That’s Too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers

This post by Drew Nellins Smith originally appeared on The Millions on 9/2/15.

Lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.

On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.

In King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ — and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.


Read the full post on The Millions.


Virginia Woolf on Why She Became a Writer and the Shock-Receiving Capacity Necessary for Being an Artist

This post by Maria Popova originally appeared on Brain Pickings on 9/9/15.

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern…the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven…no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Pablo Neruda illuminated this notion from another angle in his magnificent metaphor for why we make art, but the questions of what compels artists to reach for that other reality and how they go about it remains one of the greatest perplexities of the human experience.

No one has addressed this immutable mystery with more piercing insight than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). In one of the most breathtaking passages ever written, found in her Moments of Being (public library) — the magnificent posthumous collection of Woolf’s only autobiographical writings — she considers what made her a writer and peers into the heart of the sensemaking mechanism we call art.


Read the full post on Brain Pickings.


The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

This post by Maria Popova originally appeared on Brain Pickings on 8/25/14.

How to sculpt an environment that optimizes creative flow and summons relevant knowledge from your long-term memory through the right retrieval cues.

Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)

Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:


Read the full post on Brain Pickings.


Genius Time

This post by Jennifer Crusie originally appeared on her Argh Ink site on 7/10/15.

I looked at Lavender Blue‘s first act and realized it was 46,244 words long.

That’s too many.

I’m not really that fixated on numbers, but I know that readers are going to need to be turned into a new story long before the halfway point. I’m not sure how long this book is going to be, but 46,000 words is definitely the halfway point or close to it. (It was contracted at 50,000 words, but that ain’t happening). I need the murder at the halfway point, end of Act Two, so really, just no on that length.

So I did what I always do. I made a list of the scenes with their word counts, which showed me that eight of them were really transitions, not scenes (too short, no conflict) and then studied the remaining, twenty-five actual scenes, looking for what I could cut (over 10,000 words had to go which was around four scenes).


Read the full post on Jennifer Crusie’s site.


There Is No Map for Grief: On the Work of Art

This post by Lidia Yuknavitch originally appeared on The Millions on 7/8/15.

Trauma brought me to the page, it is that simple.

When my daughter died in the belly world of me, I became a writer — so that all the words that cannot name grief, all the words threatening to erupt from my belly and uterus did not explode up and through my skull and face and shatter the very world and sky.

Oceans of other people’s compassions have washed over me, but those of us who have lost children, we are a living dead tribe. We smile and nod and thank people for their concerns and efforts. The labor of our lives is actually quite simple: stay alive. So that others might go on.

Wounds make artists. I wrote a book from the body of my dead girl.

There is no map for grief, but there are bridges to others.

When I was 30 and finishing a dissertation on war and narrative, a box arrived via UPS to the door of my home. The sender was my aunt — my father’s sister — a woman I had become estranged from over the years for her ill treatment and unkind words toward me, my sister, and my mother. The box was about the size of a small television. I removed the brown paper and tape carefully…then wondered why I had been careful? The cardboard box under the brown paper had a red lid. I wondered why. When I opened the red lid a hundred photos and yellowed papers and documents spread before me like hands. Nothing from my aunt — there was no explanation for what was inside the box.


Read the full post on The Millions.


How to Become the Artist You Were Born to Be

This essay by Bernard Hiller originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 7/10/15.

By becoming authentic. WHAT’S STOPPING THAT?

Ask yourself, what did you have to do to be loved, as a child? Most kids are not encouraged to believe in their uniqueness. If you had to behave like someone other than yourself, then you stopped being your authentic self. And, what is authenticity? Sharing your passion with others and making your soul visible to the world.

Below is a list of common traits that prevent you from living your life and fulfilling your destiny.


1) Being a People Pleaser.
Behaving or doing something you don’t really want to do-in order to make someone else happy. People pleasers neglect their own needs and wants and inevitably become angry and frustrated. You’re hoping the other person will validate you, but you just end up being resentful.

