By Jocelyn Nash Carlin
There is a popular quote in the writing world (though Google has shown me that the proper attribution is somewhat disputed) that goes something like this:
“Your first million words don’t count – be prepared to throw them in the trash.”
I’m sure you’ve all seen variations of this quote, and at different times you’ve probably had different reactions. One day you might think, “My first novel needs a little revision, but it’s mostly great.” Other days you might think, “More like two million.” And most days you’ll probably be somewhere in between.
Recently I stumbled across another quote from novelist/freelance editor Erin Bow, and I think I like this quote a lot better:
No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Franciso is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfranciscensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better. (emphasis mine)
No writing is wasted.
I love that idea.
Does it contradict the idea that it takes many (most) writers a million words of practice before they get published? No. But those words do count. They aren’t just trash. They are the words that till, cultivate, and fertilize your mind. They are the words that hone your skills, pump up your writing muscles, and train your word-craft until you can perform before a crowd without fear of falling down.
Even better, your first million words don’t all have to be in your genre. Do you want to get published in young adult fiction, but you write a blog on cooking just for fun? Guess what – if you put care and effort into those words, they count! So do your journals, your personal blogs, your fan fiction, the practice character or dialog sketches that never made it into a story, or all the discarded stories from your creative writing assignments in high school and college.
Every one of those million or more words have cultivated an ecosystem in your brain that will make your new writing tastier than ever before.
Will it take you a million words to get published? Maybe, maybe not.
But no writing is wasted.