David Eddings, an American novelist who was most famous for his epic fantasy books, once gave the following advice to new writers:
“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”
That same advice has come from a number of other sources—it’s tough to determine just who said it first. Some point to legends such as Ray Bradbury or Jerry Pournelle, both of whom famously advice that new writers should write a million words before considering themselves ready to take up the cause.
Regardless of who said it first, the sentiment always seems to come down to one thing: “Your first million words don’t count.”
But that seems a bit negative. Because of course they count. They’re the words you use to hone your craft, to learn the strategies you need to do the work and do it well. So to put it in more positive, less scary terms: Your first million words are practice.
PRACTICE MAKES SORTA PERFECT
We should probably clear something up, before it becomes a thing: There will always be room for you to grow and improve as a writer.
One of the mistakes that a lot of talented writers make is relying entirely on their talent rather than nurturing their skill. It’s a subtle difference—talents versus skills—but it’s important to think about and understand.
Talent, you’re born with. At least, that’s the common perception. It seems that some people spring forth from the womb with all the ability they need to become great in a field.
Skill takes effort. You develop skill by putting in the hours. Skill comes at the cost of tears and sweat and hours.
Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t have both talent and skill. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of combination we should all aim for.
In her book ‘Mindset,’ Carol Dweck uses John McEnroe as an example of a fixed mindset, reliant more on his talent than on training:
“[McEnroe] believed that talent was all. He did not love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfill his potential.”
Of course, McEnroe’s talent was more than adequate to make him the number one tennis player in the world—he just wasn’t particularly happy about it. Screaming at officials, throwing rackets, melting down into tantrums—when his talent failed him, he reacted as if his worth were taken away. And, since he was entirely reliant on talent to deliver him to success, he was kind of right. If your entire sense of self-worth is tied to succeeding naturally, without effort, and you find yourself failing, you immediately start questioning everything you ever knew about yourself. You start to worry that this thing you relied on—this ability that you didn’t have to work to earn—may have left you as easily as it arrived. And now you’re done. Your life, your career, everything that made you who you are is over.
That’s how it can seem.
Dweck further wrote that our culture puts a much higher value on talent than it does on effort—as if the fact that we have to sometimes put effort into improving our skills means that we have failed, that we aren’t worthy of success. If we must practice, then we don’t have natural talent, and maybe this thing we want isn’t right for us. We should give up and move on.
A lot of authors have walked from the business because they felt they weren’t ‘cut out’ for it, and at the heart of that decision is this idea of talent being more valuable than effort. That’s a sad state—because even the greats in this industry have had to pay their dues, to put in those million words so that they can rely more on experience and expertise than talent and a muse.
EVERY DAY IS THE PRICE YOU PAY
The mistake, of course, would be to go to the other extreme, and assume that because you have put in the time to nurture your talent into a reliable skill, you’re done. Objective complete. Achievement unlocked.
The reality is that even Stephen King comes back to the keyboard every single day, keeping the saw sharp by putting in the time and the words.
That’s really what those first million words are all about. They’re a measure of the time you’ve spent doing the reps. They are a gauge for how much effort you’re putting into honing your craft. They’re a proving ground for ideas, to help you find your voice and your style, and essentially define yourself as a writer.
Those first million words give you experience, which gives you strategies to use when you’re stuck, when you’re blocked, when you don’t quite know where to take things. Coming back to the writing, every single day, gives you momentum and toughens your writing hide.
1O STEPS TO YOUR MILLION WORDS
The point here isn’t a literal “one million words.” It’s more about doing something every day to improve yourself as a writer. Nothing (and I mean nothing) improves your craft and your discipline like actually writing.
Here’s an actionable approach to developing a daily writing habit and improving your craft. Think of it as 10 steps to your million words:
- Commit to writing every day, and tell people about that commitment. Make it a group of people who will hound you mercilessly if you don’t do what you said you’d do. We call this ‘accountability,’ and it helps. We’re far less likely to walk away from something when we know we’ll be letting someone else down.
- Set a daily word target. If you’re just starting, and have a tough time getting things moving, set the goal low to start, with the idea that you can push your limits and grow over time. You don’t have to write 5,000 words per day. You can write 500. Or 250. Or ten. As long as you sit down every day and write to your target, you’ll make progress, and you’ll improve.
- Treat all writing as practice. Emails, text messages, blog posts, Facebook updates—if it involves words, then put the energy and effort into making them good words. Check spelling, fix typos, and put thought into what you’re trying to say, and the best way to say it. If you get into the habit of treating every word that leaves your fingertips as practice for improving your talent into a skill, you’ll find yourself immersed in the culture of writing—and immersion is the best way to become fluent in anything.
- Keep a journal. I recommend an app called Day One, if you like to keep a journal on your laptop or phone. It’s Mac-only, but you can find equivalents for Android and Windows (Evernote is a good one, though it isn’t strictly a journaling app). Or you could do it the ‘old fashioned way,’ which is still a preferred method by millions of people worldwide: Write in a notebook. I love Moleskine notebooks for this purpose. Just make sure you’re coming back to the journal frequently (daily, if you can), and treating everything you write as practice (see above).
