A Milestone on the Way to a Million Words

 A Guest Post by James Wilson

A few months ago, I decided to quit writing.  It wasn’t the first time.  I hope it’s the last.

While I wasn’t writing I had a great time.  I worked on my boat, I took music lessons, and I read books for enjoyment.

 Then one day I went back to work.

I’d like to say my turnaround was due to a break in a long spell of no sales, but that wouldn’t be true.  The sale that broke the drought was only my excuse.

It was, however, a marvelous excuse.

Years ago, I wrote a novel in which one of the characters makes up conversations.  One of them was between a father and a son about worm farming.

The riff turned into a short story.

One day, I noticed a market listing for an anthology on Ralan’s Webstravaganza (http://www.ralan.com/).  I submitted the story.

The editors liked it, but they suggested a change to tie it in more tightly with their theme: the end of the world.

I gladly made the change – on spec.  This is important.

They accepted the story.

Time marched on, and the anthology came out in e-book and POD formats.  The story is “Pa’s Worm Farm and the Greenie Scouts” by Jamie McNabb, in TERMINAL EARTH published by Pound Lit Press.

I am here to tell you that there is something very, very special about seeing a book you have a part in treated seriously.

I immediately sent thank-you notes to the people who had helped me develop my craft and who had put up with me over the past while.

The whole experience taught, or re-taught, me several things.  They begin with those legendary million words.

Established writers often tell wannabes that it takes finishing a million words to learn how to write commercial fiction.  Non-established writers, of which I am one, think of those million words as the apprenticeship needed to learn how to shape a story and get it onto the page.  That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.

The whole truth begins with what it takes to finish a million words.

Using a few realistic assumptions about writing speed, it takes about nine or ten fulltime years to turn out a million words.  To allow for a job, a marriage, distractions, and/or raising children, you ought to double or triple the time.  That means as much as thirty calendar years, possibly more, may go into finishing those million words.

I am at the 500,000-word mark, and have published 30,000 of those words.  I can now say without too much fear of contradiction, that if you want to finish those million words, that is, to become a professional writer, then–Here comes the BIG secret!  Ready?  There’ll be a test later!–you’ll have to finish those million words.

There’s no mystery here.  You have to learn how to put the words on the page, how to use rejection to support your work, how to guard your working time, and how to behave as though you are working against a tight deadline.

How much of this have I leaned?

Some, but not enough.

Here’s another tip: rejection is your friend.

I don’t believe it, either; but it’s true.

Granted, it’s not the bosom buddy that the right acceptance at the right time can be, but it remains a friend.  And over the long run, it’s often a better friend than acceptance.

Here’s why.

Regular rejection proves that you have established a submission/response cycle.  This cycle is the fundamental rhythm by which professional writers live.  It doesn’t matter whether the pieces sell or not.  What matters is making the cycle an integral part of your working life.

Most rejections are form letters.  “Dear Author . . .”  However, some rejections are pure gold, like the one I initially received from the editors of TERMINAL EARTH.  These golden rejections contain specific suggestions for improvement.  Needs tightening.  The magical element should appear on the first page.  We laughed ourselves silly, but we aren’t the right market.

If appropriate, act on what they’ve told you.  Above all, thank the editor for commenting.  When appropriate, ask if he/she would be willing to consider a rewrite based on his/her critique.

I haven’t sold mountains of work, but most of what I have sold, I’ve sold because some very generous editors took the time to critique and reconsider.  Win or lose, thank them!

It’s been said until we’re sick of hearing it: now is a great time to be a writer.  It’s true.  Now is also a great time to break in.

The personal computer and the Internet have changed the game.  There are more markets now than at any time in the recent past.  Electronic publishing is shoving aside the twin scourges of inventory-maintenance cost and inventory taxation, and with them, many of the live-or-die aspects of “shelf life”.  Backlist books are becoming as available as frontlist books.

The midlist and the pulps, where fledgling writers used to learn the craft and build their followings, are roaring back in electronic form.

Coaching, critique groups, market lists, and references are available online.  Discovering the name of Julius Caesar’s horse is a matter of seconds, rather than an entire afternoon.

So, if everything is so cockeyed rosy, why did I drop out of the scenario?


