An old man once stopped at a rummage sale I was holding and asked, “Who’s the writer?”
He held in his hand an old copy of “Writer’s Market,” one of the only books we were selling (since my wife and I are book hoarders). The outdated tome, which may or may not have been priced at a quarter, served as an apt icebreaker. It turned out that along with being an ardent rummager, Tom was a writer himself and a published author to boot.
Early in our friendship, he offered to take a look at my fiction. That could have spelled doom, as my skin was not quite so thick back then, but in the end, I appreciated his efforts to critique a style of writing well outside of his comfort zone. (To this day, Tom can’t abide science fiction or fantasy. In fact, “I liked it; I just didn’t understand it” is an all-too-common mantra of his.)
Despite a great age difference and the genre barrier, we’ve always gotten along very well. However, something he said in those early days stuck in my craw, and I haven’t been able to forget it since—as is evidenced by the name of this blog:
“Anything before one million words is just finger exercises.”
I took some umbrage at that. After all, I had already written four novels. None of them had caught the eye of an agent, let alone an editor, but nobody wants to think the many, many hours spent slopping one’s soul onto the page are nothing more than “finger exercises.”
So what did I do? Well, if Tom, an accomplished author, thought a writer didn’t earn his chops until the one million-word mark, I wanted to check my score. I added up the word count for the various drafts of my full manuscripts, short stories, world-building notes, and anything else related to my sword-and-sorcery fantasy endeavors.
Not one to gloat, I waited until the next time Tom’s “finger exercises” comment surfaced. Alas, no golden lights shone down from the heavens. Determining that exact number and deducing I had reached the one million-word milestone had not changed much of anything—not in my eyes, Tom’s eyes, or the world’s eyes.
So is there any truth in the “finger exercises” theory?
Just because nothing magical happens at one million words doesn’t mean Tom wasn’t right on a fundamental level. Every writer thinks his or her early stuff is amazing. Little do we know, in our dabbling days, that what ends up on the page cannot hope to compare to the perfect and pristine counterpart that resides in the novice’s mind. Upon typing “The End” of that first novel, we might even imagine ourselves strutting up Mount Olympus, manuscript in hand, to stand beside such literary deities as Dickens, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and King.
Like the parent of an ugly baby, a young writer is blind to the glaring flaws. Words get repeated throughout a paragraph—sometimes even in the same sentence. Passive voice rears its ugly head. Subplots meander meaninglessly. One-dimensional characters are lucky if they manage to cast a shadow. Dialogue is stiff and awkward. Punctuation is appalling.
Tom was right: a writer needs to get the garbage out of the way. You won’t learn unless you fail. You can’t develop your voice without using a lot of words. Maybe one million of them.
That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. There are the success stories of writers whose first novels become bestsellers. Some of us will catch our stride well before one million words. Others will make it to two million words and still struggle.
Perhaps the lesson is that everyone starts at the beginning. Determination, raw talent, and a strong support system will see a writer through the dabbler stage. A support system that, ideally, includes other talented writers.
Writers like old Tom.
Whether my early manuscripts are salvageable or not remains to be seen. Truth be told, I don’t hold any hard feelings over Tom’s “finger exercises” line. In fact, he probably paid that twenty-something fantasist more credit than he was due back at that rummage sale. And even if he had implied I still had a lot to learn, he’s more than made up for it with what he wrote in a recent email:
“It would seem you’ve now passed the one million word proviso I specified early on in our writing friendship. Your tone, the authority of the prose is strong evidence of this. Not to mention the great flow. You have an established voice now.”
When put like that, one million words is a small price to pay for improvement.