Saturday, 1 October 2022

How To Be Prolific

I have been blogging a long time now, and understand my own rhythms; when I am devoting a lot of creative energy to writing something and/or gaming, my hobby itch, as it were, gets very nicely scratched and I don't have a great deal of juice left over for blogging (or, at least, blogging about role playing). This is very much the case recently. I am finishing off a biggish writing project for somebody (details will follow when I am allowed to talk about it) and have a long-running weekly game to manage, and I find this means that, like a junky with a stable and regular supply, I need to devote less time all round to the source of my addiction. 

Instead, I have been thinking a lot, in a vaguely self-critical way, about my productivity (or lack of it). I have a day job and a family, so I do have some excuses, but I am now probably in the position that I have to refer to myself as middle-aged, and I am disappointed with my creative output so far. I have written an honest-to-goodness real book for a real publisher (admittedly, an academic monograph nobody in their right mind would want to read), and I have written quite a lot of academic articles. I also write for a general audience in various online publications. But when it comes to what I really, really care about doing, the sum total is Yoon-Suin, the first issue of The Peridot, a longish bit of a yet-to-be-released game, a yet-to-be-released campaign setting, and the aforementioned work-in-progress. 

And I've been at this for getting on for 15 years.

After years of polite agnosticism about Ursula Le Guin (I read the Earthsea books ages ago and found them pretty bland), I have been reading and enjoying some collections of her short fiction lately. This comment of hers, on 'April in Paris' (from the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters), really struck me:

This is the first story I ever got paid for; the second story I ever got published; and maybe the thirtieth or fortieth I wrote....At about twenty I began sending things off to publishers. Some of the poetry got printed, but I didn't get systematic about sending out the fiction till I was getting on for thirty. It kept systematically coming back....[at] age thirty-two I was very pleased to get a check.

Thirty or forty stories! Before even getting published! And then after that she wrote about twenty novels! And literally hundreds more short stories! And she had the same number of hours in a day as the rest of us!

Agatha Christie is also a writer I was always politely agnostic about. My sister is a big fan, and like any good brother, very early in my life I made up my mind that anything my sister liked had to be bad. I had read the The Mysterious Mr Quin stories, and like anybody from my generation grew up watching David Suchet swanning about and berating 'Aystings' as Hercule Poirot on ITV. But I was never a big reader of Christie's fiction. Lately, I decided to dip my toe in, and again discovered a writer of quite astounding productivity: she wrote 66 detective novels, hundreds of short stories, and half a dozen 'proper' novels to boot - and she, it turns out, also seems to have only had 24 hours in a day as well. And she wasn't like Enid Blyton, churning out largely formulaic fluff at a rate of a book each week. This was decent stuff.

We are very down on guilt, regret and shame. This is a problem; they are beneficial emotions which should be rehabilitated. Comparing oneself negatively to others can serve as a useful kick up the backside; the torment of regret is a good incentive to change bad behaviours; sensing that you've wasted your life is an excellent reason to make up for lost time. I invite you in a spirit of brotherhood to join me in feeling like shit for a little while in comparing yourself to these authors. And then get to work. 


  1. Yeah, I feel like I have absolutely no time to waste. I spent a vast amount of time in my 20s trying various things that weren’t writing, some of which were worthwhile and some of which were idiotic time-sinks; I sometimes wonder if I was constitutionally just too fragmented and mentally unfocused to write booklength material at that point. I ran lots of RPGs but otherwise my exploration mostly manifested physically and in various forms of deleterious hedonism rather than by sitting down and carefully exploring my imaginative space. It’s possible I would have come up with some stuff that’s more original and creative than my current output, but it’s also possible that I just wouldn’t have been able to stick with sitting and focusing in my leisure time the way I can now, and so it isn’t worth lamenting. I blew a lot of time playing computer games but I also spent a lot of time with a wide variety of people; perhaps one upside is that that has shaped the dimensions of my understanding of humans in a way that’s good for fiction. I do now find that variegated and universal experiences of human drama are one of the worthiest parts of fiction to me.

