The First Million’s Always the Hardest

Today I reached one million words for my writing, a goal thirteen years in the making.  In truth, I likely surpassed that millionth word some months ago, between blog posts, message boards, emails, school assignments and so forth.  But in terms of my fiction output — short stories, novels, screenplays and the like — I’ve had to draw a line somewhere.  Based on my most accurate estimates, I crossed that milestone this afternoon.

Now that number doesn’t mean anything to you; realistically, it doesn’t matter much to me either.  It’s just that one million words was a long-term goal I had set for myself when I first began to write.  It’s a nice round number for starters, so many zeroes, more of a psychological signpost than anything else.

Furthermore, I had read Ray Bradbury’s sage advice (from Zen in the Art of Writing, I believe) that all writers have a million bad words in them.  I understood that by the point I reached that lofty amount, even Bradbury, one of my favorite authors, would be forced to consider me a “real” writer by his own definition.  Sounds needy and insecure, right?  Hey, I was thirteen at the time.

Over the years I’ve come to disagree with his numbers, though his original sentiment remains valid.  All writers must flush the dreck out of their systems before they can mine the best storytelling material.  I personally think one million words is too much.  That translates to roughly four thousand pages, eight reams of paper, the equivalent of ten novels.  The way I see it:  if you don’t know what you’re doing by your eleventh book, you haven’t paid close enough attention.

I believe each author has his or her individual substitute for the Bradbury Benchmark.  For many people it’ll be less than one million; for some lost souls it may be more.  Looking back on my own bibliography, I’d say there’s a good (or bad) 350,000 words’ worth of stories, novellas and scripts that are utterly forgettable.  Juvenilia from my earliest days in the trenches, when I was learning the mechanics of storytelling, from syntax and plotting to shaping words into pictures and balancing all the story elements together like pieces in an engine block.  

Those first 350,000 words were the most important in my nascent writing apprenticeship, accounting for the first six years of work.  That includes several published short stories and pieces that won me writing awards, not to mention an unpublished novel.  Hence my first million, at least in Bradbury’s sense, was closer to one-third of that actual amount.  After that I started producing tales that were uniquely mine, stories only I could tell because they spoke to issues that resonated within myself.

So tonight I shall celebrate in my own small way, by continuing work on my sixth novel.  Here’s to the next million words . . .

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