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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.


lotusgirl said...

Seriously, Joe, I think you can count anything that is crafted. Even if you didn't finish. We learn tons in what we don't finish. As long as you finish some things, I think you can count it all. I could almost see the time and effort as much as the words written. I've learned tons with every draft that is written. Of course, I'm also of the opinion that these are ballpark figures and a bit of overstatement for effect.

Joe Iriarte said...

Oh, I definitely think you're right. But it does me good to set my sights on something that's a stretch, you know? If I see myself as too close to the finish line, then the question becomes why I haven't improved more. This way I can tell myself I just need to put in the time. :)