Not that you need to keep an exact tally, or that the million word mark is some magical milestone, marking the border between struggling wannabe and published writer. But it’s a handy soundbite to remind us that, in most cases, the skills required to write a publishable story are acquired after a lot of work and over a long period.
It’s certainly true in my case. If, as and when An Unwanted Miracle ever sees print, it will be thought of as my first novel when it’s actually nothing of the sort. It’s my fifth. The other four languish in a cupboard in my study, bearing silent witness to a little more than ten years of work.
They’ll never see publication and for good reason – they’re interesting failures, founded on solid concepts but foundering due to poor planning, lack of focus, sheer bad luck and – the one problem that no writer can avoid at first – a lack of experience.
That’s really what Bradbury was getting at – those first million words are your testing ground. They’re the space in which you find your feet and your voice and, by the time they’re all written, you’ll have a clearer idea of the stories you want to tell and how you want to tell them. Not that you ever stop learning, whether you’ve written a million or a hundred million words, but we all have to start somewhere.
I started with Detective Story, the startlingly unoriginal working title for the gumshoe detective novel I set about writing at the tender age of fifteen. Here’s a small sample:
“Giving up on his caffeine fix, Dorling went and stood in front of the full length mirror opposite his desk and proceeded to conduct a cursory examination of the haggard looking figure which was examining him in return. Neither Dorling seemed particularly impressed. Tall, but just broad enough not to appear lanky, with dark hair plastered to his scalp by the rain, the onset of middle age apparent in the lines of his somewhat brooding face… Dorling would never have described himself as handsome at the best of times but right now he looked a bloody mess. Raking his hair back with his fingers and doing his best to smooth out the folds in his suit, he crossed to the door marked ‘Suzanne Dack’, took a deep breath and knocked.”
Hardly Pulitzer winning stuff, but not too bad for the first draft of a teenager whose primary concern was whether or not the Manic Street Preachers could be persuaded to let him join the band, despite his having absolutely no affinity for the guitar.
To this day I have no idea why, as a die hard fan of sci-fi and horror, I chose to write a detective novel. I’d never read one – not even Chandler – and drew all my knowledge of the genre from cliches and pastiches. Dorling ends up sipping bourbon by the end of the first page.
The plot was a vaporous notion about a shadowy political group having hired a team of South African mercenaries to aid them in their bid to overthrow the UK government. Who were these sinister adversaries and why did they want to seize power? Answers on a postcard please, because I never stopped to figure it out. All I knew was that Dorling was supposed to stumble on the plot whilst investigating something terribly mundane. How? Again, I don’t think I ever knew.
My biggest mistake (apart from writing in a genre about which I knew precisely nothing) was assuming that a book was written in the same way in which it was read – one page at a time, the story revealing itself as each new word appeared on the screen. I thought it would all happen automatically, the story guiding me in the only direction in which it could travel. I simply had to fill in the words as I went.
In other words, I was winging it.
Inevitably, I didn’t get very far. I was just a few chapters in when I got stuck and, instead of sitting down and thinking of a plan, I just waited for the next part of the story to materialise. It never did.
Now, just a single page remains, the rest of the ‘manuscript’ long since lost. I’ve hung onto it for sentimental reasons – as hopeless as it was, it was a first step in the right direction. I can even see a few echoes of it in An Unwanted Miracle; the down-at-heel Everyman character who stumbles upon a sinister plot and his somewhat uncouth female counterpart. (Suzanne, Dorling’s professional partner, was to have been a former Security Executive turned P.I., with few social graces or sense of decorum. A character in An Unwanted Miracle is very similar in tone).
So, as I said, an interesting failure but a useful one. I learned a lot from it. Not nearly enough, however, as we’ll see in a future post.
Until then, feel free to share your own tales of the novels that didn’t make it in the comments box below and do please share this post with anyone you think might be even slightly cheered by it.
See you next Wednesday!