So You Want to Commit Novel: The Million Word Myth

The million word myth has been attributed to Henry James, Larry Niven, Virgil, virtually every well known author you can think of.  Mumblty mumble years ago (my gosh was it 20?) I heard this as “You have to write a million words to learn your craft.”

Five years ago I heard it as “Once you’ve written a million words everything falls into place and you can sell everything you write.”  I think some people want to be able to take a pill that magically bypasses the learning process, just like we all want a pill that will melt away 20lbs of fat without changing our diet and exercise.  They have changed write a million words to type a million words.

A million words of writing drek, or blindly typing other peoples’ words, produces drek or someone else’s words.

The idea is that you have to practice your craft, hone it, study it, revise it, and learn.

Madeleine Robins reports that her daughter’s ski instructor told her she had to fall 100 times before she could expect to ski.  I see that as permission to fail as long as you learned why you failed and how to correct it.

When I proposed this topic on a couple of professional writer email lists, one respondent asked if I meant original words or revised words.

I talk to unpublished writers at workshop.  One student  wrote story after story and novel after novel without ever showing his work to anyone, not a critique group, nor his mother.  Heaven forbid he should have the audacity to submit anything before he’d written his million words.  Then he wouldn’t need a critique group or an editor to tell him what was wrong.  Sigh.

Pat Rice, author of many lovely romances said: “They think our minds never grow, our markets never change, we never learn anything new after a million words?  And that we’ve found the magic elixir that makes us glow in the dark so editors really get what we’re doing just because we’ve written a million words? And is that written a million words or published a million words because I probably write 200k words for every 100k word book, easy.  Never changing means you stagnate. Never learning means you quit reaching out to others.”

Then too, there’s Chaz Brenchley, Madeleine Robins, Nancy Jane Moore, and others who sold the first thing they wrote at a young age.  Then they found themselves constantly practicing and learning to keep up as markets changed, readers demanded something new, editors moved from house to house and their replacements like a different style, a different subject matter, their own authors that they brought with them.

Nancy Jane Moore took this a bit further in her own essay.  “There are those interesting ideas about deliberate practice. Writing a million words might be the writer equivalent of the idea, that it takes 10,000 hours of work at something to achieve a level of mastery, which Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers. (I wrote about this here: http://broaduniverse.org/broadsheet/archive/0903njm.html.)

“But even if you do the kind of writing work that leads to mastery for those million words or 10,000 hours—it can’t just be a mindless practice—there are also the other things Gladwell talks about: the odd advantages that give some people an edge, being at the right place at the right time. And as he says, nobody gets there alone.”

10,000 hours of practice adds up to about 5 years, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.  That’s what I needed to make my first sale from the day I decided to take my writing seriously.  Before that I’d written 5 novels and I don’t know how many short stories that will never see the light of day, but I always wrote in the closet.  I worked hard during the years after I made the decision, writing five years much more than I had written secretly over a 20 year period (I literally started at the age of 8).  My first sale, “The Glass Dragon” by Irene Radford took over 10 drafts.  Not all of the words were new by the time I sent a finalized copy to my editor after her requested revisions.  But every one of the 100,000 words in that book had been written, viewed, and reviewed.  A lot of them were rewritten, multiple times, until I found the right combination to tell my story.  I learned a lot writing that book.

And during the two years it made the rounds from editor to editor before selling, I wrote 3 other complete books, revised them many times, and sent them out.

Since October 13, 1993 (at 1:33 PM) I have managed to have 20 books published.  Number 21 will be out in February 2011, Number 22 is scheduled for June 2011 but I have not yet done final revisions for the editor.  Number 23 is about ½ done in rough draft stage.  And I have proposals out for other projects.  I’ve written 2 unpublished novels with a collaborator.  And then there are the 20 or so short stories.  I’m still learning.  I still get rejections.

I still feel like a newbie because even though I probably have 3 million words or more in print, I have to approach each and every manuscript as a new challenge, figure out new ways to get it right, find the right market for it, and keep my fingers crossed.

My advice about that first million words of practice?  Do it.  But don’t stop there.  It’s a goal, not a benchmark.  If you have a project that feels wonderful before you hit the magic number, go ahead and submit it.  You never know, the editors may find it wonderful too.  Join a critique group and get feedback.  Learn to revise.  Be prepared to keep learning.  The number of words behind you is no guarantee of success, only the words you are currently writing and revising are the ones that should concern you—unless you are actively marketing the previous works.

