Says the Editor: A Million Words of WHAT?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

If you’ve followed me for these past 12 years, or if you’ve ever taken the time to wander through my archives, you may get an inkling of one thing about me that I don’t overly try to hide: I live life large. I’ve done all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy things in my life. Of course, that leaves me with a lot of scars, a lot of painful memories I don’t talk about. Most, I don’t like to revisit. I’ll be honest about that.

Sometimes, something comes out of the buried ether to torture me, amuse me, or give me perspective.

What happened recently was the latter: all about perspective, baby.

It was right after I’d graduated from Pitt with my BA. I was taking graduate-level classes, trying to figure out if grad school was what I wanted or where else I might turn my face to a new path. We were meeting in the professor’s house because, hey, we were grad students and this is what we did. (Come to think of it, all these years later, that was the only time I had class at my professor’s house, which was quite a shame) We were a small group. Diverse, but not in the way you might think. One of Chuck’s favorite students had paid for her undergrad degree as a phone sex worker. Her writing never met my expectations, which was that I wanted to see that she’d lived life large.

Anyway, we were sitting around one night, and I’d put up a few chapters of a novel I was working on. It… got panned. Like really bad. That was the day that Chuck told me he wanted a German satellite to drop on my main character. And as much as it stung, I had to jab my tongue into my cheek — I still remember this moment clearly — and nod and agree. “When you put it like that, so do I,” I told him.

And then Simon spoke up. Simon was a Brit, he was a few years older than most of us, he had long brown hair, and I can’t remember if he had bangs or not. He was both scruffy — a ton of razor stubble, but not in the sexy way men wear it now — and polished. He would sit cross-legged on the floor and when he wanted to speak, he’d straighten out of his slouch and somehow rock on his crossed knees, raising himself up a good six inches. It always reminded me of a cobra, uncoiling from the basket the charmer kept him in. He’d tuck his hair behind his ears. His eyes would sparkle, and he’d weave his torso, purse his lips, move his hands (when they weren’t tucking his hair, which he’d do repeatedly while he waited for a break in the conversation) until he got to speak. We always liked it when Simon spoke; he was smart as hell. I bet if I could remember his last name (which I maybe never even knew, so maybe there’s nothing to remember), I’d discover he’s got a backlist of publications that puts my 15 to shame and he’s probably got some awards on top of all that.

Needless to say, I respected Simon. I was a little scared of him, but I respected him. When he spoke up in workshop, he tended to be right on.

“I believe,” he started cautiously, and I steeled myself, “that all of us writers need to write a million words of crap before we find our writer souls. You’re clearly talented, Susan, but…”

I winced.

“I believe this is part of your million words of crap.”

Ouch. And, like always, he was right.

“You are young,” he continued. “Get your million words of crap out of you. Write as much as you can. All of you,” he said, eyeing the room. “We all need to write as much as we can. Make sure those million words of crap are out of you. I know mine are.”

That was many years ago. I am not sure I believe that all writers have a million words of crap in them. I’ve met too many really good writers who knock it out of the park on their first attempt. (I’ve edited a number of them, too.) And while I agree that the project I was working on at the time was a mere seventy thousand of my million words, I’m not sure I ever hit a million. (Although, of course, there are some who’ll gleefully disagree.)

That memory got dredged up a few weeks ago, and hasn’t left me yet. I was working with a new author who didn’t take kindly to the realities of the editorial process.

But even now, all these years later, Simon’s words and assessment were right on. Even when I’m not consciously aware of it, his words are the basis for my belief that authors have to give ourselves permission to write utter crap for our first draft. Feel out the work. Get to know the characters, the setting, the message. Embrace the million words.

Not everyone can do that. It’s hard to embrace crap. I learned that day in Chuck’s house, sitting one person over from him and with Simon about five more to Chuck’s left. Because the comment about the German satellite, and Simon’s comment about the million words — they weren’t meant to be mean. They were meant to tell a writer to cut her losses and move on to something better. That if I could admit this was bad — which I did, right there, because everyone who’d spoken up had made great points about how and why it was crap — I could let go of the emotional attachment I had to the work and move on to something better.

I know I did, although I don’t remember what that was. It, too, wound up being trashed, stuck on a floppy disc somewhere, maybe a hard copy stuffed away in the cabinets here in my office. (I think I have the one that was so roundly trashed, too.)

The point is that it’s okay to write a million words of crap. It’s okay to write a million words of not crap.

But be a big enough person to realize that writing is a craft and it’s not a waste of an editor’s time to hire him/her/me and ask for help — but you gotta take that help that you’re given. Even when it hurts. Give it time. Go write something else. Live a little bit larger than you had been. And then come back to the page and make it better.

That’s the beauty of writing: for every million words of crap, there’s ten million of good stuff.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*