You know that bit about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. Well, in the fiction writing world, the equivalent number is widely (and unscientifically) said to be one million words. Yes, any writer needs to pound out his or her "million words of crap," and by then the results should be salable. That's when a writing career might commence in earnest.
Personally, I don't believe that fiction and non-fiction fluency overlap well. The voices, strategies, objectives, and other elements of composition are usually very different. I've been a full-time non-fiction writer since 1998, but that hasn't seemed to carry any relevance for my fiction pursuits. So when I sit down to wonder where I'm at on that million-word mission, I have to throw out that whole side of my life, including all of those school essays.
What's that leave? Well, let's consider high school. I mean, that's where you're supposed to take your first steps in understanding the craft of fiction writing, yes? We could figure perhaps one thousand words of composed fiction per month. Eight months per grade. Four years. That's maybe 30,000 words in high school. Wow...it sure seemed like more at the time.
College? I took as many fiction writing classes as I could stomach, including the Playwriting sequence from the Drama department. (For the record, I learned more about crafting fiction from Playwriting than every other writing class I've ever taken combined.) Two years of classes, say. One per term. Ten thousand words per class. That's probably being generous. Let's call it 40,000 words for college.
Then my twenties.I started a handful of books and wrote a bunch of stories, some of which were completed, one of which got accepted somewhere. Let's say 20 projects that averaged...ohhhhh...4000 words each. Another 80,000 words.
By then, my life veered into a career in computing and journalism, and my fiction efforts went on hold. I can ballpark 150,000 words for what I might call Phase 1, which spanned ten to twelve years.
By the start of 2012, I was beginning to have an inkling of the direction I wanted to go with fiction and how I was going to do it. In that year, I produced two non-fiction books (not counted here) along with two short stories and a novelette. Total fiction: 35,000 words.
When 2013 rolled around, I got serious about tracking numbers. I wrote 212,000 words of fiction on PCs and another 41,000 on my phone. Of course, not all (or even most) of this was published. This is only first draft material, some of which got round filed before being completed. But that's the way it goes. Rough total for 2013: 250,000 words.
For various reasons, I'm off to a slow start in 2014 and just passed the 100,000-word mark. That puts me at about 535,000 words out of my first million. But I should cross the million mark sometime in the second half of 2015. Will the stuff I publish before that point be salable? Will it be "any good"? I can't tell you. I hope so. I'm trying as best I know how to create enjoyable stories that are at least worth the price of a latte. But along the way, I keep thinking and studying and endeavoring to become better. By 2016, I hope my works will speak for themselves.
"If it was easy, everyone would do it."
We've all heard that a thousand times, but it couldn't be more true for independent publishing. The rules for success in this business, if there are any rules at all, are sublimely simple: 1) write a good book, 2) make sure it's well-edited, 3) put a good cover on it, 4) price it attractively, and 5) repeat the cycle every three months. That's it. After ten or forty repetitions, depending on random luck and some other factors, you'll probably make a fair living.
If you know me, you know I like numbers and patterns, so here's how it works:
The average novel is about 75,000 words long.
I can write about 1,500 words in 90 to 120 minutes. Call it two hours. I suspect that's pretty average for someone who calls him/herself a writer.
It follows that, spending two hours per day on writing new text, one should be able to write the first draft of a novel in 50 days.
Hugh Howey once told me that he spends just as long on his second draft as he does on his first. Dean Wesley Smith told me that he doesn't do second drafts in the conventional sense; his editing is more like clean-up work that only takes a couple of days. Both are successful novelists. Let's split the difference and call it 25 days.
Figure ten days for a third draft, plugging in edits from beta readers, and final polishing.
We're up to 85 days. That leaves five days for breathing and planning the next book.
See, if I answer "yes" to that, then I'm giving myself an out. I'm giving myself the psychological slippage necessary to never hit that pace. Right now, in 2014, those five steps are what it takes to get into the upper strata of independent publishers, the people making six figures or more annually.
Those numbers don't include social media interaction with readers, marketing, promoting to build a mailing list, or other writing-related activities. They also don't reflect getting sick, heavier than normal work loads from the day job, your spouse spraining his or her ankle, your dad landing (repeatedly) in the emergency room, helping four kids with activities and homework, or life in general.
Full-time writers can blast out 3,000 to 5,000 words per day like clockwork. That's a novel draft in 20 days. Of course, full-time writers also find themselves encumbered with rights negotiations, conference events, mountains of reader email, and all manner of distraction typical of a higher writing career level.
