1,000,000 Words of Crap

I was sitting in an auditorium recently, listening to a panel of veterans in the field of writing share their thoughts on the publishing industry. When asked a question about the recent surge in indie publishing, one author expounded on his views on “the problem with self-published authors”. Paraphrasing a fellow author, he advised that, “you have to write a million words of crap before you write anything good.” This is true, he explained, because new writers often write crap that they THINK is good, mostly because they don’t yet know any better and/or they keep believing the biased opinions of their mothers.

Piggy backing off this pronouncement, another veteran in the audience, chimed in. “Yes! Instead of editing and reediting your first novel, which can become a trap for new writers, you need to put it down and write your 2nd, your 3rd and your 4th novel, THEN maybe your writing will be worth something.”

I may have paraphrased the above quote a bit because, by this time, my “stunned” was temporarily taking over my ability to hear and comprehend.

I’d never heard the “million words of crap” statement before and I’m so glad I didn’t because my own reaction was clear and instantaneous.

What nonsense!

So let me get this straight, after writing in a hole, with no feedback and no vetting, a new writer is supposed to magically, at the 1,000,001 word, become a “real writer”? This is so absurd, I can barely comprehend it.

Worse than that, it’s irresponsible.

After the session ended, I went up to the woman who asked the last question of the session and requested that she repeat her query because my “stunned” was still in overdrive and I wasn’t able to make out her question from my seat at the back of the hall. (I did hear all the responses through, and I’ll get to that in a minute.) After repeating her question, she told me that she thought the session was “the most depressing panel” she’d ever sat through. “Just all these angry and bitter stories…,” she said. “It makes me think, maybe I shouldn’t even try.” She was clearly upset and trying hard not to show it.

I shook my head, glad that it wasn’t just me who thought that. Then I turned to her and said, “Their journey has nothing to do with you. They’ve shared their experience and you can learn from them, without having to go through the same things that they did, but what they said doesn’t define what your journey will be at all.”

I hope I reached her. I hope she will continue to write and try, learn and write some more.

The assumptions and generalizations during this panel were so fast and furious, I struggled to keep up, but maybe that’s because I’m a self-deluded indie author. One big whooper - that “traditional publishing = quality” – is, of course, ridiculous. Millions of words of crap get published every single day by traditional publishers and those books rise and fall on their own merit (or lack there of). Before I ever thought of becoming a writer, I read books that were so bad I wouldn’t even donate them. Indie publishing didn’t start the avalanche of crap that this panelist claimed to see. That snowball left the station LONG before we arrived.

The other idea thrown around was that a first novel can’t be any good. Ah…Harper Lee or Hugh Howey, anyone? There are too many examples of how this isn’t true to even bother mentioning. Are they the exception, sure, but to say that because you are a new writer, your work is automatically bad is just not accurate. But even if you discount all the evidence to the contrary, I still have one question - if this is true, then why do so many publishers seek out and publish debut authors?

But my favorite declaration was the idea that indie authors are “like American Idol rejects” (an actual comparison by one of the panelists), who don’t take the hint when the Jenifer Lopez of publishing tells them the hard truth that they suck. So in rebellion, they go ahead and publish their shining turd, anyway.

Maybe it’s because I live in a pretty warm and cozy bubble, but I don’t know a single indie author who does not vet their work thoroughly with editors, critiques from writing groups, etc. before they publish. In fact, they pay for this kind of brutal honesty and rigor out of their own pockets. The reason for this is not because we are just so awesome. It’s business.

Unlike traditionally published authors, indie authors don’t get paid before our book hits the market. We ONLY get paid if someone (i.e. a reader) buys our work. So, as an indie author, if you’re serious about the economics of your business, you take things like editing and crafting a good story to heart because, if you don’t, it’s likely that you won’t get paid.

But besides the aforementioned shenanigans, what disturbed me the most about the hum-drum worldview of the panelists was the impact it clearly had on aspiring writers in the audience. In all that “new writers don’t know anything”, I didn’t hear a single piece of sensible advice - something you could take away from the session and actually do.

So here’s my 2 cents on what I would (and often do) say to aspiring authors:

  1. You can be a writer if you don’t publish, you can be a writer if you never show a word to anyone, but you can’t be a writer if you don’t write – so, get going!

  2. Be open to receiving constructive criticism. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t matter. Your passion for getting better has to be bigger than your pride, but also be cautious of the type of criticism you take in. Is her criticism about the way you tell your story or the fact that she doesn’t like your story? One of these things you can do something about and one of them you can’t. You can always improve on a story about cats, but if the person reading your book doesn’t like cats and that’s what you love to write about, then your story just isn’t for her.

  3. Educate yourself about the business that you want to be in. Whether you plan to be traditionally or independently published, there is A LOT to learn and the less you know, the more you will pay for it.

  4. Decide what is right for you. This is your dream and your career. Act like it. Be at the helm, always, and you’ll have fewer regrets.

  5. The more you try, the better you get. Each project should be the very best you can do at that time and space, but “best” is a moving target and there is no shame in that. You grow and continue to grow. That is the process for EVERYONE (and why it’s so important to keep writing!). But, to know if what you’ve got connects with others, you’re going to have to let someone outside your circle read it.

Writing a solid story is hard work, but it’s also a privilege. If you love to write, then learn to love the process of writing and getting better. With each book I write, I become a better writer and I’m proud of that growth. I owe that quality to my reader.

At the end of the session, the young woman I approached told me that she had asked each panelist to give one piece of advice that they thought was essential for a new writer. Our pontificating veteran rose slightly from his chair, leaned into the mic and said, “Don’t believe a word anyone tells you about publishing. Everything is happening so fast now that no one knows what’s going on.”

At first, when I heard his response (without the benefit of the question), I thought “Is he serious? So we just basically wasted an hour?”

But in the afterglow, I realized that we were finally agreeing on something.

No one knows what your journey will be, so chart your own course, and drive!

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