And a bit of luck or perfect timing never hurts.  The only way to learn to write is to write, pay attention to what you are writing, and make each project better than the previous one.

Phyllis Irene Radford blogs here regularly on Thursdays, the same day her cozy mystery “Lacing Up For Murder” by Irene Radford is serialized on the front page rotation.

For more about her and her fiction please visit her bookshelf here on BVC http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Phyllis-Irene-Radford/

Or her personal web page ireneradford.com

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About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: www.ireneradford.net Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.
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10 Responses to So You Want to Commit Novel: The Million Word Myth

  1. joycemocha says:

    Dear God, save me from that ski instructor (as someone who’s been recruited in the past to be an instructor though I’ve not done the training). I’ve never fallen that many times and hope not to throughout my lifetime. Certainly the Timberline instructors don’t tell you that! Falling that many times in learning to ski suggests to me that either the instructor is accustomed to dragging students out on slopes/conditions waaaay beyond their ability or else isn’t a very good instructor (or is used to competition, pushing the extremes and stuff such as tricking or hucking cliffs, which is a different thing entirely because falls come with the terrain in extreme and competitive skiing).

    There’s an equivalent fallacy in horseback riding instruction where allegedly you have to fall off seven times to be a good rider. My trainer doesn’t agree with that, and certainly I don’t (though my horseback falls are much more than that).

    But that falling/million words construct is just that– a construct or analogy which stresses the need for practice and correcting your mistakes. Talent can only take you so far, whether you’re skiing, writing, dancing or riding. It’s not the fall or the writing in the closet that counts. It’s the correction you apply to the awkward sentence, or learning to correct your balance and prevent that fall before it happens. Without practice, even the most talented aren’t going to know how to fix a broken plot, recover without falling when a chunk of ice catches a ski edge, or slither the butt back into the saddle when a catty horse spooks and spins and slides out from under the rider.

    Talent might get the fairly inexperienced into early publication, ski competition, or earn pretty pieces of colored fabric at the horse show. But it’s the years of acquired experience that allows a skilled writer to adjust to the changes in the market or write/rewrite a project quickly and to editorial request, provides a canny skier the confidence to ski a difficult line down an icy slope, or sets up a top show rider to earn a championship with a temperamental and inconsistent horse.

  2. green_knight says:

    Some people write a million words. Some people write 10K words a hundred times over…

    Mindless practice – doing the same things, without understanding where you could improve – does not lead to learning in any sphere, on the contrary, it reinforces bad habits. I look with scepticism at any writer who will send out, unchanged, a mss they wrote five years ago – did they learn nothing in that time? Is that book really as good as they could make it today?

    On the other hand, my brain began to serve up more interesting ideas once I’d gotten the first million words out of my system.

  3. green_knight says:

    Joyce – yeah, I was thinking of the riding thing. And you probably do have to fall off sometimes just to round off the experience – if you never fall you won’t know what to do when it happens – but this is something I’m going to rant about in a different field (programming): getting things wrong over and over again is just about the worst way to learn there is.

    Instead of trying harder, if what you’re doing does not work, you need to try smarter: address problems, find new strategies that work better. Don’t blame your equipment, but learn what equipment can do for you, and always keep looking for ways to improve. In any sphere, critical skills are just as important as the skills themselves – you can save a lot of time by not making mistakes that other people need to point out.

  4. I think it’s important to give yourself time to develop as a writer. The media saturate us with expectations (why aren’t I famous/better/published yet?) and encourage us to focus on surface glitz instead of depth.

  5. A dear friend of mine fell exactly once from her horse–and the fall killed her. Another friend fell when skiing (I don’t know if it was his first fall) and broke his back, crippling him for life.

    I do not, however, know of any writer who died or was crippled for splitting an infinitive or writing a run-on sentence. Writing is different from skiing or horse-riding–because it’s not a life or death activity.

    But, unfortunately, many would-be writers seem to feel that they will die if they should ever write something that was less than perfect. That fear keeps them from practicing, or makes them practice repeatedly on the same piece of work. Neither response leads to better writing.

    So, I think the message is not about 1,000,000 words or any such simplistic measure. Instead, it’s trying (and mostly failing) to say to the beginning writer, “Write, and keep writing, while paying attention to what you’re doing, what works and what doesn’t, based on feedback from others. And don’t be afraid of falling. If you never fall, you’re not experimenting enough. Besides, it’s not nearly as bad as falling off a horse.”