    This may be related to an idea (I might be getting this wrong) that your prefrontal cortex closes age ~27 and suddenly you discover an ability to plan and do dedicated work that just didn’t exist before that (my mom of all people explained this to me). This may have something to do with the idea that writers really come into their own ~35 (for me that’s six years from now).

    Now that I do have the capacity to sit and work, it feels like go-time; the question is how to maximize the time that I have. How much time can you spend in deep reading and writing per day? I’ve had at least one job in my field that basically robbed me of my capacity to do anything but drink and play video games, but currently that’s not the case. Sometimes I think about becoming unemployed and writing full time, but part of me is like “if you can’t do it with the time that you have you probably wouldn’t with more time and no outside schedule.” Perhaps if there’s an age to write full time, I’ve yet to reach that stage of the rigidifying process. Even though I have time and my job doesn’t suck my brain, I do find myself having to ruthlessly carve out time for writing occasionally, sometimes to the point of neglecting people or things that I should probably address. That sacrificial neglect of other things that you value may need to be further countenanced if you (David) are to give your gift in a way you find transforms your experience of life; in the immediate term it may require that you act in a way that feels selfish to the point of cruelty towards people and things that place demands on your time (excepting your family). In the long term, you will get to spend time doing something that is profoundly meaningful to you, and what you provision to our collective experience may be of great value

    1. I think that thing about the prefrontal cotext may be right - I certainly didn't really learn to do anything requiring long-term commitment and dedication until I was 27+.

      I think quitting work to write full time is a mistake unless you already have a fanbase and a body of work, or you are exceptionally good at focusing. I personally would go stir-crazy and get depressed without a 'proper job' to get my out of the house and meeting people. I also don't think that spending lots of time writing is necessarily all that productive. What I've found is that there is a sweet spot of about 2 hours - if you can sit down for that long each day and do nothing else other than write (you're alllowed to go for a piss or make a cuppa) you can get a huge amount done.

      I don't know if you're familiar with Cal Newport but his email newsletters are interesting - he often profiles very productive and creative people who work for very short but intense bursts each day and spend the rest of the time doing what looks from the outside like not much at all. John Grisham, Roald Dahl, Stephen King, other aburdly prolific writers, who all have a similar pattern of getting up reasonably early, writing or 2-3 hours in a very intense, focused way, and then spend the lunch and afternoon fishing or whatever.

    2. Also, sacrificing one's personal and family life is definitely a danger. The painter, Jack Vettriano, once said in an interview I listened to that in the early days he sacrificed his marrange in order to maintain focus on painting. In hindsight, his success may allow him to justify this to himself. Imagine if he hadn't succeeded.

    3. Did he succeed, though? I suppose the fact I know who Jack Vettriano is maybe answers that question, but a rich hack is still a hack. Discuss.

    4. Yeah, you'd definitely not want to neglect your family; for me it was things like computer games, for you it might be things like the footy (on TV, you'd still want to play), though I know you do idea generation with the game on in the background so that might be fine

      Regarding hours of writing, that's one reason I'm keeping my job for the time being; I've found a couple different modes that I can do consistently but neither of them involve 4-5 hours of writing almost every day. I've found I can do ~8 hours a day ~2 times a week, or ~2=3 hours 3-4 days a week. More than that and I just don't have the inclination, which is key. There are probably other ways I could do it, but just looking back, these are the modes I derive. I could believe the 2-3 hour mode of very focused work, though when you really get into a vein and want to work it, it seems like there's not enough time in the world and hours pass like minutes. Maybe the 2-3 hours is a minimum to keep the appropriate mental gears turning and to produce something that can be refined even if you're not in the gold zone

    5. @cmrsalmon - To be honest being a rich hack sounds fine by me! But I think 'hack' is a bit harsh. When he first came up with formula, it wasn't formulaic! Imagine if you'd never seen one of his paintings before; you'd probably really like it.

    6. Agreed, I felt it was a bit harsh the second I hit Publish. His stuff isn't for me, but I accept that formulaic work only becomes so through repetition. Of the handful of things I've finished, none are close to publishable, so who am I to judge?
      I think your body of work, including the blog, is something to be tremendously proud of.

  2. Get your shit together! I crave more content!

    1. Agatha Christie will have nothing on the tsunami of creative content I am about to unleash upon the unsuspecting world.

