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.