Do You Really Need To Write A Million Words of Cr@p Before You Write Anything Worth Publishing?
Raymond Chandler used to claim that a writer had to get a million words of crap out of their system before they got to the good stuff. That’s probably not always true, but he has a point. Writing is a profession, and a demanding one. Very few people can sit down and pilot a plane or write a working computer program with no previous experience or training. It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to do better writing a novel or a short story without training or experience.
At the same time, the million words of crap meme is a rule of thumb, not a law. There are people who will never write something worthy of publication because they don’t have life experiences or insights that would lead them to writing publication-worthy material. Others will fail because they perceive constructive criticism as personal attacks. There are other people who are natural storytellers or have exciting and unique experiences that let them overcome lack of experience much earlier than most. Writing is never going to be easy, but a few people take to it easier than most.
I think it’s almost inevitable that a writer will write stories that they later consider crap. That’s part of growing as a writer. If ten years later you still think your first novel is wonderful, you probably haven’t grown much. If you look back at with a mix of nostalgia and ‘did I really think this was worth publishing’, then you probably have grown.
How do you get through the crap-producing section of your writing more quickly? Part of improving as a writer is consistently applying seat of pants to seat of chair for prolonged periods of time and writing. The more you write, generally the better you get. If you stop writing for a prolonged period–months or years, you won’t be as good of a writer as you were when you stopped, though you will get back in the flow after a few weeks.
Another key to improving as a writer is to read. I don’t know of many writers worth reading who aren’t also avid readers. Not all reading is created equal, of course. I find that my spelling and grammatical skills actually decline if I read enough stuff on Internet forums. Generally, quality reading helps, but there is powerful writing in unexpected places. Also, it’s hard to motivate yourself to read if you don’t like what you’re reading, so if the ‘great novels everyone should read’ stuff bores you to tears but you like westerns, or science fiction, read westerns or science fiction.
Writers groups can be helpful in getting you through your crap-producing era more quickly, as long as there is at least one person in the group who is both helpful and a somewhat better writer than you. Groups where you’re by far the best writer may be ego-satisfying, but it’s difficult to learn much there. The same is true of writers groups where you are too far below the general level, and groups with members who are out to boost their own egos rather than helping other members of the group.
Seeking out and accepting criticism is vital, as is the ability to distinguish between helpful comments and unhelpful ones. Most feedback is going to be of some value, even if it is wrong. However, you’ll probably run into a few people who persist in trying to push you into writing the story they would have written or people with ego-driven agendas. Spotting and avoiding or defanging that kind of feedback is also important if you encounter it.
So how am I doing on getting through my crap-producing period? I’ve been writing fiction since middle school. I got serious about it and started finishing a substantial proportion of the stories I started about fifteen years ago.
I recently did an incomplete survey of what I’ve written so far, and come up with 757,302 words of fiction written as of today. That doesn’t count rewrites or words written and then cut. If I included words written, and then edited out I’m probably very close to the million words. It also doesn’t include a very large body of non-fiction I’ve written over the years. My back of the envelope calculations say that the nonfiction adds up to roughly 900,000 words, not counting writing on forums and social networking sites.
Here is a summary of my fiction writing so far:
3 with more than 75,000 words written
1 with more than 50,000 words written
6 fragments (All but one from before I got serious)
Most of the fragments and unfinished stories are from my early years of writing, though I still start an occasional short story that bogs down. I hope to finish three out of the four unfinished novels and at least a couple of the novel fragments.
Have I finished writing my million words of crap? I hope so. There is more than enough crap out there without me contributing to it. Have I stopped improving as a writer? No. Not even close.