For too long, I assumed skilled storytellers sprang into existence like Athena from the head of Zeus, and I wasn’t one of those gifted few. I envisioned the lucky authors adept at turning phrases, with the innate ability to craft memorable stories, intriguing characters, and gripping plots. Writers stopped mid-dinner, staring into space while fantastic stories unveiled themselves, the forgotten steak sitting cold and the dinner guests ignored.
The truth is more mundane. Most authors sweat at their keyboards, heads figuratively and sometimes literally pounding the desk. On rare occasions, inspiration knocks on the door and a storyline springs into existence or an intriguing nugget of an idea presents itself.
Stephen King recalls waking from a dream with the basics of Misery locked in his head. J. K. Rowling recounts how Harry and the Hogwarts Express occurred to her while riding a train. Yet, even after these authors found their ideas, the stories had to be transferred to the page. Rowling spent years developing the world Harry lived in, the characters he interacted with, and the situations he faced.
Inspiration is meaningless without the knowledge of how to fuel the narrative through the use of the “writer’s toolbox,” as Stephen King described grammar, vocabulary, style, dialogue, and theme. Crafting these elements together is difficult, and most authors I’ve spoken to believe that all first drafts stink like fish left to rot on a Florida pier.
I hesitate to use words like “all” and “never,” but every established author I’ve heard speak about their writing process says their own first drafts are horrid. Elements of good story and the writer’s toolbox are not easy to fuse together. The excellent end result only appears through difficult, painstaking work and focusing on the value of every word.
Once I became convinced of this truth, I thought maybe I could try my hand at producing imaginative fiction. Over the last few years, I attended writing panels at science fiction/fantasy conventions, studied books, and started writing stories, tentative and slow, but gathering speed.
Along the way, I met a group of writers who all believe in striving for excellence, who value effort and study, and who act as cheerleaders and shoulders to cry on at the appropriate times. I couldn’t ask for a better group to work with, and I’m thrilled to be part of this effort to include others in our journey.
We titled this blog The Million Words because of the old saying that if you write a million words you will be a writer. Taken at face value, I have a few qualms with that idea. Echoing what Janet said last week, repetition in and of itself doesn’t produce quality. So why focus on one million and not two million or 500,000 words?
Throw a million words on the page, and you can still produce garbage. We all know established authors with excellent reputations who have missed the mark at times. However, if you write a million words and study along the way, learning how to use the elements of the writer’s toolbox, listening to established authors, and examining your own work with an unforgiving eye, then you will have the skills necessary to produce stories that matter, that resonate with the reader.
One post I read about the million words quote suggested that Bradbury thought all writing before one million words was garbage. Perhaps he did, but I’m sure some writers attain the ability to write excellent prose before they pen one million words, while others take longer. Without the ability to accept criticism and, more important, learn from that criticism, some may never craft good stories. But it all comes back to fashioning words together, since you can’t critically analyze what doesn’t exist.
Along the way you will hear contradictory analysis from writers you respect. Listening to writers does not mean blindly following their lead. Knowing what advice to take and what to ignore needs to be learned. Developing your own style and determining how to write within the “rules” is vital, as is the knowledge of when and how to effectively break the rules. Perhaps the hardest ability to develop is to listen to criticism, evaluate the analysis, and apply the critique without being defensive. All of these skills require sitting at the keyboard and writing, trying and failing and trying again.
After we settled on the theme, I tried to assess my progress toward a million words. How do I count words I’ve written over my life? I’ve co-authored a textbook and spent years in academia. Does nonfiction count? Do all the years I spent editing? Does writing poetry? (Don’t worry – I’ll never inflict poetry on you. I promise.) I’ve written ten thousand words of a novel that I’m about to radically rewrite, and I’ve already rewritten the first chapter multiple times. How do you count a short story whose end word count is 4104, but you know you’ve rewritten every word?
I believe my nonfiction and editing experience do count, because I’ve learned how to better use some of the tools in King’s toolbox, grammar and vocabulary and to some extent, theme. However, I consider myself a newcomer to writing speculative fiction, having always shied away from such stories because I thought I didn’t have the ability. I’ve submitted two short stories and am in the process of writing my first book. My first understanding of all the pieces I need to produce a quality story dates to my first writer’s retreat two years ago with my fellow Million Words authors and a mentor who shall remain nameless through their own wishes but to whom I owe a great debt of understanding.
Numbers have never liked me, and I’m at a total loss of how to measure my word count, so I’m going to pick a metaphorical total from my head and start at one hundred thousand words. For the sake of the exercise, going forward, I’ll add in the word count of every story and book that I submit for consideration. The rewrites and the edits will just be part of the process.
In the end, what matters is producing good stories, and if I’ve learned anything from listening to my writer friends, it’s that no matter how good you are, excellent writers always strive to improve. So here’s to a million words or two million or maybe more and enjoying the ride.
Welcome to The Million Words.
Amy Bauer (100,000 words)