What Does A Million Words Get You?

Once upon a time, after a week-long experiment with champagne and absinthe cocktails, my darling writer’s retreat buds and I all fell in love with the idea of a shared blog. Eventually we chose the blog theme of our journey towards writing a million words. Which, after sobering up, inevitably led to the question of just how far into this word journey each of us had traveled?

More or less, the million words theory claims writers need to get that first million out of the way in order to hit some level of competency or brilliance or mastery, take your pick.

Let me be clear—I don’t think pounding out a million words leads to some magical metamorphisis, where the previous 999,999 were filler and everything flowing from the keyboard after is gold. But writing is one of those odd occupations where participants have to define their own markers of success, and the million words yardstick certainly serves as one concrete measure of progress.

Anyway, the show-me-your-methodology academic in me couldn’t let such a question stand unanswered. I’m also in a good position to count, since I only began writing fiction six years ago, so I’m not chasing down and adding up a lifetime of elementary school essays, angsty college poetry, drafts, and short stories. For my calculations, I only included fiction, no blogs, outlines, synopsis, query letters, academic papers, or revisions. I don’t even know how to calculate the latter (But stay tuned for future intro posts. Millionaire member Ken has a formula for revision counts. Be like Ken, ya’ll).

Some of my count I guesstimated, since I write almost everything long hand, and many pages are stuck in notebooks, waiting their turn. Go ahead and laugh-snort coffee all over your screen. But typing up that rough draft is basically my first revision pass. I went with 185 words per page as my average after scanning several pages, because if I’m sitting in a parent pick-up line scribbling away with a notebook propped on the steering wheel, my handwriting ain’t pretty.

My Dirty Secret
My Dirty Secret

My final, close-enough-for-horseshoes word tally? It surprised me.

My revised/CP’ed/beta’ed/revised again first manuscript, now in the query trenches-101,000 (It began as an 118,000k monster)

The sequel to the first ms (because 5 years ago I hadn’t heard the advice not to write sequels to unsold books)-a whopping 118,254 words, waiting to be cut to 100K.

A hot-mess that’s sitting and gelling before I start revisions-114,831. Seeing a trend yet?

The sequel to the above hot mess (I know better now, but I’m stubborn, so…)-111,000

A new contemporary WIP-63,455

that I’m working on at the same time as

A new paranormal WIP-77,145

A ms and sequel, written to try out a new style and push myself, that won’t ever see the light of day – 275,650

Four additional stories, and a novella, in my original world-507,270

My rough word total=1,369,480 words

What have I learned, across these six years and million words?

1) I’ve (mostly) learned to avoid passive voice, scan for my crutch words, eliminate said-isms in favor of showing, and write tight to keep the momentum in action scenes. Basically, I can identify and avoid new writer mistakes.

2) I overwrite. I use the pages to get to know my characters and their voices, and then have to cut fun, but unnecessary, bits in order to tighten plot and pacing and stay within genre limits. Once I embraced my version of an outline and plotting, my rough draft word count slowly decreased.

3) I hit a wall around 60-70K, around the Second Act climax when I’ve gotten the MC’s in deep trouble, and now they need to find a way out. I’m still working on how to avoid stalling out, and outlining has helped. Some.

4) I can’t leave a world alone once I decide I like the characters. Stand-alone novels don’t get me all hot and bothered. Let’s not even talk about short stories. And that inability is another issue to tackle.

5) There are a couple of themes, tropes, and character types I automatically gravitate to. That’s a bad habit I’m trying to break.

Out of those 1.3 million words, about 600, 000 may be useable in some form, after extensive editing. Word count aside, I don’t claim any sort of consistent competency yet.

However, I can look at what I wrote in the first year, what I wrote after my first Con writing track, what I wrote after my first Roaring Writers retreat, and what I wrote six months ago, and track my progress in tandem with the increasing word count. The first work is…painful. No other word for those pages filled with every newbie mistake known to literature. But the stories get more interesting, the characters closer to three dimensional, the pacing more even, the grammar cleaner as I go. Then I got to the two stories I began earlier this year. Plotting is still like pulling teeth, and I have a tawdry love affair with both en and em dashes, but the rest? I’m pretty confident when it’s time to send my newest pieces out, my CPs won’t curse my name and stock up on Writer’s Tears to get through the pages.

Better yet, I’m excited to see what the next million words brings.

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