A common axiom in the writing world is that your first million words are garbage. I initially heard this when I took my first creative writing class in college. At the time, I scoffed. Maybe that was true for people who couldn’t write, but it certainly wouldn’t be true for those of us dedicated to our craft. Then experience prevailed. I hadn’t bothered to keep a tally before today, but, in my case, that estimate was much closer than I ever would have imagined.
By the time I got to college, I’d already written a “novel” and a number of short stories. These were, understandably, garbage. I was trying to write about characters and relationships. Teenaged boys should probably avoid doing this. Still, I was easily 150,000 or so words closer to accomplishment because I’d done that work. While in college, I wrote dozens of short stories, a couple of plays, a TV script, a film script, and another novel. Again, all trash, but there was a great deal of it. I’m guessing somewhere around 250,000 words of prose that no one should (or will) ever read again.
I then went into the working world where I attempted two more novels. Still writing about characters and relationships. Still doing so badly. But another 200,000 words down, give or take. At this point, I set fiction aside. Writing fiction had been somewhat cathartic for me, but it was starting to give me a bit of a complex. I’d gotten a couple of nibbles from agents over the years, but their expressions of interest came attached to requests that I do extensive rewriting. I wasn’t against this idea at all; I was just incapable of making progress with it.
One of these agents suggested that I try my hand at nonfiction. Over the years, I’d written countless (okay, let’s attempt to count – maybe another 100,000 words) memos and papers in my jobs. While this was far from soaring prose, it was at least effective communication. The idea of trying nonfiction seemed to have some merit. My first book proposals were not pretty. As it turned out, memo writing doesn’t really prepare you for book publication. Proposals are brief, but I still burned through another 50,000 words of these before I connected. I found a publisher. I was way ahead of the curve. Based on the math I’ve just done here, it only took me three-quarters of a million words to stop writing garbage. (This, of course, assumes that books released by major publishers no longer fit the description “garbage.” Since we’ve all read awful books published by major houses, that might be a faulty assumption. I’d appreciate it if you allow me my illusions.)
I was, however, way, way past the million-word mark before I attempted fiction again. By this point, I’d published numerous nonfiction books, many of which sold well and received positive reviews. I enjoy writing nonfiction very much, but I still had this niggling desire to write about characters and relationships. So I started a novel called When You Went Away about a man whose wife dies and leaves him with a four-month-old baby to raise. This one turned out better than the others had. People seem to like it. By the time it went on sale, I’d completed another called Crossing the Bridge about a man haunted by the death of his brother ten years earlier. Then several others after that.
These days, I write with the expectation that what I’m writing will be published. I still have some clunkers, but we won’t talk about those. It really did take a good deal of dreadful prose to get to this stage, though. I suppose I should try to contact my old writing professor to apologize for the sneer I gave him back in my first year of college.
Michael Baron is the author of several bestselling novels. He is hard at work preparing the novella and full-length sequels to his national bestseller Leaves. You can learn more about Michael and his books at our website.