I didn’t like rejection, so I didn’t send in my work.

I didn’t like the grind of working, reworking, and reworking again, and of never, ever knowing for sure whether or not the piece was finally right, so I quit.

I got fed up with a market that apparently has no room for anything that doesn’t feature teenage, horny, mutant, ninja vampires, or heroic women recovering from heroic traumas, or heroic men who never seem to come anywhere near posttraumatic stress or having something better to do than “save the world.”

I got fed up with being told that there are “no rules,” and then being expected to intuit what the rules are and how to obey them to the letter.

Fed up, I say.  So I quit.

Notice the pronoun: I.

In other words, I let my precious feelings get in the way.

Well, so there I was, fed up with writing and having a great time.

Why, then, did I go back to work?

Because my temper tantrum finally burned itself out.  Because by buying my story for their anthology–I did mention it, didn’t I?–the editors at Pound Lit Press told me I was on the right track and to keep at it.  Because I couldn’t endure the prospect of spending the rest of my life not writing.

Here’s the close.

There’s a truism in management circles: ninety percent of the work is done in the last ten percent of the time.  The way I figure it, at 500,000 words finished, I’ve learned between five and six percent of what I need to know to sort-of-kind-of enter the ranks of professional writers.

How far along are you?

Jim Wilson’s work on Terminal Earth is available via Amazon.com HERE.  It’s also available as an ebook on Smashwords HERE, or you can find in on Createspace HERE

Storyfix is an Amazon.com affiliate.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

11 Responses to A Milestone on the Way to a Million Words

  1. A million words sounds like a lot. That might be the equivalent of 10 100,000-word novels.

    I started a novel in 2005, just because I thought I could produce better work than most of what I’d been reading on the Internet. Started with a single scene, twisted it around and went from there. That scene ended up about 1/3 of the way through the “finished” novel.

    Didn’t know crap about Craft beyond 30+ years of technical writing and Honors English in high school. I found very rapidly that I’d better do some planning. A scene here, a scene there, figuring out where I wanted the novel to end. All took some false starts and some scene shifting. Then writing to show how we got from scene A to scene D.

    I worked from February 2005 to October 2005 to “finish” the first novel. Lots of self-edits, lots of “read the last several scenes to see where I was.” Not completely pantsing, but at least Burmuda shorts.

    Found out what I needed was another novel or so. I planned the next novel in the series a bit better.

    I published the first novel online starting in October 2005; the first 10 chapters to start, then a chapter a week. Found a volunteer editor or so (they gradually disappeared), did a review/edit of the next chapter to publish. All this time, working on the second novel.

    When the first was completely published, started putting out the second one at a chapter a week. I was a bit ahead, but it still took some fancy fingerwork to keep up.

    Lo and behold, I found I needed 2 more novels to get where I wanted on the complete story arc. Yeh, yeh, yeh. I was learning a little though; did more design on what should happen when — it’s a pretty big out-point to have a lady give birth after 11 months of pregnancy.

    Still was pumping out and “publishing” a chapter a week. Mind you, these were 3,000 word chapters, not 1 or 2 pages.

    About half-way through the last (4th) novel, I found a writing tip which really helped. That gave me first-draft chapters that were 90% exact in the final. So the production speed went up.

    Didn’t know nothing about standard story structure, conflict or any of that good stuff — and it shows. Still, I was getting a lot of good feedback from readers.

    Learned a _lot_ more about Craft, Core Competencies, et. al., since then. I’m planning on a full re-write of the 4 novels, plus doing 2 more.

    So, is there a story in my moral here? Yes. Each novel is about 230,000 words (actual text, not including forwards, About, glossary and cast). That’s darn close to a million words. The take-away here is:

    – Get lots of Craft under your belt. Six Core Competencies.
    – Do the design work. That enables you to write when you should be writing, not trying to plot/character-develop/research while you’re doing the actual writing.
    – Design and then write. Craft is the What you do. Art/Creativity is the How you do it.
    – Put in a schedule and do it. That puts the pressure on you to produce. I missed one weekly deadline from October 2005 to August 2007 and that was only by one day.

    To me, the “hard” part is doing the design. That takes a lot of thought (yes, there’s still a ton of creativity in there). Doing the actual words on the screen is the “easy” part.

