Showing posts with label ray bradbury. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ray bradbury. Show all posts

Friday, March 14

One Million Words To Competency, Who Said It First?

In my last post, A Million Words To Mastery?, I talked about whether writing a million words was sufficient to be, if not a creator of effortlessly poetic prose, then a competent writer. My not-at-all startling conclusion was: No!

One million words may be necessary for competency but they clearly aren't sufficient. After all, one could type (like Jack Torrance did in Stephen King's The Shining) "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" 100,000 times and, while it might improve one's typing, it wouldn't improve one's prose! 

But the question was raised: Who first said (in effect) that one needs to write, and discard, one million words before one can be a competent writer? In what follows I investigate whether it was David Eddings, Jerry Pournelle, Ray Bradbury or John D. McDonald.

David Eddings

Trevor Martin, in the comments, mentioned that it was David Eddings who spoke of the one million word rule. And that's true, Eddings did speak of it and he is quoted all over the internet as speaking of it, but I can't find out precisely when or where that happened. Was it in a book? An article? A TV interview? 

In any case, here's an extended quotation:
"My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: 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.

"When you are with people, listen; don’t talk. Writers are boring people. What are you going to talk about so brilliantly? Typewriters? The construction of paragraphs? Shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the cadences of speech. Engrave the sound of language on your mind. Language is our medium, and the spoken language is the sharp cutting edge of our art. Make your people sound human. The most tedious story will leap into life if the reader can hear the human voices in it. The most brilliant and profound of stories will sink unnoticed if the characters talk like sticks.

"Most of all, enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth doing at all. If hard and unrewarding work bothers you, do something else. If rejection withers your soul, do something else. If the work itself is not reward enough, stop wasting paper. But if you absolutely have to write–if you’re compelled to do it even without hope of reward or recognition–then I welcome you to our sorry, exalted fraternity." (David Eddings R.I.P, Christchurch City Libraries Blog)
That is the most extensive quotation I've found and it was posted by Marion (no last name given) on the Christchurch City Libraries Blog on the 4th of June, 2009, on the event of David Eddings death. 

Although it's only the first paragraph of the above quotation that includes the text in question the whole thing was well said and good advice. Also, it gives us a hint at where Eddings might have said it which might give someone a hint as to when it was said.

It seems as though Eddings was speaking to a group of writers; perhaps a writing convention or awards ceremony? If anyone knows please do leave a comment, I'm looking for the earliest mention of the 'million words required for competency' idea.

Jerry Pournelle

Another commenter, Antares, noted that his friend "Jerry Pournelle advised writers to 'write and throw away a million words of finished material'" but mentioned he didn't know if Jerry Pournelle had gotten the idea from David Eddings.

Antares also gave a (much appreciated) link to the December 1996 issue of Byte Magazine where Jerry Pournelle's article "How To Get My Job" appeared. Although Pournelle notes that he "added a few sentences here and there" the article remains mostly unchanged from its first publication in 1996. Here's a quotation:
"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. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that's another story."
The entire article is well worth reading, but for our purposes that's the relevant bit. 

Now at least we have a date: December 1996. (Clearly Jerry Pournelle had this million-words-to-competency idea previous to 1996. If anyone has documentation of it's use before this date, please do leave a comment.)

Ray Bradbury

At this point I did a google search on "million words" and "throw away" in an effort to get to the bottom of this minor mystery: who first came up with the idea of 'a million words to competency'?

In December of 1999 Alex Keegan wrote the following:
"It takes a minimum of three years' full time study, or 7-10 years of part-time study to get a university degree. Becoming a writer is harder! I think it was Ray Bradbury who said we need to write at least a million words just to make it to the foothills. Seems like a lot? Not really. 3,000 words a day for a year or 1,000 words a day for three years and you're home free. What d'you mean it sounds tough? It IS tough!" (Advice to the Younger Fiction Writer)
So I googled Ray Bradbury and found this quotation in "What Does It Take To Be A Writer?" by Mark O'Bannon:

“Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.”
– Ray Bradbury

That's the idea we're looking for stated slightly differently. One of the things I was looking for was the phrase "a million words" but perhaps I'm being too picky since writing a thousand words a day for three years would yield over a million words (1,095,000 words, to be exact). 

The big question: when did Bradbury write that? 

