What a Million Words Will Get You

I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.

The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in.  I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’  But you know what I did worry about?  For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style.  I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it.  I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it.  But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.

For writers style is everything.  Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes.  Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth.  Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers.  Imitation is fine.  It has its place and time.  Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.

I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it.  I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing.  Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style.  This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice.  Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality.  But style, I mean style.  That comes from somewhere else.

For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.  I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words.  A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words.  She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!


As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself.  Why hadn’t I gotten the message before?  All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling.  I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.

Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently.  This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry.  This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written.  It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical.  Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience.  I like the unusual, the weird.  Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston.  But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious.  At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.

I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice.  Write your million words – and I do mean a million.  Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did.  Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript?  Remember how I edited it down to 330?  It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!

Have I actually written a million words?  Honestly I don’t know.  A million words is around 3,000 pages.  Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time.  Probably almost three times that.  But I don’t think all of those words count.  Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments.  A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry.  A serious writer can do it in a few short years.  This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings.  But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.

Enjoy the process, my friends.  There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft.  Read a million words.  Write a million words.

And then write a million more.



Dialed In to Inspiration – What a change of scenery can do

Happy Tuesday,

I had an active end to my week, participating in the open mic night at 215 Main in Point Arena last Thursday and then following up with the 2013 kick off of Mendocino Stories and the Writers of the Coast celebration the next night in Mendocino.  I heard a lot of other people’s writing and sat with like-minded folks for a few hours each of those nights, enjoying the camaraderie and wondering at the source of inspiration for each writer.

This wonderment came on the heels of an incredible few days of inspiration I experienced earlier in the week, and though I was at first amazed by the clarity I had, both in my dreams and in my waking hours, it became apparent to me that I am benefiting at last from my recent change of environment.

Let me begin by explaining what I mean by this sudden impulse of clarity and inspiration.  For several days in a row, while distracted by chores, or as I lay down to sleep in the evening my mind would turn to writing (I should say, turn more acutely to writing) and there I found amazing images, fluid lines of lucid articulation so satisfying that I had to stop whatever I was doing, or get up out of the warmth of my bed and write these things down.  This was followed by dreams of such richness that even in considering my real world challenges I found solutions so perfect that I woke enthused and, in fact, accomplished before lifting a finger to do anything.  It was like I was in one of those science fiction stories where the protagonist discovers a drug or other power that makes them super effective at everything they do.

What was this new thing I was experiencing?

I’ve often wondered, when looking at writer retreats around the world, how people can think that sitting in a stunning environment in some exotic locale, with a panoramic view of some seaside, or the expanse of a lush forest, perhaps even the eagle’s view from the ledge of a famous mountain, is somehow inspiring for writing.  I would be inspired to be out there, not inside sitting among the rest of the silently desperate, with all of that anxious energy fidgeting up from the core of a handful of needy writers!

Well here’s the thing:  I simply didn’t know what I was missing.

What I have discovered, since moving to the coast and living day in and day out in a dynamic and beautiful environment, is a sudden overflow of inspired energy.  Because of the nature of life out here I am inundated with stimulation.  A week and a half ago I was riding the raucous waves of an agitated ocean as we worked to photo ID a pod of killer whales.  I have walked the neighborhood and driven the highway in thick fog that made my world feel encased in a deep cocoon, a mystical magical haze of rediscovering every bend, buckle, and berm of the place I live.  I have met artists, politicians, wood cutters, abalone divers, fishermen, media people, and a whole range of other people making a life in rural California.  I have experienced warm community embrace, and a place for myself in the mosaic of this frontier life.  And my mind and my dreams have been charged with a deep, heavy rush of insight because of it all.

It occurred to me, in recognizing this new stimulation, to ask the rest of you: do you love where you live?

And this may or may not pertain to your actual house.  It may extend to your town, your state, your country.

But before I go too far with the idea that one must either love their home town or move, I want to share an important insight that my recent realization has afforded me.  I believe it took relocating to an entirely new area for me to recognize how understimulated I was where I previously lived.  But this was not entirely the fault of my environment.  Building a stimulating life for ourselves is not just about choosing a great place to live – some of us don’t have that option – it’s about creating a space in our lives where stimulation happens.  

One way to change your mental landscape is to form a group where people can gather under a common interest.  The interest does not even have to be creative.  But gathering with people who share an interest and enthusiasm with you is certainly one way to be stimulated.  Perhaps your gathering is for people who share a love of music, who have a question about government, or who need a place to address more serious issues in their lives: issues we also need to address.

And what about the world outside your door?  Are there rivers or lakes nearby?  Cafes are also popular places for writers.  This may seem obvious but if you’ve never taken advantage of these locales perhaps it’s time to try – especially if your not feeling particularly alive right now . . .

When I lived in the desert I was often critical in my head of where I lived.  It was brown, windy, cold, hot, remote, too busy, stagnant.  It brings to mind the lyrics of a song I once clung to when I needed to clarify something that was happening during a crucial period of my life: “And I claim I’m not excited by my life anymore/so I blame this town, this job, these friends/the truth is it’s myself.”  Yeah, I was to blame for feeling the way I did.  I wasn’t allowing myself to be inspired.

I once lived downtown in this place and it was one of the greatest times of my life.  I knew it then and in hindsight I know it now.  I was stimulated during that time too, even though I still lived in the desert.

