By Francis Gideon
In 2015, I decided I would write twelve novels in one year. When I told my friends about this goal, they were skeptical. Not of my ability, but if I should do it.
"You're in a PhD program. You still have course work and comprehensive exams. You're teaching for two semesters," they said. "You've also already written books. Are you sure about this?"
"I'm sure," I said. "I want to do it. It'll be fun."
So they let it go. We got coffee and talked about other things. After a while, even I wondered why I was getting myself into this strange New Year's resolution.
Then I visited my mother the next week. And I remembered why.
My mother is a hoarder: books, magazines, and movies, mostly. Our basement is lined from end to end with book shelves that are double-stacked and the floor is covered in small towers made of hardcover former bestsellers. The entertainment area is filled with VHS tapes (and a working VCR), cookbooks clutter the kitchen, and dog-eared John Grishams pack her bedroom. If the houses on TLC's Hoarders are a 10, then my mother's place is a 7. She's a B+ hoarder, really. She can move around and have a functional life, but as soon as I received my acceptance letter for graduate school, I breathed a sigh of relief. I could move out and I wouldn't have to deal with all the damn books anymore. Don't get me wrong: I love books--I was leaving to go to graduate school for English Literature--and I love my mom, but I couldn't handle living in the house anymore.
When I packed my bags, I only took a bag of clothing, my notebook, and my laptop. I'd recently watched Into The Wild, and admired how much Chris McCandless survived with what was on his back. Obviously, he didn't take his computer or need internet access, but I figured I was doing my own modern version of his journey. I left behind the thousands of pages my mother would never read for something more important and substantial.
It only took me about a month to realize she and I weren't really that different. While she scrounges through discard bins at bookstores and yard sales, I churn out word upon word upon word for my own stories, hoping one day it will be enough.
My mother owns a lot of writing books. They're spaced along the wall next to the doorway in her "office,” from How to Write Mysteries on the bottom, to The Joys of Writing Sex on top. I've heard a dozen different forms of writing advice from her too.
In 1996, she published her first short story in a magazine called Canadian Living. The story is simple and based on real life: her father Laurie watches the train tracks by his house as the floats for the Santa Claus Day Parade go by. One night, he realizes Santa is actually the person conducting the train. It was supposed to be a children's story, but no publishing company would take it, so the back-end section of a Canadian family magazine seemed like a perfect fit. I remember when her acceptance letter came and when the magazine came out. My mother has at least six extra copies in her office, next to those same writing books.
"Laurie's Parade" remains the only item my mother has ever published.
Over the years, this is what I've learned from her stacks and stacks of writing books:
Write what you know. Write 2,000 words of warm up before you start (from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way). Write at least 2,000 words a day, even on Christmas (from Stephen King's On Writing). Make sure your characters want something (Vonnegut). First thought, best thought (Jack Kerouac). You must write a million words of shit before you can churn out something good (Raymond Chandler, among others).
Not all of these pieces of advice are created equal, but the last one had always struck me. A million words of crap before something good? Challenge accepted. Maybe if I could write 1,000,000 words first, then I could actually break away from my mother's house, her writing advice, and her quasi-legacy.
My Master's Degree was a two year program where I wrote a 51,000-word thesis that I defended. I also wrote at least 500,000 words of creative fiction when I wasn't in class. Some of it was published, some of it wasn't. I took a year off before I applied for my PhD, where I wrote over 500,000 words. Probably closer to 600,000 or 700,000. More of that has been published, but not all of it.
The month before I started my PhD, I reached the 1,000,000 words threshold.
From here, I was determined that my writing would change.
I didn't write for four months.
Jacques Derrida, a famous linguist philosopher, once stated that he has an intense fear of writing--but it does not manifest in typical writer's block. When Derrida sits down to write, he says there is "something that is stronger than myself that demands I must write as I write" but afterwards, usually when he is half-asleep, there is another moment where he is "terrified by what I am doing." Derrida's fear of writing is actually a fear of not writing, because in those moments when he's quiet and alone, he realizes his work is important. That feeling leads him to a kind of "vigilance" where he must "do what must be done" and eventually spurs him to write. The only way for Derrida to get over his fear of writing is to write.
After I completed the first 1,000,000 words, I was terrified to keep going. Going off of what Derrida said, the work, from that point on, had to be important. It had to be good.
I couldn't sit at a computer for very long without the pressure mounting. My head, like my mother's house, started to become filled to the brim with all these writing rules, all these stories that I couldn't put to paper, and I lost myself inside it.
When I was in undergrad, I became obsessed with Kerouac's "Beliefs and Techniques of Writing Modern Prose" along with Kerouac's life story. Kerouac wrote most of his novels in a Benzedrine haze, locked in his apartment with his typewriter, not emerging until he was done. He completed The Subterraneans in a weekend, and On The Road in three weeks.
Because of this feat, the nonfiction novelist Truman Capote stated that Kerouac was "typing, not writing." Kerouac wasn't a skilled craftsman, but someone who was spilling out words until he finally struck gold. A broken clock is right twice a day, right? Kerouac had only gotten lucky, according to Capote. He deserved none of this.
