Want to kill your novel off fast? All you have to do is start editing everything, everyday. I read an article the other day about the experience of working in Writer’s Colonies like Yaddo, where you go for a few months, are given a private writing space and meals, and don’t have much to do other than writing (I have heard that quite a lot of drinking and fooling around also goes on but…). The article was interesting but a note the author made about his first experience caught my attention. He said that in his first six weeks at a colony he wrote the second hundred pages of his first novel. Great, that’s progress, except…he went on to say that it had taken him five years to write the first hundred pages!
I immediately took out my calculator because I have a thing about tracking word counts. More on that later. Let’s assume there are 260 writing days per year, leaving off weekends. No reason to, but I’m being realistic. So five years is 1300 writing days. 100 pages, at 300 words per page, is 30,000 words. 30,000 words divided by 1300 writing days comes out to about 23 words a day.
23 words a day is not writing. It is obsessing.
I also read about other writer’s work habits. It’s shop talk and writers seem to like to share it. I am surprised by how many writers put in eight hour days. My question is, doing what? When I sit down to write, generally mid-day, I do my 800 words and I’m done writing for the day. It typically takes me about 45 minutes. I realize I am fast but this activity of typing out words is only a small piece of the writing process. There is a lot of other stuff going on all the time. So maybe those writers just prefer doing the other stuff in their office. I don’t.
This is a discipline game. The discipline is this: Write the same number of days each week, preferably at least 4. Write the same number of words each day. This varies greatly with different writers. Some may do 100, others 1500. Stop writing while you know what’s going to happen next so you have something to start with the next day. Hemingway compared this to leaving some gas in the tank.
Each day, after I stop, I do a word count and place that count at my ending point for the day. I stop when it feels natural to stop, keeping Papa’s advice in mind. Once I started doing this I found that my word count for each session was always around 800-850 words, sometimes more, sometimes less. But if it was less I usually felt like I need to push it a bit more. And when it gets over a thousand I start to feel a little thin. So that’s my word count and I’m fine with it.
Watching the words stack up is interesting in several ways. Once you get in the groove you start to see how novels get done. At the beginning, writing 75,000 words is a pretty daunting target. But at my pace that’s about five months if you stick to it.
Word counting also gives you an idea about how the novel’s structure is forming. I am not a plotter and was relieved to find that most writers I admire are not either. But even if you don’t plan a lot, a plot emerges and it’s almost always a three parter: Beginning with set-up and something happening that changes things, a middle section that works on a resolution and an ending section. There are exceptions but this is a story format as old as humanity. Seeing this unfold and where the changes take place, in the context of word counts, helps me understand my progress.
Now I know word counts are only made possible by computers but writers from day one have counted pages. No difference.
So this is all well and good but what about that guy who averaged 23 words a day? I can guess. He probably waited for inspiration and only wrote when in the thralls of his muse. So the words came in bursts with long gaps in between. A recipe for inconsistency among other things. These parcels of inspiration were likely very precious objects that he took out periodically and polished and looked at, validation that he was a writer. Kind of like Gollum and his Precious. Only one problem with this. The book never gets written or takes so long that it is likely to be very disjointed. And it is overly edited until life no longer resides there. This is what I call the Perfection Infection. Or as my brother would say, don’t give up the good for the perfect.