There is a saying in writer circles that a person needs to write one million words of crap before they can produce anything good. It’s not clear who said this. I first read it in an essay by Isaac Asimov. Others attribute it to John McDonald or Raymond Chandler.
But there is something very compelling about the statement. It’s not very clear how one is supposed to become good at writing stories. And everything is even more muddled because each new writer is not just supposed to write good stories. He or she is also supposed to do something new and distinctive that will make their stories worth reading.
And it’s made more frustrating because writers tend to be people who read a lot, and people who have high expectations for stories. But those same expectations prove to be our downfall when we try to write our own stories, which inevitably (for a long time) fail to be as good as even the worst piece of dreck we’d ever deign to read if it was being put out commercially.
It’s very confusing to have such a clear idea of what is good and what is bad, and to have no idea how to put that paradigm into action. It’s like having a kind of aphasia: the words come out all askew and we know they are askew but can’t do anything about it.
That’s why for many writers (include myself), those one million words of crap are such a talisman. On the face of it, the number is ridiculous. For some people, the first thing they write is perfect and sells a bajillion copies. Other people write for decades and far exceed a million words and never produce anything worthwhile. Writing a million words does not make you a good writer, per se. It is the things that often happen during the course of writing a million words–the epiphanies, the adjustments, the compromises, the aesthetic judgments, and all the other little bits of learning and soul-searching–that make you a good writer. Some people can do those things before they type their first words. Some people can never do them.
We all know that something needs to change. We know that if everything was right, then we’d be writing better stories. And we know that if we stay the same, then we will never write those stories. But we cannot simply will ourselves to change.
Most of us just don’t know the things we need to do in order to become good. We don’t even have a clue what type of things they are. We don’t know whether we need to change our attitude, or our lifestyle, or our viewpoint, or our surroundings, or what….we don’t know whether we need to move to a different state or whether we need to become Buddhist or whether we need to stop revising so much or whether we need to eat less junk food or whether we need to stop drinking or whether we need to cut loose from everything or whether we need to forgive our 2nd grade teacher for saying that we were stupid. And even after we do the thing we needed to, we will likely have no idea that the thing we did was so necessary.
Writing a million words is a much easier concept to grasp. It’s a sort of shorthand. We know, intuitively, that writing a million words will be very hard and will take a long time and will likely ram us again and again up against the things that make our writing so terrible, and will force us, through sheer frustration, to unconsciously destroy those obstacles.
I think that this goal meant more to me than it does to most writers, because I believed in it very strongly but I also felt that I would never reach it. During my first year of writing, I wrote about 70,000 words. Each subsequent year, I wrote fewer words. After five years of this, early in 2009, I calculated that at the rate I was going (about 55k words a year), it would take me another 13 years to reach one million. I’d get there right around my 36th birthday (at the time I had just turned 23, and right now I am a few months from 26)
This drove me to despair. I had already made my first pro sale by then, and I hoped against hope that the million words was just a rough guideline and that I was ahead of the curve. I’d been hoping for years that I was ahead of the curve, and that great professional success was going to come me earlier, and with less work, than it did for other people.
But I was never satisfied with that hope, because I knew that there was no reason I should be ahead of the curve. I knew that I wasn’t doing the things I needed to. At that point, I only had a glimmering of what those things were, but I knew I wasn’t doing them.
Well, that was two and a half years ago. I’ve made changes in my life that were unimaginable to me back then, and I’ve hit my goddamned millionth word.
Of course, I know that there’s still much more work left to do, and I still have no idea what that work is.
Anyways, I spent today starting and completing my 140th short story. It is 500 words long, and I wrote it just so I could end squarely on a million. I spent the rest of my allotted writing time making these pie charts. The first breaks down my million words by type. As, you can see, the largest category is completed short stories, as measured by their wordcount. But the second largest category is revision. This is basically just the difference between all the measured word count in my spread sheet (the totals of my novels, stories, fragments, etc.) and my total daily word count (in which I give myself somewhat arbitrary word counts for revision).
The second pie chart is a breakdown of my word count by year. As you can (sortof) see, if I had continued on the same writing pace as I had set during my first five years, today I would be somewhere around my 428,000th word.
P.S. I didn’t actually write my millionth word today. I wrote it on Friday. I just delayed this blog posts because no one reads blog posts on Friday evening (no one except NERDS)