1,250,000 Words

Write! Nothing takes the place of writing for learning the craft. Not formal education, not seminars or conferences or books about writing, not critique groups or deep conversations with like-minded friends, not studying the markets, not reading. All of these things are valuable, but they're insignificant compared to experientially learning how to get what’s in your head onto the page in a way that puts your ideas into another’s head.

Not everything you write will be or should be published, but you have to rack up a lot of words to learn the craft well enough to attract editors and eventually readers. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell uses the Beatles and Bill Gates to validate the “10,000-Hour Rule,” which says highly successful people in any field have to put in 10,000 hours practicing their craft before they hit their stride or rise above the competition. An average full-time work year is 2,040 hours, so we’re talking about five solid years of writing and only writing. At 500 words per hour, that’s five million words committed to paper.

But let’s be realistic and admit that telling a story requires more than slamming out words. You have to think through a story, maybe outline it; research it; write it; and then edit, revise and polish. If we give equal time to planning, researching, writing, and editing, 10,000 hours still means 1,250,000 words on the page.

These words can take any form of written communication—personal letters, practice stories, blog posts, proposals, articles and short fiction published in magazines. (Sure, you can score some cash during this time; the Beatles, after all, were paid to play in Liverpool and Hamburg nightclubs almost nonstop for three years while they honed their craft). All of it moves you closer to the brass ring: a publishing contract or best seller. Thing is, it’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that a pseudo-writing endeavor like attending a conference and talking about writing is writing. It’s not.

One million, two hundred and fifty thousand words: How far along are you? If you knew, really knew that upon reaching that figure (give or take some), you’d be among the best of the best and no publisher would dream of rejecting you, wouldn’t you choose to write over doing those has-something-to-do-with-writing-but-isn’t-writing things? So, what are you waiting for?


Get it on the page!

The best writing advice I’ve ever received was from the incredibly prolific author Neil Gaiman (Coraline, Neverworld). He said, simply, “Finish things.” Over the years since then, I realized how broad, all-encompassing, and true this statement is. Most writers have at least a few unfinished manuscripts and dozens of story bits lying around. They have proposals that are not-quite-ready to send out. And, boy, we sure have an unlimited supply of excuses for not finishing.

As creative people, writers’ minds are moving a hundred miles a minute. We have a tendency to think whatever idea has just popped into our heads is brilliant and we must write it down—now! We jump away from what we’re doing to commit it to paper. Sometimes (often), we’ll take the new concept even further by starting an outline, doing research, running it past friends. I’ve learned to keep a voice recorder nearby. So now, I’ll throw the idea into the recorder and vow not to let it distract me until I’ve finished the work at hand.

Then there are the preparing-to-write things: “the war dance.” These things can entail necessary preparations like outlining and researching, but also include procrastination devices, like making sure our writing space is “just right” and the coffee is hot and flavored perfectly. We dance and dance, getting ready for the war (writing), but we never stop to go to war; or we spend as much time dancing as we do in battle. I try to keep in mind that I’m here to write, and once the battle starts, I have to fight until it’s over, whether it takes a month or half-a-year. No retreating, no more war dancing.

The most dangerous distractions are the ones that are necessary to our business. This includes doing interviews, going on book tours, even editing. Once, I was on a plane with Ted Dekker. We had just come from a meeting with the producers of the movie version of his novel Blessed Child (I co-wrote the screenplay). The meeting went fantastically, but Ted was agitated. He said, “It’s driving me crazy that I’m not writing today.” That was eye-opening. Here he was, spending the day pushing one of his stories to the next level of popular exposure (a movie), and all he could think about was cranking out more words on his current project. Always remember: none of it matters, without words. We must have stories to tell, stories that are finished and ready to share with people.

Of course, then we struggle with self-doubt: Is the story worth telling? Am I telling it right? Have I made every paragraph compelling? Are my characters interesting? It’s easy to become discouraged with all our negative self-talk. I try to keep all of these issues in mind, only as constant reminders that I want to tell the best story I can, in the best way I can. I think of this self-talk as a coach, yelling at me from the sidelines of a race I’m running. The coach doesn’t mean for me to stop and say, “Oh, man, I’m doing it all wrong! I’m not ready for this!” He’s there to push me forward, to improve my style, mid-stride, while completing the race.

I have to trust that I’m doing the best I can do at this point in my writing career. I hope that every novel will be better, in some way, than the one that came before. That means I can never be perfect, but always getting better. It may not be the best story for the current market. It may not be a story that everyone in the world wants to read. But it does have to be a story you want to tell. If it is, tell it, and don’t stop until it’s finished.

During the writing of my first novel, Comes a Horseman, the thriller novelist James Byron Huggins called me at least once a week. He always had the same message: “Get it on the page.” He knows that’s everything, getting it on the page until all the pages add up to a completed story. While I do think what you submit, whether it’s a proposal or a manuscript, needs to be polished and be the best possible example of your talents, it’s even more important to get it finished and into the hands of people who can take it to the next level. That is, get it published.


Looking for inspiration? Try music

Pace. Rhythm. Tension. It’s no coincidence these terms describe both stories and music. In fact, for me, music has always helped me create stories. When someone mentions a favorite scene from one of my novels, more often than not, I immediately remember the music that was playing in my headphones when I wrote it: Olaf’s attack on Brady and his son in Comes a Horseman (“Elk Hunt” from Last of the Mohicans); Stephen’s confrontation with the killer Atropos in Germ (“The Battle” from Gladiator); Hutch’s apprehensive readiness to rise from charred ground and fight at the end of Deadfall (“Death is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain). Music gets me in the mind-set to write specific scenes—its rhythm reminds me of the pace I’m looking for as I work to find just the right words; its mood holds me in a sort of suspended animation within the scene, regardless of outside distractions or the time it takes to write it.

