04 September 2018

Prolific Slacker

When Brian Thornton described one project for which he wrote an average of 1,425 words/day (“La Joie de l’Écriture,” my heart palpitated with anxiety. That’s almost 2.5 times greater than my production rate during the best year for which I have records.

In 2009 I wrote 216,310 words, an average of 593 words/day. In 2017, my worst recorded year, I produced only 130,600 words, an average of 387 words/day. Neither average comes close to Brian’s assertion that “most of the working writers” he knows “cite a thousand words per day as a healthy goal.” My writing production isn’t healthy; it’s anemic.

That’s because I’m a slacker, never producing near as many words on any given day as I know I’m capable of producing. I allow myself to get sidetracked—by research, by other story ideas, by Twitter tweets, by Facebook posts, by blog posts, by new online forms of solitaire—and I look up later to discover I’ve only produced a paragraph or two.

And yet, I wrote 75 short stories in 2009 and 32 in 2017, so even my least productive year resulted in a significant number of completed works.


Maybe the way I track word counts skews my numbers. I don’t track words as I produce them; I only count the words in completed, submission-ready manuscripts.

In any given year I produce an ungodly number of partial manuscripts, stories I’ll finish one of these days, if I live long enough.

I set the stories aside for a variety of reasons. Some are beginnings without endings. Some are story doughnuts, missing the all-important middle that gets readers from beginning to end. Some are rough outlines. Some are stories beyond my current ability to write. Many, though, are stories without markets. For example, I continue generating story ideas for confessions, even though the last two confession magazines ceased publication more than a year ago.


As a short-story writer (and, likely, as with any other kind of writer), what matters most are finished manuscripts, so I’ve never set writing goals that involve number of words or number of pages or amount of time spent at the keyboard.

My annual goals, ever since setting them many years ago, are 52 acceptances and 52 new stories each year, or an average of one of each per week. Reprints carry the same weight as originals when counting acceptances, so the six reprints I placed a few weeks ago brought my total acceptances for the year to 32, which put me exactly on schedule as I write this. My production of new stories this year to date totals a paltry 13.

I have several stories near completion, but even were I to complete them all before month end, I would remain behind schedule. There are several reasons for the reduction in output, some of them, perhaps, the subjects of future posts, but the net result is that I am unlikely to meet my writing goals this year.

As a prolific slacker, I don’t chide myself for failing to meet my productivity goals nor do I allow myself to slip into a woe-is-me funk that further erodes my productivity. Instead, I do my best to deal with the things that sap my creativity or keep me away from the keyboard. Then, like now, when I am at the keyboard, I spend a little less time playing solitaire and a little more time stringing words together.

I may never join the ranks of the thousand-words-a-day working writers Brian cited—heck, this post won’t even reach a thousand words!—but I’ve found that my slacker’s approach allows me to produce an ever-growing body of work.

So, no matter how you set your goals—by the word, by the page, by the manuscript, or by the length of time at the keyboard—realize that you may not always meet those goals.

Whether you do or you don’t, the most important thing you can do is to keep pressing forward. As my youngest son recently said, you don’t fail until you quit.

Released at the end of August, Blood Work (Down & Out Books), edited by Rick Ollerman, celebrates the life of Mystery Writers of America Raven Award-winning Gary Shulze, long-time owner of the legendary Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Gary left an indelible mark on the crime fiction community across the world before he passed away in 2016 due to complications from leukemia. The anthology includes my story “Backlit.”

If you’ll be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg this week, stop in on “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Orange Juice—Writing Pulp,” a panel in which I’ll join Frank De Blase, Kate Pilarcik, and moderator Steven Torres. We’ll start squeezing oranges at 4:00 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

And I’ll be speaking about “Short Stories: From Concept to Sale, How This Form Can Satisfy,” at the noon MWA-Southwest luncheon, September 15, at Carraba’s, 1399 South Voss, Houston, Texas.


