Thursday 16 June 2011

How I write . . . One Million Words

Warning -- Mileage will vary.

I know how you become a professional writer. It's no secret. Lots of writers talk about it. Here's a good article by Luc Reid about it. Write a million words of fiction, submit like crazy. Talent is largely irrelevant-- which always seems strange to me, but there you go.

I'm not quite sure what words to count, but I usually count submitted works and I'm about half-way there.

That's great isn't it. I can do that. I love it. I write and I sub, like crazy. It's fun.

Yes, just one million words of deliberate practice.

Oi. What's that? Deliberate practice?

I, ahem, don't do that. I don't have first readers, or crits. I don't take courses or go to conferences. I don't do nuthin'.

So, should I be doing it? I have a plan. I'll give it a week and report back. What about you guys? Do you make a conscious effort to improve your writing? Can you see the results? What do you do?

You might say: Well, Debs. You're always bragging. You're doing alright. And I am. And it's great. But I always want to do better.


  1. If I may address the article you linked, for just a moment...I think Mr. Reid is full of baloney. The difference between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson isn't hours spent practicing, okay?

    Anyway, I've done first readers and crit groups, and...well...meh. If you're lucky enough to find a really good reader, whose opinion you trust and who will be completely honest with you, then great, but otherwise...well...meh.

    Same goes for critique groups. I belonged to one not all that long ago, and it really didn't work out. I was one of two speculative fiction writers, and the other guy was a pretty unspectacular writer who gave really lousy critiques. The rest were some really talented mainstream writers, but they were so uncomfortable critiquing genre fiction that they were no help at all.

    My brother is a writer as well, and sometimes I'll bounce a short story off of him to see what he thinks, but mostly I trust myself.

  2. You're like me then, Joe (apart from our opinion's of Luc Reid's article). Very interesting. I thought that I was going to be the only one.

    I did belong to a crit group when I started out, and I got a lot out of it. Really helped me increase my confidence. But I don't crit anymore (except poems). I know that a lot of people do get a lot of out of it, and I'm wondering if I'm missing out. And there are other things you can do, too.

    I'm going to be interesed to see what my other readers say. I suspect we're going to be in the minority.

  3. I'm learning new things month after month. I don't think we ever stop learning. Or at least, I hope we don't.

    And, I think I'm heading towards my second million. Oh dear.

  4. You've confirmed it, Cate. 1 million plus = quality writing.

    I might be learning, but I'm not sure. I am such a bad judge of my own work. I can't use acceptances, because I keep moving the goal-posts.

    I read a rather sad post from a writer who believed that their writing got worse over time, so they quit.

  5. I would rather spend most of my time writing and editing my own stuff than receiving critique. If I can figure out how to fix it myself, that's of more value than having someone else offer an opinion.

    To that end I find critiquing other people's stuff to be a useful exercise. It teaches me how to step back and look at overall structure, at shifts in tone, and at how big and little choices the writer makes can affect the impact of the story.

  6. That's what I'm going to do, Elizabeth. Do crits on stories from one of my (many) dream venues.

    I got the idea from Dean Wesley Smith's blog. There's an important caveat, though. To only work on stories I like. The idea being that I don't accidentally teach myself bad habits.

  7. LOL - I think the whole one million words is a writer who has written about ten books at 100k words, each :o)

  8. Yep, ten longish novels-- yikes. At least it's not 10 million.

    First off, mileage will vary. Some writers will make a professional sale with their first story/novel. Good for them.

    But I often hear writers saying it took them about ten years to break in. If you do the maths, figure in a couple of hours a night (after a job), you might get to around 1 million words.

  9. Critiquing published works is a great idea - it sort of forces you to focus on close reading, which is what you want to do if you're aiming at a particular venue. Brilliant!

    I've been fooling around at and found I like doing critiques there too. Most of the stuff I've read there has been high quality, so I've found myself challenged to offer useful ideas to the writers / posters.

  10. I've heard good things about Critters, Elizabeth.

  11. To each his own, I say. I haven't done any writer's conferences, but I do have critique partners. I think we all take a unique path to publication though there are folks who will tell you to do this or do that to guarantee success.

    My method has been to read hundreds of articles on the craft. I'm not into books as much, but I do read them over a period. I've also had some great writer's critique my work and I gotta tell you, a second pair of eyes does wonders.

  12. I tried critque group but everyone was too careful of feelings - I write to improve, I read other books to improve, I know I am improving being a harsh critic of my own work. A million words ah well not yet but hey theres three books of over 100,000 and a shorter one so a few more decades and I'll be there!!!!!!!

