In Praise of the Busy Author

Let a thousand flowers bloom

Will you tell this author that there are glittering prizes ahead for those who can write as she does?

Robert Hale, British publisher, 1948

Eleanor Alice (Burford) Hibbert was a novelist who wrote steadily and proficiently from the 1930s through the mid-1990s. In her long career, she published over 200 novels. And almost no one had ever heard of her.

They had probably heard of some of the thirty novels she published under her birth name, Eleanor Burford. In England, many readers had probably known of her remarkable career as a historical novelist, the ninety novels published as Jean Plaidy. Americans would more likely have known the thirty books she wrote beginning in the 1960s as Victoria Holt. There were books by Elbur Ford and Kathleen Kellow, books by Anna Percival and Philippa Carr and Ellalice Tate. In the end, it’s estimated that her books collectively sold over 100 million copies in twenty different languages.

She wrote five hours a day, even though that much typing was a physical strain. “I love my work so much that nothing would stop me writing,” she said. “When I finish one book I start on the next. If I take even a week’s break I just feel miserable. It’s like a drug.”

When I feel good about my own work, when it flows without conscious effort on my part, when the high is in full flower, I’m good for an average of eleven or twelve hundred words in a day. More often, it’s in the mid-600s, and even that’s good enough for two books a year. But when Ms. Hibbert was all-in, she averaged over five thousand words a day, seven days a week. At that pace, even a February outside a leap year could be good for a book and a half. Even assuming a few days off for illness or outside responsibilities, that’s 1,750,000 words a year.

I love prolific writers, and aspire to be one. The San Francisco Chronicle daily columnist Jon Carroll quoted William Saroyan as saying, “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” It’s like kitchen work; you can make brilliant meals for two hundred diners every night once you know your practice. Every restaurant is fast paced, whether it’s Red Lobster or Blue Hill. Being a prolific writer does not imply that one is a hack. I think it’s the mark of a craftsperson who just does the work, every day.

Over the course of his thirty year career, Carroll published about six million words in the Chronicle, and he became a beloved newsprint philosopher in the Bay Area. In the seven years I’ve been writing steadily, I’m barely at 900,000 (plus another 150,000 or so on the two blogs I’ve run).

Better get to work.