Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist, was a married postal clerk who wrote forty-seven novels, two plays, eighteen travel books, and dozens of short stories. Dame Barbara Cartland, another Brit, wrote 722 novels, averaging one book every forty days of her career. Spaniard Corín Tellado wrote 4,000 novellas.
Meanwhile, J.D. Salinger wrote four books, the last in 1963, though his Catcher in the Rye was still selling 250,000 copies a year up to his death in 2010. Sixty years (1934-1994) passed between Henry Roth’s first and second novels, Call It Sleep and Mercy of a Rude Stream. Harper Lee wrote one astounding novel, won the Pulitzer, and never published again.
Most of us are somewhere between these writers. We’re not word-volcanoes spewing stories, nor do we champion the myth of “writer’s block.” We still fall into two categories, though: waterwheels or hummingbirds.
Waterwheel writers need determination to make progress on their writing, but once the creaky spokes finally get turning, they’re hard to stop. They can write steadily for hours, with small breaks, and produce just 500-1,000 words. They usually require long, uninterrupted periods of time to write.
Hummingbirds write swiftly. Watch the pile of pages grow to the ceiling—3,000 words, 5,000, more, more. They can write anywhere, for any amount of time, on the bus, on a napkin at the deli, in a legal pad during their fifteen-minute break at work. Distractions tear at their concentration. They take frequent breaks, but can dive back into a story in seconds.
You might see pieces of yourself in these portraits; maybe you’re a mix of the two. Either way, here are some tips and warnings from a writer who tilts toward the waterwheel side.
1. You value your work, and you want to give it your full attention. You worry about craft and revision. You ponder theme, so you work at a deliberate pace. All of these things make your work better.
2. Because you only write on certain special days or during “seasons” when you feel more creative, your work might stagnate. You may feel tempted to drop one idea and go to another when you see you haven’t written as much as you expected. Work against formulating other stories and book ideas until your current work is closer to completion.
1. You are far more productive than the waterwheel. You juggle six or seven new book concepts even as you plow into your latest one. You will have the first draft in a month.
2. You flit between projects. You overwrite to reach your word goal, because you feel you are “blocked” if you pause to consider your book’s direction. You risk repetition by writing so fast that your book cannot evolve and grow as you do. Dedicate yourself to pouring your attention on only one project at a time, and revising it over a longer period.
Which of these are you more like? Or maybe you’re a hybrid—a waterbird?
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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