  6. Joycemocha: my daughter was five when her instructor said that, an age at which the kids think that they’ll be perfect the first time out, and at which they feel that falling is a moral catastrophe (really, if you’re 3 feet tall and not going 800 mph, it’s more like a ding to your pride). I loved this because it meant that she could fall without feeling hopeless about her progress.

  7. joycemocha says:

    Madeleine–I spend enough time helping at my school’s ski nights to hear what the instructors are saying, and I can tell you they don’t do that up here. But you know, different schools and different methods.

  8. Julie Cochrane says:

    Just because, if you’ve got the spark, it takes a metaphorical million to get to your top form doesn’t mean you can’t write some fun, publishable stuff that readers enjoy, in the meantime.

    I don’t like writers’ groups, generally. They tend to have a bias towards literary fiction or general fiction, which is great if that’s what you want to write. If it’s not, their advice can do more harm than good.

    The best is to get a solid pro in your genre (literary is a genre) to read it and tell you your baby is ugly and why. You can rarely get that. Next best is to use both readers in your genre and other writers in your genre, and to read books and web tips on writing from pros. Take anything an unpublished writer tells you as a criticism with a grain of salt–she may be flat wrong.

  9. Julie Cochrane says:

    Also, you could do worse than go to one of the science fiction conventions that has a good writers’ track. I was just at a tiny convention in Chattanooga with maybe 30 people in the audience of a panel of Ben Bova and Terry Brooks. And, of course, there were a lot of other pros doing other panels throughout the weekend.

    The panels deal with everything from characterization to plotting to dealing with publishers. Everything. They also will veer off topic often enough that you can ask anything in questions and answers.

    The programming section of a convention’s website shows the guests and the panel schedule weeks before the convention You have some basis to decide if you want to go.

    Even though the SF genre may not interest you, advice from pros on the core skills of writing is general use.

  10. Jason Black says:

    Obviously there’s a bell curve–some folks will take a lot more, some much fewer–but yeah, I can believe the million words statistics. I’ve also heard it as “five manuscripts” but it amounts to the same thing.

    You have to work on your craft.

    Curiously, I’ve discovered that there are other ways to work on your craft besides simply writing (although that one’s hard to beat). You can also do detailed, critical analysis of other people’s writing.

    See, I’m having this odd experience at the moment. Last year was my fifth time doing NaNoWriMo (which I’ve completed every year) so that all adds up to about 350,000 words right there. And goodness knows how much other writing of one kind or another I’ve done over the years. I’m not going to try to add it up. Suffice it to say that while my 5th manuscript was better than my 4th, et cetera, I still don’t think it’s rocket awesome.

    But last year, I started doing work as a book doctor (see my website if you care) and since then I’ve done in depth, critical analysis of about 50 full length manuscripts. Reading them and providing the authors with detailed feedback on their writing-craft and story-craft strengths and weaknesses. It’s not writing on my own, but it is serious study of the craft of fiction, on a body of work that is in excess of two million words.

    I’ve been so busy with it (and my damned day job) that I haven’t been able to write much on my own stuff, which sucks, but does motivate me to definitely do NaNoWriMo again this year, if nothing else. So I’m planning out this year’s novel, as I do every year. I’m definitely not a seat of the pants, no plan kind of writer.

    The weird experience I’m having is that the elements of story craft I find myself considering for this year’s manuscript are at a much higher level than ever before. I find myself considering what whole-book structure might work best. How to keep conflict in every scene, yes really this time. How to bake the protagonist’s inner character arc into the very fibre of the plot so we really can see it advance as the pages go by. How to layer complications upon complications in order to raise the stakes and sustain the drama. How to make several individual plot threads play off one another rather than simply existing side by side.

    I couldn’t do that last year. I didn’t have it in me. But after analyzing two million words worth of other people’s stuff, suddenly I find that I can.

    Am I suggesting that all writers should start book doctoring too? Well, no, not unless you like spending all your time on other people’s material, leaving you precious little for your own. 🙂 I’m just saying that there’s more than one trail leading up Skill Mountain. Pick one that works for you.

    Still, at the end of the day, it all comes back to writing. None of it’s any good if I don’t actually write another manuscript. So, come November, I’ll get to prove to myself whether I can actually turn what feels like increased skills into better words than I ever have before. We’ll see…