The Key to
Success: Write More
by Dr. Lee Tobin McClain
What's the key to spectacular writing
success? Talent? Intelligence? Creative genius?
None of the above. According to Dr.
Dean Keith Simonton, who has conducted research on creativity for
nearly 25 years, creative success correlates most closely with
output: the quantity of work produced. Artistic and scientific
achievers from Picasso to Da Vinci didn't succeed more,
percentage-wise, than other now-unknown creators of their eras; they
simply produced more, and thus had more successes.
After Lee and her
Grace from China,
Lee began to
what Grace's life would
be like in
AtLives. See full
My Alternate Life
As the director of a graduate program in writing, I can vouch for
the fact that students who complete more writing projects succeed
more frequently than their slower-writing peers, regardless of
If productivity equals success, how can you increase yours? Here
are eight ways.
Build an Expectant Audience
Many of us are motivated by
the expectations of others. We'll do more to fulfill
responsibilities or avoid humiliation than we will to fulfill our
If that's your blessing -- or your curse -- use it. Create an
audience for yourself, whether it's a critique group, an editor, or
even online subscribers.
Poet Michael Arnzen developed a system for distributing a poem a
week from his web site (http://www.gorelets.com), which delivered
poetry directly to readers' Palm Pilots or other handheld computers.
He solicited subscribers through e-mail and press releases and once
hundreds of people were expecting their weekly poems, Arnzen was
committed to delivering. "Knowing my subscribers were always waiting
for the next poem in the series drove me to write daily. It was my
most productive year as a poet, ever, despite my full time job,"
Arnzen says. "And the project brought attention to my other writing,
too. I sold three chapbooks this past year, including the poetry
Critique groups can function the same way. If your group sets up
a schedule for distributing work, you feel obligated to fulfill your
responsibility. The critiques you receive are almost a bonus
compared to the regular production such groups enforce.
For magazine writers -- aspiring or published -- there's nothing
better than landing a few assignments to build an expectant audience
and thus, enhance your productivity. If you're an established
writer, play the query-a-day game (see tip number three) until you
have several assignments and deadlines to push you into
productivity. If you're inexperienced, you may have to work on spec
or for free. But knowing that an editor, even the editor of the tiny
neighborhood newspaper, is expecting your work will jar you into
increased productivity no matter what other demands are made on your
The Gradual Increase
Don't try to make a rapid jump in your productivity. Take it
slow. More importantly, take it steady.
Bestselling novelist Peter Straub compares writing to exercise.
"If you spend an hour or two a day writing, fairly soon you will be
able to do it for three or four hours each day; and the more you
write, the more sheer muscle you develop," he says. Romance and
women's fiction writer Susan Mallery suggests that a very gradual
increase in daily pages written can lead to a major boost in quality
and quantity of work sold. Her strategy is simple: figure out how
many pages you write in each writing session now, and then increase
by half a page every few weeks.
Why does it work? "A half page is a manageable goal," says
Mallery. "It's so small an increase, it's hard to get excited about
it. Yet over time, it makes a huge difference. Those half pages add
up without adding stress to the writer."
Mallery ought to know. She is the author of 75 published
The hidden benefit behind Mallery's
method is consistency. And consistent writing actually increases
quality as well as quantity. "When you write a certain number of
pages each day, the story stays 'in-place' in the brain," she
explains. "That means writing time can be spent on deepening the
characterization and enhancing the story rather than trying to
remember who these people are and what's happening with the
A Query a Day:
Games with Yourself
trying to make it in magazine writing, you need regular, frequent
assignments that will keep you writing. But at the beginning of your
career, or during a slump, the assignments can be thin or
nonexistent. That's the dangerous point when it's easy to clean the
garage or see the latest chick flick instead of writing. Soon, you
can feel like someone who used to write, or used to want to write,
instead of feeling like a writer.
At times like this, you need some kind of game to boost your
creativity and your career. My favorite is "A Query A Day." All you
have to do is produce and mail out one query letter each day, and
then you're off the hook and out the door. Conversely, on busy days
when the boss demands the latest report, the spouse threatens to
leave, and the teenager wrecks the car, you still have to produce
that one query.
Benefits are multiple. You get really fast at writing query
letters. You get fast at finding markets at the odd moments of your
day; I've been known to keep a copy of Writer's Market in my
Best of all, you're planting seeds that will bear fruit for
months to come. Inevitably, something hits, and then something else
does, and before long you're so busy writing stories that you have
to quit the game. Months later, assignments from the game days will
still trickle in. And because you produced so many queries, you
probably went off in weird directions; now, you have an assignment
to write something out of your own norm, and creativity soars.
Variations for other sorts of writers: try "A Short Synopsis Per
Day"; "A Contest Entry Per Day"; "A Poem a Day".
When you're working on a long book project, reinforcement and
rewards are seriously lacking. If you let discouragement set in,
your productivity may dip or plunge.
