I’ve spent a lot of time since college thinking about what I would say if I ever got in front of an undergrad classroom of writing students, and I think the single most important lecture I could give would be titled, “Everything You’re Going to Write Will Probably Suck Until You’ve Written Your First Million Words.” It’s that Malcolm Gladwell, ten thousand hours thing, only writers measure their work in word output. One million words is about ten novels and some assorted short stories. If you go back and study your favorite authors, you’ll find that a lot of them didn’t hit their strides until about the one million-word mark. Stephen King wrote three novels before Carrie while also writing a ton of stories for men’s magazines. In my opinion, though, he didn’t really hit his stride as an artist until The Stand, which was his seventh published novel, and that happened right around the million-word mark.
Of course, Carrie proves that you can have commercial success before one million words, but that’s different than hitting your stride in terms of mastery of craft. I’m early enough in this process that I can see and feel my own improvement from piece to piece. I’m still learning all the crap they never teach you in school, like how stories need to be structured, how to pace scenes, or how to make characters engaging. You know – the little things that actually make a story enjoyable rather than literary. As a writer, you can learn about these things from books, but you really only learn how to do them through trial and error during that million-word cycle.
I enjoy studying Carrie to see Stephen King when he was still in that learning phase. You can hear his narrative voice getting stronger and see some of his tricks starting to emerge. Early books can be like that, which is why this week I’m recommending The Lightcap by Dan Marshall.
The Lightcap is Marshall’s first novel. He’s a 33-year-old IT support geek, also from Portland, and a lot of his disdain for the cubicle world shines through in this sci-fi story about a guy named Adam who runs a team of superstar tech engineers. In the future, America has been fragmented, privatized, and commercially exploited to death. Just about everyone uses a head-worn device called the Mind Drive to control their electronic devices. Adam and his team become guinea pigs for version 6 of the Mind Drive, code-named Lightcap. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that the control aspects of the Lightcap turn out to be bi-directional and that the people who own the technology have some very unpleasant plans – plans that Adam finds himself trying to stop at all costs.
I hope The Lightcap turns out to be Marshall’s version of Carrie. He does a lot of things right and several things wrong. Like Tolkien, Marshall spends an inordinate amount of time on world-building, especially in the book’s first half. Some chapters could be almost entirely dropped without hurting the story at all, but then we would lose the gritty, stale, worn-down depth of this near-future Marshall has painted. His characters are fairly wooden, and there are a couple of deus ex machina moments that might leave you with one eyebrow raised. But maybe this can be forgiven in a sort of first novel trade. You give up some of the mechanics in exchange for some really fun, thought-provoking ideas. Is our government getting bought off by private interests? Maybe. Would we rather think commands than type them with our thumbs on tiny screens? You bet. Marshall does a riveting job with extrapolating the scary and annoying aspects of today into an all-too-plausible and alarming tomorrow. I found the world of The Lightcap intriguing, and I suspect you will, too.
For $3.99 on ebook, give The Lightcap and Dan Marshall a try. I expect we’ll be seeing more and even better things from him on his march to one million words.
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.