Start loving your Needs and Wants. The better you feel about yourself, the more you are willing to invest in yourself. If you don’t invest in yourself, nobody else will.


2) Living in the Past or Future.


Read the full essay on The Huffington Post.


How Important Is It to Be a “Famous” Writer?

This post by Lauren Sapala originally appeared on her site on 5/12/15.

For many years it was my dream to be a famous writer. Like, a REALLY famous writer. My idol was Jack Kerouac, and while that was partly because I loved the beauty of his writing (and still do) it was also because of the recognition he achieved. Never mind the fact that fame only contributed to his tragic downward spiral, that’s a story for another day. The point is that I wanted what he had—status, notoriety, and success.

I knew that if I had those things I would be happy.

But a funny thing happened on the way there…I noticed that when I concentrated on using my writing to gain recognition from outside parties, my writing suffered. I suffered too. Writing that way wasn’t much fun. And I also realized that I had no idea what outside parties wanted from me. I would think I had a grand idea for a little while, and then it wouldn’t seem so great. Or I’d try to write something that was really “current” only to find the times had already changed and that thing wasn’t “in” anymore.


Read the full post on Lauren Sapala’s site.


The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace

This profile by Christian Lorentzen originally appeared in New York Magazine in the 6/29/15.

Nobody owns David Foster Wallace anymore. In the seven years since his suicide, he’s slipped out of the hands of those who knew him, and those who read him in his lifetime, and into the cultural maelstrom, which has flattened him. He has become a character, an icon, and in some circles a saint. A writer who courted contradiction and paradox, who could come on as a curmudgeon and a scold, who emerged from an avant-garde tradition and never retreated into conventional realism, he has been reduced to a wisdom-dispensing sage on the one hand and shorthand for the Writer As Tortured Soul on the other.

For someone who has long loved Wallace’s writing, as I have, one of the ironies of this shift is that, whether he intended to or not, Wallace started the process himself. First, he embarked on a series of publicity campaigns in which he performed his self-conscious disdain and fear of publicity campaigns, a martyr to the market culture and entertainment industry he was satirizing in his books. Then there was a treacly commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 that became a viral sensation and later, a few months after his death, a cute, one-sentence-per-page inspirational pamphlet, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. And now comes a bromantic biopic, The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the novelist Rolling Stone sent to write a (later abandoned) profile of Wallace in 1996. The movie’s theme is the bullshit-ness of literary fame — which Wallace, the permanently unsatisfied overachiever, nonetheless craved (not to mention it might get him laid, which he also thought would be a phony achievement). The movie is based on Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the book of transcripts Lipsky published in 2010. And since much of its dialogue is transferred directly from the tapes, it does have a claim on the authentic Wallace.

None of this is entirely new; Wallace has always been an unstable commodity. For two decades, the writer and his writings have been at the center of a cult with several branches. The first branch is other fiction writers, who also tend to be the most serious readers. This makes a certain obvious sense. Infinite Jest is, on its face, the most daunting of novels; 1,079 pages, 96 of them endnotes; text in small type pointing you constantly to text in smaller type, necessitating multiple bookmarks; an immersion in two subcultures, junior tennis and addiction recovery; a time commitment to be measured in weeks, not days — two months for serious readers, Wallace thought. Writers took to it like Marines sprung from a sort of literary boot camp, hunting for something beyond the minimalist vogue of the 1980s.


Read the full profile on New York Magazine.


Opinion: Why Authors Need to Step Away from the Internet

This post by Debbie Young originally appeared on the ALLi blog on 6/29/15.

Author and ALLi Advice blog editor Debbie Young makes the case for self-published authors to occasionally turn their backs on the ever-hungry beast that is the world wide web.

As indie authors, we sell most of our wares in a marketplace that never sleeps. In theory, at least, we are able to reach new readers 24/7, all around the world, without leaving our homes. But with this privilege comes a never-ending action list of online marketing tasks – and a ton of related stress.

