Sunday, September 19, 2010

Word Count

I was feeling pretty good yesterday, after devoting much of the day to writing. I'd added more than 3000 words to my novel in progress. That's not a great deal by some authors' standards, but my writing time is limited and so a solid chapter's worth on a Sunday really cheers me.

Actually, though, the real reason for my glee wasn't the amount I'd written, but the quality. Recently, I'd felt that the characters in this book had lost their spark. They'd turned into cardboard cut-outs, without any intrinsic motivation. I was just moving them around like chess pieces, trying to push my concept of the plot forward. Yesterday, they seemed to resurrect themselves. (I had solicited suggestions from fellow authors for techniques to give the characters CPR, and I guess some of those notions worked!) All at once, Rafe twisted a crucial conversation out of my hands and sent it in an entirely new direction.

I was surprised and delighted. The conversation ended up exposing a conflict that I knew I wanted to use, but hadn't known how to introduce. It also subtly altered the emotional and power balance between the two main characters in a way that I intuitively sensed was right.

Anyway, I titled this post "Word Count" because I wanted to talk about how those document statistics are really a double-edged sword. If you're an author, you probably check the current word count every time you open a WIP, and then check again at the end of your writing stint. It's likely that, like me, you set word count goals. "Today I'm going to produce at least 2K." "I need to get 10K down by the end of the week."

In one sense, these goals can be helpful. They give you a way of measuring where you are and how far you need to go before you're "done", since many publishers specify the sort of work they're looking for at least partially in terms of word count. Word count goals also help me get my "butt in chair, hands on keyboard", even when I don't feel like writing. Surveying the numbers after a tough session of fighting with characters or plot is bound to improve my mood.

In another sense, though, I find that thinking in terms of word count can be dangerous. Because ultimately, the question of how many words I write is not important. What matters is the quality. In fact, I have a tendency to be overly verbose, and in many cases, fewer words would be better. A focus on word count may tempt me to spew out 3000 words of boring crap, rather than spending my time and effort crafting 1000 words that really touch the heart and mind.

An emphasis on quantity -- on a daily quota -- is particularly dangerous for me personally because I find my writing has a great deal of inertia. Once I've gotten something down on the page, it's agonizingly difficult for me to make major changes. I edit as I write, partly because I know that wrenching the story in a different direction afterward will be well-nigh impossible. So most of those 3000 words of less-than-excellent work are likely to end up in the final product -- for better or worse.

I try not to obsess about this sort of thing. I try to just open myself and let the words and ideas flow out. Sometimes, though, I have severe constipation of the imagination. Then I'll sit at the keyboard, partially out of stubbornness, and force myself to meet my objectives, regardless. Is this a bad thing? Maybe so. Maybe it would be better for me to go read the newspaper, or play with the cat!

I'd be interested to know the opinions of other authors on this question.


Unknown said...

I never set word count as a goal. My characters speak when they feel like it, and it's their guidance that propels the story forward. I tried that nano thing last year, hoping it would stimulate me, but I found it worked quite the opposite. My characters turned mute the moment they knew I had a goal in place. :) I write as I can, and sometimes I'm lucky, and sometimes I'm not. I guess you might say I'm a slave to my characters.

Mary Corrales said...

I edit as I write as well and find the word count to be tortuous. Sometimes you watch the counter more than the characters, which is when creativity usually stops for me.

The only way I've found to beat this problem is to read or watch movies until I relax enough to enjoy my characters again.

Rachel Randall said...

Interesting to read this because I was just having a similar sort of conversation with myself -- I'm taking a week off work this week and trying to balance my writing hopes with the many life chores I need to accomplish. Should I set myself a word count goal? I'm leaning towards a "completed scene" goal instead, in the hopes that might make the written product less static...

Anonymous said...

Quality is definitely more important than quantity. Writers who are guilty of repeatedly bragging about how many words they can write in a day/week only end up making other (particularly novice writers) believe the most important thing is how quickly you can complete a manuscript, not how well written or clean that manuscript is...

Heather said...

I have an overall word count goal, but not a daily one. I'm lucky to get out 500 words at a time, that's how hectic my days are. But I usually give myself a due date, for example: I'm currently working on a YA romance that I want to have ready for submission in March. I have a 50k word count goal and I'm 33k in.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, all,

Thank you for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. I start feeling inadequate sometimes, when I look at other authors who have a new release every month or so. But I know from experience that I couldn't pressure myself into that level of productivity, even if I had the time.

I'm never a slave to my characters and sometimes I wish I were. Instead, I have to coax them out of hiding!


Kim Dare said...

For a slightly different point of view:

I've found word count goals work well for me. I write at least 1000 new words a day no matter what, but then I'm the opposite from you in that I don't edit at all as I go along.

The first draft is all about getting the basics onto the screen. I always do at least three pretty major edits after that draft is finished so, if it's no good, it will probably be re-written at least once, so I don't worry about that too much.

I also tend to underwrite, so I write the first draft to 80% of the required length.

Kim Dare.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

I know a lot of authors have a word count goal and it works for them. It just doesn't work for me. I write what I write - and I also have days when I stare at my WIP for hours and get nothing done!

Devon Marshall said...

I try not to pay a lot of attention to word count as it just ends up giving me creative constipation! I'm a 'less is more' gal, I loathe having to pad something out just to meet a word count. For sure publishers need to have a guideline that differentiates between short story, novella, and novel, but for many writers making the word count king of your universe is counterproductive to creativity. I also edit as I go along and more often than not I find stuff to take out rather than put in!

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Fascinating to see that word count goals are so anathema to so many writers!

I live by mine! I keep my goal deliberately low because I work full-time and have a 2-hour-plus commute daily. I want to be able to meet that goal with whatever time I do have.

I enjoy watching the count grow daily ,and I keep track of it in a spreadsheet. In December, I review how often I met (or didn't meet) the goal and adjust accordingly for the following year.

(The spreadsheet also acts as a handy diary: I list when I have writer's meetings -- usually no writing on those days -- or when I'm ill, and again, won't be writing.)

These goals help me meet deadlines and accomplish projects.

They also goad me to sit in the chair and face an empty screen even when I'm tired and would rather forget about it.

Like you, Lisabet, I tend to edit as I go along. The low ("realistic") word count enables me to continue to write that way. Have you tried limiting the numbers?

Juniper Bell said...

Great topic! I love hearing about everyone's process -- and how different they all are. The key is to find what works for you. For myself, I love word count goals because I like to get the first draft down and then rewrite like crazy. I've experimented with high goals and lower ones, and wound up in the middle. If the word count goal is too high, it feels oppressive. But the value of a goal, exactly as you said, is that it encourages you to sit in that chair and make progress on your book. And when you're done, you can relax and feel like you totally rocked it!

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