I forget who first twigged me onto the ‘million words of crap’ theory or where I first came across the idea, but many writers have said that a writer needs to get a million horrible words out of their system before getting any good.
Charles Coleman Finlay, a fellow Ohio science fiction author out of Columbus, made a similar point to me once. He said “it seems to take about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything.” If you looked at how long it took for a lawyer to work through school, grad school, and to pass the bar, or a doctor to get through residencies, or an architect to creating buildings, it all takes a similar amount of time to master a skill.
Seems to have been in the air, that idea, because Malcolm Gladwell went out to add some substance to the idea of the 10,000 hours to become an expert syndrome in a book called “Outliers,” based, as far as I can tell, on the book called “Talent Is Overrated.”
At 100 words an hour, you’ll have a million words. Seems like there might be parity between the two.
I often compare the apprenticeship period of a writer to apprenticeship periods of other crafts in order to break people of their romantic associations. Thanks to Hollywood and something in the water, people seem to think writing involves getting struck with a brilliant idea and setting out to write it down.
Maybe there are geniuses who strike great thoughts out on paper with their first flourish of a pen. Most of the writers I know and my own experience reflects a rather different path.
I started plugging away in 8th grade.
Sure, I’d written fiction before then. I mentioned the box of words I used to make sentences out of. I dimly remember in first grade an assignment I wrote about a young boy, trapped in a forest, who figured out how to get to safety by using the sun. And yes, I was daydreaming about what it was like to be a writer. But the bug to actually sit down and put words on paper for real never really bit me until I was in the 8th grade.
By then I was going to school at All Saints Cathedral School, nestled up at the end of the shopping streets of Charlotte Amalie, near the US Coast Guard docks (which is where we often tied up our dinghy before hopping out to walk to school). Nancy Ann, the boat we lived on, was anchored off Water Island near Crown Bay, on the other side of the harbor and close to the airport.
All up and down the Caribbean boating communities created something out of entertainment necessity called ‘swap libraries.’ You’d find a couple of bookshelves tucked away in a shop in a marina somewhere, and on it would be a few hundred books of varying genres. The sign always said something like “take one, leave one.”
The one I remember best was in the dive shop at Crown Bay Marina. It was mostly a line of books just stacked on the floor in front of the glass cases that held wickedly long shark knives, complicated looking regulators and their black octopus hoses, and long fins. Here, later in high school, I picked up Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Bruce Sterling’s Islands In The Net all together one day, and read them all in one week.
I’ll never have a week like that again.
But before the cyberpunk and singularitan visions of those three writers completely blew my brain, I had raided the dive store and picked up a Scholastic adventure SF novel that featured a talking octopus in outer space.
At some point, a third of the way through as I sat on the concrete steps in front of the shop, I set the book down as the thought occurred to me: I could do better.
It was the first time something like that had hit me, and the seed sort of remained buried inside me for several days. And talking to friends of mine, I’m convinced most writers have a moment just like this.
But something else was conspiring to push me into the world of writing in the 8th grade: it was that I was a completely horrible student.
Throughout my academic life I’ve been a cheerful C student. The notes my teacher made in first grade are pretty much the same comments my college professors made. That was “bright kid, a bit distractible and doesn’t really apply himself.”
Sitting in place for 45 minutes is just a special kind of torture for me. It’s still a tall order. And class was tough on me. As a real young kid I survived by being a bit of a pain. I would either bounce around in my chair and talk when I got bored, or I would get sent out to either the principal’s office or to the school library.
I eventually learned to settle down by multitasking. I’d bring books to class and keep one in my lap to read when I’d either figured out a lesson or was getting inescapably bored.
Eventually, though, taking books to class to read when bored no longer became ‘cute’ somewhere in the 8th grade, but a ‘behavioral problem.’
Never mind that I ripped through several books a day, ranging from nonfiction books on history, physics, and various sciences. Never mind that I could leave my textbooks in a locker all year that I’d forgotten the combination to, I had gone from being precocious to troublesome.
Teachers started taking books away. And that boredom didn’t go anywhere.
So what now?
I started scribbling scenes and chapters on notepaper to keep myself entertained. Every single day I spent time working on these little projects.
I wasn’t thinking of this as an apprenticeship period, but that is essentially what it became. I never kept any formal track of how many words I wrote, but it was a couple scenes a day, or a page or two of handwritten notebook paper. I’d casually estimate it at 200-400 words a day written during class from 8th grade through to my senior year of high school.
It wasn’t the ‘million words of crap’ that some writers talk about, it probably wasn’t even 10,000 hours of practice, but that daily writing habit laid down the base that allowed me to become a writer.
For one, it made writing English papers easier (which lead me into my degree of choice). I was not daunted or intimidated by five to ten page papers. I knew I could write that in a day or two, if not a single night of intensity. The bug began to settle in my mind that maybe I had some ability, particularly once the occasional teacher or friend read what I was doing and commented favorably.
Mainly, the writing muscle became developed, and it became easier and easier to write pages of stories that were sitting in my mind’s eye.
In the books ‘Talent Is Overrated’ and ‘Outliers’ much is made of the research that found out that musicians and artists in general who’d practiced their craft were almost always ranked higher than those who hadn’t. Thanks to being bored, at 15 I was practicing the hell out of writing with no expectations. This period of mindful practice is something I often don’t see in people who start trying to write at older ages, or who have some expectations that their first efforts are good enough to publish. They dabble about, get frustrated about not seeing results sooner, and turn to either other avenues (self publishing usually shows up here) or just plain give up.
After being published I often compared the stages of my career with other writers, often out of curiosity to figure out why there were so few writers in their 20s being published. Most writers didn’t start practicing, seriously and every day, their writing until much later in life.
What I found out was that the amount of time invested in becoming a writer was nearly identical to friends who began at 30. All of us seemed to spend five years of intense practice, and then found some success sometime after that.
I lucked into this at a young age, and in retrospect, am glad that my books were confiscated. If I’d ended up in college a weak essay writer, too busy to read, and with the intent to start writing seriously after I graduated, I’m not sure where I would have found the time to start writing my first complete stories or found the time to spend those thousands of hours of daily practice that was the foundation for becoming a writer.
Throughout all this, people kept telling me I had a talent for writing. I have always felt it was an incredible cheapening of the sheer amount of time I invested in learning the craft. As some critics online will be happy to point out, I’m not talented. I sure as hell was not talented from the get go. Trust me, I still have pieces from that time period. They’re really, really, really, horrible.
I’m just someone who worked hard at it for a very long time.
But most people don’t like to hear that.
The amount of time you spend writing doesn’t go down when you become a full time writer, either. It increases. Learning to write a lot is a habit that’s worth starting from the get go.
My advice to potential writers has always been, as a result: get started on your million words as soon as possible.