Monday, October 27, 2014

How Donald E. Westlake wrote 100 books

The late Donald E. Westlake (pictured), who wrote (and sold!) more than 100 books and screenplays (including The Grifters), and who was one of Stephen King’s favorite writers, described his routine this way:
“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages Monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”
His wife described his tools and how he kept them:
“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (Thesaurus, Bartlett’s, 1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”
(Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning for pointing out the above passages.)

Mr. Westlake was not the only one

Successful writers share five important traits:
They read a lot.
They are well organized.
They are particular about the tools they use and how they use them.*
They don’t “wait for inspiration” – they have a routine.
They work long hours.
The Takeaway: If you are a beginning writer and are ambitious, get in the habit of reading how successful writers work. This reading will inspire you. It will also teach you many practical and proven techniques that you can immediately apply to your own work. If you don’t know where to start your reading, I suggest Stephen King’s On Writing (exceptionally down-to-earth) and Jacques Barzun’s On Writing, Editing, and Publishing (dated but still inspiring).

*For example, Mr. Westlake really did type his manuscripts on the Smith Corona Silent Super manual typewriters mentioned by his wife and shown in the picture above. Because that model was obsolete, he hoarded several of them for parts, so that he would never have to switch to a newer model.

See disclaimer.

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