Wrap-up Season: My Seventh Year of Writing

I finished and submitted my first story on December 20th, 2003. I was eighteen years old, and it was my senior year of high school. Before that, I had always thought, “Oh, I might write a short story or something someday” but it really wasn’t even anything so much as an ambition. I’m not sure why I wrote that story, all that time ago. Judging by the date, it probably had something to do with just having been accepted to college, and hence finally being able to relax about my future. I do remember that I had always intended to submit the story to Dragon Magazine (the official Dungeons and Dragons magazine), but when I finished it I discovered that they had stopped taking unsolicited fiction submissions, so I went looking for other places to submit and found ralan.com. That was probably a good thing, otherwise I probably would have continued thinking that Dragon Magazine was the only place in the world to submit stories, and who knows what I would have done after they rejected my stories?

Actually, now that I think about it, the above story has to be flawed somehow. My first story was a science fiction story, and I’m pretty sure that if I had intended to submit it to Dragon, it would have been a fantasy story. But what is true is that the story I finished and submitted on December 20th was the first story I’d ever started.

Except even that might not be precisely true. I do remember one or two attempts in elementary school. And I remember one night in 9th grade when I lay awake trying to think of story ideas, but somehow I’d keep coming up with the beginning of ideas and be unable to finish them.

But when I was growing up, I am pretty sure that I did not want to become a writer. I wanted to be a physicist, or an astronaut. In my late teens, I really wanted to be a billionaire.

However, after I submitted that story, the fantasy of being a writer rapidly became very real and very captivating in a way that those dreams were not. And it wasn’t because my soul sang with the thought of telling stories. It was because I could see the path from here to there. I could see that if I kept submitting, I could get to the position I daydreamed about.

What I’m trying to say is that, for me, writing was never play. It was never stories doodled in notebooks. It was never some process of self-actualization. It was always linked to the possibility of concrete rewards.

It’s not so much that I like to write as that I am temperamentally suited to the realities of it. I don’t like criticism and I don’t like working with other people. I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t like having to jump through hoops. Writing happens in a bubble that is (if you want it to be) penetrated only by submissions and by one-sentence emails in response to these submissions. If I could, I would dispense with the submissions entirely, but those are necessary in order to maintain the fantasy of eventual success.

The possibility of success is the underpinning of the whole endeavor. I don’t engage in pursuits where I can’t see the possibility of some short-term success. In no other endeavor is that possibility as clear as in writing stories. The story I am working on right now, could be a masterpiece. It could sell to Asimov’s, win awards, and be anthologized forty times before I die. Although that’s unlikely, it is certainly not unheard-of.

But despite that fantasy, I did not intend writing to be the primary focus of my energies or the primary vehicle for my ambitions. However, over the last few years, that is what it has become. In 2010, I wrote more than 270,000 words, and am on track to exceed 280,000 by the end of the year. That would be more words than I wrote in the first five years of my writing career. By every possible metric, my productivity this year has far exceeded that of any previous year, as the table below demonstrates. When combined with the time I spend reading, perhaps the majority of my non-working time has been taken up with activities meant to advance some kind of writing career.

Writing Statistics, by Year
  Total 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Total Words 696,050 270,450 146,000 44,000 44,400 61,250 62,750 67,200
Stories Completed 110 25 17 10 2 19 14 23
Days Spent Writing 616 239 136 60 48 51 52 30*
Avg. Words on Above Days 1,066 1,132 1,074 733 925 1,201 1,207 918
% of Days Writing 26.6% 67.3% 37.2% 16.3% 13.1% 13.9% 14.2% 23.0%
Words per Day 272 762 400 120 122 168 172 184
 *My writing log begins on 8/24/4, so some portion of 2004's days are not represented. However, the word-count is still fairly accurate, since it includes the roughly 40,000 words of stories I finished before 8/24/4

I am not sure how I feel about that. Right now, it is a vocational choice that is making itself. Of course, I will need to work a job for many more years, and perhaps forever. But that’s not a vocation, that’s just money. If a vocation is determined by mental energy expended – by tears cried, by sleep foregone, by daydreams dreamt, by nightmares awoken from – then my vocation is writing.

However, I had always hoped for a more meaningful life work.

Because I am not really sure that I have enough things to say to fill even 110 stories, much less the twenty novels and hundreds more stories that a lifetime of writing would entail. Nor, as I blogged about previously, am I particularly convinced that publishing stories is a particularly worthwhile activity in itself. I am not sure that there is a single writer, since the advent of the printing press exploded the number of professional storytellers, who has particularly increased or decreased the sum total of human misery. If Shakespeare had never written a word, then we would all study Christopher Marlowe in high school and be perfectly happy. Perhaps that’s not true, but it is what I believe.

I don’t believe that it’s my responsibility to decrease human misery (if I did, then I would clearly have to give up writing). I seek my meaning in the typical ways: through fame and critical acclaim.

But I would certainly prefer to seek those things through an occupation that is founded on some firmer footing, either in my soul or in the world at large. If writing was something that I felt represented some personal journey, or some necessary self-expression, then I would be content. If writing was something that the world needed from me, then I would be likewise content.

But neither of those things is true, so I am not content.

2 thoughts on “Wrap-up Season: My Seventh Year of Writing

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That is an ongoing problem. Before 2007 I didn’t revise very much aside from grammar and spelling correction, so it didn’t really come up.

      In 2007, I started giving myself 1/2 of written wordcount for a bottom-up rewrite and 1/4 of written wordcount for a second bottom-up rewrite. That means that if I take a 4000 word story and retype the whole thing (with corrections, additions, deletions, moving around, etc.) the way someone would in the typewriter days then I would get 2000 words. If I did it again, I’d get 1000 words.

      For revision that amounts to less than a total rewrite, I’ll give myself 500 words for an hour of work (I used to give myself 300, but I became significantly more productive on a per-hour basis and I thought that sticking with 300 words an hour on revision was giving me a disincentive to revise).

      I’m not really concerned with making my word-count figures correspond to someone else’s. For instance, Jay Lake wrote on his blog that he produced 220,000 just on first-drafts. My 280,000 clearly amounts to less writing than that (since my figures not only include revision, but also fragments, false starts, and abandoned stories). My main concern is to make sure that my figures can still be compared across years (i.e. that 2010’s 280,000 actually represents twice as much effort as 2009’s 140,000) and that my system for counting gives me the right incentives (i.e. that it doesn’t punish me for revision, which is something that I naturally dislike doing).

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