713, 021

So, a year ago, flush with success after writing 147, 000 words in NanoJourno, I accepted a challenge from my friend Colin Barnes. Colin is an author, publisher and all around bad ass and he did some math. Specifically, that if you write just over 2,700 words a day, every day, for 365 days you’d write a million words.

This number has two big levels of significance to it. The first is that it’s a million. That’s a Lot, with a capital L. Secondly, it’s a meme, an infectious idea that’s rattled around writing circles for decades now. It’s credited to Raymond Chandler, and, specifically, the idea that a pulp writer had to produce a million words a year to turn a living. Over the years that’s changed into the idea that the first million or so words you write will be your apprenticeship, the words you write to get them out of the way. The level grind for those of you who play MMOs, the training montage for those of you who grew up in the 1980s. For those of you in both groups, you’re welcome.

It’s an interesting, and compelling idea. In fact, click here to see how often it’s discussed, and the projects that have sprung up around the idea. It seems especially prevalent in fiction writing, where it sits quite comfortably next to the idea of embracing your zero draft. It’s easy to see why too, these are ideas that not only permit imperfection but enable it and redefine it as a tool for improvement of both your self image and your writing. It’s a good thing, a piece of debris we all get to cling to and the foundation for some really fun, useful projects.

But I’m, primarily, a non-fiction guy. I’m a journalist, after all, Clark Kent is my spirit animal, not Richard Castle. I don’t redraft pieces over and over because I often either have a deadline or a format so well defined that I can hit the mark inside two drafts. It’s hard in a different way to fiction writing but the two cross over with each other, and the million word meme, in one huge area; what my friend Mur Lafferty calls AITC or Ass In The Chair Time. You have to put the time in. That’s the hardest part too, because every single other thing in your life is designed to purely and completely get in the way. You will always have other priorities, other demands on your time and they’ll always be very difficult to ignore. This project provided the perfect chance to get better at ignoring them.

So how did I do?

713, 021 words in 12 months.

Here’s what that looks like.

That’s 1,003,776 pennies, courtesy of the mega-penny project. Each cube is 100,000 pennies. Assume a penny is a word. Subtract 2 and 3 quarters of the big cubes plus the one on the floor.

Firstly, I’m pretty happy with that. Secondly,here’s what those words were for;

This blog

The now shuttered SFX website

How It Works magazine

Sci Fi Now magazine

The Sci Fi Now website

Bleeding Cool

The 6th Doctor sourcebook for the Doctor Who RPG

Concerto in Flame, the opening scenario of a campaign for the Victoriana RPG

-Consultancy work for an as yet unannounced RPG from another publisher

The Bookmarketology blog

-Introductions for Fox and Fae, Way of the Gun, Whispers from the Abyss, Sidekicks and What Fates Impose.

The Crudrat kickstarter campaign

The Travelling Man website

My Medium account

52 host spots for Pseudopod

26 host spots for Escape Pod

Plus, undoubtedly, a bunch of other stuff I missed. In between all that I moved house, started a physically demanding part time job and went to a couple of large conventions.

It wasn’t easy, and the word count was actually the hardest thing. When you’re hitting your marks on a daily basis then it’s fine but miss a day, miss a word count and suddenly you’re running to catch up. It becomes less about the words and more about the numbers and that’s not something you want in a game like this. The words build your confidence, the numbers knock them down and for a while the numbers did just that. I realized a couple of months before the end I had basically no chance of making the total. I don’t like to fail. It irked me. I finally made my peace with it, by, frankly, getting over myself. The discipline, the numbers aren’t what’s important here. What’s important is the willingness to try something new that will push you and shape you and make you stronger coming out the other side. Every single person who started it turned in a massively impressive amount of words, and work, with my friend Helen Armfield clearing the million and Colin coming in at around 600,000 words. In one year, with all the distractions and demands on your time, to even show up for the climb is extraordinary. The fact we’ve all done as well as we have is frankly stunning.

That’s what I’m taking home from this; the fact that the challenge itself has ultimately been more beneficial than the words. Don’t get me wrong I can tell my writing style has changed and improved over the year but the real change is in my approach. I can start, plan and execute work far more easily now. I’m more confident and don’t second guess myself as much and with the projects coming up this year, that’s a skill I’ll need. So, huge congratulations and thank yous to Colin, Helen, Meriah, Aaron, Mary, Joy, Johann, Krista, John, Russell, Ed, Mhairi, Joy, Geri, Horace and Ian. It was a pleasure and an honour climbing with you.

Now, can someone give me a hand with these pennies?

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One comment

  1. Oh! I can haz comment box nao? Excellent.

    Good show, Alasdair. Frankly, getting 75% there is pretty great, and far more than I think I’d make. Hm…perhaps I should take this challenge myself this year. But no. Work simply doesn’t allow daily writing. Even a little bit on Tuesdays is impossible. But we shall see. Perhaps I’ll climb back on the horse soon…

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