Build a website – blog and guest blog – tweet and retweet – pin and repin – share an update – share a story on Wattpad – like for likes – schedule some posts to reach other parts of the world at their busiest times – schedule some more to get ahead of yourself – check your sales stats – tweak your keywords…

Sound familiar? Yes, we all know we should prioritise. Ring-fence marketing time, limit online hours, protect writing time. But how many of us are that disciplined? Not me, I confess. Even for those with the best time-management skills, the pressure can still build up, because the internet is always there, begging to be fed.


Read the full post on the ALLi blog.


Key Steps to Writing a Book

This post by Christy Heady originally appeared on her site on 4/15/15.

Aside from implementing good storytelling and following stellar punctuation rules, when a writer begins the process of writing a book and wanting a successful writing career he or she must keep a few points in mind. These points are not taught in school; rather, they are fruitful lessons I have learned along the way to becoming a best-selling author that I want to share with you.


#1. You must love what you do.

When I began writing my first book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Money on Wall Street, I absolutely loved the topic. In fact, I loved it so much it helped me embrace the fact I lived in a tiny apartment with no air-conditioning and washed my hair in the kitchen sink since I did not have a shower and had only a pint-sized tub. I had a dream and a purpose and my love for that kept my focused and on toward financial success.


Read the full post, which includes four additional, specific steps with commentary, on Christy Heady’s site.


Good Is The Enemy of Great- 5 Things Special Forces Taught Me

This post by Bob Mayer originally appeared on his Write On The River blog on 6/20/15.

I’ve had varied experiences, especially in the military. Cadet at West Point, Infantry platoon leader, recon platoon leader, and then Special Forces A-Team leader and other position in Special Operations over the years. I experienced organizations at various levels, from bad to great.

However, the most dangerous place to be is ‘good’.

What good means is that you and/or your organization is doing well enough to get by. To accomplish the ordinary tasks. But in Special Forces our tasks were often extraordinary. Complacency could have fatal consequences.Voltaire is credited with saying: “Good is enemy of great.”

I’ve found this also to be true in my civilian career as a writer and CEO of Cool Gus. Here are some basic rules I learned in Special Operations and continually apply to avoid settling for good; and you can too:

1. Great is hard work. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. The one common core I saw in Spec Ops and in successful authors was they work damn hard. I watch people buying lottery tickets and think that’s what many wanna-be’s do with their career and their life. They hope luck will strike them; luck comes to those on top of the hill. Who climbed up there on their own.


Read the full post on Write On The River.


How Much Are Words Worth?

This post by Scott Carney originally appeared on his blog on 4/27/15.

Writers tend to keep their thoughts in the realm of ideas rather than calculate the seemingly mundane matter of the mechanics of the trade. However, a few months ago I sat down in a Chinese restaurant with a friend of mine who writes for the New Yorker and we agreed to leave our narrative musings to the side and think about practicalities. We were going to try to figure out how much the printed word is worth in America today.

We wanted to calculate how many feature stories the top magazines in America assign every year, and how much they typically pay their writers for the assignments. The list was only going to be for the top publications in America–the ones that pay between $1.50-$5 per word and that comprise the top tier of journalism. These are the magazines that line the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere and the ones that we write for pretty regularly. Think The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Wired, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, O, The Atavist, and the dozen or so other magazines that sits on the tops of toilet tanks and the tables of dentist offices from Seattle to Orlando.

It was back of the envelope math at best, but as far as either one of us could determine, it was the first time anyone had tried to figure out how big the pie was for long form freelance writing in America. There are hundreds of amazing writers in the country, delving into stories that drive the national conversation on everything from politics to the cult of celebrity to human rights abuses to cutting edge scientific and technological discoveries. These are the types of pieces that we make a living on, and ones that, frankly, we feel are important to write.

After ten minutes listing the average number of features in each magazine multiplied by the number of issues annually we had a number: 800. On average these stories would run at about 3000 words and pay $1.50 per word. It was only a ball-park estimate of the overall freelance writing market cap. But it was also a rather depressing one. Let me put this in bold so it stands out on the page.


