1,000,000 words of crap

Posted by Edwin H Rydberg

One thing I really enjoy at the UK Eastercon conventions is the writing stream (i.e. in addition to the visual media and cosplay streams). This year there were topics like how to run a writng group, becoming a writer, finding and agent, interaction between writer and cover designer, writers’ workshop, first impressions workshop, and self-promotion. Guest panelists at these sessions included: Gillian Redfearn (senior editor: Gollancz), John Berlyne (agent: Zeno Agency), John Jarrold (SFF agent), Jaine Fenn (author: Hidden Empire series), Philip Palmer (author), Stephen Deas (new author: The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice), Lavie Tidhar (author), Ian Whates (author, small press publisher: NewCon Press), Aliette de Bodard (author, BSFA short story winner).

This year was particularly intersting in that one concept kept repeating in all the panels, namely, the idea of writing ‘1,000,000 words of crap’ to get to the good (publishable) stuff. This was reiterated by many of the writers on the panels. It’s also born out through my own research into writers careers.

To readers and beginning writers, it can often seem that some stellar writer comes out of the blue with an amazing first book that wins copious accolades and sweeps the charts. As a writer myself, I know the feeling of wishing it were so, as the journey often seems to take forever. Worse is that, even when your first book is finished, the quest for an agent/publisher is incredibly daunting and frustrating. Many authors turn to self-publishing when their first book doesn’t attract ‘official’ interest (a few are right to, many are not). Boy are those other authors lucky!

Are they really?

The path to being a published author can seem long and arduous. And that’s because, in most cases, it is. I find it helpful to gauge my expectations by the accomplishments of those who have gone before me. So I take an interest in the career paths of many of my favourite published authors. Without going into specifics (i.e. without naming names), it appears to me that a ten year period between first sale of a short story and first publication of a novel is quite common (often with another ten years before the ‘big deal’). During that time, many authors go through periods of self-doubt, many almost give up. Most enroll in week(s)-long dedicated writing courses such as Clarion West, Milford, and Odyssey to hone their skills. And many come right to the end of their rope before getting their break.

Hence the 1,000,000 words of crap. It happens to most authors. Even the best of them wrote their million words, constantly, often starting when they were quite young. In some cases the million words comes from numerous rewrites of that special first novel. In most cases, it comes from writing novel after novel. One well-known British crime author I saw at a convention said he wasn’t published until his fifth novel. So, in the vast majority of cases, the published authors of today worked their way up the ladder of skill, honing their craft through rejection after rejection, story after story, novel after novel until everything came together.

This persistence, itself, is a gatekeeper in the entire publication process, much as agents and publishers are. If you are not serious about writing, you will stop long before you get published. Or you will turn to self-publishing and, like most, wonder why your POD fiction masterpiece has sold 50 copies, mostly to friends and family, over the past five years.

The process may seem a harsh mistress but it’s necessary. Some authors take longer than others to find their ‘voice’. Or perhaps the voice comes quickly, but effectively plotting or character creation, or maybe realizing and describing rich scenes is the weakness. It’s only when all these things come together that the story is ready for public consumption. The million words is all about learning the craft to a professional level. And it is a profession. Like being a lawyer, doctor, footballer. All of these require study, devotion and understanding of the craft. Why should we expect writing good fiction to be any different?