100,000 Words

Out of curiosity, today I Googled “how many words are in the average novel?” The general consensus was between 80,000 and 120,000. So, the midway point between those two would be 100,000 words. (Hey look, MATH!) I found myself unable to decide if 100,000 words seems like an enormous amount, or a completely attainable one. It depends, I suppose. If you asked me to read a 100,000 word doctoral thesis on the lifespan of a fruit-fly, that would be a lot of words. If, however, you asked me to read an exquisite, well-crafted novel, 100,000 words would seem like nothing at all. Likewise if you ask me to write 100,000 words. I could do it–really anyone could–but then again, anyone could sit down at a computer and type their name over and over and over again. Technically, that would be 100,000 words.

But that’s not the point, is it?

Words have to mean something. That’s what differentiates between 100,000 repetitions of your name and a 100,000 word thesis on a cure for cancer, or a 100,000 word novel. The novel doesn’t have to win a Pulitzer and the person who cures cancer doesn’t necessarily win the Nobel Peace Prize, but their words have weight, have meaning, perhaps even have soul.

I posted a quote  that is an excerpt from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Banquet Speech here. I can’t paraphrase Faulkner’s words without doing them a gross injustice, but to put it in my own weak and feeble words, Faulkner believed that real writing, true writing comes from an examination of the human heart, with all of its pain and pleasure and passion and disappointed dreams. He says that without discovering the importance of the human heart within ourselves, we can never hope to write anything that is truly living, beating, pulsing with life-giving blood. Without heart, we are simply writing–and living–based on the muscles and sinews and arteries that perform their required function.

This quote was first pointed out to me in a creative writing class and has really resonated with me since. It was interesting, therefore, when, after re-reading Faulkner’s speech last night, I came across this post by a fellow blogger Cristian Mihai entitled: You’ve got to sell your heart . His post was inspired by a letter from another well known writer. I thought this post really delved into the heart (pun 100% intended) of what Faulkner was trying to say. You can’t sit down at your computer or your notebook and tap out a perfect, cookie cutter little story or poem (or novel, or song, or proposal, or law brief, or statement of accounts or…). You have to put some of your blood, sweat, and tears into the thing. At this point maybe the law brief/business proposal/accounting letter loses some of the ability to relate—but does it? If you truly love something and are passionate about it, will you be content with just cranking out some mediocre piece of work that took a little brainpower and a little elbow grease, but not much else? Cristian Mihai says to sell your heart, Faulkner says to find fear and in so doing, rediscover the heart. I’m going to take it one step further.

You have to set your heart on fire.

In a song called Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) and in the notorious words of the late Kurt Cobain: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” Don’t misunderstand–I’m definitely not idolizing Kurt Cobain or his fate, but he was on to something when he penned these words. I think the phrase “burn out” has more negative connotations than I feel like listing here, but a few would apply to drug users and some to the everyday man–burned out by the relentless drudgery of day to day life.  This is not the kind of “burn” I mean. For something to burn, it first has to be set on fire. Fire is hot, fire is light, fire is dangerous, and fire is a little bit scary. But is it better to live your life in fear of the fire?  Or is it better to let it take hold of you and burn hot and bright until it either ignites further flames or it burns through all of its fuel and leaves behind only ashes? In the words of another famous song writer:

“We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always come with getting burned
But you got to be tough when consumed by desire
‘Cause it’s not enough just to stand outside the fire” – Garth Brooks, 1993.

I think it’s a choice that has to be made, no matter your dreams, desires, career, or lifestyle. At some point, you have to decide: will you “burn out” in a blaze of glory that leaves a mark? Or will you simply fade away, never burned, never scarred, and without ever really living?

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6 thoughts on “100,000 Words

  1. Garth Brooks really said it well.

    I have so many pieces of writing that I penned for a class or assignment that mean nothing. And they are so mediocre that it makes me want to rip them to bits and throw them away (note: I don’t because I love to Frankenstein my own work- there’s always at least a bit of good stuff I can use).

    But the ones where I tore a piece of my own soul off to give it life, substance, heart. Those are the ones that I’ve gotten high praise (and sometimes awards) for. And I think it will most certainly take a large piece of my soul to write that work that I think is worth publishing. As you said, it must burn. And burn brightly.

    • I always know a piece is garbage when it feels so easy to write. If it doesn’t have any life when I’m putting it on the page, how can it have any impact when someone is reading it?
      I need to learn to “Frankenstein” my work — i’m totally pirating that from you, love it — even if the only good thing in there is one sentence or one line of dialogue.

      • Use it! I love encouraging word fads!
        I always have one bit that I really like in my pieces. What I consider would have been the “spark”; just never quite lit into a flame.

      • I couldn’t have said that better! There’s always a character or a line that is just great…but not in the context where I originally put them. And I’m always so reluctant to excise them from that particular piece and put them somewhere else

      • It isn’t plagiarism if it’s your own *unpublished* work. It only becomes plagiarism if it’s published, or not your own words.

  2. Pingback: Writing Tip Thursday: “Money is in the Rewrite” | Vers Les Etoiles

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