Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Many Words?

Last night my SF writing class resumed at Writers & Books. For seven of the eight weeks of each term, this is a critique class, but the first week we get organized and then do some sort of exercise. Last night we had critiquing practice by attacking an old, unpublished, very bad story of mine. I wrote this thing thirty years ago, before I had any idea what I was doing, as in: What is a point of view and why is it nice to have one? When I say "very bad," it's not false humility. The class slashed away merrily.

But afterwards I got to thinking: How much do you have to write to take yourself from bad amateur to pro? Of course it varies with the writer (I understand that Robert Silverberg sold his first story). But is there some sort of average? Fred Pohl wrote that it takes a half million words to become good, but that seems high to me.

More interestingly, what can the aspiring writer do to shorten that apprenticeship? Only two things occur to me. First, get reliable feedback, which my students are doing, -- or at least I fervently hope that's what's happening in class week after week. Second, read a lot of SF or fantasy or whatever you're hoping to write. Too many of them, alas, are not doing that.



Erin Underwood said...

I love this idea of having a practice critique session. When I first started writing, I wasted a lot of time writing critiques that didn't really approach the text with an eye for what the author was trying to accomplish. My biggest problem was that I didn't know how to separate "me" the writer from "me" the critiquer.

Once I figured out how to write helpful critiques, I found that I began improving as a writer. Funny how that works.

TheOFloinn said...

Suppose we leave aside stories written in childhood. My first story, co-authored with my brother Dennis, was a bedtime story my father had told us - which turned out to be Damon Knight's "To Serve Man." I regard this as presently unsellable.

I picked up some rejection slips in high school for stories I don't even remember. Somewhere along the line, I wrote a story for serious and sent it to Campbell at ANALOG. He rejected it with a two-page letter that ripped it to shreds. What I did not know about critiques was that a) he wouldn't have bothered but that he saw some possibility in the story; and b) he wanted me to put the shreds back together in a more interesting way.

Years later, I found the story and read it, and it really s*cked. Big time. So I rewrote it and sent it to Ben Bova. He rejected it, too.

Then, even years later, I had sold a different story to Charlie Ryan at GALILEO, which promptly expired. (My brothers said from the desperation of having to buy my story.) But I did then resell that story to Stan Schmidt at ANALOG, and I thought maybe I could fool him a second time. So I dug up that First Story. And it still s*cked, only medium time. So I rewrote it again, and this time Stan bought it, my second sale. And a good thing, too, as ANALOG has not had a new editor since then.

So, in a way, I did sell the first story I seriously wrote. Only not right away. And in between I wrote an entire historical novel that raised s*ckiness to black hole levels. So, less than half a million words, but more than a couple ten thousand.