  3. I think you're being harsh on yourself, when I interviewed you I was genuinely blown away by the amount of stuff you're producing on top of having a "proper job" which I'm certain must be a big drain on both time and mental capacity, and a young family. Sure, a lot of your stuff hasn't seen the light of day yet, but it's still all work and it still counts and will come to count more over coming years as you gradually birth it into the world.

    I was particularly impressed BTW when you said that Great North was basically already complete in its written form, I had expected it to be just a vague idea. Oh, and your blogging rate is phenomenal, particularly when you've been doing it for so long (I notice the quiet patches but always assume - and often know - that it's because you're writing other stuff). And on top of all of that you read, and manage to write actual proper analyses of, a hell of a lot of books from of many different types, some of which are Very Hard Reads. Of course, you don't generally watch (I think?) TV, which is the biggest time-sink for most people.

    There is, I am certain, a really strong bias to judge oneself as unproductive, largely because you spent all of your time in your own company and for most of that time you are not seeing results. I certainly feel like I don't do as much as I ought to/would like to, and yet I'm surprised at the number of times people have said to me "I don't know how it is you do so much", "you must have a clone", etc.

    I've a go-to quotation which I always pull out when thoughts like this come to me. It's from Charles Mingus's autobiography Beneath The Underdog (which I recommend to anyone and everyone, no need to have any interest in the man himself or jazz). It's about a period when he was a patient in a locked ward at Bellevue Mental Asylum, and his roommate was the subsequent World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer:

    There was a boy sitting across the table from me, reading a book on mathematics - I could see the equations and symbols. I saw him walking around earlier that morning - very tall and gangly, sandy haired, only about eighteen years old. I later learned he was a champion chess player and spoke seven languages. He was a genius, I guess. His parents had him committed, he told me, but he didn’t say why. He didn’t seem to mind. He was quiet and good-natured and always busy doing something. When he saw me looking at him he asked if I wanted to play a game of chess and he brought out his board. I showed him what I had just wrote.

    He looked very thoughtful, and said, "I don’t have time to hear everything, but I’m interested in music and keep abreast of what’s happening. It’s odd you say you haven’t been productive. It seems to me you have several-Let’s see-" and he counted in his head - "I’d say six or seven albums that came out last year. That isn’t bad." I was amazed, but he was right, and I realised last year seemed like ten years ago to me.

    He checkmated me three times in a row, and I could see he was getting bored, so I went back to my bunk and tried to write some poetry. A good title came to my mind: Nice Of You To Have Come To My Funeral.

    Oh damn it all blues.
    Screwed to the melting frozen walk of dared-to-embrace stone,
    concrete hard, imagined soft
    only to overdue erections of loneliness
    that turned feminine and speaks back wet, warm tears,
    not too far removed from its common denominator,
    Iced urine melting at dared hot death
    That clings to life for love at thought of some response
    Be it only the clay, dirt or pavement I behold in my
    drunken, fevered search for a true woman’s groin,
    Wanting me as I want her to never hate me
    because we found refuge of satisfaction as two drunken stones
    warmed themselves side by side
    In outside our guttered ideas of opposite sides fucking.

    "Do you understand that poem, Dr. Wallach?"

    "Well, Charles, it certainly is a very personal expression."

    1. One of the reasons I stopped watching much TV (I still do watch a bit of football and cricket and some mindless things like Homes Under the Hammer if I want to tune out) was hearing an interview with William Gibson in which he attributed his success as a novelist to the fact that he watched TV less than anyone else he knew.

      It helps that most TV is just really shit. You notice that more when you stop watching it, I think. People recommend TV series to me all the time and they just don't sound at all like interesting ways to spend an evening.

      I can't believe you quoted a Charles Mingus autobiography at me. That's very 'Dan'.

    2. Yeah, I think I have frequently heard creative people whom I admire say that they don't watch or rarely watch TV. For me more than anything else, I just found it increasingly hard and energy-sapping trying to find things worth watching, and yet like most of us am very capable of slipping into a trance where I get glued to each new slice of crap served up to me, and lose hours on end. Now we no longer even have a TV, I am very very happy about it.

