I started writing my first novel (don’t worry – it’s safely trunked on my hard drive) in the summer of 2004.
As of today, I am 8,000 words into my twelfth.
In the past twelve years, I’ve written upwards of two million words, between novels, blogging, short fiction, and poetry. By my calculations, it’s roughly a million or so words of fiction and a million or so words of non-fiction. Which means the draft of the current story – PARALLAX (book 4 of Halcyone Space) – will take me over three million.
That’s a lot of words.
And I’m deliberately not counting all the technical/academic/book chapter writing I did prior to that in my physical therapy career.
“Practice makes perfect” is a saying that’s been around a long time; likely as long as humans have struggled to master skills. By that metric, I should be ‘there’ now, wherever ‘there’ is. Certainly, I’ve put in enough practice, right?
But that presupposes that there is a finish line for art, a place that you reach and can declare yourself the winner. It’s easy to think that any one of a hundred milestones is that elusive finish line: Your first personal rejection. Your first reject and resubmit. Your first book contract. Your first ARC. Your first book on a bookstore shelf. Your first big review. Your thousandth sale. The first year you pay taxes on your earnings. Your first invitation to a con. Your first fan mail.
All of those are external metrics, but for what? What is it measuring, anyway?
Each of those milestones (and all the others – there are many and the ones you pass will be unique to you) are only signposts that you’re still working on your craft. Nothing more, nothing less. And they don’t have much meaning unless you use them to keep learning and building skill.
My younger son is a music composition student at university. He sent me a link to an amazing interview with Yo Yo Ma, arguably the finest living cellist of our time in which he talks about the joy of practicing. One of the things he said really spoke to me as a writer:
Whenever I catch myself playing something that sounds mechanical but dead, it’s because either I’m not paying attention or it’s something difficult that I haven’t solved.
I don’t ever want to get to a place in my writing where it becomes mechanical, rote. And that’s why the 10,000 hours of practice meme, or the million words meme isn’t the gospel. It’s like the ‘Pirate Code’: guidelines. Just guidelines.
Sure, it’s not likely that someone will write something competent and marketable right out of the gate. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. But writing a million or three words is also no guarantee that those words will resonate with a reader. In my life as a physical therapist, I spent a lot of time with injured folks helping them to regain function. A lot of my work entailed teaching a patient to be aware of bad habits and practice away from them. To learn new patterns.
It’s the same thing with creativity. Practicing poor habits will just further rut in those poor habits. So I embrace what Yo Yo Ma said and strive to pay attention and approach each day’s writing as a chance to learn and grow and change.
And with that, it’s back to the word mines. . .
LJ’s most recent novel, DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE, is book 3 of her SF series, Halcyone Space. You can find links to all her available work on her website.