer and you are not spending at least 40 hours at it, you might want to check in with yourself.
—Have you cleared the myths?
And I don’t just mean the myth of rewriting, but the problems with success. If you grew up lower-income, you are going to have a tough time with success and stop yourself in so many ways. If you don’t understand what I mean by myths, you haven’t cleared them yet.
—Have you cleared the business?
This is the killer for many in this modern world. Just one problem area of business is the balance early on with making enough money to get help. And when to hire help and when to do it yourself. We all do it ourselves early on. I did over 200 books in production for WMG Publishing before we converted it to a corporation and hired Allyson to run it. It now has nine employees and over 600 titles. So I know all about this problem as well.
—Are you still learning?
This is the deadly one for long-term success. If you don’t make the time to keep learning while you are writing, keep pushing yourself, you will soon burn out. Think of learning as fueling the car. Without learning, eventually it sputters and stops and you won’t even know why.
—Have you cleared the family?
What I mean by this is get the family, your spouse or partner on your side completely. If not, you are doomed. If you don’t respect what you are doing and teach them to respect it in the same way as you going to a corporate job, you don’t stand a chance for long.
So what is possible? How much is possible?
All this questioning for me started while I was doing that book in five days while traveling. I started asking myself why that was even special. And the only answer I could come up with was that we modern writers are lazy and spoiled.
And buried in myths. And I was spouting my share as well to myself and limiting myself by thinking my age limited me.
I wrote a novel in five days in a hotel room. And it was easy and fun. Now if that doesn’t get a person questioning, nothing will.
So now I am questioning my own beliefs around the production of writing fiction. I am wondering how much more I can do. And I am trying to pinpoint what has been slowing me down and stopping me in places.
I honestly don’t know how much is possible with modern computers and writing tools. I know for a fact that I’m not doing it, not even close.
But I just might as I clear more stuff out.
This is going to be fun.
Would you explain this statement further? “If you grew up lower-income, you are going to have a tough time with success and stop yourself in so many ways.”
Lynne, I might try a post about it, but basically it boils down to these two points. When brought up with a lower class work ethic, a person thinks writing, when fun, is not work and thus not valuable. (A killer.)
Second, when success starts to hit, two things happen. A person doesn’t know how to deal with the business of money, since growing up lower-class is work-spend cycle. And the person won’t feel like they have earned it, since good writing money sneaks up on a writer. So the writer stops or feels like a fake and so on and so on, all destructive to continuing with productive growth.
This training as lower-class is deadly at times to writing without being aware the myths are there. When a person is trained with the attitude that you work a job you hate, make just enough to make bills, repeat, climbing out of that is frighteningly difficult.
There is more to it, of course, but you get the idea.
I’ve seen this happen to quite a few people. Not just in writing either. In the legal community ‘impostor syndrome’ is a real and recognized thing. Growing up poor you don’t know anyone that does this kind of ‘work’ so you feel like a charlatan making money doing it. Like you are going to be found out at any time.
It’s weird but it’s a real and definite thing. I dealt with it.
Very real, Jo. And very deadly to writers. Either they can’t handle that making money is fun or they make writing work and that grinds them to a halt. Deadly both ways.
Love it when you start doing math.
This tickled a memory, so I went to Google. Robert J. Randisi said he wrote 27 books in 1984. And had never written less than 13 in a year. Doesn’t outline or prewrite (hmm, sounds familiar). Afternoons are for chores. Writers one book in the morning and a different at night. Now works as an editor and in organizations part-time. Write a book a month for a Western series, while writing detective novels too.
I dare say he would say he could have done better, but he did what he always wanted to do. You can’t complain about his output.
You hear of people who put 60 to 100 hours a week running their own business. What if a writer did that? You would have to double your example numbers. Whoa. *Eyes cross*
Yeah, Bob is one of the modern pulp writers I sometimes mention in passing. He’s great. And if you haven’t read some of his work, it’s worth finding.
Bob is a gem! He gave me a blurb several years ago that I still treasure.
It seems to me that one area which seems to be allowing authors to get more words in is voice dictation. A lot of folks appear to be using dictation, at least some of the time, to write without needing a computer handy. And also it eases the strain on the old wrists, etc.
For myself, I tried dictation and absolutely hated it. I think spending years and years having trained myself to get the words to my fingers has made the idea of voice dictation a pretty tough sell for me personally.
But I believe that those who are able to embrace dictation and use it effectively could blow past the kinds of numbers I might be able to put up just typing.