The best textual evidence I've found for that quotation comes from the blog Life, Literature, & Everything in Between: Underworlds. In a post entitled "Ray Bradbury, In Memory Of … (1920-2012) — SF Writers Pay Tribute to an Icon" Ken Scholes wrote:
"At sixteen, I wrote him [Ray Bradbury] and told him what I was doing, typing up stories and submitting them to magazines, following in his footsteps. He wrote back. He recommended some books and urged me to write a thousand words a day until I had a million words. And he encouraged me to write to him each October. The next year, I wrote again and he wrote back…this time with a silver pen on a Something Wicked This Way Comes poster."
That is only a small excerpt of Ken Scholes beautiful tribute to Ray Bradbury; if you have time, and Kleenex at the ready, I recommend reading it.

We may be closing in on a date. The question is, when (approximately) did Ray Bradbury write that letter? Ken Scholes mentions receiving it when he was sixteen. 

Mr. Scholes was born June 13, 1968 which would make him sixteen years old in 1984. That's 12 years before Jerry Pournelle's article was published so this is the earliest date so far.

Unable to leave the subject be, I did another internet search and hit paydirt:

In a thread on The Straight Dope Captmathman wrote:
"I've long held that Robert Heinlein once gave this sage advice to aspiring authors: "Your first million words don't count." My wife recently repeated this to a third party, but [he/she] insisted that it was originally spoken by Ray Bradbury. In an effort to clear things up, I went online to discover the truth. Seems that Bradbury was the correct answer. As was Heinlein. I could find no authoritative source to provide an attribution. Any ideas?" (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Captmathman, The Straight Dope)
This comment was made in reply:
"Ray Bradbury used to say this at speaking engagements in 1973. I was there, so my post is my cite." (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Fear Itself, The Straight Dope)
1973 is the earliest date I have of this idea being expressed. (Here's an article which corroborates a mid-70s date) I admit, I would be tickled if it were to turn out Ray Bradbury was the first to say this, but I will struggle to remain impartial. That said, I'm sure both Ray Bradbury and Jerry Pournelle had this idea years before their documented use of it.

John D. McDonald

Here's another reply on the The Straight Dope thread I mentioned above.
"Hmm. Elmore Leonard notes a similar quote, which he attributes to John D. MacDonald here [...] (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Captmathman, The Straight Dope)
The last comment mentioned the article Elmore's First Million Words published November 19, 2006 on He writes:
"It wasn’t until 1950 that I really decided to be a writer. I chose westerns because I liked westerns movies and I wanted a market that I could sell to without a lot of trouble, without having to learn too much, I figured I would get better as I managed the craft.

"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."
This seems to leave open the possibility that the million words idea was around as early as the 1950s! I've tried to find documentation of this quotation and while many writers attribute the 'million words to competency' idea to MacDonald, I haven't found anything that would settle the matter.


For all my poking around the internet I haven't been able to discover who first articulated the idea that one can't be a competent writer until one writes a million words. If anyone knows of a recorded mention previous to 1973 of anyone using this idea, please do let me know in a comment. I can also be reached through my contact page.

Thanks for coming along with me as I attempted to unravel this minor mystery, and thanks to Trevor Martin and Antares for their help.

Note: Just before I published this post I discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley had also said (in effect) that the first million words were practice. Unfortunately, though, I didn't find any hint as to when she first said/wrote that.


These links don't have anything to do with the million words quotation, but, still, I wanted to share them. Ray Bradbury was a wonderful writer but he was an even better person.

Interview conducted over the telephone in December of 1975.

(Interview originally broadcast in 1988.)

Interviewed by Sam Weller for the Paris Review.

(Video. "The Lost Interview of Ray Bradbury is a personal tribute to the great sci-fi master. Shot over 20 years ago by Director Harry Hall in the basement/office of Bradbury's home.")

Photo credit: "Tessies" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, January 22

Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

"If science fiction is escapist, it's escape into reality," Isaac Asimov

 "... writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that," Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury's, Zen In The Art Of Writing, is soul food.

I love Ray Bradbury's writing. Something Wicked This Way Comes had a profound influence on me as a young writer--but for some reason, even though it was recommended again and again, I neglected to read Ray Bradbury's book on writing.

That, I realize now, was a mistake.

How To Keep And Feed A Muse

The chapter I'm reading at the moment is How to Keep and Feed a Muse. Mr. Bradbury gives some remarkably detailed advice.