When I wasn't writing, I'd think back to an interview Kerouac did on the Steve Allen show in 1959. The YouTube footage (which you can watch below) starts off with Allen playing piano as Kerouac discussed the origin story for On The Road. Kerouac characterized his life with these periods of intense creativity, then long months where he didn't pen a word. His endless chatter would always lead him to silence, and when he couldn't take it anymore, he would start to write again. When I worried that I was nothing but a fake for writing so much the years before, I would remind myself that silence was as creative as writing itself. In many ways, according to Kerouac, it was more.
My silence eventually ended when I saw a call for submissions on writingcareer.com for a romance publisher. I had a story buried in my head somewhere and I thought, why not write? It was the end of January and I only had a few days to complete it to get it in on time. Could I conjure up the same type of Kerouac haze, replacing Benzedrine with a bunch of coffee?
It worked. A week and a half later, I handed it in. A few weeks later, it was accepted.
Then it was February, and I wanted more. I wrote another story during my winter break. Sent it off, got another acceptance. As March came around, I was still going strong and thought, “what if I could do this every month? What if, at the end of all of this, I could have twelve manuscripts done and waiting for me to edit?”
What if, what if...
If I did this challenge, I had to have rules. I didn't have to write every day, but I had to complete twelve novels by the end of 2015, meaning that each month would hypothetically have a manuscript I could work on. A novel was anything over 50,000 words, even if some of my eventual publishers defined novel at a different length. If I wrote two novels in a month (like I did in April and June), then I was ahead of schedule and could take a month off (as I did in September). I didn't have to edit everything, but I should try to get some novels out and obtain signed contracts (out of the twelve working manuscripts, I have contracts for six). I could also do short stories and novellas if I wanted in the same month, but I couldn't combine them together to get my 50k unless they were a series (I only wrote one series with a total of about 140k words; I counted it as my one work for July). I couldn't count my academic work, nonfiction reviews, or any articles I was contracted to write (in total, I had about 10 of these for the year). I also couldn't count fanfiction or poetry.
When Kerouac wrote On The Road, his average count per day was about 3-4,000 words. By the end of November, the twelve novels were done and I had over 1,000,000 words in total when I factored in the five novellas and three short stories I also completed. This was also an average of about 3,000 words per day. There were several days, weeks even, where I was too busy with my job to write towards this goal. Then there were other days where I wrote from after breakfast until two hours before bed.
When I wrote the last sentence in the last novel, I was instantly relieved. I knew I'd have to edit that exact same sentence because it wasn't perfect yet (and I did, a day later, when a better line came to me), but it was done.
So I had a drink, and then I went to bed.
I write romance novels. I can already hear people lining up to tell me like Kerouac "that's not writing, it's typing." Because romances are all the same, right? There can't be that much thought put into them, so of course this goal was completed. Romance author Lizzie Ford did something similar when she started her career and she got the same kind of flack.
One of the most prolific authors in the Guinness World Records is Barbara Cartland, who once published twelve books in a year. She's another romance author. No one talks about her--or Lizzie Ford--with the same reverence that we do Kerouac. For all Capote's criticism, we all know who Kerouac is and many people still worship him. Yet, all these women outshine him by sheer productivity alone. Maybe because romance isn't taken as seriously it's easy to function under the radar. And when you do, you get a lot more done. By writing to write--for the sake of writing--people produce more, especially if you think you have to prove yourself.
I could say that I was writing romance for the money, but that's a lie. I don't write heterosexual romance, first of all, but gay romance. The m/m genre has become its own entity the past decade, and I also write transgender romance. LGBT romance fiction isn't the same beast as you're probably imagining. Most of it is written by queer youth, and most stories don't involve billionaires (not that billionaire romance stories are bad).
But I digress. Saying that anything is "not writing, it's typing" defeats the purpose of what I think Kerouac's goal was in the first place. To write in a haze like this, and to write until you can't say anything anymore, is cathartic. It's what Derrida had to do to remember his purpose. It's also great practice. You don't spend three hours agonizing over the characters name or what they're wearing before you start. You simply start writing, produce a first draft, and worry about being good or important later.
No one is good right away. Everything--especially editing--takes time. But you have to put the time in first before expecting any rewards.
In another couple weeks, it'll be January and a year will have passed from when I started this challenge. I plan on spending most of that time editing, rewriting, and getting the remaining manuscripts into better shape. My goal for next year is undetermined, though I think I'll go a little easier on myself.
Before that deadline passes, I'll be heading home for Christmas where I'll tip-toe around the stuff piling up in my mother's living room and try not to knock over any stacks she's piled too high. I may look at her office and the crumpled up acceptance letter from her first story a little differently, though. All of this is overwhelming, cramped, and over twenty years old now, but it's hers.
I'm a hoarder too. I've collected words and stories and useless quotations about writing from other authors. And in 2015, I collected my twelve books in twelve months and million words yet again.
They're all far from perfect, but they're mine, too.
Francis Gideon is a writer of m/m romance, but has also dabbled in mystery, historical, fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal fiction. Find more about Francis's work here: https://francisgideon.wordpress.com/