The Imago Machine (9/23/19) - Your First Million Words
on pernicious writing advice and trying hard things
A while back, someone on Twitter started a quote-tweet meme about the worst writing advice you’d ever been given. Every so often, Twitter does something that makes me remember that the damned platform used to have utility other than being a firehose of all the ways the world is in the process of collapsing, and this meme was absolutely one of those times: it turned into a cathartic exercise, an airing of grievances with a gleeful sense of finally being free. People talked about creative-writing professors who had told them to give up writing genre fiction. About feeling guilty and broken if they couldn’t achieve write every day. About wordcount goals destroying their ability to have fun telling stories, or the lack of wordcount goals destroying their ability to feel like they were making progress. About being told to write to the market or to never write what’s hot now.
There is a lot of worst writing advice. Everyone’s got at least one piece of it rattling around all pernicious in the back of their head, whispering no, no you can’t, the way you do this is wrong and bad and will never work.
Everyone’s got at least one piece of it, because the only good writing advice is the advice that works for you, and writers are as variable as other human beings, much to our own consternation, I expect. Some people’s worst advice is other people’s best advice. Mine is.
The worst writing advice I’ve ever gotten was your first million words are crap.
In the best of all possible worlds, I think I see what this bit of advice is getting at: it’s meant to be freeing. It’s meant to encourage joy-in-process. It says, it doesn’t matter if you suck. Everybody sucks at the beginning. And it’s got a promise, too: if you keep working, you are going to write better. Eventually, you will write things which are not crap! And before then, it’s okay if you write words you don’t think are very good. You don’t have to be perfect, to write.
So far, so reasonable. Except:
If your first million words are crap, what the hell can you write about while you’re trapped in the sure and certain knowledge that your work is going to be bad?
Why waste a good idea if you know it’ll turn out poorly no matter what? What are you supposed to do, write only stories you don’t care about? Also, how the hell will you know when you’re allowed to finally like what you’re doing, to ascribe quality to it? If writing as a new writer is an endless experience of being shit at this, why write at all?
Or anyway that’s how your first million words are crap feels to me. It’s the same problem I have with NaNoWriMo — which is also a freeing tool, a tool that says just put words on the page, you can do it — but for me has been endlessly paralyzing every time I try it. If the rubric is put words on the page even if they’re wrong I will sit there thinking this is wrong. I know it’s wrong, and I’m not allowed to go slow and figure out what’s right. And then I will cease to write at all. This happened to me while I was drafting A Memory Called Empire, by the way. I was about a fourth of the way through the book, it was November of 2015, and I thought hey, let’s do NaNo.
I lasted three days, which was the sum total of how far ahead I’d been sure of what I wanted to write next. And then, consumed with miserable guilt and total drawing-a-blank, I didn’t write at all until February 2016.
The problem, for me, of all of these pieces of process advice which are about giving yourself the freedom to fuck up is that they tell me that I’m definitely going to fuck up. And with the way I’m wired — which is not, of course, the way you may be wired, o friends of the newsletter, but I am pretty sure I’m not the only one out there — being promised failure is far too high of a price to pay for being promised that failure is okay.
So here’s my advice for baby writers: you’re allowed to write what you want to. You can go slow. You are ready right now to try to write your best ideas. And if those ideas don’t pan out the way you want them to, you can try again.
But they might. They might just work. You might not suck.
Don’t save the work of your heart for a hypothetical future when you’re good enough. If it’s the work of your heart, you’re good enough right now. You’re good enough to try. Even if you’ve never written anything at all, you’re good enough to try.
Besides, we get better by working at the edges of the skill envelope. Your first million words are going to expand that envelope exponentially. And some of those words will be brilliant. And some of them will be shit. But there is no promise of failure, and no promise of success. There’s only try the hard thing, if you want to do it, if wanting drives you forward like a goad.
And on that note, I am going to go figure out how to write the opening of Prescribed Burn, which terrifies the hell out of me. And I’m going to do it anyway.
I might not suck. Let’s go find out.