A Million Bad Words

There are so many different iterations of this advice that I don’t quite know which genius began it all. I’ve heard it personally from Scott Westerfeld and Barry Lyga and Ally Carter and, hell, pretty much everyone. But the brunt of it is this: in order to get published or anywhere near publishable, you’ve got to write about a million bad words.

That’s right. A million of ‘em. Only after you write a whole bargeload of BS will you a) start to recognize what’s good and b) start getting a handle on the craft. Yes. Start. Don’t open a Word doc, type until the word count reaches 1,000,000 and expect words 1,000,001+ to magically be Newbery-worthy prose. After a million bad words, Young Grasshopper, you will truly be ready to begin.

Hey, no grumbling! No “but I’m special and the exception to the rule” allowed! If you’re not published yet, you’ve still got work to do, my friend. If getting a novel published by a major house was an easy task, nobody would be pining away in offices or waiting tables. They’d all be sitting around in coffee shops, bent over their laptops. Getting published is not for everyone, not everyone will attain that goal, and it really has to be earned.

Ally Carter has a great analogy: a garden hose that hasn’t been used in a while. Think about your own backyard. If you’ve got a pretty old hose there that’s been sitting through the fall and the winter, you’ve got to flush out all the leaves and gunk and spider webs first. When you turn on the water, it’ll be full of dirt. You have to get all of that out before the water can run clear.

That’s just what you’re doing when you begin your writing practice. By writing a million bad words, by turning on that garden hose and waiting for the pristine water, you’re getting all the bad story ideas, the flat characters, the predictable plot arcs, the cliches, the boring descriptions, the bad jokes, the overblown hyperbole, the bombastic scenery, basically, the crap, out of your writing system.

Once you’ve drained it all away, you’re left with a more agile and intelligent writing brain that can get cracking on the good stuff. Writing is a thing to be practiced, just like everything else. Write every day. Do it diligently and without ego until those million bad words are behind you. Then write every day, diligently and without ego some more. And, you know, if you’re feeling sympathetic to the Plight of the Slush, please don’t send me a sampling from that first million. I’m much more interested in words 1,000,001+. :)

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  1. Shelley Moore Thomas’s avatar

    Nobody wants to hear this, but even after the million words of crap, not every word is golden…at least not for me! But the learning, the growth that happens during the “fertilization period” is truly astonishing.

    Great post!

    Shelley

  2. Patti’s avatar

    I totally agree with this. I’m a much better writer today, because of all the bad words I’ve already gotten out of my system.

  3. Anissa’s avatar

    I agree with this 100%. I’m still typing my way to 1,000,000. Great post!

  4. Bane’s avatar

    I got about 450,000 out of the way w/ my first novel several years ago :)…

    Better today, according to those who’ve been along w/ me for the bumpily perilicious (that’s peril+delicious) ride, but sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.

  5. Mary’s avatar

    Bane — 450,000?!?! Please tell me it was higher-than-high fantasy. Please. I work with children’s books, where the word count tends to be lower than adult fare. If I saw a query for a 450,000-word manuscript, I think I would drop dead on the spot. But hey — it got you through a heck of a lot of words, my friend!

  6. Bane’s avatar

    Yeah, it was sky-high fantasy, for sure (and something that I never even contemplated querying for, thankfully for everyone involved). Now I’m at the other end of the spectrum… takes me lots of work just to get to 70k.

  7. Patricia Puddle’s avatar

    I totally agree. You have to keep writing. When I look back at my first manuscripts, I cringe, and I’ll probably cringe at today’s work in years to come. Are writers ever really happy with there work? I can’t stop editing old manuscripts until I drive myself crazy.

  8. janflora’s avatar

    oh good, then I am at least halfway to success :) lol…another great post!

  9. Jessica Capelle’s avatar

    great post- I definitely am finding that my older writing that I thought at the time was pretty good is not as great as I thought :-)

  10. Jade’s avatar

    I’m well on my way then. I wanted to hit 1 000 000 just because it would be a cool thing to be able to claim. Now I have another reason to aim for it.

