“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”
Most of us have seen this quote in various forms, memes, abbreviations, motivational posters, etc. “Throw your first million words away”. (There’s a very interesting article here about the possible origins of the quote.)
I think it’s bullshit.
I mean. No one’s going to debate the notion that you have to expect to practice. That your first attempts are going to be clumsy, and that you won’t know how bad you are at the beginning until you get a bit better and look backwards. But Caesar’s ghost, that applies to ANY skills. Baking. Accounting. Photoshop. Skip rope. And generally no one throws around memes like “your first three thousand Photoshop-edited photos are going to be garbage, throw them away.” Generally your skill level will be allowed to speak for itself.
But people love trying to quantify the unquantifiable (i.e. fiction writing ability, which is so personal an opinion as to render it meaningless).
And 1,000,000 words is a very round number. So many zeros. Reminds me of that other round number beloved by social media: 10,000 hours to master a skill.
Let’s do some math, shall we?
Since June 2014 (which inspired this post), I have written:
- Ashes (180,000 words)
- Embers (currently 115,000 words)
- Creampuffs (63,000 words)
- The ending section to Curve of the Corridor (aka Space Crazies): (23,000 words)
- Northern Portents (17,000)
For a total of 398,000 words. In just two years!
There’s Melanie in the Underworld, that’s 15K. Perceptions is in a series of three notebooks. Let’s say 30K for that one. Then there’s the rest of Curve of the Corridor (80K, not including the 23K that I did in 2015). Those are the three major works I did in the last 5 years before I started Ashes. 125K. Not including all the short stories, so let’s round that up to 150K since we like round numbers.
Let’s go back further. I don’t have detailed accounts for the two novels I wrote in high school + college. They were both decent size and I was pretty fucking proud of them at the time. So let’s say ultraconservatively 50K for each of them. That’s another 100,000. All the short stories and novellettes and serialized novellas that I did in high school, locked away in Wordperfect format. I’m just going to make another ultraconservative lowball guess and add in another 100K. That’s 200,000 of words. Super roughly and I doubt it’s that low.
So I stand at 748,000 very approximate words of finished work. Not counting all the half-finished novels and stories. According to that quote, all of the above is to be thrown away. Irredeemable. And I’ve got another 2.5 novels to go at 100K a pop before I am ready to “begin”. To BEGIN. This is why whenever someone helpfully posts that motivational quote on social media I roll my eyes so hard they fall out and explode. I doubt very highly that David Eddings was seriously suggesting that someone write 10 novels at 100,000 words each before they consider themselves ready to begin, considering he didn’t do that himself–as far as I can tell from Google, it was his third novel that he first tried selling.
Then there’s someone like my best friend Grace, who is published and respected. Paid professional rates for her fiction. Had offers of anthologies. She mainly writes short stories, so her total lifetime word count is definitely far lower than mine, but her quality is just as definitely greater. How does that figure into the ‘1,000,000 before you begin’ nonsense?
Something to consider when that meme floats across your feed.
Then there’s that other suspiciously round number. 10,000 hours. Never mind how you’d quantify what an “expert in writing” even is, since there are plenty of people with delicious amounts of talent right out of the gate and plenty of people who have spent decades and bore people to tears. Never mind that the key to good writing is good editing. Is editing covered in the 10,000 hours? I have to assume it is, since what you learn editing you carry forward with your next piece of writing. Let’s do some more math.
I’ve been writing since I was a toddler. (I have the story books to prove it.) However that was sporadic over the elementary years. I wrote very, very heavily from about 15-22, which is when I “hung up my straw hat” and went back to sporadic until Ashes in 2014. But I do have several short stories and novellas from that period, so I never really stopped. Assuming for 2014-2016 an hour a day (I don’t write every day but every session is at least two hours, sometimes over five, so I think “an hour a day” is a safe average) gives me 730 hours.
Let’s halve that for ages 5-15 because I was generally writing short stories: that’s 10 years x 182.5 hours = 1,825 hours.
Then let’s go back to the daily hour because I wrote a lot during this period (I’ve seriously underestimated my word count above for this period: remember that this was the 90s and I didn’t have the internet at home or indeed a screen with 256 colours, so I wrote A LOT but most of it is lost to the midst of time/WordPerfect 5.1). 7 years x 365 hours = 2,555.
22 to 25 I didn’t write much at all. Those were unhappy years where I focused on being a graphic designer to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.
25 to 32 I was trying to get back into writing again, so let’s use the half measure again. 8 years x 182.5 hours = 1,460 hours.
1825 + 2555 + 1460 + 730 = 6570 hours over my lifetime. Very highly conservatively. So I am not an “expert” yet by that reckoning either.
I can honestly say, even just going from age 15, if we define “posting finished, edited work for an audience to read on the internet” as “published”, then I’ve been “published” for over twenty goddamn years. I’ve had my stories translated in to German and Russian. I’ve had fanfiction written about my original characters. And fanart created. I’m on my sixth novel (third since June 2014) and I have plans for two more in the immediate future. I’ve written a quarter of a million words in the last two years alone.
My point in all of this is that success is not a numbers game. Because numbers are arbitrary and math is the worst. It’s especially not a set of numbers that someone tossed out in an interview to make a point about not expecting success right away.
Success is personal, and it is up to you to decide what your ultimate goal is. So what that someone posted that stupid meme to your wall? Fuck ’em. So what that someone on your weekend writing team has written their 27th novel? Fuck ’em. (After you buy them a coffee, because they are your team-mates, and you’re a supportive person even as jealousy eats your insides.) So what that you’re not making a living writing yet but Scalzi is? FUCK IT!
FUCK ALL THAT NOISE!
Keep doing what you’re doing. Focus on your own goals. Don’t look to see what the other kids are doing, keep your eyes on your own work. You will get there, even if it takes 20 goddamn years.
Goals, not dreams.