Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Million Words of...

You've probably heard of the concept of writing through your first million words before you actually craft something that's approaching a marketable product. If not, the idea is that all writers start out as novices and can continue to grow in their storytelling skills. Those first million words are the equivalent of thousands of hours of piano practice before you perform at your senior recital. Those words are usually rough, full of newbie mistakes, and not ready for public consumption. A million words of crap.

To extend the analogy, you typically wouldn't perform at Carnegie Hall during your middle school years. Listen, I teach middle school and have sat through plenty of band and orchestra concerts. The only people paying to hear those performances are doting parents, and even then some bring earplugs. Why? Because students are practicing their way through their million hours of crap...and very few make it to the level of performance mastery.

Of course, there are child prodigies in music. They get to go to Carnegie Hall without a million hours of practice (though they'll still put in thousands of hours behind closed doors, believe me.). But here's where the analogy breaks down. There are no child prodigies when it comes to writing. 

Writing is not like music (which is based on mathematics and involves symbol and pattern recognition). Writing starts as a language acquisition skill (both oral and aural) that must then be turned into symbols (writing) and coherence (meaning). So while music can be grasped quickly by developing brains and then reproduced by young vocal chords, writing has an extra - and quite difficult - step connected with it. Translation. As humans, we're wired for both music and language; but we have to learn to write.

Now I believe we are wired to learn to write, but that's the extra step I'm talking about - we can learn to translate the words in our head to the paper in our hand. But it's harder than simply humming a tune we heard on the radio. We pick up language and music naturally - it's in our nature - and given enough time, cultivation, and encouragement, we can learn to translate language into meaningful sentences.

Which means I believe we all have within us the ability to grow as writers. This brings up the old question, are writers born? Sure! Everyone is born. (grin) Now I admit, some may have a particular bent for written communication and can advance more quickly to the level of competence and mastery. (And if pressed, I suppose there might be a child prodigy novelist out there - though since much of literature is based on life experience, past literary allusions, and incorporates universal human themes, I think a 6 year old would be hard pressed to write anything with much complexity; see Piaget.)

But I also believe, if one pays attention during the million words of crap phase, then most people can become wonderfully competent storytellers. It's a skill that can be developed. Where am I in this process to becoming a competent writer? Well, I've passed the million word mark (not all of it fiction) and feel I'm capable of structuring a story worth reading. But then, I'm biased - in fact, we're probably all terrible judges of our own abilities. Some writers are in their first 100,000 words and think everything they've written is golden. That's because we don't know what we don't know about writing at that stage.

So I admit, I'm blind in many areas of my chosen craft - that's why I bought two more writing books this Christmas. I want to keep learning and growing. Ultimately, however, the best way to find out if we're getting better is simply to go ahead and write, let others read it, and go from there. Which is pretty much my plan this next year. A New Year! Time to reflect and strategize: Where are you at in your million words? And what are your plans to improve in 2014?

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