Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Million Down...

Last Sunday, August 19th, I posted a tweet about how I had written one million words since November 1st, 2010.  When I noticed myself closing in on a million words I made it a goal to see how fast I could get there.  It was not THE goal, though.  
November 1st was the day I started writing my novel, Spell of 13 Years.  It was part of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month.  The goal in NaNoWriMo is to write the equivalent of a novel, 50,000 words, in a month.  It seemed like a daunting task, but I decided to give it a shot.  I ended up reaching over 75,000 words by the end of November.  I finally finished the novel by the following February, with the first draft coming in at 218,000+ words.  
Posting my work to the NaNoWriMo website to get my official count was what got me started keeping track of my daily word count.  It did remind of a saying that I'd heard from other writers at the various conferences and conventions I go to.  It goes: 
"You need to write at least a million words before you write anything publishable."  
The first question that came to mine after I heard someone say this, or their own approximation of it, was, "Does it matter what you write?"  
I've heard a number of writers say, "any writing is good writing, as long as you put words down on paper."  Or on the screen, too, I guess.  Writing newspaper stories or magazine articles will teach you brevity and compactness, I've heard people with experience in these fields say.  I know that writing comic book scripts taught me structure.  You have to fit a beginning, middle and end in twenty-three pages, or a 1 page splash at the beginning, a 1 page splash cliff-hanger at the end, and 12 two pages "stages" for your action to take place, with a page-turning at the lower right hand corner of the open book.  
For my goal, I counted the stories I wrote, and their rewrites.  My blog.  And my daily Twitter feed.  Anything that I intended for an audience.  I also counted the critiques I gave my colleagues in my online writing group.  I figured it was about writing and stories, even if only for an audience of one, so it counted.  
A friend of mine asked me online once if I counted these words the way the NFL counts a running back's yardage.  If, for example, I cut the words I wrote during rewrites the next day, would I subtract those words from my total?
No.  I don't.  Why would I want to do something like that?  
The best analogy I have heard about writing when it comes to output is from J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 and the writer of the best version of Spiderman I've read.  He likened writing to drilling for oil.  When you first start, all you get is dirt, then mud, then sludge.  As you keep drilling, you eventually hit the oil that you're searching for.  
When you write, either when you're first starting out or when you first start your newest story, most of what comes out is crap.  If you keep at it, eventually, hopefully, you start getting something worth reading.  
Counting the words is about getting the sludge out of the way.  
Another friend commented on my milestone about the "talent I was born with."  It's this "talent" that makes a person good, he seemed to be saying, and that you get better because of it.  
Hmm...  I don't know.  Talent is a lot like what smut is to a Supreme Court judge.  It's hard to define it, but you can recognize it when you see it.  
There was this one writing class where I saw talent.  Or heard it, as this other student taking the class read her work.  It was about the time I had stopped trying to get work as an actor and returned to writing with the thought of making a go at it.  There was this one girl that I don't remember very well now.  A bit on the heavy side.  Short black hair cut in this cute, curly style.  From the little bit I spoke with her, I had the feeling that she had made the decision that her thing was her wit and intelligence, and that she would get noticed on those merits over her looks.  She was the first person to read what she had brought into class, the first chapter of a novel she was writing.  
It was FANTASTIC.  I remember being in awe.  So much so I couldn't even be jealous.  It was humorous.  It was touching.  By the end of her chapter I wanted to buy the book.  I was going to finish the class just so I could hear her read this work and be able to tell my friends that I heard its rough draft after it became a best-seller.  When she finished, everyone applauded.  I didn't read that week, because I didn't want my hack-schlock-piece-of-crap compared to what she had done.  
The next week, she brought her second chapter.  It was good.  Really good.  Not as good as the first chapter, though.  There were flashes of the brilliance we had heard the week before, but something was...  Off.  The pieces weren't fitting together right.  We talked a lot about the chapter, we all wanted to help her find the way to get back on track.  They weren't big things we gave her.  Someone that talented only need a clue or two, surely.  She nodded and thanked us for our feedback.  
The following week, she didn't show up.  She didn't show up the week after that, nor any of the subsequent weeks.  I was disappointed.  I wanted to hear more of her words.  She was a bona fide talent, and I was hoping some of it would rub off on my, maybe.  
For a while after that class, I would check the book shelf stores or the N.Y. Times Best Seller list for her name or the title of the novel she'd given us.  After a while, I stopped looking out for her.  Today I can't recall her name or what her story was about.  
I have another story that involves the word, "talent."  It comes from the first time I attended Comic-Con, the largest comic book, science fiction, fantasy and popular media convention in the country.  It was back in 1995 or '96, I think.  I've been to so many now that a lot of them blur together.  It was before the San Diego Convention Center expanded beyond the Sails Pavilion, about half its current size.  Attendance was measured in the tens of thousands, not the 130,000+ that go these days.  
While at the convention, I made a point of going to every panel on writing I could get to.  It's something I still do.  I sat in one of the "spotlight" panels, where some well-known artist or writer talks about his work and answers questions, usually about how to break into the business, from the audience.  This particular writer wasn't anyone I recognized, but he was a writer making his living as a writer, so I was willing to listen to him.  He turned out to be intelligence and articulate, and gave a lot of good advice that I dutifully jotted down in my notebook.  
Toward the end of the hour the panel was scheduled for, someone from the audience stood up and asked something like this: 
"How can you tell if you have the talent to make it as a writer?"  
The Spotlight Writer paused for a very, very long time.  We all sat there, not talking or moving, waiting for him to respond.  This was a question we all wanted the answer to.
"Well..."  The guy bobbed his head back and forth.  He blew out his lips.  He tugged on the beard from where it grew from his chin.  He then straightened up all at once.  He nodded and looked back at the guy that had asked the question.  
"Let me ask you a question..."  He wagged his finger at the guy.  "What if I were to tell you that I could absolutely guarantee that you would 'make it'," he made the finger quotes, "as a writer, but first you had to write...  Ten million words of crappy stories that absolutely would not get sold.  Would you do it?  Would you write those crappy ten million words?"  
The guy that asked the question hemmed and hawed.  He shook his head.  He lifted his shoulders and let them fall.  "I...  Dunno."  
The Spotlight Writer extended his had toward him.  "Well, there's you answer.  Or...  Your answer is in there..."  He went on to elaborate, but I wasn't listening to him any more.  I was thinking about my own answer to his question.
Before the guy from the audience started his reply, right after the Spotlight Writer had asked his question.  Yes, I would write the ten million crappy words.  I would write a hundred million crappy words.  I would keep writing until I had no more crappy words left to write.  
After the panel was over, I went into the hall and sat against the wall.  I took out my notebook and wrote out what I had just learned.  Ten million words sounded like a lot.  A huge amount.  Maybe an impossible amount.  But I would do that.  I would write them out.  
It took me a year and about 9 1/2 months to write a million words.  At that rate, it would take about 17 years and three months to get to ten million words.  Sigh.  
But, wait a second...  If you count all the words I wrote from 1996 to 2010...  Adjusting for the fact that my daily average is probably higher now...  That puts me about three and a half years left to go!  Wow!  That's just around the corner. 
That's how I see it, anyway.  It's all about putting in the time and putting down the words.  
And with this blog, I've got 8,990,874 left to go.


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