On Being a Hack Writer

Hey Folks,

<Character stands up tentatively from a brown metal folding chair:> Hello. My name is Harvey Stanbrough and I’ve become accustomed to the idea that I am a hack writer.<Character resumes his seat.>

That doesn’t mean I write stories about taxicabs, but that I write far too fast and turn out so much work that no possible way could it be any good. (grin)

Never mind that my poetry and fiction is taught in at least two university English programs.

I must be a hack. How else could I churn out a short novel (30,000 – 50,000 words) in ten to twenty days? How else could I write a 100,000 word novel in a month?

I personally know writers who intentionally take much longer to write a novel. Some write only one hour per day (on days that they write at all). Some ruminate over each word, and then each sentence, as it strikes the page.

I know writers personally who already have established in their mind that they absolutely can’t write anything worthwhile unless they severely limit themselves.

One writer, whom I admire personally for other achievements, recently posted for all the world to see that he “hopes” to write 8 or 10 novels during his lifetime, including the two he’s already written. And he’s only in his 40s.

Of course, he was roundly applauded. By nonwriters.

If I could convince only one person to Sit Down, Trust Your Subconscious, and Just Tell a Story, it would be him. Or maybe the lady who wrote three novels in eight years and said, vehemently, that Heinlein’s Rules wouldn’t apply to her because she doesn’t write science fiction. Sigh.

The conscious mind does have a role to play in our lives. But writing isn’t that role.

We use the conscious mind to learn new information, to absorb that information and determine what will work for us and what won’t. But that’s where the role of the conscious mind ends.

What we learn and absorb and believe useful filters into the subconscious. From there, it “shows up” in our writing. It becomes as integral a part of our process as crossing T’s and dotting I’s and putting a period at the end of a declarative sentence or a question mark at the end of an interrogative. We initially learned all of that with our conscious mind too, and then we internalized it.

In other words, once we take in the information, we no longer have to “think” about it as we’re writing. It just happens. Like magic.

That’s how I write. I drop a character with a problem into a setting and Just Write. Or an opening line occurs to me and I Just Write.

I trust my knowledge. I trust in my own ability to remember, without consciously thinking about it, to add a question mark at the end of a question.

And without thinking about it, I remember to ground the reader in my stories by describing the setting through the POV character’s physical senses and opinions. Because I learned and internalized that too.

Most of all, I trust my characters to tell their own story instead of me slogging along trying to force my vision of their story on them.

It wasn’t always that way.

When I started this journey, I thought writing off into the dark was impossible. I actually thought maybe my unintentional mentor, Dean Wesley Smith (see previous post), was one of the scam artists he’s always warning others about. I thought No way in hell can I write a short story without knowing the whole story in advance.

But I also realized it would cost me nothing to try it. So I did.

Wow. Easy-peasy, and the 190-some short stories I wrote after my awakening are much better than the few I wrote before.

And between April and October of 2014, I still thought Maybe that does work for short stories (I’d proven to myself it does), but that’s a short form. No way in hell can I write a whole novel without knowing in advance what’s going to happen.

Then I did. Thirty-three times (not including short stories or novellas). Before this month is out (this will be the 48th month since I started writing novels), it will be thirty-four times. On average, that’s 1.41 months to write a novel.

That is dreadfully, almost terrifyingly slow.

To put it into perspective, that’s a total of 1,653,695 words in 1460 days. (I estimated my current WIP, Nick 3, at 47,500 words, averaging Nick 1 and Nick 2.) That’s an average of only 1,132 words per day. One hour of work per day.

At 1,000 words per hour (17 words per minute), if I had even a lax work ethic — say I worked only 5 days per week and only 4 hours per day, including breaks, for that four years — my word count for novels would be 3,120,000 words.

And I would have turned out SIXTY-FOUR novels (my average is 48,000 words per novel) in that four years instead of thirty-four.

Still, I’m far and away ahead of where I would have been if I’d written Leaving Amarillo (my first novel) and then spent the next four years rewriting and “polishing” it.

Had I done that, my novel word count today would be 40,610, a blazing-fast 28 words per day for four years. And I would have ONE novel. And it would be horrible because I would have “polished” my original voice off it until it sounded like every other novel out there.

And what’s worse, I would have learned nothing new.

If you want to learn to write good stories (or to write stories “well” if you wish), the long and short of it is that you have to write.

Rewriting is not writing. Researching is not writing. Taking classes is not writing. Writing is putting new words on the page.

So I guess I’ll accept that I’m a hack writer. (grin) As long as my readers keep telling me they were entertained by my stories, who am I to argue?

If you’d like to be a hack writer too — like Heinlein, Hemingway, Bradbury and a host of others you recognize by only one name — download a free copy of Heinlein’s Rules, then fasten your seatbelt and hang on.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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2 thoughts on “On Being a Hack Writer”

    • Thanks, Diedre. Believe me, been there, done that. It’s so refreshing now to Just Write and trust my own voice. (grin)

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