A Million bad words

Someone once said that writers need to write about a million bad words before they finally learn to really write. I’m going to assume they meant “throw-away” words and not obscenities, or else I’m never going to make it. Now, I suppose this is not true in all cases–there are some people who may write several million words and still not learn to write well–but I can see how it could be true for me, but perhaps not in the way it sounds.

There is an example often used to demonstrate the priniciple of probability: If you take an infinite number of monkeys typing at an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite length of time, eventually one of them will reproduce the works of Shakespeare. One way on interpreting the “million bad words” maxim is that the good words are already within you, and it’s just a matter of getting all the bad words out of the pipeline until you get to the good ones. There may be writers for whom this is the case, but if so, then the implication is also there that the stream of good words could also be limited.

For me, I think it’s more a matter of practice. It’s like becoming a tennis player or a golfer. You learn by doing, then examining what you did, learning from it, and then doing some more, trying to improve on that one aspect. Then you notice another aspect that isn’t quite working right and work on that. Eventually you reach the point that you’re a serious competitor, but I doubt the professionals ever stop “doing” for the soul purpose of identifying aspects that still need work.

Nor is there a cooke-cutter approach to golf or tennis. Just this weekend I was watching some coverage of the US Open while my car was in for an oil change, and the commentators were talking about a specific golfer and his unusual swing. So obviously you have to find what works for you, not necessarily try to copy Tiger Wood’s swing or Boris Becker’s serve. Certainly there are general principles your approach must address, but in the end if it doesn’t feel natural to you it’s just not going to work.

My million words are not just to “get the crud out of the canal”, but to help me develop the skills I need to tell a story well. It’s to teach me how to tell when something is not working right–and what to do about it. For example, I found myself essentially banging my head against the computer last night trying to get a scene started. I just couldn’t get something that engaged the creativity, no matter how long I sat there. While there is something to be said for keeping at it until you get it, I probably would have done better by stepping back and taking another look at what I was doing.  

This morning I was walking the dog and thinking over that scene. It’s a scene that wasn’t originally in my outline, but one I decided needed to be added for a number of reasons. The trouble is, between when I decided I needed the scene and when I started writing it I forgot what those reasons were. There was no purpose for this scene beyond “Well, we need to show them getting from here to there so the next scene isn’t coming out of nowhere”. But in just a few minutes this morning I was able to come up with some motivations and conflicts for the characters, and when I came back to the scene at lunchtime today it flowed.

Another example is this novel I’m currently writing. I know it’s weak, but as yet I don’t know enough to identify what’s wrong with it. My suspicion is that the entire concept is weak, because it was not based on a solid foundation. It was based on an image that led to a short story that really has nothing to do with the rest of the book. Even this time around, when I thoroughly outlined the plot, developed the characters and the setting, and worked out the conflicts beforehand, it’s still going to be a little weak. But I’m going to write it anyway, because I need the practice, and I also need to see the benefits of the work I put into preparing for this draft.

But once this draft is done I’m moving on. Someday I’ll have learned enough to be able to identify exactly where the novel is weak and how to fix it. I’m not there yet, and I think I’ll get there more quickly by writing something completely different for awhile. And as I do so, I’ll be continuing to learn what works for me, what works for my readers, and how to bring the pieces together to make a strong novel. I’ll learn that hesitation in writing a scene means I don’t have a clear vision for that scene and I need to step back and get one. I’ll learn that, perhaps, I need to spend more time preparing for scenes in general, like reviewing my notes on the characters involved, their speech patterns, their conflicts, and so on, so that when I do start writing the scene it becomes a matter not of “what do I write in this scene” but of “how do I fit everything needed into this scene”.

I estimate I’m currently at around 250,000 words toward my million, which includes a novel, a novella, and the first draft of my current novel. By the time I finish this particular draft I’ll be a third of the way there. More importantly I’ll be one novel draft more experienced. Whether it takes my million words plus another novel to finally get published is actually somewhat irrelevant. I don’t think there will ever come a point where I’ll be able to say “I’m as good a writer as I’m ever going to be. I can stop writing drafts now and just write final manuscripts.” There will always be more to learn.