Read the full post on Scott Carney’s blog.


In a Rush to Publish? Better Ways to Shave Off Time

This post by Elizabeth Spann Craig originally appeared on her site on 6/5/15.

There has been a good deal written about the need for self-publishing authors not to be in a rush to publish. And yet, there has been a good deal written about the need for self-publishing authors to quickly produce for financial success.

These bits of advice aren’t really as contradictory as they seem. The time to move things along, I believe, is when we’re writing. The time to be thoughtful and unhurried is during the packaging process…the editing and cover design. The finishing touches need time.

What can we do to make our writing go faster? Here are some things that have helped me:


On a daily basis:

Know what you’re going to write that day (at least the plot points).

Think about where you left off and what you’re going to say next before you open the laptop (I mull things over in the mornings as I let the dog out and as I’m making myself coffee.


Read the full post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s site.


Cara Lopez Lee’s Thoughtful Rules for Compassionate Critiques

This post by Cara Lopez Lee originally appeared as a guest post on Rebecca Lacko’s The Written Word site.

I have a small, trusted circle of critique partners. I know I’m lucky, they’re hard to come by. I met two at Writers’ Studio at UCLA, a couple of years ago, and I count them dear friends. Two others, I met when I began volunteering for Field’s End, a non-profit literary event group. In all cases, I found my partners by magic, or universal synchronicity, or dumb luck–I really don’t what alchemy transforms strangers to trusted allies. All I can I say is it is extremely difficult to both find and BE a good critique partner. That’s why I’m sharing ideas from author and HGTV-writer Cara Lopez Lee’s excellent post, Feedback with Compassionate Detachment.

Here are excerpts:

I’ve discovered that providing feedback with the goal of serving both writer and story can be fast and easy, if you know how…

Creative writing is always deeply personal, fiction or non, and I’ve learned that’s why it’s important for feedback to be both compassionate and detached. I’ve since developed a reputation among coaching clients, writing colleagues, and students for giving feedback that encourages and motivates. Here are a few tips that have helped me:

1. Take responsibility for your opinion by emphasizing “I” statements over “you” statements.
This helps writers take feedback as opinion, rather than personal blame or praise, encouraging them to decide whether their writing needs to change or just needs another audience. For example:

  • I’d like to know more about this character’s relationship with his father.
  • I’m confused here. Is it possible to clarify?
  • I find myself wondering how this character felt when she saw the body
    (Note: If you only adopt one technique, let this be it. You will win friends and influence writers! -RL)


Read the full post, which includes six additional specific critique tips, on The Written Word.


Seeing the Trees – Ten Ways Around Writer’s Block

This post by JJ Marsh originally appeared on her site on 2/21/15. Warning: strong language.

A writer friend is helping me out by checking a Spanish translation of my work. I asked how I could repay the favour.

“Encouragement!” she said. “I’m blocked. So many false starts, I need help to get moving again.”

Blocks happen to all of us, sometimes caused by rejection or criticism, sometimes because we need to top up the creative reservoir. Advice often falls into the ‘Stand back’, ‘Take a break’, ‘Do something else’ category. Yes, that works.

But sometimes we get blocked because we’re looking at the woods and not seeing the trees. So get closer.

When I hit a wall, I stop trying to envisage the forest and get right down to twig level. I spend some time doing the equivalent of staring at a blade of grass. I’ve collected a series of exercises from all over and this is how I get past my blocks. After I’ve forced myself to complete a few of these, I return to my ms with an attitude I can only describe as Hell Yeah!

They aren’t for everyone – depends on what the block is – but it might give you a few ideas. Here are ten exercises which have worked for me:

Roll the dice. To generate some writing, start with You could use cut out images from a magazine just as easily. Apply genres – whatever images you turn up, you have to fit them into crime/erotica/fairytale… WHY? Remind yourself of the childlike joy of just making shit up.


Read the full post, which includes 9 more specific tips for overcoming writer’s block, on JJ Marsh’s site.