  1. You might be interested that Graham Greene who was similarly productive was apparently content with under 300 words a day!

  2. Once again you’ve surprised me, Michael. I would have guessed your WPD count was much higher. But your explanation makes perfect sense. I guess the bottom line is: do what works for you, and don’t worry about what other people do or expect you to do!

  3. I'm surprised, too, Michael. I would have expected the total to be much higher. Counting only finished works certainly lowers that count.

    I completed the first draft of a novella (not quite 16K) words in nine days last week, but I'm finding I no longer write as much as when I first tried to learn to write by writing. Then I tried to produce 2000 words a day. Now, I try to write the first draft of a blog for this site in one sitting. That's usually around 1000 words, and I normally revise a couple of times over two or three days.

    My only surviving rule of thumb is that when I'm working on a novel, I try to write an entire scene in the day rather than leaving one incomplete. The time break messes up the rhythm and I lose the feel. My scenes average about 1600 words a day. When I get further into the novel, I tend to go more quickly and may write two or even three scenes in a day near the end.

    BUT, after a spurt like that, I usually crash and don't write anything longer than a grocery list for about a week.

    I no longer write every day, either. Right now, I'm taking a break before going back for the next revision of a novel, and have a few short stories floating around. I wish I could write as many as you, John, and several others on this site.

    By now, most of us have found a rhythm and word count that work for us, so that's all that matters.

  4. Thanks for the perspectives here on your work and productivity. I've always thought (and will continue to think!) of you as one of the most prolific and polished writers I know, but it's interesting to see how you gauge and view your own output.
    Slacker or not, keep up the great work!

  5. One of the tricks to appearing prolific, Art, isn't number of words produced, but how they are released to the world. Were I a novelist with my paltry annual productivity, I would produce one to two novels a year, which isn't bad, I suppose, but it amounts to approximately what Stephen King produces on the extra day he gets every leap year. Spreading those words among dozens of short stories, though, means I keep a steady flow of new material in front of readers.

    Like you, Steve, I do have days when the words flow like water from a busted pipe and days when my attention is elsewhere and I produce little or nothing. Deadlines and incentives help to increase productivity. For example, several years ago an editor contacted me late Friday and asked to have a 5,000-word story on her desk first thing Monday morning (an opportunity presented to me because another writer failed to meet a deadline). I had never done anything like that prior to that moment, but I told her I could, and I did, producing that 5,000-word story from concept to completion in a weekend. She published it.

    Josh and Janice: Like Graham Greene, we all have our writing routines, and when they allow us to produce a steady stream of work, we tend not to mess with them. But I still feel like a slacker when I know I could produce a higher average word count.

  6. I didn't realize the confession mags stopped publishing. I used to read them years ago.

    I've written three new short stories this year, working on another. I haven't sold any of the new ones but I've sold three reprints. Since I only write flash fiction these days, I'm the biggest slacker around, going by word count.

  7. Very interesting. As a slow writer I sympathize strongly.

    I don't recall the crucial numbers involved but i remember that Ed McBain once told the great short story writer Stanley Ellin something like this: "You really helped my writing. You explained how slowly you write so I decided to try slowing down. Now I only write X number of words a day."

    Ellin replied: "I don't write that many in a MONTH."

  8. Alas, Elizabeth, I miss the confession magazines. I sold them a great many stories over the years. And congrats on the reprint sales. Reprints have been good to me this year, too.

    Robert, now that you've retired, you need to find appropriate ways to procrastinate in order to maintain slow productivity. May I recommend Addiction Solitaire?

  9. Prolific Slacker? Interesting insight into your mind and process.

  10. Michael,

    Your methods must work since you have so many years of continuous sales. Congrats on a great career. It seems to me you're plenty prolific.

  11. Fascinating to read the strategy--and, as someone who gets daunted by not getting much on the page, an enormously encouraging read. Hope you'll write about the MWA panel for us at some point.


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