Well, here we are you brilliant bastards! You lunatics and jackles, you, you drooling maniacs and hungry ghosts… Two million words.
Not that this Second Million of mine is necessarily any good. That said, it has been decidedly better, and that is really all we can ever ask, isn’t it? To be better. To curb-stomp the heads of our past selves and spit on their inferior corpses. I’m better than you, bitch! You might scream. I may still suck, but I’m better than you!
Sorry, I’m in a mood – can you tell? Not a bad mood, though. A triumphant mood. It was a difficult journey, this second million words of fiction, but it was a profitable one. I’ve learned things again, and so I have returned faithfully to this site to share the spoils of war for anyone who cares to listen.
Most of this post isn’t concerned with the nuts and bolts of craft – I will leave that for future posts here which I hope to put up more frequently in the coming year (2019). Rather, I want to talk more about the life of it, about the struggle and the love, intertwined as they are, and about what it is to be out here in the dark, grinding my axe in the hopes of one day, maybe, making it just sharp enough to slice bone.
I know I’m not alone. I know there’s more of you out there like me, with your headphones on and your laptop glowing in front of you, fingers tapping (or perhaps not, for a long and wandering time). Grinding. Burning the midnight oil, bleeding your soul into a thousand stories, a million words, for the sake of a distant hope.
Well, I’m with you, you dog-eyed savages, and I’m here to help. Here are some things I’ve learned on my journey to two million words…
- Don’t Sacrifice Your Life To The Muse
What do I mean by this cryptic statement? I think it can be best summed up by this quote by French Playwright Francoise Sagan: ‘I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’
There was a time when I could not surf. I mean, I could surf (barely – it’s more like I can keep my balance on a board while a wave has its way with me), but there was a time when I denied myself the pleasure. The regret would set in on the drive to the beach. A free day, I would think – a free day I could spend writing, editing, submitting, and yet here I am wasting it all at the beach. Only for brief minutes on the face of a wave could I dispel this poisonous guilt, but always it returned. So I stopped going. I did the right thing: I stayed home and wrote.
This was only one manifestation of an illusion that plagues so many of us dreamers: the illusion of the crystalline future. In the Future, you see, I would be a rich and famous author, a man with a wealth of free time and ability. Like Ian Fleming, I would write a thousand or two words in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day spearfishing and, yes, surfing in some tropical paradise.
I had plenty of hobbies I wanted to pursue like surfing: learning languages, martial arts, hiking – but in my mind those adventures would have to wait until I had achieved the dream of being a writer.
Similarly, what I did for money at the time (selling poison to legions of the walking dead) didn’t matter. I wouldn’t need to work once I sold a few books.
There are two big problems with thinking this way. One, you have less to write about. No one wants to read a book by someone who has never lived, never left their little hermit hole of a dark room or seen another soul in decades. What do they know? Their lives, and therefore their minds, are not open, and inevitably their writing will be equally narrow. Two, when you rest everything on the writing, you crush it. You start second guessing every story. Is this good enough? Will this sell? Does it have commercial appeal? While these are by no means unimportant thoughts, by obsessing over them you lose the capacity to take risks, since the stakes seem so high. However, as any creative person will tell you, taking risks is an essential part of creating good art.
‘It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.’ So says the master himself, Stephen King in On Writing.
I surf now; I learn languages and martial arts and history. My new job is not a soul crushing machine but a place I like to go with people I like to see. I have less free time, and yet I write more, the quality of my work is better, and I take risks – some of which have paid off very well.
So… put your desk in the corner, go surfing, and don’t sacrifice your life to the muse.
- Books Aren’t Dying, So Stop Panicking
‘Millenials aren’t reading fiction! Print book sales continue to plummet! The average salary for a writer is now only ten thousand dollars a year!’ Ah, the media at it’s best: zero in on a public concern and then use it to scare the shit out of everyone for those juicy, juicy clicks.
I bought into these ideas for many years and became existentially depressed because, like many of you, I knew that writing was not one of those things I could ever just put aside and move on to something better. There was nothing better, never will be. No, I would just have to keep going, only with the sure knowledge that I had as much chance of making it as a writer as I did becoming a lamplighter.
It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that it was all bullshit.
Don’t worry – I won’t drag you through the tedious swamp of statistics and surveys to prove my point. I won’t shove frantic and blind positivity down your throat, my red eyes cracking at the seams with barely restrained despair, no… I’ll just give you the same realisation that I had, when I was most worried about my own future as a writer and of books in general. Here it is:
- Lots of people read fiction. Who do you think those clickbait articles are targeting? That’s right: avid readers who are terrified of the death of books. How ironic it is that the existence of the articles’ main audience is the very thing that proves the content false.
- People still become professional writers. It’s super hard – it’s always been hard – but it happens all the time.
