How to write a lot

While pawing through some old files, I came across my notes on pearls of wisdom the late Isaac Asimov shared with me and about two dozen other writers and editors at a conference in the early 1980s.

"I can't tell you how to be a good writer," he had begun, "because nobody ever says that I'm a good writer. It's always 'prolific writer.' That's a polysyllabic term for 'hack.' "

The author of hundreds of books gave us the following tips on how to be a prolific writer:

1. You have to like to write. "If you get no pleasure from sitting at the keyboard and pounding away for six hours at a time, you'll have to be satisfied with being a great writer and forget about being prolific."

2. You can't write a bestseller just by deciding to write one. "I wrote 261 books and missed with every one of them. I decided that missing was what I was good at; I could write a book blindfolded and still miss. Then I wrote my 262nd book, 'Foundation's Edge,' and to my utter humiliation, it appeared on the bestseller lists."

3. Don't drink or take drugs to write better. "You don't write any better by fuzzying up your mind; you just think you do. Instead, do something sensible - like deciding not to be poetic, not to use carefully thought out metaphors.... Leave all that for those who can't be prolific, those who have to settle for being brilliant.

"I gave up being brilliant when I was 17," Asimov said. "I'm perfectly willing to let the reader take it for granted that I know all the long words; I don't have to be constantly demonstrating it."

4. Stop 'writer's block' before it starts. "The longer you let it go on, the worse it gets. I read in a psychiatric journal that all writers have this neurosis, which drives them to write. The doctor who wrote the article said he's never had a writer come in to be cured of that neurosis, but he's had lots of them coming to him trying to get it back! Never in my whole life have I had a writer's block. I always have a number of projects going at one time. When I can't stand whatever it is I'm doing, I simply switch to something else. I never stop."

5. Cultivate an immunity to 'artistic temperament.' "I incautiously explain to my family that it's all right to interrupt me. That's important. The more you cultivate artistic temperament, the less likely you are to be prolific. Tell people you're not an artist."

6. Write broadly. "You want magazines to ask you to write for them," said the author of thousands of articles. "So write on a lot of subjects."

7. Read. "You have to read when it's absolutely impossible to write," said this man who spent 12 hours a day writing. He mentioned the dinner table and the bathroom, for starters.

8. Remember that ideas are free. "Anything anyone ever tells you is in the public domain. Don't pay for ideas; it makes it harder for other thieves. People ask me, 'Where do you get all your crazy ideas?' (They never say 'brilliant' or 'original' ideas.) They think I'm going to give them some glamorous answer like, 'a voice comes to me...' I tell them, 'I think hard until I get one.' And they're always disappointed. They walk away muttering, 'I could do that.' "

9. Say what you mean the first time. Asimov's second draft was always his final one. "My second draft is 90 percent my first draft, because in my first draft I'm just saying what I mean. That enables me to write a lot and to enjoy writing." Before he got a word processor, he said, his manuscripts were marked up and generally messy. "I type 90 words per minute, but not 90 correct words. My only concern about using the word processor is that I'll get rejected because of neatness."

10. Keep at it. "It's easy to stop writing to do something else," Asimov said, wistfully mentioning walks in the park or watching television.

"But you've got to stick to your writing. If you must do these other things, do them reluctantly; cultivate a disinclination to do them. If you can't do that, don't try to be prolific; just be great. And leave prolific to the poor slobs who can't help it. Like me. Don't be influenced," he added, "by the fact that I'm very well off."

Now it's time to return Dr. Asimov to the file drawer and get back to work!

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