Tag Archives: first novels

Can you call yourself a writer before you’ve written one million words? #amwriting

IMG_7874Okay, it’s rant time again. I regularly pop around the blogoverse to see what’s what and I’ll often read a writing-related post. I did that yesterday (sorry, can’t find the post in question) and read the whole damn thing even though I started rolling my eyes pretty early in the piece.


Apparently you have to write a million words before you can call yourself a writer. It’s one of those bits of advice that does the rounds from time to time. This article went even further and said you should write ten one hundred thousand word novels and only try to sell the last one. Oh, I have to be fair. After you’d done that you could go back and re-hash the first nine because then you’d know how to do it. And the analogies were trotted out. It takes one million name-your-poison to achieve whatever. One million hours of practice to be a great violinist/pianist/guitar player. One million dabs with a paint brush to make a great painter etc etc.

So what makes a ‘good writer’?

Everybody knows Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling can’t write for toffee. But James Joyce, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway can. Uh-huh. I’m a Philistine. Classifying something as ‘literature’ is enough to have me headed for the hills. I have not and will not read any more of Ulysses than the couple of pages I tried years ago. I never liked Dickens, despite having the books inflicted on me at high school and the one year of English Lit I should never have taken at university. No, I don’t think much of Dan Brown’s books, or Stephenie Meyers’. I wonder if they care? On the other hand, I loved Harry Potter and still do. My taste is for ‘genre’ fiction – science fiction, crime and fantasy. I love Tolkien, Asimov, Agatha Christie, Peter Robinson.

I’m quite willing to believe many of those writers I just listed wrote more than one million words. But not before they published their first work. And if you think you can’t sell your first novel, have a look at this list of ‘first novels’. I can add a few more, writers I know who have done exceedingly well out of their first novels. Toby Neal, whose Lei crime series has become a best seller and Elspeth Cooper, whose first two books were both nominated for the David Gemmell award. And yes, I know that Tolkien virtually rewrote The Lord of the Rings many times. I believe we refer to that process as ‘editing’.

Have I written one million words? Probably. A bunch of essays and a dissertation for my honours degree in history, a few short stories that disappeared somewhere, some fan fiction, numerous shopping lists, analysis reports for clients. Do they count? I had to learn to spell and use grammar correctly for some of those. Though I can’t vouch for the shopping lists. Few people are likely to realise that ‘ums’ on a shopping list at our house actually stands for ‘what are we going to have for dinner tonight?’

By now you’ve probably realised that I don’t think you need to have written a million words before you try to be published. Which does not mean that I don’t think it’s a good idea to hone your skills. Of course it is. However, you can be technically the best writer in the world but if you write a lousy story – you’ve lost the plot. Pardon the pun. In fact let me give you some examples. Asimov’s Foundation series is a classic of science fiction. However, I believe he took the series one or two books too far. I loved The Lord of the Rings but gave up on The Silmarillion. I’m sure we can all name examples where that’s happened.

Which simply illustrates the ONLY Rule of Writing that has any real credibility.


Ends rant. Got anything you’d like to add?


Five writing myths – and why they’re crap

The writing business is full of advice, some good, some bad and some plain bullshit. I guess I’ve heard one story too many today, so this rant is my response.

1. You’ll never make money from your first novel

Have a look at this list of ‘first novels’. Admittedly, some of these people will have other manuscripts that have never seen the light of day, tucked away in desk drawers and the like. But one hears so often about the number of rejection slips. This is, if you wish, the other side of the coin. No one is saying all those first novels were necessarily an overnight success. We’ve all heard about how many of those were rejected multiple times. But they’re still ‘first novels’. Sometimes, indeed, only novels.

2. Your first novel will be crap

Really? Please see above. I’ve actually read advice along the lines of “write four novels, throw them away, then write your ‘first novel'”. Hello? Throw away four books? Throw away? Don’t do it, folks. Revise your little heart out. I’m here to tell you that the first versions of the first two books I ever wrote don’t look a lot like their published versions. But that’s editing, which isn’t the same as throwing away. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of editing, be careful whose advice you take. I had a little rant about that.

3. Shucks. My muse did it for me

Before I start, I’ll make the point that this one is just my (humble) opinion. I see it so often, writers extolling the virtues of their ‘muse’. I remember watching a presentation by a very successful author who claimed the words just kinda “came out” of their own accord. She was very humble about it, telling her audience some other hand had written through her. To that I say, bullshit. The muses were a bunch of minor Greek goddesses. I don’t believe in some sort of higher entity which works through me. I make up my stories in my head, undoubtedly building upon the stories I have heard or read or seen during my life. But they’re my words, they’re my plots and I take responsibility for them. If I write a load of universally panned rubbish, can I also claim that it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it? Point my finger at… oops, there’s no muse for space opera. Maybe that’s my mistake? If you have to take responsibility for your mistakes, why can’t you glory in your successes? But I’m not here to judge. If you’re a muse supporter, you go for it.

4. Aaaaargh – writer’s block!

This one isn’t just from the ‘muse’ supporters. “The word’s aren’t lining up in my head and pouring out my fingertips,” the writers complain. Did you guys watch The Jewel of the Nile, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? Turner played Joan Wilder, successful writer of romantic action-adventure. In the opening part of the film, there’s a ludicrous chain of events with a bunch of impossible characters, doing unlikely things. That was Wilder suffering ‘writer’s block’. And that, dear reader, is how to solve ‘writer’s block’. Go and write. Something. Anything. Yes, it might be crap, but you can edit crap. Writer’s block is really

  • I can’t be bothered
  • I’m not in the mood
  • I have other things tying up my brain cells right now
  • What if I can’t do this anymore?
  • It won’t sell anyway, so what’s the point?

And other bits of negative and/or non-productive nonsense. If you want to write… write. If you don’t, do something else. It’s your choice.

5. Good writing will rise to the top

Er… no. Writing isn’t a bottle of milk, and ‘good writing’ isn’t cream. What is ‘good writing’? I’m not talking about grammar and spelling here. To me, they are tools of the trade and if you don’t know how to use them, you have no business in this profession.

Let’s name a few names which are often included in the ‘bad writing’ lists. JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, EL James. And some people touted as ‘good’ writers. James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway. I loved Harry Potter, wouldn’t touch Twilight with the proverbial barge pole, ditto for EL James, and I blew a resounding raspberry at the da Vinci Code – but in each case, not because of the writing. To me, Joyce is incomprehensible, Dickens is overwritten pompousness, Jane Austen is dated and Hemingway is just not very interesting. Sorry. Okay, actually, I’m not sorry. These are my opinions and they have as much validity as anybody else’s. And therein lies the point. ‘Good’ writing is relative. It depends on you the reader. I’ve mentioned before today that I persevered with a piece of fan fiction which was full of grammatical errors, because I enjoyed the story. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

So there you go. Rant over. Anything you’d like to add? Any other writing myths that are sure to get your goat?