Friday, November 16, 2012

Your Writing Sucks

33    Everyone’s writing stinks until they write a million words.

One thing to remember about Writing Mantras is that I steal them whenever I can. This came from Ray Bradbury who had more writing talent in his left pinky than most writers I know (as well as that fellow I see when I'm shaving in the morning).

It is not unusual to create sucky prose. Everyone does it. Does your prose suck? Don't feel bad if it does. You've got a lot of company. CERTAINLY don't stop writing if your prose sucks.

Suppose you wrote a novel and submitted it to someone in New York. And they said, "Go away, this sucks." I'm told that Nora Roberts or someone of her caliber wrote a novel and then after that didn't sell, kept it circulating while she wrote a second novel, and she kept that circulating with the first while she wrote a third novel. She kept this up until she'd written 10 novels. And after she put 10 novels in the pipeline, one of them sold. If we assume each novel was 100,000 words that's a million words.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the Beatles played a LOT of music in Germany before they became famous. He figures that if you work at anything for 10,000 hours, you'll become world-class at it. Supposing you write 100 words an hour. And what fool can't write that much in an hour? You can write a million words.

If your writing sucks, you should work at improving it. And you should commit to improving it over the course of thousands of hours of practice. One of the downsides of the ease of self-publishing is that you can publish your worst prose because you think you're ready when you're not.

I thought my first novel was really hot stuff. Now I shudder to think someone might see it. Was it the best novel I could write? Yes. Can I write a better one today? Certainly.

I remember when I was a younger in college. There was this book on the New York Times bestseller list called Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler. I loved that novel. So, a few months later I looked and saw another novel by Clive Cussler. And another. And a few more over the course of a year or so. I snapped them up and read them voraciously. But I noticed something about a couple of them. The quality wasn't there. One seemed quite amateurish, and the other less so. Yet all the rest of his novels were great.

I didn't surmise this until later, but I figured that the two below-par novels were written before Cussler got his first book deal. And they languished unsold in his desk drawer for who knows how long. When lightning struck and Cussler was a famous, bestselling author, he could pull out those manuscripts for a quick buck. He'd obviously written, and been rejected, and written some more, and some more. One one fine morning he'd hit the magic 10,000 hour mark, or the 1,000,000 word mark and walla. He was producing bestselling prose.

I'd like to know whether the Beatles or Clive Cussler recognized that moment when they'd performed 10,000 hours or written a million words. I suspect they did not.

I don't know if your writing sucks now. I know for sure that it sucked when you started. And I hope that as you've been writing you've been working to improve your craft. It'd be a shame to waste 10,000 hours and not have any improvement to show for it.

It'd be a worse shame if you gave up before you hit that breakthrough when your writing became good.


  1. I've read Malcolm Gladwell's books and I must say he's quite brilliant...I'm hoping to reach that tipping point soon. :)

  2. oh, keep in mind i was wrong about the 5,000 hours, it's 10,000 hours.


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