Whatever it takes

Early on in my writing career, I read or heard somewhere that a writer couldn’t consider himself a “serious” writer until after he or she had written their first million words. Orson Scott Card further qualifies this by saying the first million “serious, polished words.”

I was thinking about that statement last night, and considered this variation. With the typical double spaced, typewritten page coming in at about 250 words, that’s about 4,000 pages. I then thought about the 15 books manuscripts I’ve written have averaged about 200 pages a pop. Throw in the 100 or so articles and stories I have written, and I figure I am about 80 percent of the way there.

Julianna Baggott, the accomplished author and my teacher at Writers@Work a couple of weeks ago in Park City puts it this way: You need to invest 3 to 5 hours of writing a day, seven days a week for 10 years to learn the craft. Since I am not that diligent, I’ve spread those hours over many more years than 10. I often wish that I were that diligent, that focused. Maybe I would be a lot farther along if I had committed myself more early on. As it is, I’ve been writing about 40 years (on and off, due to laziness) and figure with good health, I have about another 20 years left in the tank.

That’s a lot of work. Just thinking about it is probably enough to scare some people off! In fact, that’s the primary reason why I put tenacity as the number one requirement as success in this field. Maybe persistence is a better word. Tenacity is really about being a dog with a bone. Persistence is about trying to get the bone in the first place. You choose.

But I think back to my college days, and my fellow students, many of them who wanted to be writers too, and most who were much better at it than I was. My guidance counselor was trying to get me to pursue pre-med. But I wanted it badly. Bad enough to let professors butcher my paper, countless editors send my manuscripts back unpublished, and have lots of people tell me I was wasting my time. I was persistent. I was patient. I was bone headed.

But the playing field has leveled in my direction, and I feel I have a better handle on this writing stuff than ever before. Trouble is, as you get better, your goals change, and the competition changes. And believe me, there’s a lot of competition.

Let me remember the statistics. Out of the possibly millions of book manuscripts written every year, about one to five percent find an agent. Out of those, about ten percent get published. And out of about 200,000 books published every year in the English language, most don’t sell enough to pay back the advance that the author got. So what are those odds again?

Tenacity. Persistence. You’ve got to want it. Badly. You’ve got to taste it in your mouth.

Otherwise, maybe the best thing is med school after all.