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Writers on Writing: Selected Quotations


In America, writing a bestselling novel that is also critically acclaimed is not enough. In order to be regarded as a truly successful author, the writer must also be prolific. The dreaded one-book-author disease is a leper-like malady that has mainly attacked American writers. Yet highly prolific writers like Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Joyce Carol Oates are often criticized for attenuating their talent and product by publishing too much.

If you apply to writing the same standards and methods that people regularly apply to other professions, you will take a lot of weight off your subconscious and increase your productive capacity. Any Rand

….during the past five years…I have managed…to do a lot of work. Since my sixteenth birthday I have published five books…and two of them have been of formidable size. All have got good notices and sold well. No other lustrum of my life has been so productive. I often wonder, looking back over my years, whether I have got out of myself all that was there. In all probability I have. H. L. Mencken

Productivity is the only path to confidence. Stephen Koch

I can go months, sometimes even years, without writing a solitary word….I’m just baffled, baffled, by those people who seem to publish a new book every nineteen days. There’s a kind of compulsion there, or need, that I simply do not possess to any degree whatsoever. David Markson

I’ve slowed down. I’m now doing a book every fifteen to eighteen months. I couldn’t keep that pace up. Sue Grafton

I like my own writing—another secret to prolificity, since I can’t wait till I write something so I can read it. Isaac Asimov

As for my “productivity,” I used to write a book in nine months…but now it’s one every three years. I’m writing more slowly and I’m spending more and more time on holiday. Graham Greene

….Many writers who hate themselves every winter for their sluggishness and lack of productivity could be aided not by “more motivation,” but by bright full-spectrum light for half an hour every morning to treat their brain’s seasonal response to the shortened days. Dr. Alice W. Flaherty

If I thought I might never get an idea for another novel…I don’t think it would distress me. I’ve got two books under my belt now. I would be content to consider that a lifetime’s work, and I would just putter around and find other things to do. Joseph Heller

Most writers write too much. Some writers write way too much, gauged by the quality of their accumulated oeuvre. Richard Ford

In the last ten or fifteen years, I’ve found that it isn’t necessary to work that much. It’s bad, in fact. You drain the reservoir. Henry Miller

When writers get together, the subject often turns to productivity. How does Joyce Carol Oates—whose name is synonymous with productivity—do it? What about Stephen King or Anthony Burgess?...What seems true is that serious writers who write a lot of books and who experiment with different kinds of writing will suffer for it. The critics won’t keep up with them. Their books will be reviewed in isolation from previous works, and their careers will resist categorization. Over production can also damage the quality of a writer’s prose….Virtually every prolific writer has dull passages, even whole books worth tossing out. Jay Parini

I think I do like to work under the pressure of a deadline. There’s something exciting about knowing you have to get something done by a certain time. It’s not at all like having months to write in. Truman Capote

I am twenty-eight years old now and I must have at least one book a year from now on if I can manage it. John Steinbeck

There are several reasons why so many American writers have only one book in them. One is that it is very hard to be a writer of serious fiction in this country, not merely because we have so little respect for such work but because we throw up so many distractions in the way of it. All the hullabaloo attendant to writing a book to which other people respond intensely can be hugely flattering and can make it difficult to get on with one’s work. Jonathan Yardley

….there is the writer who has had an early success but is unable to repeat it….There is a cant explanation which is offered whenever this difficulty is met: this type of writer is a “one-book author”; he has written a fragment of autobiography, has unburdened himself of his animus against his parents and his background, and, being relieved, cannot repeat his tour de force. But obviously he does not consider himself a one-book author, or we should hear nothing more from him. Moreover, all fiction is, in the sense used here, autobiographical, and yet there are fortunate authors who go on shaping, recombining, and objectifying the items of their experience into a long series of satisfactory books or stories….But (the one-book author’s) first impatience at being able to repeat his success can pass into discouragement and go on to actual despair; and an excellent author may be lost in consequence. Dorothea Brande

One of the curiosities of our publishing world is the boom and bust of the one-shot novelist….The number of one-shot novelists living in this country who are never heard from after a spectacular debut is amazing. Edward Uhlan

I think there’s a period in a writer’s life when he is, well, simply for lack of any other word, fertile and he just produces. Later on, his blood slows, his bones get a little more brittle, his muscles get a little stiff, he gets perhaps other interests, but I think there’s one time in his life when he writes at the top of his talent plus his speed, too. Later the speed slows; the talent doesn’t necessarily have to fade at the same time. William Faulkner

The thing about writing is not to talk, but to do it; no matter how bad or even mediocre it is, the process and production is the thing, not the sitting and theorizing about how one should write ideally, or how well one should write if one really wanted to or had the time. As (Alfred) Kazin told me: “You don’t write to support yourself; you work to support your writing.” Sylvia Plath

I wonder if many novelists have their desks as full as mine of—I will not say rejected manuscripts because no editor has had the opportunity of rejecting them; abandoned efforts would be as better word—for which I confidently expect to finish or use some day. Alec Waugh

The history of literature is the history of prolific people. I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Ray Bradbury

Always I have been weak. Vacillating and miserable. I wish I wouldn’t. I wish I weren’t. I’m so lazy, so damned lazy. John Steinbeck

A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle. Paul Johnson

A novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many novels are begun and never finished. A half-novel is not a novel, and a writer is not a novelist until he has finished his novel. Indeed, the end of the novel is the most important part of the whole work. It is easy to begin a novel. That is nothing. Pearl S. Buck

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com