‘Everyone has to write a million words of crap before they can start producing good fiction.’ – Raymond Chandler
‘Write one story a week, for a year. It may be difficult to write one good story… But I challenge you to write fifty two bad ones.’
– Ray Bradbury (Paraphrased)
So most people interested in writing have probably heard both of these quotes, as well as the much quoted Malcolm Gladwell directive: practice something for ten thousand hours and you’ll be really good at it. No shit.
I write first drafts at a pace of about one thousand words per hour, which means that I’d have to hit one thousand hours to follow Raymond Chandler, and Ten million words to follow Gladwell. But here’s the catch: it only works if you do it carefully. Anyone can churn out a million words if they don’t give a damn – the trick is doing it and trying to get every word just right along the way.
On the internet, there are plenty of budding writers, and a lot of them are prolific as shit, if you take their word for it. Some claim to slam five thousand words or more in a day, and I can believe that, though whether they do it every day or not I’m not so sure. Some can press out a fifty thousand word novel every month or two. So here’s my question: do these guys actually improve significantly? If they keep it up, will they get pro enough to make it?
Nope. Because giving someone a word goal of X million and saying they’ll be good at the end is like telling a carpenter if he just saws enough planks of wood and nails them together he’ll be a master at the end of it. My point being, it’s not the whole story. There is truth to it, though, because I bet every master carpenter actually has sawed and nailed together a whole bunch of wood. The thing is, they did a whole lot of other stuff, too.
Look, here are two guys. Guy A writes a thousand words a day for exactly one hour. Guy B averages between two and four thousand a day. Guy A spends two to three hours a day reading, plus a little extra time editing what he’s written in the past. In fact, he edits quite heavily, spending as much as or much more time rewriting than he did drafting. Guy B doesn’t read, or rewrite at all, and when he’s done, he just ships it out, without listening to anyone else’s opinion. Guy A thinks hard about his ideas and often ponders and refines plot points in his mind in his spare time. Guy B just gets the words down.
Now fast forward ten years. Guy A has written approximately three million words, and Guy B has more like ten million, the proverbial ten thousand hours of practice. Now: who’s gonna be better?
My own experience has been closer to Guy A than B, but I’ve had plenty of B periods, believe me, and you know what? I loved them. Slamming a first draft novel and then forgetting about it in my early teen years was great fun. There’s something freeing about knowing that what you’re doing is going to be trash no matter what – you’re just out to please yourself and you can say whatever you want. But you still have to try. You have to focus, and make yourself better with each successive effort, or it’s wasted practice. Luckily, the desire to improve in any possible way was always there for me, and I gave my trash to anyone who’d read it and drank in their criticisms hungrily – the harsher the better.
I can’t vouch for the ten thousand hour rule. After all, how do I know what to count? Should I count hours I’ve spent reading? Or rewriting? If so, I should be pro already, right? Should I only count hours spent writing in which I was completely focused, and not the hours I did just for the hell of it, without caring what I was doing and just having fun?
I can vouch for the million word rule, though. When I was fifteen I read the Raymond Chandler quote from above, and decided to gun for it. I tallied up everything I’d done since I was ten (something like three hundred thousand words), and counted everything thereafter. In 2012, after thirteen novels and a few short stories, I reached one million words, and I can definitely say that they were pretty much all garbage. I started this website then, and started pumping out short stories, and to my amazement, some of them weren’t that bad. After years of dreaming about publication, the very first story I wrote after that million words got published twice. I kept going and got more success – I measured my ratio at about ten rejections for every acceptance. So I feel I can say this with confidence: If you try hard to improve, edit at least a little, and listen closely to what people say about your work, and read a ton (I average about six to eight books a month), and write a million words… You will become competent. Not necessarily good, but competent.
Competent does not pay the bills. Competent means that when people read your work, they say ‘hey man, that’s pretty good!’ and go about their day. If that’s all you want, congratulations! You only have a few years of diligent practice to achieve it. If, like me, you want to be a professional writer who can actually make a living from the craft, then you should get to competence, and then prepare to start working.
I’m currently sitting at one and a half million words, and gunning for ten. I have no idea what I’ll do if I’m not any good by the end of that ten million. Probably just despair, and up my caffeine and alcohol consumption to lethal levels. Will I stop writing, though?
Shit no, I love this job.