A Million Words

If you search the Internet on the topic, you will discover the notion, ascribed variously to John D. McDonald, Ray Bradbury, David Eddings, and others, that a writer’s first million words are garbage.  Eddings phrases the idea thusly:

“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.”

It seems staggering to consider: a million words! That’s 8-10 full length novels! Were Eddings and others telling us we had to write ten crappy novels before we’d have the chops to write something decent?

Well, no. Not exactly.

Imagine that you’re interested in writing, and decide to start keeping track at fifteen. There will be 7300 days in the next 20 years, which is an average of about 140 words per day. That’s about as many as this blog post contained before I started the current paragraph.

Now consider everything you’ve ever written. Elementary school book reports. Diary entries. Essays for social studies classes, for high school history tests, for college applications. Letters to your grandmother. Letters to the editor. Your grad school dissertation. E-mails to your kids’ teachers. It all counts! I submit that for someone for whom writing is not specifically a chore, the natural course of life will carry one a good ways toward the magical million word threshold.

I don’t remember everything I’ve written in the last 40 years – heck, I’m lucky to remember things that happened in years that started with “1” – but I can, I think, recall all the major milestones of my writing life.

When I was seven years old, our 2nd-grade teacher, Ms. Lovingood, required us to write THREE eight-page research papers over the course of the year. Remember, this was in the days when the Intertubes weren’t even a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My parents had to drive me to the local library, I think in a horse-drawn carriage, but my memory of past centuries is hazy. Our topics for these essays were a country, a composer, and an Indian tribe. (I chose Austria, Beethoven and the Nez Perce, respectively.) This was pure trauma at the time, but Ms. Lovingood knew what she was doing. We shed tears, gnashed our teeth, wailed about the unfairness of it all…and by the third grade we were never again fazed by any kind of writing assignment.

In third grade, I wrote a short story that earned me an extremely concerned letter to my parents from my teacher. The story was a humorous piece about two grown-up friends who were always landing in trouble. In each of their escapades, one of the men would repeatedly and accidentally rescue the other by sheer drunken luck. Literally. One guy was always drunk, and stumbled into a series of life-saving coincidences. Mrs. Cantrell’s summary was something of the sort: “Extremely well written for a third grader, and appallingly inappropriate. I think we should have a talk about Dorian’s home life.”

In tenth grade I wrote my first (piece of a) fantasy novel. Our class had an entirely open-ended writing assignment that we had a couple of months to work on, so I decided to write as much of a fantasy story as I could. Neither of the main characters was drunk, but my two protagonists – a burly fighter and a scrawny wizard – still found themselves in one seemingly un-survivable scrape after another. I typed the whole thing on an ACTUAL WORD PROCESSOR, which in 1985 was a great big deal, and painstakingly printed the final copy out from my Apple IIe via a dot-matrix printer. I was intensely proud of it, and was hoping for all sorts of flabbergasted praise from my English teacher. Alas, Mrs. Hedges was notoriously lazy, and the sum total of her marks upon my hundred pages of lovingly-crafted prose was “99/100. Good job” on the cover page. I’m fairly certain she didn’t read it; I think she figured I was a decent writer for a 10th grader, and dear God that was a lot of pages of schlocky fantasy, so 99/100 sounded about right.

In my senior year of high school I wrote an excessive number of short stories, hoping to win my high school’s writing prize using a scattershot strategy. (Surely if I submitted enough pieces, one would win just by chance!) The longest of these was a first-person present tense non-fiction account of what it had been like acting in my first play. I had never written anything like it before, but I was inspired by a piece my father had written that had been published in a local newspaper. Like most things I wrote before I turned 30, I imagined it a work of startling genius while I was writing it, but on review it stands the test of time in much the same way Bernie Sanders would stand up to Ronda Rousey.

In college I majored in creative writing, and my senior thesis was an (again unfinished) fantasy novel about a college student who accidentally acquires unwanted magical powers. It was blatantly autobiographic, cringingly self-indulgent, and marginally better-written than my high school story had been.

A few years ago I was invited to write an interactive novella for the excellent choose-your-own-adventure publisher Choice of Games. Over about 15 months I wrote Choice of the Star Captain, a humorous science fiction romp, of which I was (and still am) quite proud. It was a combined writing and light coding exercise, but despite that my career had been in game design, I think I naturally emphasized the “writing” part over the “game” part.

A year after that I wrote a 40k word non-fiction humor book centered around a few years of Facebook posts about my kids. I called it Status Update Parent, and maybe someday I’ll polish it up and publish it, but for now it’ll have to wait in line behind my fantasy novels.

Finally – and this is where the most sizable chunk of my million words comes from – I wrote a fictionalized account of a long-running D&D campaign which I ran for about fifteen years. Those campaign journals would wind up as the foundation for The Ventifact Colossus (and soon-ish, its sequels), as my novels are based heavily on the characters and events from the game.

When I go back and look at everything from Star Captain onward, I can see the quality of my writing finally shedding most of the skin of mediocrity that had covered it lo those twenty-odd years. I can watch myself discover my voice at last, and learn how to narrate, describe and entertain all at the same time. Of course, even a million words isn’t sufficient to perfect one’s art; no single lifetime is that long. But for me, at least, the words of David Eddings were absolutely spot on. I don’t know precisely how many words it took for me to turn the proverbial corner, but a million is certainly in the ballpark.

Total elapsed time between first deciding I wanted to write novels, and actually publishing one:  36 years.

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