Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How far into your million are you?

I'm positive I read somewhere that Arthur C. Clarke said that a writer had about a million words of crap to get out of his or her system before he or she could write good stuff. When I tried to search for the exact quote, though, so I could use it in this post, I couldn't find it anywhere. It may be one of those urban legends . . . I found tons or references to this truism, but I couldn't find the original.

Here's what I did find:

"The first half-million words are just practice." -Dean Koontz


"I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that's another story." -Jerry Pournelle

Maybe Pournelle is the originator and I've just been misattributing it. *shrug*

The current-day version of that seems to be Malcolm Gladwell's observation that talent or intelligence are not the determining factors of success. They are necessary conditions, but not sufficient ones. Beyond a certain level of talent, it is not true, according to Gladwell, that more talented people enjoy more success. Once you have enough talent, what makes the difference is your drive. According to his research, it's 10,000 hours, to be much more specific. That's the number of hours he finds the most successful people have put into mastering their craft.

Well that's all well and good and even motivational, but I have no way to quantify the hours I've spent learning how to write, no way to judge how far along I am, so I'll just stick with the one million words, which I reckon must be emblematic of pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, I decided to search through whatever old manuscripts of mine I could find, and see how far along I was in this progress. My wife called it cat-waxing, but I think I just needed to have a sense or progress, even if it turns out I'm not as far along as I would like to be. Even being at the beginning of a journey is better than spinning your wheels on ice. I've been struggling lately; maybe I've plateaued, or maybe I'm getting ready for a breakthrough, but I needed some reason for optimism this morning.

I looked through whatever old typewritten stuff I could find in the den--luckily, the wordcounts were up on the front page, where they were supposed to be--and searched through my hard drive. There's tons of writing that I lost in this way. The oldest stories I still have were written my junior year in college. But what the hell; anything I wrote before I was twenty probably doesn't count anyway. I also, based on the Pournelle quote, discounted every file that was begun but not completed--a shame that, because it probably cut my number in half.

So where am I? A little over a quarter of the way. That's a little embarrassing--that someone with lifelong aspirations of being a writer should have so little to show for it. Two completed novels and a handful of short stories. On the other hand, it gives me reason for optimism. One quarter of the way is a not-insubstantial fraction.

It's also reason for hope because it gives me reason to believe that, however good I am right now, it's not the upper limit. All I have to do is keep at it and I'll get better. And thirty-something Joe has a lot more drive and dedication (and discipline) than twenty-something Joe did.

So how far along are you in your million words?

EDIT TO ADD: If you equate a million words and ten thousand hours, that averages out to a hundred words an hour. Honestly, that seems pretty realistic to me. I mean sure, when the writing's going well I write much more than half a page per hour, but there are certainly plenty of times when I have much less to show for my hours of work.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

As if nothing whatsoever had happened

I've been wrestling with a short story's plot lately, trying to get it not to suck. One thing I've noticed is that it's easy to use a maguffin as an excuse for poor plotting. "Oh, the plot doesn't matter because it's really about the character arc" or whatever. I think I flirted with that for a bit; luckily, I've come to my senses.

The specific problems I'm having . . . well first my subconscious threw a complication out there as I was writing, and I really liked it so I decided to keep it, but then that meant I didn't know how the protagonist could achieve his goal. Basically, I had him break his leg in a situation where a broken leg would make it hard if not impossible for him to succeed. Well good, in a way, because it shouldn't be too easy for the character to succeed. But then I spent a day being all, "crap, how *does* he get out of this?!" Then I thought of a solution for that, as well as for one of my other problems, but I began to feel that my solution was too facile; I'd pulled something out of my ass that rendered it just not that big a deal. Well if it's not all that big a deal, then it's a pretty impotent complication. I also started to realize that the toughest challenges faced by my characters were not the *last* challenged faced by them in the story, which undercuts any sense of rising action. If they overcome bigger challenges early in the story, then the later challenges never make the reader doubt that the main characters will win out, and so the ending becomes anticlimactic.

All of this led me to examine my plot more thoroughly, leading to the epiphany about maguffins posted above. I started to feel that my plot was entirely too linear. I've heard some good advice on this, but it's hard to put it into practice. Maybe every writer needs to find his or her own way. Orson Scott Card says you should throw away the first idea or two that come into your head for a given premise, just automatically, because your very first ideas will be the trite ones . . . the obvious solutions. Fair enough, but I tend to fixate on things. Having one solution to a problem, it's difficult for me to see other ones. Elizabeth Bear says it's all about writing enough. When you've written and read enough stories that hew to the tried-and-true, your subconscious mind finally begins to reject clichés and begins to throw out ideas that subvert them rather than implementing them. Again, that's great, but I'm trying to figure out how to improve *now*, not after I've written a hundred crappy stories. I mean, improving eventually is better than not improving at all, of course, but shouldn't the goal be to improve sooner?

This isn't wisdom, because I'm on the road, not looking back on it from afar, but where I am right now in the process is analyzing how I generate plot. I tend to have a starting point and an ending point, and then try to figure out how to get from point A to point B.

(This isn't about being a plotter versus a pantser, because whether you plot in advance or you do it as you go, you still plot. I'm interested in how to make that process result in more original ideas, regardless of where in the writing process I do it. I have a story out there making the rounds which has gotten very positive feedback on my writing ability, but the general sense that it's not terribly inventive or original. I'm just doing what has already been done.)

Anyway, I'm thinking that certain "Point B"s only lend themselves to certain paths from A to B, and that if I want a truly original plot, I need to change where it's going altogether. If I know the rebels destroy the death star, well there's only so many ways to make that happen. I mean, there are infinite possibilities in the details, but few in terms of the big picture. If I want to do something original, I need to veer away from the ending point I have in mind, to one that's less obvious.