    However, if fiction writing were easy, “everybody” would be doing it, wouldn’t they?

    Now, go design and pump out those million words.

  2. Wow. That’s pretty daunting when you look at it that way. Is that finished words, as in final draft? Or does that include each draft?

    For example, the novel I’m working on right now, I’m approaching 100,000 words. Much of that will be chucked by the final version (I’ve enjoyed the process of just writing for the sake of writing — I’ll have to tighten it up in final versions) and I imagine the first draft will be in the 150,000 word range. The final will be in the 100,000 word range, but after three or four drafts, that could equal 400,000 written words or so all told.

    Does this count towards the 1,000,000? Or is it the final 100,000 that counts?

    (I’m not looking for shortcuts here; just curious…)


  3. nancy

    I was just getting ready to submit my question when I saw that Graham had already asked it. I need that answer, too. Thanks.

  4. To the commenters, Graham & Nancy: As a nationally published novelist, I can tell you that worrying about whether you’ve accomplished the “right” number of words is to venture down a path filled with overgrown trees and a crescent moon. You’d be far better off to take the advice of this website (STORY STRUCTURE) seriously. If you do what Larry says to do, you’ll get there.

    To James Wilson: great post. You capture the sense of diligence and, the endless nature of writing, so well. Work hard and learn. Simply stated: good writing is not easy to do. Control your expectations accordingly, and …. it shall be.

  5. Margo Lerwill

    I really like this post, possibly because it parallels my experience so closely. I’m about 700,000 words in. I saw my first short story publication at about 300,000 words. I can’t say I’m short on rejections these days, but they’re always personalized now, and there’s an agent who has asked for a partial. I almost had it all happen for me at about 200,000 words in, and I’m soooo glad now it didn’t. I *needed* those other words.

  6. Curtis

    Thank you.

    I appreciate your honesty. Ego, says it all. Been there done that. And, you did mention this. “……. so I didn’t send in my work.”

    It finally dawned on me that absolutely nothing I ever wrote would be published if the person who ran the periodical, blog , whatever, never saw my material.

    That seems obvious. But, I’m betting the bulk of the people who read writing blogs, books, do the seminar thing seldom if ever submit work anywhere.

    Larry, thank you for James’s post.

  7. @Jody – thanks for that!

    I am a new novelist, but I’m a (relatively) old writer, so I very much do understand the folly of “trying to find the hoops to jump through”.

    Mine was more of an academic question. Malcolm Gladwell said something along the lines that for most people to get “good” at what they do, it takes about 10,000 hours of work.

    The parallel here is fairly clear, though the big difference is that writers write at different speeds, so it’s impossible to say “10,000 hours equals 1,000,000 words” or whatever.

    The question in my mind, I guess, is how much value does James put on draft words vs. polished? It takes some people more drafts to get to the final version — even the same writer will take several drafts for one thing, and few drafts for another.

    In the context of this post, do those words count for anything?


  8. James Wilson

    Thanks for the great comments and questions! I waited to respond to make sure I wouldn’t be covering ground already covered.

    In answer to Graham and Nancy’s question . . .

    Jody is right on the money. There is no “right” or magic number of words. It’s simply a rule of thumb. It’s not really about the specific number of words, anyway.

    Jean Auel made it big with her first novel. Steve Berry wrote eight novels before he had one published. As I remember, Ursula LeGuin wrote four or five novels before she found her genre and broke in.

    Dean Koontz was several published novels into his career when he decided he was headed down a blind alley and completely changed gears, switching from science fiction and fantasy to mainstream thriller/horror, for lack of a better label.

    The point of the million-word figure is that it usually takes a long time, about ten years, to become a professional. Look at it this way, it takes about ten years worth of recitals (usually between the ages of about 5 and 18) to make a dancer. And that’s just the beginning of the work. It’s the same for writers.

    My gloss is that it takes a million words worth of experience to learn technique, discipline, marketing, and so on. Some people learn it sooner, some later, some never learn it at all. One-book-wonders abound.

    As to what counts in the million words, I include only finished words, the text I send out to agents and editors.

    If, for my sins, I revisit a piece and rework it into a second version that goes out, I only count the current final version. I have one novel that’s gone through 250,000-, 125,000-, and 100,000-word versions, all of them shopped. I only count the final 100,000.

