What Prolific Should Mean

I’ve had some emails lately asking, more or less, what “fast” really means. Author A, over there, they say, produces a book a week–which is fast by anyone’s estimation.  While Author B over here does a book a year and the media laud him as prolific and fabulous.

So I thought I’d take another stab at defining what *I* mean by “prolific”.

Unfortunately, depending on who is doing the talking, the meaning shifts and changes.  The contents, the speaker, their experience and prejudices have to be taken into account whenever any conversation about speed takes place.

Let’s start with Author B, who writes a book a year.

Is that fast?

If you’re a traditional publisher with a swish office in Manhattan, then you likely consider a book a year to be a very respectable rate.

For indie authors, a book a year is stated to be too slow by most of the experts, and anyone writing a book a year needs to prop up their sales with sterling advertising and promotions.

Meanwhile Author A is cranking out (yes, I use that awful phrase deliberately) a book a week, and everyone wonders how the hell they’re doing it.  Do they eat? Sleep?  Have a life?

Is that too fast?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

For every author, even the two fictitious authors I’ve profiled, above, too fast/too slow should be a personal measure, because so many factors influence your fastest and slowest rate.

It should be a personal measure, but usually isn’t, which is why newbie authors are so confused by the fast/slow discussions…and usually so intimidated by them.  Most discussions get log-jammed because what one author considers fast is slow to another.  Therefore, when they’re arguing the merits of, say, the rapid-release strategy they’re talking about two different things…and usually aren’t aware that they’re not on the same page.

Author A who writes a book a year might take very long vacations in between books.  Six months in Greece on a “research trip”, and an hour in the morning at the keyboard when he’s in his office, writing a page a day, which he usually discards when he gets back to his keyboard the next morning.

When he gets close to a deadline, though, he can write 1,500 words/hour, can clear the decks and write for twelve hours a day, and turn in fantastic prose ten hours before the deadline passes.

For this type of author, a book a year is so freakin’ slow, I’m surprised he doesn’t blush when he calls himself a working writer.  He’s a diletante.

There’s another type of author who writes a book a year.  This one also takes six month research trips to strange places, but he’s actually working every single day he’s away–actually reading historical archives, interviewing experts and others, visiting locations for his next book and taking copious notes, while at night he works on concepts for the book, and hammers out a rough plot, builds his story world and profiles his characters.

When he gets back to his desk, over the next six months he painstakingly plots his story and writes 200K manuscipts that go through constant revision.  He stays at his desk for eight or ten hours a day, every day, and he also turns his book in on time.

His books are rich with sumptuous settings, cool details, quirky characters and zinging dialogue…and readers love him for it.

I don’t intend to debate the value of spending six months researching a book, or taking six months to write even a doorstopper-sized volume.  I’m merely pointing out that there are authors who spend this amount of time building their sources.  A book a year for such an author could be described as a fast-to-comfortable rate.  They would feel intense pressure if they were required to pick up their pace.

See the difference?  Same pace (a book a year), two completely different scenarios.

Look at it from the other end of the spectrum:  A book a week.

I know several authors who write a book a week.

I’ve plotted and written in seven days at least two books that I recall…but I remember them because the pace was remarkable…for me.

Dean Wesley Smith regularly produces a book a week.  He has a low threshhold for boredom, and once challenged himself to write a book a week for a month — four books in one month.

In other words, writing a book a week is something Dean can do over the long term, without breaking too much sweat.  The four books he produced in the mentioned challenge are not the only ones he’s produced very quickly.

On the other hand, I would have trouble writing a book a week for more than one book.  I can do it–but it takes deep concentration and sheer bloody-mindedness to push myself into staying at the keyboard for hours on end.  For me, a book a week is what I consider “white knuckle speed” — it’s the all-out, life-on-hold, boiler-steaming, rivets-popping speed.

It’s not a speed I would want to maintain over the long term.  For me, this is “too fast”, while for Dean Wesley Smith, it’s his every day pace.

Same rate of production:  A book a week.  Two completely different scenarios.

Your Fastest Pace is Your Fastest Pace

Your individual writing pace depends on a ton of factors–life situation, how long you’ve been writing, how many books you’ve written in the past, how familiar you are with the genre, what genre you’re writing, your internal belief systems, and how good you are at telling your internal editor to shut up.