  13. JL -- yes, exactly. We've all got to find our own way. No writer is the same. Thanks for giving us an insight into your process. Articles, eh? And I'm so pleaed you've got a good some good critters in your corner.

    Alberta - Hi. Well done, three books, no four books is an awesome acheivement.

    What this 1 million words says to me is this: Look, if you're not reachig your dreams, don't get discouraged. It takes an awful lot of practice to become a great writer(-- unless you're exceptional and good luck to you).

    It's not something everyone believes. But it makes sense to me.

  14. Must admit, I pretty much do what you do, too. I've dallied with Critters etc. but it's all just so darn time-consuming, and with limited writing time I prefer just to write, really.

  15. Thanks Simon. I thought that I was going to be the only one.

  16. I'm a fan of school. Then again, school works for me; it's not for everyone. I'm a good close reader and I'm a good mimic, but I need someone (usually a teacher or mentor) to bash me over the head when I refuse to see what's not working in my writing.

    I've been a part of critique groups that were great, some where we pansy-footed around actual critique, some where it was all about tearing others down to build yourself up, and some where thank goodness it was "for a grade" or no one would have read a story let alone critiqued anyone. Some workshops were attached to universities, some to summer programs, some to community groups. For many of these groups, the best part was the external deadlines. The best by far was Odyssey--from there I have reading partners who've really helped me out of some snags and gotten me out of my own head when I got stuck.

    I think the best mentors are the ones who earn your respect as people (not as "brand names") and who then make you excited about yourself/your own writing. Hell, if they don't have those two requirements, I would contend that they're not a mentor, they're just someone you know who's more successful than you.

  17. That type of learning really suits me. I can't go back to University -- again. Goodness knows I've spent a deal of time there. I've got post-grad qualifications in library studies, museum studies and biochemistry.

    I would like to go to Clarion/Odyssey but they're in America -- surely it's time for a European franchise.

  18. ooh look at all the links below: something strange is going on -- again. Will delete later.

  19. (coming late to the party ...)

    Joe said: "The difference between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson isn't hours spent practicing, okay?"

    Joe, I agree: it's not just raw hours, it's hours of deliberate practice. Are you familiar with how Tiger Woods got his start in golf? His father, a professional golf coach, began training him before the age of 2. Tiger got in not only hours on the green, but crucially, tons of expert feedback. By contrast, Phil Mickelson started golf as a toddler too, but under the tutelage of his own father, Phil Mickelson Senior, of whom the best I've found said is that he "could play a little golf." Both grew up and rose to the top of the golfing world, but Woods rose higher. More time on the green? Maybe, but Woods also had much more effective instruction from the beginning.

    Compare to Mozart and Salieri: Mozart was instructed from toddlerhood by his father, whose musical instruction was renowned across Europe; Salieri began learning music at a young age (though likely a few years later in life than Mozart) from his brother, who was a professional violinist but not especially experienced at teaching music or composition. Both rose to among the most well-known musicians of their time, but one vanished in obscurity until he was vilified in a movie about the other.

    Applying this to writing, I think the point is not just to write a lot (which is certainly essential to becoming really good), but to get a lot of feedback _of the best possible quality_.

    This relates directly to first readers and critique groups, and Joe, I think you've described the situation well: learning from readers who aren't particularly in tune with what you're trying to write or from writers who haven't yet become very good themselves is not likely to be ideal, although it's better than no feedback at all.

    My recommendations for feedback for writers would be finding the best critique group you can, sending out work regularly in hopes of getting comments from editors even if you don't sell the work, discussing writing with people who know what they're talking about (or finding transcripts of such discussions), and reading books on writing by writers you respect. This is more or less what I do myself, and so far so good, though I'm clearly no Mozart or Tiger Woods ... yet.

  20. Luc continues this discussion in a post on his blog.

    When it comes to writing, I'm always looking for ways to improve. I'm forever experimenting. I rather enjoy it.

    As I mentioned in my comments, Luc, I've been out of critiquing for awhile and I've been wondering whether to re-enter the fray. I did find critiquing extremely useful when I first started out.

    What I do now, is look at published stories I admire, and try to learn from them. And of course, pick up lots of useful advice from writers forums.

    What you say makes sense. I wonder if I'm not in self-examination mode when it comes to receiving critiques. I usually find myself agreeing with all of them, even the contradictory ones.