The fact is that writing books is easy. Time management is hard. If I were in charge of a Professional Writing course at some college, the first two weeks would be spent doing nothing but time management training. Talent can elevate you a notch or two, but you can succeed without talent. Honestly. However, lack of personal discipline will kill a writing career before it ever starts.
I think a 90-day book schedule is possible for full-time writers. I really don't know how a part-timer with a family can do it. I would love to interview someone who is doing it. For now, I have to berate myself (a little) for not meeting this schedule and use that guilt to spur myself continually to find new ways to improve my efficiency.
Next week, I'll be 50,000 words into my YA sequel novel, and once first draft is done on that, I can polish off and release the first book. I should get both out this year and possibly fit the first installment of my collaborative fantasy project in before the holidays. But it'll be a close call. I wanted to have six major releases this year, and it looks like I might hit three. Whatever it turns out to be, the goal will be to do better in 2015 -- and keep doing better year after year until I'm finally full-time and releasing those books every 90 days. Or less. You never know.
A few years ago, I flew to South Korea on an assignment. Starting out from Portland, it was naturally a long flight only notable for two things: 1) my extreme discomfort from United's torturous coach seating and 2) the glimpse I had of our passage south over the Russian arctic wastes. I was awed by the glistening, white expanse, just rolling, unbroken, uninhabitable white from one horizon to the other.
As I look over my fiction output spreadsheet for April, I'm reminded of that arctic view. My daily output quota is 1500 words. Most cells contain only zeroes. Only now, at the end of April and early May, am I getting back on track.
I'm not the most sympathetic guy in the world, but I'm least sympathetic of all with myself. Any day with a zero on it makes me irritable. A month of them sends me into a tailspin of depression and bottomless self-doubt. But wallowing never helped anybody. It's my job to determine why I fell off track and how to prevent it from happening again.
Most people would chalk the lapse up to "writer's block." I got stuck. I was waiting for the muse to strike. I needed time to recharge my creative batteries.
This is wall-to-wall BS. There is tiredness. There is being distracted. But there is no such thing as writer's block. Writer's block is an imaginary excuse akin to pseudoscience. "I don't want to or cant recognize what's really going on here, so I'm going to use this nifty phrase to explain it." Really, writer's block is just another expression for laziness.
Do I get writer's block? No, because it doesn't exist. I get tired. I get distracted. I even get lazy. But I never get writer's block -- because it doesn't exist. How are you supposed to be an honest writer if you can't even be honest with yourself?
But these are not the main reasons my April derailed. First, I can take the safe route and blame work. Yes, my day job, freelance tech writing, experienced a spike in assignments. My calendar showed double to triple the amount of work I'd had only a couple of months before. It was (and remains) insane. That's a good problem to have, of course, but the truth is that I lost a couple of assignments along the way because I simply couldn't stay on top of everything. In the never-ending battle between fiction, work, and family, fiction lost last month. No one will blame me for this. Except me.
Why? Because I walked into April unprepared. I have two novels actively in progress. In fiction writing, there are "planners" and "pantsers," the latter being people who write of the tops of their heads -- by the seat of their pants. (I'd love to know the etymology of that seemingly nonsensical expression.) My writing schedule had been so rapid given the rest of my schedule that I'd outwritten my pre-planning. I'd outlined the opening chapters but never found the hours of quiet concentration necessary to chart the entire books. I hit the end of my prepared material right when the April madness hit. Call it a perfect productivity storm.
Clearly, I am not a pantser, at least not with all of the other demands currently on my time and attention.
Meanwhile, editing on the third draft of my first novel came to a standstill in April. The one thing I accomplished was getting my primary work-in-progress far enough down the planning road to let me get back to writing.
I'm not saying all of this to throw myself a pity party or to wallow in public self-flagellation. I'm detailing this because, at bottom, I have a workflow problem. The system I created earlier in the year called for fiction writing in the morning and future planning as well as editing in the evening. With a day job and four kids, that workflow did not pan out. Not even close. As my lack of advance planning shows, it wasn't even working before April hit.
This leaves me with a conundrum. I'm not willing to give up a daily block of morning writing, because a decent output pace is essential to my long-term goals. That leaves nights and weekends for planning and editing. So far, I haven't hit on the right strategy for making this all work, and I have the deepest admiration for those who do. If anyone out there has suggestions, I'm all ears. In the meantime, you can have a good smile at my ongoing efforts to find balance. We all try our best to make things work out, but it's never easy, is it?
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.