    I do not count unfinished work, of which I have a good 150,000 words sitting in boxes or burned onto CDs.

    No, I don’t use a spreadsheet. It’s only in my head.

    Again, a sincere thank you to those who read and commented, and especially to Larry for giving me the pleasure of writing a guest post.

  9. Thanks for that James.

    Again, I realize that there is no magic number – I did think it was important to understanding your article to find out what that number meant though.

    I think talent plays a huge role too, as you infer. This is something that I don’t this Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes enough in his book. Robert Heinlein, for example, claims that he sold his first short story, and probably wouldn’t have continued with writing if he had any rejection. Then there are others, I’m sure, who have written all their long lives and have never been published.

    I think that is the most frustrating part though: you could be the most talented writer in the world with a book that could be seen as the “best book” of all time, and there’s still a chance that the book will never be published. In this day and age, I think that is even more likely than ever before.

    But what I’ve always thought that novelists write because they’re writers. If they wanted a guarantee, they’d get a “real” job.

    The book comes first, even before publishing. You need to get joy and fulfillment from creating a story that — let’s face it — nobody else in the world could create.

    If you take it from that perspective, and write the best book you can, everything that comes afterwards (including getting it published) is icing on the cake.



  10. James Wilson

    Graham makes a couple of what I feel are points worth underlining. The book comes first. If it’s good enough, the chances are that a market will be found. The market won’t find the book, so we have to go looking. Often we will have to make our own paths to publication and sales.

    There’s no way of telling, but I hate to think of the really great books that are sitting in drawers because the timing was wrong, or it wasn’t right for a “first novel,” or the market had “moved away” from that topic, or the writer shelved the project after the 101st rejection.

    That said, it’s also important to remember one of Larry’s favorite dictums: THE MARKET IS WHAT THE MARKET IS. Ture, but what that might mean is that we’ll have to make our own markets. But not to worry. With the web, e-publishing, Kindle, etc. that’s becoming easier than ever.

  11. CydM

    Long before the 80/20 Principle and The Talent Code became popular, I had an English professor who was also a well-respected fiction writer (and, of course, a publish-or-perish writer). He was a kind and nurturing man, but worn down after many years of students asking how to make it as a writer. He’d developed the gruff, and now proven true, response of, “Write a million words and throw them in the garbage.” Students would usually stand there in jaw-dropped disbelief at both his tone and his advice, so he’d add, “Wanna be a writer? Do you understand what that means? No? Well, it’s somewhere up there with brain surgery in status, difficulty, and precision of craft. What makes you so special to think you can simply join the club because you wanna.” If they were still standing there in disbelief, he’d add, “Go on, get to writing. You’ve got an apprenticeship to complete.”

    His advice has stuck with me for decades, especially the concept of serving and apprenticeship. And, yes, I have thrown away a million words and more. Most of it were pity and oh-so clever bits of writing that simply didn’t work within the project I was working on at the time. At first it was like removing a vital organ or tossing one of my children out the car window. But within the rigors of serving my apprenticeship, I discovered many truths about my craft. As Emerson told the graduating Divinity Class of Harvard, it was necessary to throw out all I’d learned in school, go out in the world and discover things on my own. If anything I’d been taught had been true, I’d discover it on my own. The most valuable discovery I unearthed was if I could write one good sentence/paragraph/storyline, I could write others. Toss what doesn’t work, consider it a lesson discovered, then move on to write with more direction, and craft the right writing into the right story. I’m still working on it and hoping it’s a process that never ends.

    When it feels that all is lost and I’ll never be the writer I want to be, I first remember the words of my professor, then think of Steinbeck’s Stanford roommates hanging him by the feet from a second story window and threatening a drop to his death if he read them one more of his pathetic short stories. (He really was a horrible writer when he began his apprenticeship.) If he could keep writing after the threat of death for his efforts, I guess I can handle a little criticism and a whole bunch of rejection, as well as writing and tossing millions of words, or never seeing the best I’ve got published.

    I have no choice. I’m a writer. The only true misery I’ve known in life is when I run from the demands, defeats, complications, and obsession of sculpting thought and experience with words.