The Story Thus Far, Part 6: Words, Words, Words

The single best writing day I ever had was when I was writing The Machine of the World. I wrote 7000 words in a span of 8 hours. I took a half an hour break for lunch but otherwise wrote for an entire day. This was exhilarating in itself, to see that I was capable of such a creative output.[1] It was also a total fluke.

Seeing as how most books range between 40 and 100,000 words,[2] congratulating myself on completing 7000 at a go seems silly. But the hardest part of writing is the process of putting words on a page.[3] because unless you’re doing National Novel Writing Month, (and even if yo are) you won’t be dropping 7000 every day. Unless you’re Jack Kerouac, but then the Speed helped and he was typing so fast, he forgot to use punctuation.

But you should have a reasonable daily word count for yourself. This will vary by the author.

Tom Robbins, famously, doesn’t count at all, he works on one sentence, getting it perfect before he moves on to the next. So some days he’ll write a page, others, just one sentence. This is of course absurd but not as absurd as Marcel Proust, who wrote as the whim moved him, and only in a cork-lined room.

[find some other author word count anecdotes]

For those like me, who are just starting out and may have a day job as well, you won’t have time to wait for the whim of the muse to grip you by the wrist and dip your perfumed fingers in the ink. You have to find an hour in the evening or thirty minutes on your lunch break, bang out a few hundred words and then get back to work. For the working writer, Cory Doctorow makes a good argument for aiming at a nice and tidy 500 words a day:

  • Short, regular work schedule
    When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.
  • Leave yourself a rough edge
    When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the “hint.” Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.

This has been working for me for the past few months. I feel a nice sense of accomplishment if I get that 500 goal. Some days, I can’t resist the urge and keep going, regularly breaking 1000. But that extra 500 words? That’s gravy. Doesn’t count towards the next day. Still need to do 500 words then, too. And the day after that. Unless it’s Saturday. I usually take Saturdays off.

1. The most impressive part is that most of those 7000 words are still in the finished book. For those interested, it’s the second part of chapter two, all of three and four and the end of seventeen. I didn’t say they were consecutive words.

2. The SFWA says a novel starts at 40K words. NaNoWriMo requires yo to write 50K in 30 days. there’s no standard length for a novel but generally speaking, you only get to break 150K if you’re Stephen King or Neil Stephenson. If you’re getting into that range, you should probably set aside a few minutes to examine your plot and see if you aren’t trying to shoehorn too much into one story.

3. Or a screen. Some authors write longhand in notebooks with actual ink pens. This strikes me as archaic. But hey whatever works for you. I’ve tried writing longhand and before I finish a page, I’ve usually crossed out half of what I’ve written, forgotten how to spell the other half and filled the margins with addendum and arrows identifying which sentence goes before or after which other sentence. I am a decidedly untidy writer. I think in images and phrases, not in paragraphs. if it weren’t for word processing software, I probably would never finish so much as a blog post and would have even worse spelling.