Why They Write . . . and Write . . . and Write

<i> Spurgeon, a free-lance writer, works for the International Herald Tribune in Paris</i>

In the recently published letters of T. S. Eliot, the poet notes that there are two ways to develop a reputation as a writer: a) have your name and work appear everywhere and as often as possible, or b) have your name and work appear so rarely that anything you do is considered to be good. John Creasey clearly chose the former route.

And when Creasey, the British author of more than 560 books, was asked near the end of his life in 1973 why he continued to write and sell more novels, he said:

“Try to envisage a boy of ten being told by his headmaster, after he had handed in an imaginary conversation between Marshal Foch and the kaiser, that he could make a living out of writing. Then everyone in his family ridiculing the idea. Then using every spare moment to write, and receiving 743 rejection slips. Enter into the mind of a young man who went through all this and to whom it never occurred to give up. And my God! You care whether you sell or not!”


It would appear that a sense of revenge and anger at rejection helped drive Creasey to become one of the most prolific authors of his day, but what about today’s most prolific writers? What drives them? How do they produce so many of what most mortals who even dream about doing it cannot do? I compiled a list of the world’s most prolific living writers of books in English and asked them 10 questions about their writing habits and what drives them.

Together, these 13 writers have published more than 3,300 titles. Their combined sales are around a billion copies. And their subject matter ranges from English spelling primers to treatises on the history of Judaism, from adventure to science to romance.

In an effort to cover all possible reasons for such massive output, I decided to ask not only psychological questions about the why, but also the nitty-gritty questions of physically how--the tools, habits, and quirks.

For example, could it be possible that the ease of a word processor in producing clean copy could contribute to a writer’s prolificacy? The answer: The typewriter is still the favorite tool of today’s most prolific authors. Ten of the 12 writers on the list who use a keyboard prefer the typewriter.

Only Barbara Cartland follows in Henry James’ footsteps, using dictation. However, the 88-year-old queen of the romantic novel, and step-grandmother to the Princess of Wales, has produced a mere 507 books, whereas Ronald Ridout, 74, an ex-schoolmaster, has written 515 textbooks on his typewriter.

But it is only fair to point out that Cartland has sold more than 500 million copies to Ridout’s cool 90 million, and that when it comes to the numbers of books that each writer has written, be warned: They probably will have written several more by the time you have read this. Efforts at listing the 13 in order of prolificacy are therefore stymied.


And also, some of the figures for the number of books each author has written are slightly deceptive in that some have produced a number of books that never have been published.

Take the ex-stationery salesman, Michael Avallone, 65, who has published nearly 200 books at last count, and sold more than 40 million copies. The list includes his Ed Noon detective series of 38 novels, his 17 novelizations of television shows such as “The Partridge Family” (the first of which sold 3.5 million copies when it came out 20 years ago) and his 35 mainstream novels. Sometimes called the Fastest Pen in the East--meaning the New Jersey coast where he lives--Avallone also holds the record for the largest number of unpublished books: 25. So Avallone has in fact written more than 200 books (the manuscripts of which are on file in the Boston University archives).

Avallone’s philosophy is written in italics at the bottom of his entry in Who’s Who in America: “A professional writer should be able to write anything--from the Bible to a garden-seed catalogue and everything there is that lies in between. . . . Writing is the last frontier of individualism in the world--the one art a man can do alone that basically resists collaboration.”

To the question “To what quality of character do you attribute your prolificacy?,” Avallone responded: “The desire to say something.”

OK. But to the question “Is writing a pleasure, a pain or a compulsion?,” Avallone is the only writer to have responded that writing is purely a compulsion, adding, “Writing is my religion.”

Rabbi Jacob Neusner, one of the two Ph.D.s on the list, agrees that writing is an undivided pleasure. Neusner, 57, has written, edited, and translated more than 300 books, from translating the Talmud to his projected 40-year-long challenge of “uncovering the history of the formation of Judaism.” His works range from academic to popular.

The other Ph.D. on the list, scientist Isaac Asimov, also responded that writing gave him only pleasure. Asimov’s more than 430 books are on a wide range of subjects, with the emphasis on popular science and science fiction. For Asimov, 70, it all comes down to “loving to write.” Neusner says that while writing is a pleasure, it is “diligence” that keeps him at it.

Robert Silverberg, 55, the science-fiction author and editor of more than 200 books, says the task is a mixture of all three feelings, and adds, “Stubbornness and discipline are the tricks I use,” along with “a process of steady application five days a week, 40 weeks a year.”

The remaining weeks are well-earned holidays. While all of these writers have certainly earned holidays, 70% of them don’t take any, and 85% write six or seven days a week.

The average number of working hours per day for the 13 writers is 5 1/2, but Asimov and Avallone say that they take no holidays, write seven days a week, and for up to 10 hours a day. Even so, they do not produce more titles than Cartland, who spends only 2 1/2 hours at work a day. And she has other writing chores that not even her 10 secretaries can relieve her of completely: “I answer 30,000 letters a year,” she says.

How about the constraints of the biological clock? Is there a time of day at which prolific writers all write in order to make them so much more productive than so many other writers? Apart from the two who spend nearly every waking hour behind the typewriter, 80% find that their most productive time of the day for writing is the morning.

Englishman John Burke, 68, author of well over a 100 books in many genres of fiction, travel books, and “The Illustrated Dictionary of Music,” writes: “My best work is done in the morning, but after a lunchtime break (usually including an hour or so in the local pub chatting generally), I continue in the afternoon--and sometimes find I’m so deep into the subject that I want to dabble with the further possibilities for a little while in the evening.”

Burke’s writing approaches Avallone’s pure compulsion. Burke’s wife, Jean, with whom he occasionally collaborates on Gothics, recalls Albert Einstein’s remark on Max Planck: “It’s not that he is a puritanical fanatic about work. It’s just that he feels ill if he’s not working.” But Burke says, “I do get a feeling of well-being at the end of the day if I feel I’ve . . . well, covered enough paper!”

But what about that question of the dreaded rejection slip? Is a prerequisite of subsequent super-prolificacy a prolific number of rejection slips? John Creasey notwithstanding, most received relatively few rejections before their first sale, and five of the writers never received a single rejection before their first book was published.

There is an exception to the rejection norm, however, and it comes from the man who also has the record for the largest number of unpublished novels. But then most numbers in the stationery salesman’s life are large ones: Avallone, who has 16 brothers and sisters, received, “like, 300” rejections before his first book sale.

But the battle may never end. British Western writer Terry Harknett said that at the beginning of his career, “I had twelve rejections before the lucky thirteenth submission to a publisher resulted in my first book being issued.”

This was for a crime novel called “The Benevolent Blackmailer,” published in 1962. Nearly 30 years and 170 novels later, Harknett decided to “opt for a kind of early retirement. But after a few weeks, the old compulsion bug bit and I embarked on a mystery which took me nine months to write.”

It’s been rejected.