The Magic Number
They say the first million words are practice.*
Who 'they' are, I've never been so sure but 'they' have been responsible for every great flub in all of human history. "They're preparing for war." "They've been trying to cure cancer for a hundred years." "They've developed a handy appliance that can scramble an egg while it's still insides it's shell." "They never see it coming." I'm not sure how much stock I put in what they have to say about it.
That quip, having been quipped, I now wonder, how much have I written? And, I mean deliberately, conscientiously written. I'm discarding texts, notes, holiday cards and casual emails. How much have I written where I put any craft into the smithing of words, any muse or music? A handful of essays for minor niche publications, a dozen volumes of personal journals, hundreds of blog posts, easily a thousand pages of academic research and professional documentation and, most importantly, three aborted novels.
How many words is that?
Let's say my journals, the small hard-backed kind I've been scribbling in since I was a teenager, each 110 leaves, have space for 100 words per page. That's 22,000 words per volume, of which I've filled about one every nine months for at least fifteen years. That's 440,000 words right there.
According to my software, this blog has some 358 publish posts. That number surprises me, though I don't know whether I feel it's high or low. Taking a guess at my output on my handful of previous blogs, I feel safe eyeballing a career 500 posts of greatly varying length. A glance at a few puts my guess at a median 500 words. That's another 250,000.
Academic and professional correspondence, I can only begin to guess. I know that the stack of college papers and work documents I keep at home require a drawer almost a foot deep and it's nearly full. That's just the stuff I chose to keep. Everything I wrote my freshman and sophmore years is long since discarded and the greatest part of the words to paper for work I never think twice on. This is just the stuff I thought worthy of one day rereading. 250 words to a double-spaced page and easily four reams of paper in that drawer! Even if pithy memos make up a third of the lot, that's 350,000 words.
Dozens on dozens of false-start short stories and half completed novellas. Sheaves of scenes, character descriptions, vignettes and word studies written only for pleasure and private practice. How much? Much more than will fit in a stack of binders, perhaps 250,000 more words. And, then my first two novels, neither of which I wrote with the intention of publication. The first I wrote because I was inspired, eager and bored with the rest of my life. Although, it's too long, it might be readable, with a good dose of editing and a fiscal quarter's re-writing. The second, also indulgently long, might have a good twist of phrase or two, but I'll never offer it to be read. I wrote it because I was angry and heartbroken and too poor for therapy. Call them each 100,000.
Someone check my math: one million, four hundred and ninety-thousand words. My math is sketchy, I concede, but even give or take twenty-five percent, that still puts me well over a million words penned in my adult life. That's a lot, much more that I thought I actually had to say.
What about that last novel? That third one that I was pecking at over the winter. The one that was coming out so easily? It needs revision, certainly, everything I write does but, is it time? I don't feel ready but I don't know how much more practice is practical. What am I to do with words 1,490,001 - 1,580,000? If, as they insist that the first million words are practice, then I think I'm about done practicing and should be getting dressed for opening day.**
How's this going to turn out?
* By "they", I mean Stephen King, to whom the quote is most often attributed, but I had to feign ignorance or you would have been bereft of my world-weary wit.
** Did you think that was a sports or an art/theatre reference? Just curious. That assumption says a lot about a person.