The Power of Ten Thousand Words

It is November 7th, 2017. One year and six days ago, I started writing the first draft of my very first novel, The Rule of Iron. I’d dabbled in writing fiction before, but nothing substantial. Nothing significant enough for me to say “I’m a person who writes!”

I’m sitting in the same black chair I sat in last year. It’s a little squeakier, but still works well. My job is the same (though my boss is new), the noises are the same, the people are mostly different. I work nights, and it’s quiet. I don’t talk to a lot of people. I get to structure my time as I choose, and I like that. It suits me.

National Novel Writing Month (or, NaNoWriMo) starts each year on November 1st. The goal is to write a novel – defined as 50,000 words – in thirty days. That’s a pace of 1,667 words per day.

On November 6th, 2016 I had the first 10,000 words written of a novel I now suspect will never be published. Today, I have 10,000 words written of another novel I suspect will never be published.

As a fiction writer, 10,000 words honestly isn’t that much. It’s the opening of most novels; using the industry standard of 250 words per page, that’s the first 40 pages of a book.

But, last year, as someone who didn’t yet think of himself as a writer, 10,000 words was enormous. It was a year ago now, to the day, that I started thinking of myself as “a person writing something.” Not yet a Writer, but somewhere in the murky in-between. It was a year ago that I started thinking “Oh God, I might actually do this.”

If I hadn’t finished NaNoWriMo – and then spent the next two-ish weeks finishing the book – I wouldn’t be working on my second novel today. I wouldn’t be taking classes online, trying to hone my craft. I wouldn’t have started to think of myself as a writer. I would be as listless as I was before; contemplating grad school, wanting to feel productive but how how how.

Most of this past year, I still didn’t think of myself as a writer. I was a person who wrote, yes, a person who revised and fiddled with words and read too much, but I wasn’t a writer. The distinction is internal, not external. No one walks up to you one day and says, “Congratulations, you’re a writer!” There are published authors who feel like frauds, failures – even financially successful ones still doubt their capacity. I recall Neil Gaiman discussing once that he hits that stage with every piece. (His agent jested that she gets a call from him each time, too.)

I really like petty little distinctions, so I don’t think of myself yet as an Author. An Author is someone who’s published books, books that people like. I don’t know if I’ll ever be an Author. For the time being, I’m happy being a writer.

I’m not certain, but I think I “became” a writer when I started working on a short story, “How the Thrun Earned His Wings.” It’s a piece very different in theme and style from The Rule of Iron, and at the time I was very stuck in revising Rule. I don’t really remember why, but I just started writing it, and something changed.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed stories, and trying to tell them. “Thrun” is ultimately a happy story, a fairy-tale with tension but no grief. I wrote it by hand, just a few pages per day, sometimes even less. I loved it. I haven’t looked at the piece since (although a friend or two has read it, and said they enjoyed it), but I’ll probably despise it about two days into revision.

It’s the way of the world.

Staring at that finished stack of papers, I felt the same way I did staring at the word count for Rule back in November.

Wow. I can do this. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Were I adventurous enough to jump out of a plane, I bet the feeling is similar.

When writing an essay, 10,000 words is exhausting. It’s an enormous amount. Few essays – if any at all – should really reach that amount. For a novel, that’s just the beginning.

I’m now 10,000 words into a novel I don’t expect will ever be published. I’m not sure I’ll even attempt to revise this one (although I do intend to finish it). Last year, I spent much of October preparing for NaNoWriMo. I wrote an outline, devised a setting, and scribbled out maps and extensive notes on how magic, culture, and characters worked. I don’t have any of that this year, and I can tell that my novel is the worse for it.

That’s okay. I’m practicing my (let’s be honest, newly) chosen craft. This is my first fiction with two viewpoint characters. It’s good practice to bounce between heads. This is my first piece I’ve tried to write at a faster pace; I’m trying to write a thriller, something quick and exciting and explosive. It’s really, really fun. I don’t think it’s particularly good, but it’s really fun.

Last year, I wrote NaNoWriMo because it was something to do. I had been aware of the event in the past, and with my job working nights functionally as a night watchman, I had the time to attempt it.

This year, I’m writing NaNoWriMo to practice writing. I’m trying to take principles, advice, and little odds and ends that I’ve picked up over the last year and apply them to a story. These come from all over – from classes, from podcasts, from books, from articles – and each wind up somewhere in my noggin.

I woke up about a month ago, scribbled a scene down on scratch paper, then passed out. That scene (slightly modified) is the opening for my current project. I don’t know where it came from. I think the scene is great (even if the book will be ehh). Writing stuff just shows up sometimes.

I don’t really know where I’m going. I’d like to become an Author someday, but there’s still so much for me to figure out en route to there. I’m often reminded of Brandon Sanderson – my favorite author, for whom I am a self-professed fanboy. He got accepted for publication with his sixth novel, Elantris. He was working on his twelfth at the time. It’s okay to write a bad novel, or to write a novel just for practice. That’s where I’m at right now, this month.

But it all starts from ten thousand words. It can be a small thing; it can be the biggest thing in the world.

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