The Mathematics of Productivity

Due to a confluence of deadlines, I found myself finishing three novel manuscripts in two weeks—The Key to Creation for Orbit/Hachette (172,000 words), The Sisterhood of Dune, with Brian Herbert, for Tor (161,000 words), and the second YA space adventure Star Challengers with Rebecca Moesta, for Catalyst.  Two solid weeks of 12-hour days, 7 days a week.  (Yes, I did deliver all three books to the proper recipients, on time—see my November 15 blog entry.)

That schedule was crazy even for me, but I’ve always been a very productive writer.  Over my twenty or so years as a novelist, I’ve published more than 100 books—about five a year, on average.

Now, some snobs out there will be rolling their eyes with the ingrained—but completely wrong—assumption that “productivity equals poor quality.”  I can point to the fact that 47 of my books have hit national or international bestseller lists, including 19 on the New York Times list; my novels have won or been nominated for most of the major awards in my field, have received half a dozen starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, included on numerous “year’s best” lists; one was even named a New York Times Notable Book.

Some of the greatest writers in literature wrote quickly—many of them in longhand.  Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Charles Dickens were amazingly prolific, and their works have remained on bookshelves for more than a century and a half.  Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, one of the best-loved novels of all time, in a feverish frenzy that lasted about six weeks.  William Faulkner wrote his classic As I Lay Dying in the same amount of time and claimed to have published his first draft “without changing a word.”

Productivity equals poor quality?  Yeah, right.

What other industry or trade actually frowns upon hard work and productivity?  Imagine a carpenter receiving complaints from a customer because he worked twelve hours a day for two weeks, seven days a week, to meet a promised deadline.  Or how about a factory worker being reprimanded because he produces more than his coworkers, or an accountant who balances the books and finishes the tax forms well ahead of schedule?

For some reason, though, snobs complain when a writer produces “too many books” (as determined by some arbitrary scale), as if ideas and stories are somehow in short supply in a good writer’s imagination.  They don’t understand the mathematics of productivity.

An author who writes one book a year—which the snobs would consider an “acceptable” level of productivity—almost certainly cannot make a living by writing (sorry, that’s just the plain truth) and works another full-time job to pay the bills.  I’ve talked with many such authors and noted their writing schedules.  To get pages done in the available time between work, personal, and family obligations, that person might manage an hour or two in the evenings, some during the weekends, devoting maybe ten hours per week to actual writing.  Over the course of a year, the writer will spend ~520 hours to writing and editing the novel—which is apparently the right amount of time on the Snob-o-Meter.

The full-time writer, on the other hand, can work all day long on writing and editing, all week long.  For my own part, I put in 8–10 hours a day, usually six or seven days a week.  Even on a conservative estimate, I can devote 520 hours to producing a novel manuscript—the “acceptable” amount of time a writer should spend on a book, see above—in 11 weeks.

In other words, a full-time writer who is willing to devote the same number of hours on a writing career as, say, a restaurant owner devotes to running a restaurant, can write five books a year, spending 520 hours each on writing and editing.  (In fact, that has been my average output over the course of my career as a novelist.)

Yes, the snobs who see an author’s byline on too many book covers over the course of a year may assume that the novels are rushed or sloppy, when in fact the author may well have spent as many hours or more on each manuscript as a one-book-a-year, part-time writer does.

It’s just simple mathematics.

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This is the first in a series of blogs dealing with writing productivity over the next couple of weeks.  It’s part of a lecture I give during the Superstars Writing Seminar—next one to be held January 13–15 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The three-day seminar is devoted to business aspects and career planning for the serious aspiring (and even established) writer, taught by six major bestselling authors, Brandon Sanderson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, David Farland, Eric Flint, Rebecca Moesta, and myself.  Check the website for further details, www.superstarswritingseminars.com.  Early-bird pricing goes up on December 1.

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