Paperback Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 1:02PM
Steven J. McDermott

The Beatles nailed the sentiment with their song Paperback Writer: “It’s a dirty story of a dirty man . . . but I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer.” Ah, the dream to write pulp fiction at a penny a word!

One of the things I find most amazing about that era of pulp fiction writing is the speed with which those writers wrote those novels. Robert Silverberg, for example, says:

Each book took me exactly six days. One chapter of 16-18 pages before lunch, one of 16-18 pages after lunch, 12 chapters and 212 pages in all.

 And then here’s Donald Westlake on his process:

This typewriter uses the smaller size type, elite type; and five thousand words in elite type runs 15 pages. My manuscripts are exactly one hundred fifty pages long. My chapters exactly fifteen pages long. I do one chapter a day for ten consecutive days and there’s another book. So I work an average of four hours a day when doing a book.

That’s 1,250 words an hour. Nothing to it. But how about Gil Brewer, who frequently wrote his 60,000 word novels in five days! That’s 12,000 words a day. A thousand words an hour for 12 hours. And then there’s John D. MacDonald who in the first four months after he started writing for the pulps cranked out 800,000 words. A paltry 6,000 words per day! He wrote from 8 to 5 every day, with a lunch break. Orrie Hitt, who blitzed out 150 pulp novels, wrote from 7 to 4 every day with a twenty-minute break for lunch.

Penny a word, or less, as some of the novels were sold for $300 initially. And perhaps harder to imagine in our computer age, with easy cut and paste revision, is that these guys pounded out their books on manual typewriters! (Guess we must have two generations of writers now who’ve never had that experience of writing on manual typewriter). One can suppose that once the manuscripts were delivered to the publisher there was some editing and proofreading, but a pulp publisher wouldn’t put up with too much of that as it cut into the profit margins. So the kings of the pulps were the writers who learned how to write both fast and well.

How did they do that? What techniques must you master to produce 5,000 words of high quality prose a day, prose that does not require revising, prose that is ready to go as you type the words? What would your writing process have to be like to write like that? It’s something I’m working on.

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