About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mass Production Writing (Part I)

Many writers struggle to write books. A few churn out books at an incredible pace.

Honoré de Balzac, the prolific French writer of the 19th Century. His output was partially from writing 12 – 14 hours a day, with the longest stretch, from the middle of the night through the morning (he would eat an early supper and sleep for awhile before rising by midnight).

At the same time, as set out in article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, he aided himself by not always having to create new characters:

Also in 1834 the idea of using “reappearing characters” matured. Balzac was to establish a pool of characters from which he would constantly and repeatedly draw, thus adding a sense of solidarity and coherence to the Comédie humaine. A certain character would reappear—now in the forefront, now in the background, of different fictions—in such a way that the reader could gradually form a full picture of him.

Still his composing style was not efficient:

Balzac was notable for his peculiar methods of composition. He often began with a relatively simple subject and a brief first draft, but fresh ideas came crowding in during composition until finally the story expanded far beyond his first intention. The trouble lay in the fact that Balzac tended to expand and amplify his original story by making emendations after it had been typeset by the printers. The original skeleton of a story was thus filled out until it had reached the proportions of a full-length novel, but only at a ruinous cost of printer’s bills to its author. Even when the novel was in print he would frequently introduce new variations on his theme, as successive editions appeared.

Alexandre Dumas wrote 650 books. In an essay for the Guardian David Coward writes about how he wrote so many books:

To take one example: between March 1844 and August 1845, he wrote and published The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Twenty Years After and La Reine Margot. In February 1845 he successfully sued a journalist who accused him of running a 'fiction factory' staffed by hacks who churned out books which he merely signed. He admitted using secretaries and collaborators, who nowadays would be researchers, story consultants or script editors. But he always acknowledged them and counted his most efficient lieutenant, Auguste Maquet, as a friend. Certainly, to help a struggling author, he sometimes added his own name to the title page (his name sold anything). It is also likely that on rare occasions, when up against a deadline, he sent a Maquet chapter to the printer unread, but unrevised Maquet is unmistakable - flat and limp and proof that Dumas did indeed write all those books. The 'Dumas touch' - pace, humour, atmosphere - is unmistakeable.

John D. Macdonald, creator of the Travis McGee series, wrote over 70 books and hundreds of stories.

The Pulp Serenade blog in 2011 quoted a Washington Post Times Herald article of an interview with Macdonald on how he wrote books. He would write 7-9 hours a day usually working on several books. He would shift between books when he got bored with writing a book.

On writing the article said:

He writes without outlining, weaving intricate plots and large casts into the empty middle separating a known beginning and a known climax.

He writes on expensive 25-pound bond paper. “I think the same situation is involved in painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do to it.”

He seldom edits with pencil. “I rewrite by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book, or go right back to the beginning and start again.”

Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe series, had an approach comparable to Macdonald but more refined. He wrote dozens of books and stories swiftly. In an unposted review of his biography Rex Stout – A Majesty’s Life by John McAleer I wrote:

He would take 3 days to 3 weeks to work out a plot in his head. He started with the setting and would go on to the most interesting ideas for that setting (why would a visitor conceal a paper in one of Wolfe’s books?). He knew the names, ages and occupations of the 6-8 most important characters. He knew who would be killed and usually by whom and why. He said 2/3 of what was said by characters came out as he was writing the story. He developed a writing rhythm that lets him write a novel in 38 days. Stout averaged a page per hour of writing. When he completed a page he would put it face down on the completed pile and go on to the next page. He never revised!

My next post will discuss a pair of contemporary mass production writers including the author who inspired the posts.


  1. It takes a special talent doesn't it - even if the results aren't always talented! Look forward to your contemporary examples.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. To come up with thousands of words a day takes a special mind.

  2. Bill, I marvel at past and contemporary writers who churn out hundreds of books. I attribute it to discipline, dedication, and determination, and above all to the joy of writing. I had absolutely no idea Dumas had authored 650 books of which I'm familiar with only two — "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte-Cristo." I wonder if the figure also includes any essays, articles, and short stories he may have written apart from full-length novels.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. Dumas and Balzac were also driven to write as they continually outspent their income and were in constant need of money to settle debts.

  3. It is amazing, Bill, how these authors were able to put out such consistent quality with that sort of frequency. Perhaps there were some stories better than others, and all that sort of thing, but it is really astounding to think of how prolific some authors have been. I look forward to your other examples.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I think it is striking that these authors produced quality in their quantity. Their minds must have been in a constant swirl of ideas.

  4. Bill, I have read the Rex Stout biography Rex Stout – A Majesty’s Life. I remember being amazed by how he wrote the books. I have been reading about John D. MacDonald recently, and the facts you provided here on his writing habits are very interesting. Until recently I had not realized how many books and stories he wrote. I look forward to your next post.

  5. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. I found reading about Rex Stout fascinating. John D. Macdonald wrote constantly.

  6. It's true that perhaps only half of Balzac's and Dumas' output is worth rereading, but half of 600+ is still an awful lot of books, isn't it? Puts us to shame, really, and all the 'publishers demanding a book a year' discussions.

    1. Marina: Thanks for the comment. It is a prodigious pace of writing. Their minds must have never rested.