A Million Words

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since my last post. But things have been busy! Sheesh! You’d think life would slow down in the summer. Clearly not.

Before summer set in I was reading a book by Paula Munier called Writing With Quiet Hands. I’ve enjoyed the read. One of the things that stuck out to me was when she mentions that someone she respected in the writing industry once told her that it takes about a million words written in order to make a writer good. A MILLION words! That’s a lot!

So me being me, I started adding up my written words over the course of my 2 1/2 years of serious writing. With my current 6 completed drafts (4 novels, 1 picture book, 1 confirmation manual) my numbers are right at half a million words. All of these works have been through multiple hack-and-slash revisions, so the actual number of words written is higher. I tend to write a 110,000 word novel, cut 30k-40k words, and write another 20k-30k words in the revision. So yeah, it’s a lot of words. But even including the revision work in the final number wouldn’t get me to a million words written.

I also write a lot of story as a major part of my work as a pastor. Sermons are stories reinterpreted in ways that relate to people and our world. I connect my story and people’s stories to the stories of the Scriptures. In fact, my fiction writing – especially learning about the craft of writing – has helped my preaching. With roughly 425 sermons written at a conservative average of 1,800 words each, that’s in the neighborhood of 765,000 words written.

So, Yay! I’ve clearly passed the million word mark. Does that mean I’m a good writer now? I think not. It’s not quite that automatic.

My goal of becoming a good writer has taken intentional effort on my part. I’ve put a lot of hard work into it and sought to learn whatever I could about craft, style, voice, plot, character, tension, world-building, etc. The thing is, becoming a good writer is still a goal, not something I’ve necessarily achieved by hitting a certain word count (and that’s what I think Paula Munier was getting at in her book). Like anything else, it’s a process of continued growth that, so long as I am still breathing, is never truly complete.

Toward the middle of May, I had a new story idea that wouldn’t go away. I wrote an outline and some potential scene ideas. I told my wife about the idea, and she got excited. I wrote chapter 1 and sent the first few paragraphs to my critique group for feedback. I made revisions of the chapter, completed the full outline, and set it aside.

I had something else I wanted to do first. Before writing my new novel, I intended to go back to those older stories and rewrite them using the tools I have learned since writing them. I got busy with outlines and brainstorming. I started the rewrite of my first novel. But something about the new story wouldn’t leave me alone. I needed to write this one first.

So, in mid-June, I put everything else aside. I sat down and started writing The Sign of Psyche. The thing is, while I recognize my other books really aren’t written well, I don’t have the same thoughts about this one. I think it probably is actually good. The writing is of a higher quality than anything else I’ve written. (But I’m only cautiously optimistic because I have thought similar things before).

My earlier novels were written more or less in a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants manner. Since then, I have learned the value of an outline. And I have learned that every scene must matter. I wrote out a very full outline for The Sign of Psyche, which makes writing easier. Due to the outline, I’m less concerned about what to write, which allows me to focus entirely on how to write it.

When I look at the drafts of my four completed novels, I have to chuckle at the fact that I thought they were amazing when I finished them – even after revising them fifty times! I still think the ideas for those stories are great concepts. But it will take complete rewrites to rescue those concepts from the cage of bad writing in which they’re currently imprisoned.

My million-plus words written hasn’t automatically made me a good writer. But the pursuit of excellence over the course of those million or more words has given me the tools to write well, and the will to keep working at it every day.