I shared an article earlier today on Twitter and Google Reader about the old adage that you have to write a million words of junk to get it out of your system before you can start writing good stuff. I’ve heard this before, and while I agree that it’s true in broad strokes, I think it’s missing a crucial observation. In today’s multimedia world, those words don’t all have to be prose.
Sure, some things about the craft of writing you’ll only learn by writing in your chosen or at least primary medium. But a lot of things about writing fiction–character, dialogue, plot–the fundamentals, in other words, are the same no matter what medium you choose. A story, fundamentally, is a story.
I was thinking about this while driving home in a snowstorm last week, because somehow thinking to myself about writing was deemed less distracting than listening to a podcast about writing. And it occurred to me that when I originally wrote Between Heaven and Hell, thirteen years ago, I hadn’t actually written very much prose fiction up to that point. In fact, I’d written absurdly little for someone intending to write a novel for publication.
In high school, I’d written a Batman fanfic short story and co-wrote a Thor fanfic novella. I also plotted out the early, early ancestors to the story that has become Ghost Ronin and that yes, I’m still working on a quarter century later. Call that maybe 25,000 words total.
In the Air Force, I wrote an X-Files fanfic short story about Sasquatch (I’ll leave you to find that on the interwebs), piddled around with Ghost Ronin some more and on a bet wrote a short story set in the Unification Chronicles universe in one weekend. (The bet was with my roommate, who noticed that I never seemed to finish a story and bet me I couldn’t do it while he could. His story ended up being two pages of kitchy banter that didn’t go anywhere.) Figure maybe another 50,000 words tops, though there was already an encouraging sign, if I’d understood what it was at the time. I only submitted the short story, “The Drop,” to one place, F&SF. Looking back on it there was no chance they’d accept it, being one of the largest SF magazines in the mid 90s and given how hopelessly cliched and derivative the story was. And yet, while I did get a form letter rejection–and in my inexperience took that as an insult–they did handwrite on it that I should take note of their new editorial address, which they had helpfully circled. Now I’d realize that was a hint that while they hadn’t had much interest in that particular story, there was something in my writing that they wanted to see more of. It took me a long time to figure that out.
But that’s it. When I started writing my first novel, with every intention of getting it published, I’d had less than a full novel’s worth of practice, and far, far less than a million words. What made me think I could pull it off? In a very real way, I didn’t pull it off. Between Heaven and Hell was not published in print, and got picked up by Peanut Press mostly because I happened to be nosing around when they were looking for original content. A few months later, after they signed deals with some of the major publishers to release ebook editions, and they wouldn’t have needed me. And in a real way, my writing did need a lot more seasoning. It wasn’t until after Between Heaven and Hell (80,000 words), Do Over! (17,000 words), my screenplay “In Shining Armor” (20,000 words in another iteration of what is now Ghost Ronin), Homeworld (60,000 words, my 2006 NaNoWriMo project) and the unpublished first book of the Nemesis War, Mistaken Identity (80,000 words) that my writing really started to achieve what I now consider professional levels. But add all that together and I’m still only at 332,000 words, only a third of the way to a million.
But the catch is that while I have a third of a million words of experience in prose fiction, I’ve been storytelling for a LOT longer than that. I started early, telling stories orally in elementary school, usually ad lib fairy tales complete with morals. In sixth grade, I was introduced to the old school Red Box D&D Basic Set, and it wasn’t long before I became a DM and started running games of my own. I think a lot of my storytelling fundamentals come from designing and running role playing campaigns in D&D, then the TMNT/Robotech/Rifts family of Palladium games, then the Heroes system I still play today. If you think about it, a lot of the skills overlap. I had to create settings, create characters for the players to interact with, design plots for them to follow and yet be flexible enough to create something new on the fly if the characters did something unexpected, which they usually did. I was 11 when I was introduced to role playing games, and still play them (though now I rarely GM, as I have my own stories to tell) 27 years later. Add that to being a voracious reader and oh, yeah, that third of a million words I’ve actually written to learn the specifics of writing prose, plus the countless words of nonfiction I’ve written over the years on this blog and others, and I probably have equivilent experience to someone who has just cranked out a million words of fiction in isolation.
Only I think I had a lot more fun.