So what is the point, really, about finding inspiration and being stimulated to be a more effective creative?

Change is part of it.  Change something.  Your room, your home, you clothing style, where you hang out, what you read, watch, think. If you have the freedom to give up the house and move to a condo downtown, do it, if you need that change.

Change your attitude.  Thinking the way I did about where I lived didn’t help me find inspiration.

Embrace challenges and take risks.  You want to talk about vivid dreaming?  Do something brand new, maybe a little scary, and see if your mind doesn’t perk up.  Leap from your desk job to teaching.  Leap from your paying job to being an unemployed writer (yeah, don’t do that – not right away, or at least, not before you have a solid year or two of income stashed away).  Stimulate yourself and the inspiration will come.

I guess if I were ever to go on one of those writer retreats to the castles of Scotland, or one some red river locale in the middle east, I would be sure to go out once per day for the two, three, or five weeks I was there and absorb the environment.  That way I wouldn’t be distracted by it.  I did it when I lived downtown in my desert city, and I’m doing it now, with the ocean always at my feet.  The bottom line is to change your scenery – just a little.  I don’t think anyone has to turn their life upside down to find the beauty in it.  A slight angle gives a whole new perspective.

And if that doesn’t work then I’ll see you here on the coast, or on a mountain top at a retreat one day, or along the banks of a red river.

May your dreams be vivid, may your hand never tire as it crosses the page, and may you find happiness wherever you are.

Until next time,


Sell Out – How I’d Love to Be Accused of Taking the Easy Route

Dear reader,

I haven’t written in several days.  I’ve been pursuing my “other” life – helping my researcher girlfriend track down her beloved killer whales along the Northern California Coast.  It has been a very good week for killer whale science.  It has been a bit slower for this fiction writer.

My hiatus has been good, though.  The last thing I read before I got busy with science was an article on selling out.  Selling out – it’s a concept worth discussing, because when I think of sell outs I think of my favorite rock band selling my favorite rock song for use in a commercial.  I think of sell outs as those who didn’t have talent enough to get past their first success, and decided the money they could get for giving up their dream was enough to buy the happiness they once hoped to get being successful over a life long career.

This article I read by Charlie Jane Anders got me thinking – not about selling out so much as about getting published.  Charlie picked a good topic, I think, and I enjoyed reading it and the accompanying comments at the bottom.  What got my attention more than anything, however, were the graphics in the article (you can see it here http://io9.com/5973921/how-to-write-fiction-for-money-without-selling-out-too-much) which depicted classic pulp sci fi and crime novel images from a bygone era.  The suggestion, if not the explicit argument, was that those who write popular fiction are sell outs on a dream they once had to write something more sophisticated.

Most of you know that I am currently working on a science fiction novel with the intent to perhaps establish a short series.  Some of you also know that I think of myself as a literary fiction writer who is struggling to put together the literary story I am trying to tell.  In fact, I completed a literary novel last year and have made no small effort to sell it.  More recently, though, I set it aside and began writing this sci fi stuff.

Now, I am not a fan of pop culture.  My closer friends know how much I shy away from anything “pop” and that I am a religious proponent of kitsch.  So here I am, formerly committed to “high-brow” art, cruising through a pop-fiction genre far removed from my literary root.  But how far my root am I actually getting?

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that I am having fun with my science fiction story.  My characters are coming along, my plot is solid, and the intrigue is sufficient that I have been able to follow my own story line without ever having the feeling that I was getting lost in the middle, that I had made a mistake or created a disjointed effort of any kind.  I am more confident at this stage of the book than I ever was with my literary novel.

The next thing I realize is that I am learning more about how to write my literary stuff by writing science fiction – that is, plot-driven fiction – than I did doing pure literature.

I also (third) realize that my science fiction story is still a character-driven novel regardless of the themes of science, fantasy or whatever other popular motifs might be present.

But to the question of selling out.  Am I selling out because I am at risk of having more success writing speculative fiction over realism?

really don’t think so and here is why: I am of the mind at this point in my writing efforts that any writer who can publish in any professional capacity (not vanity press) is successful.  The publishing world is so competitive, so inundated with volumes of written words and overworked agents, that anyone who can break through is worthy of being called a success.  While it is true that there are gradations of quality among writers, among all artists, there can be no arguing the success of formal publication.  From Chekov and Updike to Rowling and King, these writers have penned something that has inspired masses of readers regardless of what I think of them as writers myself.  Props must be given where props are due.

I would accept being labeled a sell out at this point if that’s what it means to successfully publish my fiction.  Good writing only looks easy anyway, and the “easy route” is nothing more than being successful in a genre that reads like fun.  Sign me up, o’ Muse!

I intend to get back to literature soon.  How soon, I don’t know for sure.  It depends on how well I do at selling out.  Meanwhile I am still a writer, and I’ll take any progress I can get because, dammit, writing is hard work no matter what you write.  I no longer accept that writing in one genre over another is selling out.  We write what we write, and we succeed at what we’re good at.  Some famous actors wanted to be rock stars, and some rock stars wanted to be country stars.  We continue to try what we love, but it doesn’t mean we’re good at it.  But I believe we’re all good at something – so go do both.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes on my end.  Let me know how it goes on yours.