A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra and Witches’ Stones Series
June 3, 2015 Garneau Pub, Edmonton, Alberta
Part Nineteen – Writing the Million Words
Question – So, I was doing a bit of calculating lately, and I note that you have crossed over the million word threshold. That would be about 250,000 words for each of the three Kati of Terra novels, 100,000 words for each of two Witches’ Stones, and about 8,000 words each for 8 short stories.
Answer – That does come to well over a million words.
Question - For the sake of our readers who may not be aware of the significance of the “million words” meme, it was often said in the traditional publishing world that a writer shouldn’t publish until she had written a million words. The first million were just practice, best discarded, a sort of apprenticeship. But don’t apprentices usually get paid?
Answer – In normal activities, yes. In writing, you were supposed to write into the drawer (i.e. write your novel and bury it in the desk drawer) for ten years and learn your craft via rejection letters – none of which actually told you anything useful.
Question - Assuming that you could find an agent, or a publisher willing to take un-agented manuscripts.
Answer – Both were very hard to come by. The whole process seemed pointless and demoralizing.
Question - Demoralizing for sure, but arguably not pointless. Generously interpreted, you were supposed to show your commitment to the craft of writing and to the publishing industry status quo, by banging your head against a brick wall for a decade or so. Less generously interpreted, it was a barrier to entry, meant to thin out the writer herd so to speak. Publishers and bookstores were in a position to restrict the supply of books, which they did, to maximize profits. Indie publishing has upset that apple cart. And the million words meme was one of the apples on that cart
Answer –Having been Indie for a few years, I had totally forgotten about the million words cliché. I would not even have noticed passing that interesting milestone, had you not reminded me.
Question - At your service. That’s what Indie publishers and bloggers are all about. Among other things.
Answer – As far as the “writing craft” side of the million words meme is concerned, I do think I am probably a more technically accomplished writer now that I was when we published my first novel, “Kati of Terra Book One: Escape from the Drowned Planet”. But I am not sure if the fundamental imaginative facility is much changed. Perhaps the imagination is freed somewhat by the confidence one gains, just by being at the activity longer. A case of “writers block” (though I don’t care for that term) seems less daunting now, for example.
Question - You have lived through it and overcome it before, so you are confident that you can do so again.
Answer – Just so. Perhaps you gain easier access to your subconscious or subliminal self, as some call it. Experience and practice helps you to integrate the two aspects - you become your own medium, in a way.
Question - Well, the ways of the subconscious are mysterious, but it makes sense that using your imagination more, will help to hone it. Practice makes perfect in most things – why not in that?
You mentioned that your writing may be technically more accomplished now, than it was in Kati of Terra Book One, for example. But do you ever wonder if one’s earlier works sometimes have a sort of charm about them, that is hard to sustain as you become more experienced? For example, to me, Kati had an emotional tenderness in Book One that was quite special.
Answer – That’s sweet that you think so. I wanted Kati to be a character that grew over time and I think that she did so. Part of growing, though, is to lose a bit of naiveté, and innocence can be charming.
Question - So, like a child, the very newness of the thing has a charm that, by definition can’t last, even though the thing in question is maturing and growing stronger.
Do you think that can be true for the writer, too? I mean, a writer’s early books can have a sort of naïve charm (assuming that they are well written), that the later, more writerly books, have a tough time matching?
Answer – Maybe that can happen, as one gains experience. Certainly, one could argue that the first Harry Potter books, for example, were lighter and more charming than the later books. But, it can be hard to say how much is due to the writer growing, the character growing, or the complexity of the narrative growing, at least in the case of a series. For Kati, I wanted her to grow, but I did want to keep a spirit of innocence alive.
Question - I think you did. She never gets cynical – she maintains a joy of life that is infectious.
Getting back to the “writer must discard the first million words” meme – what a strange idea. In my day job, I would never expect a junior colleague to show that she has written a million lines of code for free, or performed ten thousand practice linear regressions. Only in the arts is such an expectation considered reasonable. What do you think accounts for that?
Answer – It is a rather silly notion. Silly notions can take root in artistic pursuits. I suppose it is a reflection of the power imbalance between artist and gatekeeper, in the commercialized artistic world. People grin and bear silly ideas, when they feel powerless.
Your work should be considered publishable if it is good enough, whatever that means. Demanding that writers produce a million words of practice writing before they can be published is entirely arbitrary. And it was an idea more honored in the breach. I don’t think Snooki wrote a million words before her first publishing breakthrough.
Question – No, it was a gatekeeper rule that was very non-uniformly applied. Indie publishing means that the public is now the gatekeeper. They can apply their own standards, even though those are hard to figure out too. “A million words” be damned.
Answer – Now, the issue is a million books, rather than a million words. The reading public has access to millions of books, far more than they did in the past. You hope that lots of them will find yours, but that’s no sure thing. But it is still better than the old world of being consigned to slush pile purgatory.
Question – Assuming that any of the slush piles were accepting un-agented slush, that year.
Answer – There is more diversity now for the reader and the writer. Your million words can now add to that diversity. How can that be a bad thing for culture, all things considered?
In the old days, change was slow. The status quo was powerful. As someone who feels that she works on the edge of the status quo, I think the new paradigm works better for me.
Question –In what way do you think you work on the edge of the status quo?
Answer – This may sound strange, but I think my desire to write books that weren’t depressing or weren’t the latest fashion in dystopia was on the edge of the status quo. It seemed like the status quo was not in tune with that.
Question – Sometimes people mistake “depressing” for “literary”. It seemed like a lot of the traditional publishing industry went that way.
Answer – The nice thing now, is that people who want a different kind of story, one more positive or hopeful, have an option. There is more balance.
Question – I would just add for the blog readers’ information, that your books have lots of conflict, action, some tragedy, and struggles against very bad people and very bad outcomes, in addition to romance. But there is a thread of optimism about the nature of the universe, or reality, that runs through them.
Answer – That’s what traditional publishing seemed to be omitting, all too often – a sense of hopefulness. I got the impression that they wanted people to be depressed and stay depressed.
Question – Well, some of those millions of words that were written into the drawer, or were never written at all, can now see the light of day, and even inspire readers to look forward to a more hopeful day.
Answer – And that was my aim, this past million words and I hope it stays the same for the next million words.
And here’s a blog that discusses the origin of the “million words” meme.
And an XKCD comic that gives an entirely different take on word counts (Kati of Terra has just the right number of new words, by the way):