Fast-track the million words to mastery
There’s an old adage about quantity versus quality. But in the case of writing, the common belief is simple and logical: you can only really achieve quality writing by producing a large quantity of it first.
Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.— David Eddings
That quote adequately captures the spirit of the convention. But how true is the advice? Is the only way to get good at writing by writing? In short, yes. But writing novels isn’t the only way to accumulate skill.
Writing short stories is a great way to practice your storytelling skills and prose. It’s an entirely different form factor to novel writing, but you’ll find that some of the most important skills in novel-writing are critical in writing a compelling short story. Elements like a good hook, momentum, pacing, and even sentence structure are what the success of a short story hinges on. If you master these, you’ll have gained some valuable skills.
There’s another benefit to writing short stories and, perhaps, submitting them. Often, you get quick, concise feedback. If you send it to your friends or family, they’ll be more inclined to read something a few pages long than something numbering over a hundred or two hundred pages. If you submit it to a publication, there’s a chance you’ll get feedback on why it was rejected, or perhaps even why it was accepted.
Feedback is essential to mastering any skill. Without knowing what you’re doing wrong, or right, it’s a little more difficult to improve. As such, I value any medium of practice that allows for objective feedback from people interested in reading. For this reason, I’m a huge proponent of…
Fanfiction is a bit of a taboo in the world of literature. Some people hate it, some people love it. Everyone makes fun of it. But as I’ve discussed at length in this article about Harry Potter, fanfiction is a prevalent part of today’s Internet culture, and that’s not a bad thing. Fanfiction isn’t the harbinger of death, copyright infringement, and teenage angst it’s painted to be. Okay, maybe a little. But in spite of its high volume of low-quality works (due to the non-existent barrier of entry), it has plenty of gems of great fiction.
For those who are looking to start their writing careers, or just sharpen their abilities, fanfiction has many more benefits than drawbacks. Among them:
A Built-in Audience
Because you’re writing fiction based on a copyrighted work that you’re passionate about, there’s very likely a large group of individuals who are hungry to read, and critique, your contributions to the fandom. Having this built-in audience means that you don’t have to struggle to gain readers. But there’s another, hidden, benefit to fanfiction: feedback is used as a sort of currency.
Due to the fact that you can’t be paid for your work, users often provide commentary on your writing as a form of re-payment. Not monetarily valuable, but critical for anybody that’s looking to improve their writing. This comes with a small qualification, however: some comments will have nothing to do with your writing, and everything to do with the reader’s feelings about the plot you’ve created or how you handle character interactions. It’s up to your discretion to interpret these comments as being either constructive or useless.
Focus on telling a good story, stay true to the characters and theme of the canon, and you’ll find great success. Now that I think about it, actually, the writers of Game of Thrones might have benefited from writing fanfiction.
As a consequence of having an audience following your story, you’ll find that, as a writer, you have a responsibility to complete that story. This is possibly one of the most vital skills in writing. If you can’t finish a project, you can’t write a novel. Meeting deadlines almost makes writing consistently a prerequisite, and consistent writing is the not-so-secret sauce to making a novel happen.
Fanfiction is known best, perhaps, for being inundated with cliches of all sorts. By reading and writing fanfiction, you’ll have the benefit of learning what sorts of cliches you could dodge in your original writing, or even subvert. Make Vampires Great Again.
Fanfiction is a great place to flex your creative muscles and stretch your imagination. That said, it’s important to remember that fanfiction is an awesome place to start, but a terrible place to stay if you’re hoping to make novel-writing your career. If you’re writing purely as a hobby though, well, it’s fair game!
Core Rulebooks. Source: Juan Lam
Dungeons and Dragons
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to go ahead and recommend D&D as a storytelling training ground. Dungeons and Dragons is the Swiss Army Knife of tabletop gaming. It can be just about anything you want it to be, really, which makes it the best tool for having fun adventures with your friends. Space, steampunk, aquatic, high fantasy, all of it is fair game in D&D.
But its versatility doesn’t extend only to play-style. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys writing, it wouldn’t be surprising if you find yourself drawn to the idea of being the Dungeon Master for a game. If you’re not sure what D&D is, or even where to start, check out this video.
As a Dungeon Master, you’re the primary storyteller and facilitator to the game. You create the world, the quests, the non-player characters (NPCs), and your players simply… play in it.