That's when you need the perspective and refreshment of multiple
projects. If you're writing a novel, make use of your background
research by submitting short magazine pieces on topics related to
your novel's theme. If your book project is nonfiction, see if
you can work up a short story or poem, either on the same topic
or on something completely different.
And make sure to submit the other writing somewhere -- a contest,
a tiny literary magazine, or a newspaper. The opportunity for
quicker feedback can give you a boost on your main project. Whether
or not you publish any of these side pieces, your big project will
benefit from the renewal of interest brought about by your
Create a Compelling Future
If you're not producing as much as you want, maybe you're living
too much in the present.
Success guru Tony Robbins asserts that you should have enormous
goals, the type that will make your palms sweat and your heart race,
in order to keep yourself working hard each day. Most people, he
maintains, think too small when they think about their future.
Indeed, successful writers often admit they've been visualizing
that place on the bestseller list for years. Before my first book
was published, I spent a lot of time looking at the paperback rack,
letting my eyes blur so that I could imagine that the latest popular
romance was my own.
One day, it was.
So go ahead and picture yourself accepting the Bram Stoker award,
or the Edgar, or the Nebula. Imagine what you'll say when
interviewed about your Pulitzer. If your dream is big enough, you'll
be motivated to make big efforts at the keyboard today, to make
tomorrow's vision come true.
Pages, Not Hours
Should you make yourself sit at the keyboard for two hours each
day, or strive for two pages?
Views differ, but I'm a fan of the page count. It's all too easy
to sit and daydream away a stint of writing time and produce
nothing. But if you know you aren't allowed to leave until you come
up with that query, or those three pages, you'll get it done faster.
Sometimes what you create will seem to be no good, but you'll find
that when you come back later, it's hard to tell the difference
between the pages produced quickly and those crafted more
In any case, bad pages can be fixed. A blank page can't.
The "Book-in-a-Week" technique is trendy now in the romance
writing community, but dates back to authors like Belgian-born
detective writer Georges Simenon. Simenon wrote most of his
500-plus novels in the space of 8-10 days -- sans outline, sans
pause, and sans computer.
Today's Book-in-a-Week proponents swear by a similar, if
electronically-updated, method: they clear their calendars of as
much non-writing-related activity as possible in order to fully
focus on writing for one week. During that week they write in every
spare moment, whether that means a ten-hour stretch on a Saturday,
or writing during commuting time, coffee breaks, the lunch hour, a
teenager's soccer game, and a toddler's bath time.
Some really do complete the first draft of an entire book. Others
set smaller goals: write an article every day, for example. The
point is to push yourself beyond your normal comfort zone, knowing
you'll only have to stay there for one week.
The Internet serves as a helpful ally to keep writers motivated
for this challenge. "I joined an online book-in-a-week challenge to
help me stay the course," explains one participant. "Everyone posted
their page totals each evening. Knowing my online friends were doing
the same crazy thing, that I'd have to post my totals each night,
and that it was only for one week, kept me writing. I wrote an
average of twenty pages per day. That's more than I'd ever written
This mad rush of writing has several benefits beyond the often
admirable number of pages produced. Focusing on writing as much as
possible helps to turn off the internal critic. For this week only,
you're not judged on quality, only quantity. For perfectionists,
that can be liberating.
April Kihlstrom, who has spoken about Book-in-a-Week challenges
at national conferences, describes quality benefits gleaned from
this quantity-related method. A draft written in a short time, she
explains, is far more likely to be consistent, passionate, and
Book-in-a-Week isn't for everyone, and it can't be done often,
but it may provide the jump start you need for increasing your
Charts, Calendars, and Goals
If you're already a working writer, you know that you have to
plan out your work; you have deadlines to meet, and editors who will
squawk if you don't do so. But if you're still unpublished, you may
be meandering along without a real plan, without charting out your
goals for yourself.
Get in practice for your future success by setting your own
deadlines. That way, when assignments or contracts come, you'll know
how quickly you can write, and you'll have faith in your own ability
to meet your deadline and follow through on your promises. Plan to
finish the picture book this month, the chapter book by spring, the
young adult novel by the end of the year. Then figure out how you'll
do it with daily page counts marked on a calendar.
As the platitude says, every journey begins with a step. So
decide now to put these productivity tips to use. Make a plan about
how you'll succeed. As your output increases, watch your career soar
along with it.
The beautiful thing about output is that
it's something you can control -- unlike native intelligence or a
good ear for words. You have no one to blame but yourself if you
aren't making it on a page a week. And when your career takes off
due to your increased output, you'll have the satisfaction of
knowing that your own hard work made the difference.
|Dr. Lee Tobin McClain
directs the Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton
Hill University, a low-residency program with specialties in
children's books, mystery, romance, and SF/F/H. Her YA novel,
My Alternate Life, was just released under Dorchester's
Smooch imprint. See full information at Lee's Web site:
be reached at: email@example.com
Back to JAW