In other words, those rates are personal to you.

You should take a little time to figure out what your three speeds are:

  1. White knuckle speed
  2. Marathon speed
  3. Dead slow speed

Why the three speeds?

Because sometimes you have to pull out all the stops, and crank up your speed:  To hit a deadline you’ve procrastinated yourself into danger of missing.  To help an editor in a tight spot.  And to keep your marathon speed from declining.

I recently was asked by an editor if I could possibly write a story to hit a deadline only a few days away, so that he could fill his anthology, as he’d been let down by other authors.  I could, and I did, because I cranked up my speed.  Knowing my white knuckle speed meant I could calculate if the deadline was impossible for me, or do-able with some adjustments to my life.

Spending a week challenging yourself to write at white knuckle speed every quarter or so retrains your mind and fingers, so when you drop back to marathon speed, it doesn’t deteriorate.

When would you ever want to use a dead slow speed?

If you’re writing in a brand new genre (for example), you’ll naturally use dead slow speed, because your internal editor has control of the reins and is second guessing every word and sentence…until you get comfortable with the genre and dismiss the SOB and get back to writing normally.

Dead slow speed is when the editor is in charge and that’s not a good place to write from.  But it’s worthwhile knowing what your dead slow speed is, because you can make allowances on your production schedule for the extra time it takes.  If you’re about to write a new book in a new series or genre, or POV, or the book you’re approaching is in any way a challenge, then you can calculate how long it will take to write it using the dead slow rate.

The marathon pace is the pace you can sustain over the long term, without stress and without stripping gears because it’s too slow.

Calculating your Marathon Speed

I encourage all writers to keep a writing log–simply a recording of how long you wrote for, and how many words you got down in that time.   Divide words written by the days you wrote to arrive at an average word count per day.

If you average your word count across the entire spread of your work log, the calculation produces your marathon pace.  You can use this pace to build your production schedule, and be reasonably certain of hitting all the deadlines you create.

The further back your writing logs go, the more accurate your averages will be.  Writing logs kept over a year or more will naturally include life-rolls, sickness, days off, your true rate of procrastination, unexpected events, etc.  This is the pace at which you can produce words comfortably and without stress.

Over the long term, you will always write far less than your words/hour rate (which is faster than your words/day rate) suggests you should.  This is the hardest lesson I’ve learned in the last few years.  I’ve had to accept that I simply cannot, in the long term, write all the books I want to write, that my hourly rate says I should be able to write.  Life gets in the way.  Doubts, struggles, challenges with the writing all drop your true rate of production down.

In another post, soon, I’ll talk about how you can increase that rate of production without killing yourself with stress, but it’s a different and just as long a subject as this one, and needs its own post (or two or more…or this whole site, really).

Calculating your White-Knuckle Speed

You can also figure out your word count per hour, but this is an inflated figure because your writing logs don’t include the days you didn’t write, the hours you didn’t sit at the desk because of one thing or another.  You can use this rate to estimate what your white knuckle speed would be.  Add another 10% to the rate, and that’s just about the best speed you’re capable of, that you couldn’t sustain in the long term.

Experimenting and a week’s white-knuckle challenge will refine the number for you.

You can even calculate your dead slow speed by collecting two special numbers:  Each time you start a new book, keep track of the word count and how long it takes you to write the first chapter (or scene, if your chapters contain multiple scenes).  This is the time when the editor is most in control of your writing.  Average out and drop by 10% to arrive at your dead slow speed.

If you’ve never kept writing logs, then you’ll need to track your numbers for a week or so–the longer the better.  But even a single day will give you some idea of what your speed might be.  The longer you keep track, the more accurate the rates will become.

So What Does “Prolific” Mean?

If you’ve read down to here, then you already know the answer.

Note:  Finished books are all that count.  If you start a dozen books over a year and only finish one of them, that’s not productive and can’t be considered prolific.

So we arrive at the conclusion that:

“Prolific” means producing finished books at the highest sustainable rate over a long period of time.

What your version of prolific means in real numbers is different to what my version of prolific means, in real numbers.  The actual rate is personal to every indie author.


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