Write is a verb. That means it is something we do and to me that implies it is something we can get better at, with practice. I’m going to leave the rather philosophical discussion about what, “better,” might mean for another day. Today, I want to focus on how many words there are.
Publishers require authors to tell them how long their manuscript is, by counting the words. Apparently, the form is to start your letter with, “Please find enclosed my 80,000 word science fiction thriller for your consideration,” or something along those lines. The number of words matters to the publisher, for reasons that I am not going to pretend I understand; they just are interested in how many words you’ve written and so authors who want to get published jump through that hoop and count em up.
Some forms of publishing have limits imposed on them because printing costs money. Back in the day when a magazine was twenty sheets of litho-printed fullscap, stapled, folded, and wrapped in plastic to plop through your letterbox, how many words there were made a difference to whether the magazine made money. In those situations, knowing how many words you’ve written will be a useful guide to where you can submit your story.
I have attended creative writing classes where they restrict the length of your piece using the word count. It will say something like, “No more than 1,000 words, please!” and if you ask them why they have an exclamation mark after, “please,” you don’t get invited back.
So there are situations in which it helps an author to know how long a finished piece is. But there is equally a limit to what this can tell you about the piece. I like to think of this using a painting analogy. Knowing that my picture is four feet square helps the gallery owner know whether it will fit on the wall, but it tells her nothing about the quality of my work, the subject, the medium, or how fuzzy it makes you feel. Size is, ultimately, only an indicator of size.
I was reading an interview in The Guardian with the author John Lanchester, and he said:
“I have a word count for every day: 500 for fiction, 1,000 for non-fiction and journalism is 1,500. That’s a level I can sustain.“
When I read this I couldn’t help wondering why it would possibly matter how many words he wrote each day. Aspiring authors are repeatedly advised to write something every day, to flex their creative muscles, but exactly how much they should write is never mentioned. A poet like Seamus Heaney could sit down and write nine fantastically awe inspiring words of verse and be well satisfied with his day, whereas I might write nine hundred words, none of which end up in the finished manuscript. What has counting those words told either one of us? And since the sheer number of words has told me nothing, why even bother counting them?
For this reason, the idea of counting how many words I write each day would never have occurred to me. The number would tell me nothing and there is therefore no need to know it so I have never counted them. I didn’t even know how to count them, but saying so made me seem such a dullard I figured it out and will promptly forget because it is not something I will ever do.
Then I came across a blog by an actual published author. His name is Rahul Kanakia and he lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s published a couple of novels and some shorter fiction in magazines, mostly in the Science Fiction genre, but he has also done some Young Adult material. On his blog he said that he had just written his one millionth word.
I had to stand back and think about that for a second. When I was at school we did a project on the number one million. We had to choose one million of something and see what it represented. Three girls sat outside the school gates and counted cars, then they worked out how long it would take for a million cars to go by. A boy worked out how far he would have to swim to do a million lengths of the school pool. I counted how many panels there were in a football and worked out how many footballs could be made from a million panels. We made posters of what we learned and put them up on the school wall, and the end result of all this activity was that one million is a really big number. Huge. Massive.
A million words is a lot of words. John Lanchester at his fiction rate of 500 words per day would take five and half years to write a million words. One of the many things I did not inherit from my mother was her typing skills; she can type sixty words per minute and at that rate it would take her eleven and a half days, typing non-stop, to type a million words. Rahul Kanakia took seven years to write one million words of fiction.
I know how long he took because he put up some pie charts to show us what percentage of those words were written each year. In 2004 he wrote 7% of those one million words, which is about 70,000 words, or a medium length novel. He first got into double figures in 2009 when he wrote 15% of his words, which is about 150,000 words, a hefty tome’s worth of words. He kept a log of all this, a spreadsheet on which he recorded his daily totals and what category of writing it was and he worked out annual totals and kept to a schedule so that he can tell, to the day, exactly how long it took him to write one million words.
On his blog he says that he started because:
“There is a saying in writer circles that a person needs to write one million words of crap before they can produce anything good. It’s not clear who said this. I first read it in an essay by Isaac Asimov. Others attribute it to John McDonald or Raymond Chandler.“
I freely admit that I had never heard of this idea, and if I had read it somewhere I would have taken it to mean a metaphorical one million words. It didn’t mean you have to write one million words starting now! It meant you had to do a lot of writing to hone your craft. It meant that writing is a thing, and we have to practice things to get better at them, and that one million words was one writer’s way of putting the amount of practice required into some sort of comprehensible perspective. It was a poster on my school room wall showing how long it would take for a million cars to go by. At least, that’s how I would have seen it. Rahul Kanakia seems to have treated it as a challenge, his ticket into the author’s club room, a badge he can pin to his tie so that others will know he is one of them.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell expressed very much the same idea in a book called Outliers (2008), in which he claimed that the key to achieving a, “high level of success,” at something was to practice it for 10,0000 hours. To write one million words in 10,000 hours you would have to write one hundred words an hour, one word every 36 seconds, for about thirteen months.
Thinking about this led me to wonder whether it makes any sense to ask why he did it. Kurt Vonnegut, a writer that I suspect Rahul Kanakia is familiar with, said:
“There is no why, since the moment simply is, and since all of us are simply trapped in the moment, like bugs in Amber.”
And if we were able to ask Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars, he might reply, “There is no why. Only do,” which amounts to the same thing. Why is pointless; why write anything at all since the sun will eventually die and consume the world and everything in it so that every single solitary thing we ever say or write or draw or make will become an infinity of intergalactic dust, so why bother? Why run the 100 metres, why climb trees, why tie pink ribbons in our hair, because we are, and that’s what we do. That’s why.
When asked why he wanted to climb mount Everest, the Victorian Englishman George Mallory said, “Because it’s there.” And that’s why John Lanchester counts how many words he writes each day, and why Rahul Kanakia knows to the day how long it took him to write a million words, and that’s why I blogged about it. And you can count on that.
There are 1,500 words in this post.