Monday, December 2, 2019

One-Million-Word Theory

Today, everyone is taking the post-Thanksgiving glutton's walk of shame back to work, the gym, or the scale. We discovered that eating two pounds of dark meat is more than enough (not that I ate two pounds of dark meat), and now we are paying the price. In this spirit, I wanted to write about one of my favorite topics - excess. Particularly, when is excessive writing a good thing?

"Excessive" might be a troubling word to use in the wake of Thanksgiving, but I use it because right now it's important. In our minds we know that eating an entire pumpkin pie for dessert would be excessive (and rude to the guests), but is that always true? I think eating an entire pumpkin pie over the course of two weeks is reasonable. Same pie, different time frame. The same goes with writing. Sitting down and writing a book before you get up again is an excessive expectation. Yet sometimes, when we want to write, we get that urge to jump into it, to eat the whole pie at once, and end up sick after four slices (not that I ate four slices Thursday). If we pace ourselves, we can, in fact, eat the whole thing.

My mentor, Newton Berry, talked about the one-million-word theory of writing. He said that a writer doesn't find their voice until they've written one-million words of poetry, narrative, or whatever. At the time, I hadn't finished my first manuscript of anything, so how could I even consider such a task? Even with such a reward at the end, writing a million words seemed impossible. That's like saying I can have my pie after I eat the yams. All the yams. Every visible yam on a table spread for fourteen people. Is that even worth trying? (not that I tried to eat all the yams)

But before we look at the task of writing one-million words, let's think about it in component pieces. The blog has 170 entries, each 1,000-1,200 words tops. If we shoot low, that's 170,000 words written from a blog I post twice a week. That's not even two hours of writing a week over the past eighteen months. It's not a million, but it's a lot for two hours a week.

Now let's look at journaling. I believe every writer should keep a writing journal and contribute daily, just because it's a good writing habit. Once you are into it, journaling is like snacking during the Bears game while the turkey cooks. You sit there, watch the game, eat some chips and cashews, back to the game, another handful of snack between plays, and before you know it, someone's shouting, "Who ate all the damn cashews, it's not even halftime!" (not that I ate two pounds of chips and cashews.) The word count of journaling counts toward that million words, and at 200 words a page, my eight seventy-page journals (double-sided) pages count for a quick 220,000 words.

Then there are my projects. I get an idea, write a few character sketches, do a few descriptions, and just sandbox different ideas. This is important in the sense that salad is important to any major meal. It isn't the main course, but it establishes the groundwork for the evening. Everyone can make a salad, everyone can write a bunch of things that never go anywhere. I inventoried my docs and have over 300 things that never became anything. They count too, and loosely estimating 700 words per thing, let's throw in 210,000 words to our total. That's a lot of salad. (I never fill up on salad.)

How's that million words looking now? Closer? It's 600,000 words closer without doing much, but doing it consistently. Was I ready for my book? Well - big surprise - I wrote three books - an actual trilogy - before I found something worth publishing. Was the writing terrible? No. Was the story weak? No. They were good, just not great. I plan on rewriting them soon enough, but that's a luxury we earn after we go through the task of writing them the first time, and learning our voice. This is like a dinner wine - we need to go through a lot of wine before we know what works for us. (I may have had too much wine at Thanksgiving.)

One-million words is not very much at all. If we consider the 10,000 hours ideal (the theory by Malcolm Gladwell, not the song by Justin Bieber), that's how long it takes to master a skill. That's five years of full-time work. Is writing any different? If you do it enough, and with dedication, you master it. After that, you are free to lie back, feeling full, sated, and ready for a nap on the couch.

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