      My own guilty pleasure for years was Formula 1 (for ridiculous and surreal and drug-related reasons; plus I have a lifelong hatred of sports inculcated by school bullying, and F1 is unsporty enough yet contains fascinating elements of personal skill, team work, politics... it was a great drama, and one with really cool in-car shots that let you play at racing cars. Plus if tune-out TV is what you want... I'm perfectly happy to zone out to the hypnotic boredom of many a long race. But F1 itself became SO time-sapping that I slowly knocked it on the head over a period of 5-10 years.

      Stuff like Homes Under the Hammer both disgust & appal me and bring back fond memories. For several years I had an always-on TV on my desk at work, because my work at the time was writing software to run the set-top-box that controlled the TV. As a result of that and the nature of office-hours means that different day-time programmes have some weird and wonderful associations for me (particularly Pointless: "nearly time to go home!") My desk-neighbour Dave was an incorrigible prankster and some of his pranks got pretty tedious ("oh look, my TV has inexplicably flicked over to the 'Gay Rabbit' channel again. Dave, could you please kill your remote login session on my set-top-box and get back to work") but some were true art. His own programme-of-choice was Jeremy Kyle (which it sickens me even to think about) and he once made a sticky label with my name on it and for weeks when I went off to make a cup of tea I would return to find my screen showing Kyle with the text on the bottom of the screen strategically altered: "I can't believe that my boyfriend's obsessed with Dan Sumption", "I need you to take a test to prove that your baby's Dan Sumption", "I love you but I can't stop dreaming about Dan Sumption", that sort of thing.

      But, yeah, I really don't need TV, and though there are some good, and some brilliant shows, I can easily live without and immerse myself in brilliant books instead (except at Christmas when I often binge-watch TV for a week or two). And I too get recommended many, many series and even the good ones I tire of after a couple of episodes (I also think that episodic TV, even the very best, suffers from that I'll christen ("the Lost effect") - so much of it is not about telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, it's about ensuring that there can always be another series (sorry, "season") to tack on to this one. And another. And another. And another. When people say to me "oh, I know it starts off a bit crap, but by Season 7 it really hits its stride" I'm like... "I know that I always try to make an effort of persisting with books that I don't like, but you're taking self-torment to new extremes".

      Anyway, Mingus and me. Ah um. Yes. Do you just mean "well, that's random", or is there something specific to Mingus in your life? I have to admit that I first encountered that passage not in the autobiography, but in the album "Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus" by the genius impresario Hal Wilner (I say "by", Wilner's trick on this and most of his albums is to assemble an unlikely unsemble of musicians to do the work, many of them often from the crowd of Lower East Side avant-jazz noodlers who often also play with Tom Waits, but in this case also including Keith Richards, Chuck D, Elvis Costello, Vernon Reid...). This is the track:

      Oh, also, I *really* tried to restrict the quote to the relevant bit, but had to go on to include the mania-driven poetry section because that line from his doctor always cracks me up.

    3. I meant in a "well, that's random" sort of a way. Not many people would quote autobiographies of Charles Mingus at me, and certainly not on this blog! Kudos. I now want to go out and read it. Never been a big Mingus listener, although I do like jazz.

    4. Was it William Gibson or someone else who said - and this is a tough one folks, but think about it: "Nobody with an internet connection is doing meaningful creative work." ?

    5. The same William Gibson who posts prolifically (or at least retweets M John Harrison prolifically) as @thegreatdismal on Twitter?

  4. I relate to this post a lot. My go-to Successful Person Whose Existence Haunts me is romance novelist Danielle Steel.

    She's written something like 140 novels (I have no idea what their quality is like, but even if drivel it's impressive), while have quite a storied life: married five times, had nine children, moving around the world.

    If I recall correctly, she only sleeps a handful of hours a night... which is a solution, I suppose.

    1. The sleeping a handful of hours a night thing is good if you can do it. Some people genuinely only need 4-5 hours, and if you're one of those people, the world is your oyster.

  5. However, unlike the day job one does not have to write to succeed. All the examples cited were professionals.

    1. Yes, true, although they worked hard enough at the start to make space to become professionals.