How many words do you have in the bank? For writers there is a well known expression, which differs in each telling, but basically says something along the lines of ‘You have to write one million words to become good enough to publish’.
So what is my number? Do I have one million words? These aren’t edit words, rewriting the same sentences over and over again to get them perfect. These are raw words. first drafts. new words, not rehashing old ones. And why one million words? Is it a general rule of thumb? Hard earned experimental knowledge?
Consider for example if you want to become a surgeon. You attend medical school for several years, then you become an intern at a hospital, work your way up through residency and eventually after ten years or so you can call yourself a surgeon. That is of course, providing you have done your absolute best over those ten years.
In my own career, I spent six years at university achieving a Masters in Mechanical Engineering (with Distinction and 1st Class Honours). I won’t say I spent every moment of those six years working my butt off, but I ended with a Grade Point Average of somewhere in the 7’s (the exact number escapes me) which basically amounted to getting an overall A- for my time at university. I remember opening up the letter from the university, seeing that and nodding, thinking ‘yup I AM an A- kind of guy.’ But that didn’t make me a good engineer. I had to go out into the workforce and screw a whole bunch of stuff up. And then fix the cock ups of a whole bunch of other people. About five years into the work place I was in a pretty comfortable place – experienced, knowledgeable, a go-to guy at my office for solutions. So once more, around that ten year mark of sustained effort, I had really got to that point of competency (of course I got bored then got another job but that’s another story).
So one million words. It gets bandied about my many people. In fact Karen Woodward does a blog post sort of summarising many author’s commentary on this point: here but what they are all really saying is that you need to put in that ten years (or so) of sustained perfect practice to get to that competent level.
I’ve been writing since I started school, so on the face of it that’s about 26 years up my sleeve, but few of those years would actually cut the mustard as ‘writer training’ so lets instead look at the one million words. Its easier to work out your place on the spectrum compared with years of study, which is why we come back to words instead of years.
But shit, wait a minute. One million words. That’s quite a few. The last novel you read is circa 100,000 words. That means I would need to write the equivalent of ten novels before I would be hitting my straps.
That’s a lot of writing.
Brad R Torgersen is an american writer I’ve followed for many years. I’ve watched him try again and again to win the Writers of the Future competition, to finally come third on his 8th or 9th try. From there his career skyrocketed and he is on contract to Baen Books for a novel coming out in October. Brad performed his own one million word review last year and came out at 850K before he sold his first professional story to Analog. Not bad, not bad at all.
So what are my numbers? Well here they are, naked and humble:
John’s Million Words
As a teenager I was part of an online Star Wars group called ‘The Imperial Order’ (and YES, I was a hit with the ladies, thank you for asking). I wrote a monthly story for the group involving my hero Edward Maxin. He evolved from an out of his depth Lieutenant to a pissed off, near mutinous General. He was pretty damn cool and at the time the writing was the best I could do. His stories started out as five parts of 2-3,000 words each but his last was a 45k epic. Altogether I wrote about 135K words on Edward Maxin. It was good training. No where near publishable, but a start. I experimented a bit and tried different things (I flirted with Douglas Adams humour, but I couldn’t really pull it off).
STAR WARS FAN FICTION: 185K
This was my first novel. I had big plans for this baby. Ultimately it landed in the bottom drawer. It suffered from such things as ‘not enough planning’ and ‘being shit’. At that stage I didn’t even know about paragraphing and what not. That made it hard to read. I remember studying published books at the time and working out how quotes ended with a comma, followed by the ‘he said’ bit. Revelations, man!
Novel 1: 110K
When I really started being serious about this being published thing I ripped into short stories. Wrote a bunch. Some were awesome, some suffered, some have been published, some have been revived, some are still looking for homes. The artwork to the right is the title artwork for ‘A Broken Promise’ which can be found at RevolutionSF.
This is where my fiction skills were really learnt. I did courses, online and in person, I brought books, I read them, I practiced what I read. I followed blogs, I pestered big name authors. I got feedback from them. I grew, I learned, I became a publisher author. In terms of progress, a huge chunk of it came through my short stories.
Short Fiction: 65K
The Huge Plasma Accelerator
This was my primary Elite fan fiction. A group of authors would write about their own characters in a combined world who would eventually become intertwined in a big arse adventure. It was really awesome and had three different volumes. My contributions to the Huge Plasma Accelerator Parts 2 and 3 were around 225K words. Although each ‘chapter’ wasn’t big and I didn’t spend the time refining every last word I did try different stuff, seeing what worked and what didn’t. I had an audience with an insatiable appetite and used the comments and feedback to further refine how I wrote. I also made some pretty good Elite buddies too. If I compare my first entry to the HPA with my last, they are lightyears apart (literally and in-story!) Some big gains were made here.
Elite Fan Fiction: 225K
Behind Blue Eyes (Working Title)
Yes, its a stupid title, but nevertheless, that’s what the title is at this stage. This was my second novel and the whole thing grew from one glance at Steve McCurry’s photograph of the Afghan Girl. I saw those bright penetrating eyes hidden behind the rags and a scene exploded into my head, leaving me breathless. From there the story grew. By this stage I knew what I had to do. The story was planned using David Farland’s techniques from his ‘Million Dollar Outlines’ book. I had been stewing on the story for so long, the characters grew in my head, they became nuanced, I knew everything about them. In the end this story just had to come out, I just had to tell it. I wrote a 30k story overview and turned it into a 120K novel. I was about to psych myself up for a major edit, when….
Novel 2: 120K
Elite:And Here The Wheel
…the opportunity of my life opened up and I found myself living the dream, writing official Elite lore. I’ve documented the ups and downs of the word count of this novel but its height was 132K words, so I’ll use that in the count. I’ve also done about 15K in the appendices. By having Fantastic Books Publishing onboard for this novel its really given my work a leg up, taken it from what it was to something on a whole new level. This has been an accelerated/condensed learning period which really does make this novel worth double its weight in word count (but that would be cheating for this count).
Novel 3: 145k
TOTAL: 840,000 words.
So that’s not too shabby. Do I have the core level of competency needed from those 840K words? Keeping in mind these numbers are rough and that they don’t include the deletion of scenes and writing of new ones, it’ll actually be a bit higher. And with what I’ve seen with Fantastic Books and how my manuscript has been transformed after their input, I think the answer is Yes, I do. I guess the proof will be in the pudding, aka the sales.
And that’s where you come in. Hopefully you’ll be reading Elite:And Here The Wheel when it is published later this year. You’ll have an opinion on whether it was a good read or not. Hopefully you’ll write a review. Hopefully others will read the review and buy it and enjoy it and pass the message on. That will be the proof. I’m really looking forward to hearing what readers think of the novel. I know my style won’t please everybody. But if the popularity of Die Hard and the Bourne Identity and movies of that ilk are any indication, there is a market for the kind of experience that And Here The Wheel provides. All the feedback I’ve had so far has been super positive. Hopefully it can grow from that starting point 🙂
What else have I got to tell you about? Well its all here, in episode 13 of the Commander’s Log: “Knocking over the milestones”
Thanks for stopping by. What do you think of the goal for one million words. Authors: Have you cracked the six figures yet? Share your stories, I’d love to hear them.