G., dictation has other issues, and pretty large ones that a writer has to get past. It is a “grass is greener” shortcut that flat doesn’t work for most writers. For some, it does, but you must add in the transcription time and other issues. It is not better than typing, just different.
Hi, Barbara Cartland dictated her novels.
Barbara Cartland had a steno pool.
Martin L. Shoemaker
My advice, having tried it both ways, is don’t do your own transcription. Either use a program — which doesn’t work for me, due to the noise environment in my recording studio (i.e., a Jeep traveling down the highway) — or hire a transcription service. I found that manual transcription takes me three hours for every hour recorded. If I had three hours to spare, I wouldn’t need transcription!
The service I use, iDictate.com, has been incredible. They charge 1.25 cents per word. NOT cheap, but not bad if I’m selling short fiction for 6-10 cents per word (assuming I sell the story, of course). They advertise a turnaround time of 24 hours, but they may take longer if you send them a lot of files. It’s still faster than I could possibly do, and I can dictate more words while I’m waiting. And the quality is good, though I do have to review every line. And their customer service is exemplary.
No, dictation is not for everybody, but it has kicked my productivity into overdrive.
John D. Payne
I sense a challenge in the offing…
Evil Dean. Very evil. With all that math and stuff. (^_^)
I want to thank you, yet again, for all that you do. I keep running up against myths that I thought I’d cleared out. I’ve gotten into the habit of “checking in” with myself over each one of these posts, paying close attention to every time my brain says, “You can’t do that. Only Dean can do that.”
Very enlightening how much I’ve been holding myself back. Will keep plowing forward, though.
Awesome series of blog posts Dean. I wish you’d expand more on the business part. I don’t think I’m a fast writer, more around 700-800 clean words per hour, but I’ve been getting a lot of things written over the last 6-7 years. I’m spending half the day writing, the other half on production.
Right now I’m drowning in things that need to be done. I do everything myself, except for swapping copy-editing with another writer. I’ve been working on redoing both my writer and publisher websites, redoing old covers, blurbs, etc. and trying to keep publishing new stuff. Plus all the other little details that take up time.
But I still have several novels sitting on my computer – five at this count, gazillions of short stories and collections. I keep trying new ways to be more productive in the production area, but it comes down to me being overwhelmed with getting stuff out. Last year I averaged 40-45 hour work weeks for the year.
I’d love to hear how you were able to do everything when you were doing it all yourself.
Indie author Amanda M. Lee writes, on average, 10k or more a DAY. She publishes around 30 books a year, and many of those are up to 100k words long, so not novellas or even short novels. She works her butt off, but she also takes weekends off and takes vacations. Oh, yeah. She’s also pretty well off.
Here’s an article about her and another Michigan indie author: http://www.freep.com/story/money/business/michigan/2016/02/29/michigan-e-book-all-stars-hit-big-quit-day-jobs/80817098/
Try to ignore the article writer’s rather stupid slant. He likes to use the word “churn” a lot, and that should tell you enough about what to expect.
I was going to mention her. 23 books in a year? That’s a slow year for her.
That’s the number in the book of world records. More than likely because no one challenged it.
We’ve got to get out of our own way. That’s the basic message I get from all of this post. It seems like there are different ways each of us use to stop ourselves, and they don’t really matter.
What does matter is recognizing what we’re doing, and get beyond that. Then there’s no ceiling.
Thanks again, Dean!
Thanks for the posts these days.
If I think about it, actually my main enemy is laziness. I hate to admit it, but I could write much more if I would spend more time with it. And I absolutely could do it. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m lacking for writing more? But your line: “modern writers are lazy and spoiled.” is so true with me. Though I’m working clearing the myths, my main enemy is still the laziness (and the myth writing is hard work). How did you just say? I will write more from now on and “This is going to be fun”. (And Ok, I will need more if I want to succeed, I still don’t anything about business… But at one time I can deal just with one thing. For now, I will beat my laziness.)
Okay, Dean, you’ve written about the writing and publishing myths. Since I grew up lower income, how about some well timed words on the business myths as well. Love your work, by the way, and working toward that 6000-word day.
I’ll see what comes up over the next few days about the business side. It’s a massive area. (grin)
This is what I consider to be the main point.
Dame Barbara Cartland…had over 700 published and left another 160 unpublished novels on her death at 99.
Focus on filling an issue of Smith’s Monthly every month for the rest of your life. Let them keep issuing the magazine until they run out of stuff, then they can have a nice final issue. Remember, all of those issues, the entire run of the magazine, will still be for sale for at least 70 years after your death. Each issue, brand new printed POD. Is there any magazine that can claim the same.