What To Feed Your Muse

1. A lifetime of experiences.

We must feed ourselves on life.
It is my contention that in order to Keep a Muse, you must first offer food. How you can feed something that isn't yet there is a little hard to explain. But we live surrounded by paradoxes. One more shouldn't hurt us.

The fact is simple enough. Through a lifetime, by ingesting food and water, we build cells, we grow, we become larger and more substantial. ...

Similarly, in a lifetime, we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and  experiences and our reaction to them. Into our subconscious go not only factual data but reactive data, our movement toward or away from the sensed events.
These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows.

2. Read poetry every day.

What kind of poetry? "Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don't force yourself too hard. Take it easy."

3. Books of essays.

You can never tell when you might want to know the finer points of being a pedestrian, keeping bees, carving headstones, or rolling hoops. Here is where you play the dilettante, and where it pays to do so. You are, in effect, dropping stones down a well. Every time you hear an echo from your Subconscious, you know yourself a little better. A small echo may start an idea. A big echo may result in a story.
.  .  .  .
Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture. If your reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won. The most improbable tales can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands at the middle of events. He cannot refuse, then, to participate. The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses.

4. Read short stories and novels.

Read those authors who write the way you hope to write, those who think the way you would like to think. But also read those who do not think as you think or write as you want to write, and so be stimulated in directions you might not take for many years. Here again, don't let the snobbery of others prevent you from reading Kipling, say, while no one else is reading him.

How To Keep Your Muse

Ray Bradbury advises that not only should we write every day, but that we should write 1,000 words a day for 10 or 20 years!

Great advise. Truly excellent. Myself, though, I hope it doesn't take 20 years! Of course, if it does, it does. Writing is the kind of thing that, if one can be discouraged from it, one probably should be.
And while feeding, How to Keep Your Muse is our final problem.

The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammar and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse.

By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.

You have learned to go immediately to the typewriter and preserve the inspiration for all time by putting it on paper.


Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.

Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are—the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.
.  .  .  .
Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven't friends. Go find some.
#   #   #

I haven't contributed a lot of commentary, above, because ... well, what could I add? One thing Mr. Bradbury said--I didn't include the quotation--was that he wrote 3,000,000 words before his first story was accepted at the age of 20.

Three million words!

Add to that, Mr. Bradbury wrote every day, every single day. He must have had a well fed, and very content, muse.

What is your favorite book on writing? What is the best writing advice you've received?

Other articles you might like:

- Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character
- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs
- How Plotting Can Build A Better Story

Photo credit: "Dust" by Robb North under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, September 18

You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance

"The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything." 
John Irving (1942 - )

"You can't think yourself out of a writing block, you have to write yourself out of a thinking block." 
John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey, 06-25-11

You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.
Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012), advice to writers

If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write.
Stephen King (1947 - ), On Writing, p. 147

These quotations are from The Quotations Page.

Other articles you might like:
- Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story
- Kristen Lamb: Don't Let Trolls Make You Crazy
- 4 iPad Apps For Writers

Photo credit: Unknown

Friday, June 8

Stephen King on Ray Bradbury: The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant's footsteps fading away.

The tributes to Ray Bradbury keep coming.
Stephen King:
The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant's footsteps fading away. But the novels and stories remain, in all their resonance and strange beauty.

Neil Gaiman:
I'm writing something now. But I wanted to put this up. I wrote it a couple of years ago as an introduction to the PS edition of The Machineries of Joy and it was reprinted in the Times. If you want to quote me, you can take anything you like from this, and add that he was kind, and gentle, and always filled with enthusiasm, and that the landscape of the world we live in would have been diminished if we had not had him in our world.

And that I am so glad that I knew him.
- Ray Bradbury

Last week, at dinner, a friend told me that when he was a boy of 11 or 12 he met Ray Bradbury. When Bradbury found out that he wanted to be a writer, he invited him to his office and spent half a day telling him the important stuff: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. That you can't write one book and stop. That it's work, but the best kind of work. My friend grew up to be a writer, the kind who writes and supports himself through writing.

Ray Bradbury was the kind of person who would give half a day to a kid who wanted to be a writer when he grew up.
- Ray Bradbury: In Memoriam and In Green Town Illinois

Stephen Spielberg
He was my muse for the better part of my sci-fi career. ... He lives on through his legion of fans. In the world of science fiction and fantasy and imagination he is immortal.

President Obama
His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world.  But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values.  There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing.
Read more homages here: Spielberg, Lindelof, Stephen King and Others Remember Ray Bradbury