Years ago, as movie critic, I’d sometimes see films before they were finished, without a musical score. At one screening, the director stood in the aisle humming the music that would accompany each scene. That was more distracting than the film’s symphonic nakedness, but I understood the poor man’s panic over having his film seen that way: music can make or break a movie. It not only adds a rich layer of enjoyment to the viewing experience, it cues the audience to the filmmaker’s intentions—“OK, time to get scared” or “In case the this guy’s mask made out of human skin isn’t enough to let you know, he’s the bad guy!” That’s why the tracks of musical score are called “cues.”

(I’ve dreamed of including a playlist—even the actual music in digital form—with my novels. Readers could then start a soundtrack with each chapter, heightening their experience of the story. Of course, individual reading speeds make that impractical; few things are worse than out-of-synch audio tracks. And, yes, I realize it’s part of the author’s job to create the same emotional response in readers that music does, using only words. Still, I sometimes imagine myself acting like that director: leaning over a reader’s shoulder, and at the right moment going, “Da-da-da!”)

It’s hard for me to experience a story, in any medium, without musical accompaniment—whether in my ears or my head.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to music as I wrote—through years of writing magazine articles and intermittent screenplays. It started as a way of deadening the sounds of screaming kids, vacuum cleaners, and when I rented an outside office, the shouts coming from the divorce attorney’s office next door. Then I started writing novels, and the type of music I played suddenly mattered.

Faster tempos do help keep the pace up—if not within the story, then at least with how fast my fingers move over a keyboard; but then, volume helps with that as well. The louder, the better. More important than tempo is how a piece of music makes me feel. A cue that starts off slow and builds to a triumphant crescendo can carry me through a fast-paced action sequence as well as any nonstop, staccato rhythm. “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from The Da Vinci Code, for example: a hero’s theme if ever there was one.

Over time, I’ve built a library of music categorized by the mood it puts me in when I write. Take, for instance, Clint Mansell’s haunting music for Requiem for a Dream. Its cues seem to be teetering on the edge of something, without relief or execution. No wonder several of the titles have the word “Tense” in them. When I launch into a suspenseful scene, I’ll often queue up my Requiem playlist.

Here’s a specific example of a partial scene and the music I was listening to when I wrote it:

“With the speed and fluidity he had practiced a thousand times, Hutch drew back on the bowstring and released it, all in one, smooth two-second motion. He held still for another beat to make sure the arrow cleared the bow. Then he dropped his right arm to a second arrow rising from the ground beside him. His bow arm never moved. His head never moved. His eyes never came off of Bad. As the arrow sliced a groove through Bad’s skin at the temple, Hutch was already nocking the next arrow.”

Most likely, Quentin Tarantino would go with something fast and exotic, like NEU!’s “Super 16” from Kill Bill. Because the scene is a mix of suspense and action, I powered up “Betrayal” from Enemy at the Gates—from the scene in which they discover a young boy murdered and hanging from a crane. It’s emotive and heart-wrenching, and prior to the “discovery” almost painful in its anticipation.

My writing-music of choice is almost always film scores. It seems to me that movie moguls are the benefactors of today’s great composers, Hollywood the new Vienna. I also like that the structure of a good story—with its cycle of tension and relief, despair and triumph—forces a wide variation in music within one recording. I used to think the strong bond between a movie’s images and its music would cause me to think only of those images while listening to the score—Russell Crowe plucking his violin in Master and Commander. However, I’ve found that the spirit of the music takes over and I can claim it for my own. That’s why filmmakers often listen to other movies’ scores while on set. They’re not trying to imitate another movie’s scene; they’re letting the music help them get in the mood for their own scene. The director Ridley Scott is known for doing this.

Thankfully, most movie scores don’t have lyrics. I’m too much of a word geek to write with lyrics pounding into my eardrums: I’m always trying to listen to them. Every now and then, however, a song with lyrics is perfect for getting me into the groove of a scene (though usually it’s something in its rhythm, tempo or melody, rarely its words that attracts me to it). When that happens, I play it over and over until my mind stops trying to catch every word and hears the vocals as it does any other instrument. Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” comes to mind; I listened to it while writing the scene that introduced Brendan Page, my latest novel Deadlock’s villain, a true sinnerman with a penchant for “cool,” which the song captures.

It’s all about what works for the individual writer. When writing action scenes, Meg Gardiner (The Memory Collector) says Gladiator, The Day After Tomorrow, Jarhead and 300 “get me in a fightin' mood.” David Dun says he listened to “the womb-like sounds of a whirlpool hot tub with all the jets running” while writing The Black Silent. Whatever works.

When I write to music, it does more than nudged me into a specific pace or help me with atmosphere. It reminds me of quality, that musical notes, played on varied instruments in a specific order and speed can touch people in ways that are mysterious and wonderful. It can lift heavy spirits and wring tears from long-dry eyes. It can unsettle sad memories and tickle a laugh out of you when you need it most. It stirs the listener and paints unimaginably vivid pictures—exactly the things I want my words to do, as well.


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