Monthly Archives: July 2009

1,000,000 words

During a recent session of my bi-weekly writing group, while commiserating about what a long, rejection-laden road getting published can be, one of our members mentioned the notion that it’s not until you’ve written a million words that you’re even starting to get good.

While that sounded rather daunting, it reminded me of something I’d read in various Kerouac biographies. When Jack Kerouac first met William S. Burroughs in 1944, he apparently told Burroughs that he’d already written a million words. That always caught my imagination, impressing me with the relentless incandescence of his output, the drive to just get it out, out, out, at all costs. It also always made me feel like a big, fat failure, and a lethargic one to boot, since he would have only been 22 at the time.

I wondered if anybody else had an opinion about this “million words” idea. I found several people citing a quote from Henry Miller’s “On Writing” to the effect that it takes writing a million words to find your voice. Crime writer Elmore Leonard, who certainly ought to know a thing or two about good strong writing attributes it to the widely-revered John D. McDonald and says:

John D. McDonald said that you had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing. A million words is ten years. By that time you should have a definite idea of what you want your writing to sound like. That’s the main thing. I don’t think many writers today begin with that goal: to write a certain way that has a definite sound to it.

Science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, in an essay about how to get his job, helpfully notes that being an author is a really easy job. Unfortunately, nobody pays you to be an author until you first become a writer, which turns out to take work and time. In fact the work is mostly time, according to him:

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material.



Pushcart prize-winning poet and novelist Ward Kelley had this intriguing wrinkle to contribute:

There’s that old saw about becoming a writer–if you want to be one, you first have to write a million words. While it’s an old saw, I believe it to be true. However, you seldom hear mentioned what should be tagged to the end of it. The axiom should include the reason for the million words: all these practice words put a writer in position to use the best literary advice I ever discovered. That advice is “don’t think.”



Okay. Fine.

Where, I wondered, was I against this benchmark? I started to tally up the various things I’ve written since I recommitted to my childhood dream of writing following my divorce in 2002. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, between the manuscript of my novel, a not-yet completed new novel, print and online essays and articles, my short film screenplays, poetry, as-yet unpublished short stories, blog postings, and journals, I am closing in on 800,000 words. At this pace, in another two to three years I’ll reach 1 million and actually be starting to produce something worthwhile. Hooray!


That honestly doesn’t seem so bad now that I’ve come this far. And if I’ll be almost twenty years older at that point than Kerouac was when he reached one million, maybe my remaining creative (not to mention physical) lifespan will at least match the 25 years that lay ahead of him at 22. Not too bad, not too bad…

Man has invented more doom!

You may have seen my blog from earlier in the year tracking stories that had to do with the gathering forces of genetic manipulation, cybernetics and artificial intelligence that, I would (and d0) content stand to fundamentally transform our species into something new within short order (less than 100 years, quite possibly less than 50 years). That blog was illustrated with stories I’d run across in the first quarter of the year. I thought I’d update it now with some from Q2:

Robot scientists can think for themselves

MIT droids tend plants

Mind-Reading Device Sends Twitter Messages

DNA Nanotechnology making custom shapes

Flesh-eating robot

Genetically engineered monkeys pass on glow to offspring

Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks

Synthetic fiber may cure blindness

Robot displaying emotions unveiled

Robot surgeon finds tiny shrapnel

Australian scientists kill cancer cells with “Trojan horse”

So what do you think? Has man, as Bob Dylan puts it in License to Kill, “Invented his doom”? What does “doom” mean in this context? Unparalleled disaster, or a bold new change?

July (and June!) Writing News

Yes, we’ve gone into extended two-month issues for the summer. You know how it is, what with family visiting and being out of town and moving in with girlfriends and all. At least that’s what I did on my summer vacation! In between, some creative activity has occurred as well. To whit:

Film- “Geek Wars”, one part of my three-part short film “Triptych” (formerly “Three Conversations About No Thing”) screened at the Victoria Theatre on June 7th. The audience seemed to enjoy it. You might too! You can see it on the Scary Cow website, project #33: http://www.scarycow.com/videos/round0008/round008.html . You can also catch me playing the pizza delivery guy briefly at the beginning of #22, “Just Super”, which I did set management & costuming for as well. The crew is currently working on editing the remainder of Triptych, which we’ll screen during Scary Cow’s next quarterly screening this fall. I’ll announce more as the time approaches…

Publication- I’m at 22 submissions for the first half of the year, not far off my goal of one a week, and already higher than all of 2008! The acceptance rate is currently at 9% versus 2008’s eventual 14.3%, for those of you with a statistical interest. Two of the latest fruits of this labor to appear are “Post-separation alone at night listening to Patti Smith sing “Dancing Barefoot” while thinking of mistakes I made while living in Hong Kong blues” in Lit Up Magazine (posted May 30th): http://litupmagazine.wordpress.com/ and “Twelve Steps to the New Israel of the Beats” in the July issue of SoMa Literary Review: http://www.somalit.com/New_Israel.html


Performance- I read at the Café Brainwash open mic on May 18th, my fourth public reading so far this year. It was a really fun, boisterous venue, and I got to be all prophetic by reading a new poem on autoerotic asphyxiation before that whole David Carradine business. My next targets are to read at Magnet’s “Smackdab” reading series on Wednesday July 15th and at the Gallery Café poetry series on Monday August 3rd. See you there?

Novel– I’m currently absorbing the manuscript evaluation feedback from the freelance editor I met at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February regarding my novel, Out in the Neon Night. What she advises would be some significant structural reworking, but it is intriguing, I just need to figure out if I agree and if I’m up for it. Until then, you can read the first chapter on my blog: http://chris-west.blogspot.com/2009/02/first-chapter-of-my-novel-in-neon-night.html

Blog– Did I just say Blog? Yes I did! You can catch up with my attempt to write 40 poems in 40 days, musings on Dylan, and other topics at: http://chris-west.blogspot.com/ Definitely check it out in August, when I’ll be traveling in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia and doing updates from the road as frequently as time and technology allow.

I look forward to sharing more with you in all these areas now that we’re in the second half of the year!