Monday, January 25, 2010

The Weight of One Million Words

A while ago, I read that a writer has to write one million words before he is any good. I've been mulling it over in mind for some time, and the more I've mulled, the more it makes sense. And the more awkward the word mull feels in my mouth, but that's hardly the point.

The point is, that writing takes practice. Just like doing a pirouette, or shooting freethrows, or starting an IV on a dehydrated patient. (I can do two of those things, wanna guess which?) The strangest part is that you get better with practice. Even without a beta reader, a professional editor, an agent or even an single other living soul reading your words, you get better. Adding any of the above to your writing experience just makes the practice all that more effective.

Which brings us back to the one million words. It's not that you can write one million words and your one million and first will be the beginning of the next great American novel. Rather, you should use your one million words to go through your growing pains as a writer. Write a short story, a novel, a poem and then let someone else read it. (That's the worst part for me--oh the agony of letting someone I know read a WORD I've written, much less a novel.) Then, let them tell you what they think. And nod, and smile and say "Thank you," and get away as quickly as possible so no one will see you cry.

And then, when you've dried your tears, go back and read your own words with someone else's thoughts in your head and see how much of it is true. The reality? Most of it is probably true. The good and the bad.

You have to do this again and again and again until you stop making the mistakes you made the first time. Then, you start making all new ones. More complicated ones. And you learn and you grow and you write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And sometimes you cry, and sometimes you have a little fit wherein you tell yourself that you are a worthless hack and why did you ever think you could write in the first place.

And then you go back and you write word number 301,753. You keep going.

So, I thought to myself, how many words have I written? And, yes, before you ask, I do understand metaphor, thank you. Well, a little OCD dedication to my documents file assures me that I have somewhere the neighborhood of 1,070,000 words on my hard drive. Which is to say nothing of all the handwritten words I threw away in a fit of pique when I was in college.

What that means, however, is that I am just beginning as a writer. I've suffered some of the growing pains that I needed to suffer. I'll need to suffer a few more. But there is some consolation in knowing that I haven't been slacking in the practice department.

And maybe just maybe, I've got enough words under my belt that I can start to do the serious work of writing. What it definitely tells me is that this is not just a passing fancy of mine. I love this work, and I will keep doing it even if I only do it for myself.

I didn't write over a million words of fiction because it's fun. (Although I've had a hell of a lot of fun doing most of it, I can't lie.) I did it because I love it and I can't wait to see what the next million words will bring me.

- Liz


Kristan said...

I've heard this too. Sadly I have no way to calculate my words (i.e., I am too lazy).

I've also heard it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything (I think from Malcolm Gladwell? but I'm not sure if he was quoting someone or if he calculated that himself). Again, no real way of knowing whether or not I've reached that...

But for both, I'm pretty sure if I haven't already, I will soon. Because, like you, I love it too much to stop.

So, go us! Here's to the next million words / 10k hours! Hopefully with some sleep mixed in. :P

jasouders said...

Yep I agree with Kristan. I have no idea if I reached it or not, but I don't think so. Not yet. But I will because I love it and I'm addicted to writing. Or that's what my husband says.

ANd sleep? Who needs sleep? :D

Lisa Green said...

It's so true. The more I write the better it gets. I can't wait to see what happens a few years down the road. At least blogging helps add to the word count. :)

Kelly said...

Hey Liz, I saw your pitch and loved it!! Are we the only two reality-based writers??? :) Good luck!