Plus, now that you know that you can write in a hotel, you might get a basic mac portable so that you don’t have to lug the big iMac around. HA!
I liked the big Mac and it was scary easy to carry in and out of hotel rooms and set up. I’m not a fan of laptops unless I have a bluetooth keyboard and a big screen and a bluetooth mouse. If I’m going to carry all that, might as well just carry the big Mac. (grin)
I’ve heard some warn prolific writers against burn out. What are your thoughts on burn out, when a writer could be at risk and why – i.e., what’s the mechanism behind it?
Burn out? Well, great excuse to cut back.
I have no idea what makes sitting along in a room and making stuff up so difficult as writers think they need to rest or otherwise burn out.
Sort of like writer’s block. A silly excuse to not create more words.
But what if you run out of ideas?!
I would highly recommend for any writer to learn how to touch type. It takes about an hour to learn which finger types which keys, and then about a week or two of grueling typing when you want to kill yourself with your keyboard, but after that, when you pick up the speed, it’s all smooth sailing.
I would also suggest looking into the Dvorak keyboard layout (as opposed to QWERTY), not so much for the increase in speed, but to reduce the strain on the wrists — which could become a problem for anyone who types 6-8 hours a day.
A little math:
In a few weeks of learning how to touch type almost anyone could type at about 50 words per minute. 50 wpm x 60 minutes = 3,000 words per hour. Even with cycling it could still go as high as 2,000 – 2,500 words an hour. And 50 words per minute is a very modest speed for someone who types for a living.
Add a few more weeks of daily typing and our typist reaches an average speed of 65 wpm (which is still pretty modest for someone who types for hours every day). 65 wpm x 60 minutes = 3,900 words per hour. Even with cycling this could add up to 3,000 words per hour.
Of course, this would not work for every part of the book, but when our writer is in the zone and knows where the book is going, these kinds of numbers can really add up.
Touch typing makes writing on a computer more effortless. When you reach high speeds, it can almost feel like you just think a thought and it appears on the screen almost immediately, as if by magic.
I read a few of the comments over the last few posts and I’ve noticed a trend that might be a myth.
People think in words in a generation where words don’t matter in regards to production as much as hours in the seat.
I would love to hear writers brag about working 8 hours a day on new word production 5 days a week.
“I can type 2000 words every 20 minutes” (I can) shouldn’t and isn’t as impressive as “I wrote new words for 8 hours”. People who type fast don’t always type long (fatigue is a factor).
Even words per day aren’t as important as hours in my opinion. Each is a measure, but hours sounds like someone actually did the work and worked hard. The perspective is different.
I bet that works better with friends and spouses too (who don’t understand words per day/hour anyway).
All writers are different, but in my case having a daily word count goal and knowing my average words-per-hour rate is only part of the equation. But those are what drive me to actually WRITE while I’m in the chair. I can do many things while I’m sitting there, but the WPD goal spurs me to spend that time writing. My WPD goal is also why most days I exceed my writing goal for the day.
Secondly, my WPD goal enables me to gauge progress in real ways and adjust my WPD goal (and therefore production) upward. Maybe most importantly (for me) the WPD goal is a kind of challenge that resets every (writing) day and keeps everything fun.
It also works for my family because they know I’m writing into the dark so interruption isn’t possible. If one of them needs me for something, they call or come see me, and when the “interruption” is over, I put my fingers on the keyboard and go right back to having fun, writing the next sentence. Of course, all of this is from DWS over the past few years, with my fervent thanks.
And I’m not a fast writer. I just finished my 21st novel the day before yesterday. I wrote those plus 160+ short stories and novellas since I started in October 2014 and started my 22nd yesterday. Thus far I have just over 72,000 words of new fiction on the year and just over 89,000 words including my daily journal. Gracias, Dean.
I actually think that’s a pretty valid point, Harvey. Maybe it’s just a perspective thing. I agree that for goal setters words might be a pretty hefty tool.
Whatever gets you to write is a great thing.
Thanks for the math, Dean. Basically, I have learned for this post is that I need to get out of my own way in order to write more. This post is a post I will refer to often.
1/4 Writer, 2000-3000 nwpd (new words per day)
1/4 cartoonist, 1 page/ week
1/4 learning (Lynda, Dean&Kris workshops, others workshops…)
1/4 publisher starting my business, (doing all myself except copyedit)