- Books can only ‘die’ if they stop being valuable. But that is as ridiculous a concept as the idea of gold or coffee or houses dying. The prices and popularity may vary, but the idea that people will one day wake up and decide that books have no value is as insane as the notion that people will decide that chocolate has no value. Say it all you want – scream it from the rooftops until your lungs are red raw. But the moment that creamy dark cacao touches your tongue you will know the truth: true value cannot be denied. Gold, in other words, is always gold.
I will leave you with this quote from the inimitable Neil Gaiman, recalling a conversation he had with Douglas Adams:
“Douglas said…Books are sharks,” Gaiman told a packed audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
“I must have looked baffled because he looked very pleased with himself. And he carried on with his metaphor. Books are sharks … because sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.”
Adams told Gaiman: “‘Look at a book. A book is the right size to be a book. They’re solar-powered. If you drop them, they keep on being a book. You can find your place in microseconds. Books are really good at being books and no matter what happens books will survive.’ And he was right,” said Gaiman.
- Finish Stories, Send Them Out
It was a painful thing to learn that I could not trust myself to judge the quality of my own work. I have been surprised many times, but one story I wrote recently pushed me over the edge. This one, I decided, was definitely shit. There was no question – burning this trash would be too good for it. If only it had the capacity to feel pain so that I could torture the thing to its miserable end.
But no, after the last time I had drastically misjudged my own work, I decided that despite my own opinions, I would give the abomination to my beta readers and – cringing and cursing all the while – I did.
Aaaaand they loved it. Some of my best work, they unanimously agreed. They went further, pointing out the various detailss that appealed to them in particular. I knew they were being honest, too, having never shied away from telling the truth about my numerous terrible stories; they weren’t trying to be nice.
So what the hell was I supposed to do with this new information? I had been looking for a pattern, some sure-fire way to tell during the creation of a story whether or not it was good. Now I saw that there was no pattern, no rhyme or reason: I was more clueless than anyone when it came to gatekeeping my own work.
There was only one thing to do: throw the gates wide open and come what may.
If I couldn’t tell the quality of my stories in advance, all I could do was to make sure they weren’t completely broken – that when they were finished they at least functioned as stories, and that they were as good as I could make them… but beyond that, it was no longer up to me.
I can’t help but recall the now well-known genesis of (again) Stephen King’s first novel: Carrie. Evidently, he had yet to learn the lesson, because it was his wife Tabitha who picked the first fifty pages out of the wastepaper basket and insisted he continue.
If you finish a story, send that shit out, because you never know when it might be Carrie.
- Self Publishing is Not a Shortcut
I have had a few short adventures in the world of short publishing. Over the last decade or so there has been a total overhaul in the publishing industry because of the invention of the kindle, ereaders, and online fiction. A few years ago the general feeling seemed to be that if you were good, and you wanted to avoid the mean gatekeepers in traditional publishing, you could just self publish and the cream (assuming your work was, after all, nice and creamy) would rise to the top.
First I tried a novel – the first decent one I ever wrote, in fact, a dark fantasy titled ‘Book of Worlds’. I Made it as professional as possible, found the best possible advertising deal kindle provided, published, and waited for the inevitable fame and fortune. Through a promotion, I managed to sell five hundred copies for zero dollars, and about twenty for one dollar.
After that, nothing.
One could argue that the book wasn’t actually that good, and one would have a point – it wasn’t. I’m not convinced, however, that that was the reason for the failure. When I made my next attempt at the self publishing game, with a serial novel published on this site, I became more certain that quality, in the chaos and scope of the internet, was less important than a combination of quantity and dedicated marketing.
What I came to realise was that publishers get paid a bunch of money for a reason: there is a ton of money, time and manpower that goes into marketing and distributing books, even in the seemingly even playing field of the online world. That doesn’t mean self publishing is a bad idea: in fact if you’re a skilled marketer/self promoter and are willing to put in the full time hours it would take to use those skills to sell your book, it’s probably a very good idea. Especially if you’ve written a book that Publishers are afraid to publish because, for example, it’s a mix of genres, or it’s a genre that doesn’t seem to be selling right now, etc. See Scott Sigler (I linked a couple of interviews with him on the ‘Links’ page) for a perfect example of this.
In my case, I’m a pretty straightforward guy. I write adult horror, and not only do I suck at marketing but I have no desire to get any better. I would rather pay a publisher money to do that work for me.
The lesson? There are no shortcuts, only business decisions. Make the one that’s best for you and your work.
- Structure is Everything
Well, not everything, but believe me when I say that if you don’t prioritize your structure, you’ll be screwed come second draft. I wrote sixteen novels before I even became conscious of structure, and they were all dogshit for exactly that reason. I agonized over characters, over prose, over atmosphere – and somehow my books continued to suck so badly that I threw them out one after the other, insane with frustration.