    I can’t even bare to open up my very first ms. I’m afraid my eyes would bleed.

  11. Karen Collum’s avatar

    It’s a great concept to keep in mind and I totally agree that there is never a wasted word, although sometimes it definitely feels like it! But, as you pointed out, Mary, when you write picture books or junior novels it takes an awful lot of books to reach 1,000,000 words. That’s why I do NaNoWriMo every year and write a novel for grown ups. I learn so much by writing 50,000 words plus that gets directy fed back into my next picture book. I’m not sure I’m to a million yet, but I’m definitely creeping up there. Best get back to my NaNo manuscript…

  12. beth’s avatar

    SO TRUE. And especially good advice to keep in mind as everyone starts NaNoWriMo!

    And, I think the real meat of this post is in pointing out that even after 1,000,000 words, it *still* won’t be perfect…but at least it will be better.

  13. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    This is related to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in his book, Outliers that you need to spend 10,000 hours perfecting your craft before you become an expert.

    I wrote a post about my own quest to write, rewrite, and write some more until I achieve my goal:

    http://theresamilstein.blogspot.com/2009/09/reading-aloud.html

  14. Candy Arkell’s avatar

    And may I add (for me, anyway) the words I absolutely love, the best words ever written, words I could never, never get rid of–those are almost certainly the worst, most sappy, words of all. Cut those puppies right out. This instant. No mercy. I’ve never been sorry yet.

  15. Candy Arkell’s avatar

    Oh, and forgive me for adding this quote I just rediscovered, by Elie Weisel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”

  16. Heather Ezell’s avatar

    This is such a wise, zero bull shit entry. I think I’ll refer all of my writing friends to it whenever they ask for assistance!

    I’ve been working on my first YA manuscript for five years now – plowing through about twelve different drafts in deep, gut churning revisions. Only NOW after sauntering through millions of bad, dull words is my manuscript starting to appear like something publishable.

    My mantra towards the craft is that good writing is lots of writing. Lots and lots and lots of writing and editing and cutting and tweaking. Revisions are my best friend.

    Thank you for the inspiring blog post! :)

  17. 52 Faces’s avatar

    Bane and Karen – yes! After NaNo finally got me to finish novels, I now have an inability to write much more than 50,000 words. I fear my novels are too short, but – luckily – I write YA.

    Heather – I too have a YA manuscript (my first ever) that has been around for about ten years now. This is draft 7 or 8 (ish) and it’s finally going somewhere past page 50. LOVE that mantra “good writing is lots of writing”

  18. Pingback from lyga on April 7, 2010 at 4:42 am

  19. Kerrie’s avatar

    I’m so glad I found this today. I have been feeling so bad about the crap I’ve been writing and wondering why I can’t just stick to one story idea, already. I just vented about it in a blog post and then saw this. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

  20. Max Cool’s avatar

    But I don’t like to swear.

  21. Hillary Homzie’s avatar

    Great post. It’s like the million word march. You’ve got to get those bad words marching and out of your system!

  22. Janie Bill’s avatar

    I heard the rumor about having to write seven novels in order to become publishworthy. I wonder how many words picture book writers need to reach. Great stuff as usual!

  23. Sofia Lacilla’s avatar

    I hate swear words. |:o

  24. Sofia Lacilla’s avatar

    They are really annoying >:(

  25. Laura J’s avatar

    I’ve only been writing fiction for a year and a half. I’ve completed two first drafts. Right now, I’m working on revising my work from last year and I was shocked at how bad it was. But, people were encouraging me after reading it. Really? How could they? It was bad. It kind of makes me not trust their opinions that I have any potential.

    I also have people telling me to go ahead and put it out there, when I know there is so much to be done. Now, I think they are all nuts. I’m still learning.

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