Danielle Steel’s surprising secret to success

The writer who fills all the library shelves.
The writer who fills all the library shelves.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
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You might be forgiven for thinking that the writer Danielle Steel employs an army of scribes. Her productivity certainly gives that impression.

Steel has published 179 books since 1973, and every one of her novels has been a bestseller. She has sold 650 million copies worldwide, is translated into 43 languages, and is published in 69 countries. Every year, this writer releases at least a few and sometimes as many as seven new novels, and she also writes children’s books. Her latest work, Blessing in Disguise, was released on May 7—we’re not even halfway through this year and this is the fourth novel she’s put out in 2019.

Unlike the equally prolific James Patterson, however, Steel is not running a factory (paywall). She isn’t conceiving stories and outlining them for lesser known writers to flesh out, like her colleague. Steel just writes like her life depends on it (and maybe it does). All the time. Whether or not she feels like it.

“Dead or alive, rain or shine, I get to my desk and I do my work. Sometimes I’ll finish a book in the morning, and by the end of the day, I’ve started another project,” Steel recently told Glamour. She says she starts at 8am and spends all day and some of the night writing, always typing on an old typewriter.

Steel’s secret to success is very simple—if not easy. It can be summed up by a sign that hangs in her office, declaring, “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.”

The author rejects many popular concepts, like work-life balance, thriving instead on imbalance, drive, determination, and total dedication. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block. Indeed, she barely believes in sleep. When she’s at a loss for what to write, she just types. “I keep working. The more you shy away from the material, the worse it gets. You’re better off pushing through and ending up with 30 dead pages you can correct later than just sitting there with nothing,” she told Glamour.

Many of us are not capable of similarly fantastic feats, or so we believe. We need to eat more than dark chocolate bars and a piece of toast, which is what Steel nourishes herself on while writing like mad. We need to sleep more than four hours a day. We need breaks. We are mere humans after all.

But all of us can apply Steel’s motto to our lives, and we would benefit. Steel’s approach, which sounds restrictive—who likes the word discipline, with its chilly ring of authority and punishment?—is actually extremely liberating. It takes the mystery out of production and simplifies questions of process.

How do you get things done? By doing. Isn’t that fantastic? It’s the best life hack out there and the one so many of us reject because we believe that there is some other, better secret, like being magical or exceptionally talented.

Rather than rely on talent and inspiration, Steel just does the work. Every day. All day. And that’s how she produces so many books. (By the way, she also has nine kids, and has been married twice, so she clearly has a life and has been at least as busy living hers as anybody else.)

While Steel may well be talented, she isn’t sitting around waiting for talent to gather itself into a bunch of words on the page. She isn’t channeling the muse using voodoo. She simply sits down, types, and keeps typing until finally even she must sleep.

It’s true that Steel is unusual, although perhaps only because she is willing to work so hard. However, she isn’t sitting around waiting for miracles to happen, and she isn’t a magical creature, though her success and productivity sure do give that impression.

Knowing that Steel’s approach is actually simple should be a relief to the rest of us, whatever we struggle to achieve. Most of us will not write even a single bestseller in a lifetime. Now at least we’ll know the reason why—we probably aren’t trying hard enough.