Then I read a book called The Story Grid, by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne, and I became truly aware of structure for the first time.
I have plenty of criticism for that book and the ethos behind it, by the way. That rabbit hole can easily consume and paralyse a writer, pulling apart the mechanics of storytelling until all the magic is lost and one becomes obsessed with creating value adjustments, turning scenes and adhering to genre conventions.
That said, there is a very important message to be gleaned from that book, and the message is this: stories have rules and a structure, just as houses have foundations.
Many writers scoff at the idea of such limitations, such boring conventional ideas as the three act structure and the ‘obligatory scenes’. But the greatest and most beautiful mansions all started with a hole in the ground and a solid concrete block.
And I know, after two million words and as many failures, that nothing predicts the success or failure of a novel as does the underlying structure. Everything else can be fixed in the subsequent drafts, but structure? Screw that up bad enough and you might as well bring in the wrecking ball and start from scratch.
But maybe you’re a rebel without a cause – a John Kerouac kind of writer, a feel-it-in-your-bones-play-it-by-ear jazz artist. You don’t need no rules, man.
Hey, I get it, I do, I like to improvise stories myself. Hell, I’m improvising right now! Think of it like this: Do you like games? I know I do. But what is the essential ingredient of a game, the foundation on which all else stands? That’s right: the rules.
So, learn structure, read every on writing book you can find, and build the foundations so that the fun can begin.
- Everything You Write is the Last Thing You Write
Next time you’re grinding away at the blank page, fingers hammering as you pull another story together from the reluctant oblivion, imagine this: the cold barrel of a revolver pressed up against your temple, followed by the echoing click of the safety being pulled back.
‘Make it good,’ a demonic voice growls in your ear. ‘It’s your last one.’
I mean, it could be, when you think about it. You might leave the house after finishing your next short story only to be mauled to death by a rabid pit bull. Or whip out a celebratory heroin syringe when you complete your next novel, only to tragically OD. I would urge any writer to think about this the next time he or she sits down to the work in progress. What if this is the last thing you do? What if this is the thing people will remember you by? This is what you leave behind on earth when you’re gone. It might be, after all.
It can be easy to fall into the grind: Gotta get my thousand words done today. Get that story out. Edit that novel. Finish a million words of fiction. Practice my ten thousand hours. I get it. There’s definitely something to that mentality – that blue collar work ethic of laying words the way a builder lays bricks rain, hail or shine. I’m not against that, exactly, but what I am against is the humdrum another day another dollar attitude that this idea fosters.
After all, it’s entirely possible to churn out ten thousand words a day and never get any better. To be a hack, a typist, rather than a writer. What makes the difference? You have to throw everything you’ve got into every story you write. Treat it as though it’s the last thing you’ll ever do, and try to make it the best. Every time I sit down to write a story now, I promise myself that I’m going to hold nothing back. I try with everything I have to write the perfect horror story, the best one I can imagine.
If you could walk over to your bookshelf and pull out a novel that had been written for you by divine beings, a novel that was tailor made to suit your soul – one that was the perfect book in your favourite genre (or your favourite mix of genres), and which was so perfectly executed you could read it a hundred times and never tire of it… That’s the book you have to try to write, every time.
It sounds exhausting, I know, and it’s deflating too, because you can’t help but fall eternally short of your ideal. In an incredibly entertaining interview with Tim Ferris, actor Terry Crews talks about how when he would paint (he won an art scholarship in his youth), he would try to imagine the perfect image in his mind and then strive to transcribe it onto the canvas. He could never match what was in his mind, he said, but it was fun to try.
To quote another artist, Vincent Van Gogh: ‘I’m always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.’
All learning happens at the very edge of your ability, but you can’t get to the edge unless you push yourself. Only in falling short of your ideal story will you be able to see where your weaknesses are and improve.
By all means, write your thousands of words a day, but when all is said and done ask yourself: if my heart explodes in my chest at the end of this story, will I be satisfied with my efforts?
So that’s about it, folks. These are the lessons I’ve learned on the long journey to my second million words of fiction. Over the course of this journey, I went from selling my first story in a non-paying market to regularly selling to semi-pro and professional magazines and anthologies (six cents a word, one of them! Six cents!) and after several failed attempts created my first novel which (thanks to lessons five and three) I will not set alight but will instead edit and ship.
The gold comes slow, but it does come. To this day in all my endeavours I have never encountered any activity so vast, so complex and so satisfying as writing, and I suspect I never will. I can’t help but wonder what I will learn about this endlessly fascinating craft over the next million words, but you can bet your ass I’ll have a good time along the way.
Thanks for reading and good luck,