Crafting a world for your players to play in is the heart of D&D, what sort of adventures can they have? How will your players actions affect your world? How will your world affect the players? World building is an essential skill in fiction writing. Even if you’re not crafting Tolkien-esque realms of high fantasy, the prevalent attitudes and cultures in any story are vital. Developing a well-realized, and dynamic backdrop is a skill any writer should have.
Really Instant Feedback
Feedback has returned as a factor, but the feedback you get when you’re running a game of Dungeons and Dragons is quite different to that you’d get by writing fanfiction or submitting a short story. Because you’re playing it live with an audience, you get to measure the effects of your storytelling firsthand. Moreover, you won’t be judged by how good your prose is, rather, it’s your pacing, ability to tie-in character backgrounds, inclusion of lore, plot twists, and your skill in creating thematically appropriate arcs for your players/characters that will be judged.
It’s said there’s two types of writers: those who outline, and those who don’t. Also known as Architects, Planners, or Plotters, those who outline tend to, well, plan out the story they wish to write before ever setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Those who don’t outline are also known as Gardeners, Discovery Writers, or Pantsers. They prefer to take a character, plot idea, or setting as a base and then weave, or grow, a story out of it without too much thinking ahead.
Both methods have their benefits. If you plan, your pacing might tend to be tighter, your arcs better designed, your endings more poignant. If you pants it, however, your character work might be more compelling, the twists more shocking, and your writing might come off as less contrived, though at the cost of a longer editing process.
None is strictly better than the other; world-class authors of all sorts employ both methods often. After all, J.K. Rowling was a meticulous outliner, while Stephen King prefers discovering his stories. But if you’re at a place in your writing career, namely the beginning, where you don’t know which one to use for your story, you might benefit from approaching it like a D&D campaign.
When preparing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re planning a story for independent players who might do something unexpected, not characters that will do what you write them to do. As a result, many Dungeon Masters plan their campaigns in a flexible way. They create a story, but leave enough spaces between cornerstone plot points that allow the players to arrive there in their own way.
Applying this formula to a novel might be the best middle ground for you. It’s not conventional, but it’s innovative, and it allows room for stronger characterization. You can make your story one that is character rather than plot-driven.
That said, even though there’s no right way to write, I generally recommend novice writers to try out the classic methods for themselves. Outlining and Discovering stories are the way most people go about it for a reason.
If you prefer a more structured educational experience, you might benefit from taking courses on creative writing. They offer instruction on the craft, of course, but also feedback from fellow students and professors. If you’d rather learn the theory and have all feedback come from the stories you send your friends, then maybe look at some lectures from renown authors like Brandon Sanderson, whose creative writing lectures at Brigham Young University can be found online for free.
If listening to lectures doesn’t appeal to you, then reading books on writing like Stephen King’s aptly named “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” might be a good place to start.
If fanfiction or D&D don’t appeal to you, and short fiction isn’t quite your cup of tea, then maybe try participating in NaNoWriMo this year! It’s a good way to write a novel without investing a whole year into it. The time-sensitive nature of the challenge makes it perfect for those trying to cultivate a good writing habit, and since it only takes a month, you can gain the valuable experience of having written a novel in only 1/12th of the time most people do.
That said, while doing these things will help you learn plenty about the various elements that are part of writing a novel, none of it will, in and of itself, fully prepare you for writing a novel, NaNoWriMo being an exception for obvious reasons.
Writing a novel is much more than just creating an excellent story structure, building great character arcs and tying it all together neatly with some clever prose. Writing a novel is all of those things, yes, but it has equally as much to do with what happens in the moments before you write.
As I’ve progressed towards writing my own first novel, I’ve learned that, more often than not, the success of writing your story hinges on the seconds on which your eyes linger on the folder that houses your masterpiece-to-be or not-to-be. Do you have the willpower to work on it, little by little each day? Can you carve out time in your schedule to do so?
Are you prepared to put your heart and soul into a story that might not amount to anything fiscally, or critically? Can you ignore the urge to go back and edit while you’re doing the first draft? Can you ruthlessly judge your own work while working on the second?
That’s what writing a novel is.
So, maybe you don’t have to write a million words to make a good story, but you do have to write. And who knows, maybe after all the short stories, fanfiction, and D&D campaigns, you’ll have ended up writing a million words without even realizing it anyways.
This article is based off of a Reddit post I made a few months ago which can be found here.