- Up your word target. If you’ve been consistently hitting your 500 word target every day for a month, it’s time to push yourself. Add another 250 words. And if you hit that new target for a month, add another 250. Or five hundred. Or a thousand. Keep adding words until you really have to sweat to do it every day, and press on that as long as you can, until the new number feels natural.
- Periodically push your limits. A few years back I challenged myself to write 60K words in one day. I did it. It hurt. I won’t be doing that again. But the resulting book (Evergreen) ended up being a fan favorite. More importantly, pushing myself that hard helped me reset my limits, and my base level as well. Now that I knew what I was capable of, I could feel comfortable raising my daily word count. The lesson: Once you get to a comfort zone with your daily writing, set a challenge for yourself, and complete it. You don’t have to go to the extreme of writing a book in a day, but you might decide to double your word count one day, or set an ‘impossible’ goal and beat it. Later, you could decide to write a book in five days, or three, or anything else you might find challenging. Push your limits so you can redefine them.
- Read widely. Writers read. These two skills are so intertwined, they’re inseparable. The problem is, we often lock onto a particular type of book, or only read from a certain genre or category. But writers who are determined to really bump up their craft always read widely. Along with the epic fantasy or romance novels you love, seed in some science fiction, a few biographies, plenty of history, and of course some how-to books. Really, just read everything you can get your hands on. It’s about more than leisure. The more widely you read, the more mental grist you have for the mill. Inspiration comes from the oddest places. Plus, as you read, you’ll experience how other writers use the language, as well as their talent and skill, and you’ll pick up on the rhythms of their craft, growing as you go.
- Track everything. Use a tool like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to track how many words you write per day, when your start and stop times are, where you were writing, and any other details you can include. You should also track what you’re reading, how many pages you get through, and what you’re learning as you go. Tracking these things benefits you because it makes you think critically about writing. It gets you in the habit of examining what you write and what you read, evaluating it for how it helps you grow. You can also do this as part of the daily journaling we looked at above. Keep track of your relationship with the written language, and gauge how you grow.
- Talk to other authors (a lot). Nothing will keep your mind on the game like talking to the players as often as possible. Back in ‘the day’ this was kind of tough. You had to join writer groups, and set aside a few hours a month to attend and sit in on readings and discussions. You had coffee, sure, but at what price? We writers tend to be introverts, after all. Peopleing is difficult. But now, with Facebook groups and other online communities, it’s easy to keep up a near-constant conversation about the writer biz. Join these groups. Talk about writing, about the challenges you face and the successes you’ve had. Get into encouraging every writer you connect with, and you’ll soon find them encouraging you. This is about accountability, but also about learning from exposure. And, in some part, it’s about keeping up with your peers. You’ll find it easier to hit a daily word target if you’re hearing about this kind of success from people you know and trust and admire, every day.
- Define your why. There’s a phrase used by special forces and other military types that espouses a life philosophy: “Embrace the suck.” Basically, there’s no escaping the horrible and uncomfortable and painful parts of life. So we just have to accept them and get on with our day. But we can endure things that suck for much longer stretches of time when we know why we’re doing them. Before you write another word, spend a few minutes thinking about and deciding on the “why” of your writing. What drives you? What is powerful enough that it makes you want to sit down and spend hours, days, weeks, months, even years cloistered away from friends and family, missing out on popular TV shows and movies, letting your Summer tan disappear into the pasty white porcelain of your skin, all so you can put words on the page? When you know what that is, write it down somewhere, and refer to it every day. That’s the biggest motivation you’re ever going to have. It can get you to come back to the keyboard every day, even when it’s the least fun thing you can imagine. Embrace the suck. Define your why, and you can define your career and your life.
GIVE YOURSELF SOME CREDIT
No one is harder on themselves than an author. We criticize ourselves far more than any internet troll or bad review ever could. Part of that comes from the fact that our work is so solitary, most of the time. We get into our own heads, we forget that there are people who actually do love and support us, and we tend to obsess over all the flaws and errors that somehow ‘prove’ we’re not good enough.
We’re also inundated with pearls of wisdom and free advice and sage words about what we should or should not be doing, or how we should or should not think of our work. Case in point: “The First Million Words Are Practice.”
Here’s the reality: It’s not the first million words. It’s not the first billion, either. The reality is, all the words are practice.
Writing is a lot like the game Othello. It takes a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master.
The thing is, while you’re learning you need to give yourself credit for where you are and how you got there.
First, just having the courage to sit down and start doing this work is something to celebrate. Seriously—the fact you’ve even read to the end of this post is something you might want to write about in that journal we mentioned. It shows a willingness to improve yourself, which means you had to at least acknowledge that you might need improvement. Way to go!
Second, no matter what level you perceive yourself to be on, as a writer, you are, every day, advancing above that level, just by writing. Your victories are worth celebrating. Your skill is ever improving. You are getting better at this, so smile.
Adopt what Carol Dweck refers to as a ‘growth mindset.’ See every challenge as a chance to grow and improve, rather than a sign that you aren’t talented enough. And as for those first million words, consider them practice, and then decide that the next million will be practice, too. Determine for yourself that you can and will grow in this, and then go out and find ways to make that growth happen.
You’re an amazing writer. This is going to be right in your wheelhouse.