All About the Word Count

All About the Word Count

When I started the project, it was fully my intention to give periodic updates during my January novel-writing challenge. I envisioned posts on plot development, canvassing for ideas, crowdsourcing character names. But it turns out that just writing the novel itself is pretty all-consuming. If I’m honest, I just didn’t have the energy to blog about it as well. Only now, when I feel I’ve gotten far enough up the hill so there is actually something to see when I look behind me, do I feel like I can pause for breath and talk about how it’s going.

So what happened? I posted on January 7th about my approach to novel-writing. I said I would write in the morning, resist the urge to edit, and just bash it out. Did I do those things? Well, no…

At first I really struggled with the actual writing. As I described in that earlier post, it was if I was having to coax the words out one by one. I compared that process to the relative ease of smashing together a blog post, which seemed to involve just two steps (“think of idea” and “write about it”) rather than the third, more difficult intermediate step of “think of how to write about idea”. I pondered that difference and it came to me, the unconventional solution to my problem. Blogging is easy because I’m writing from a perspective I am very familiar with, namely mine. I wondered if it would work with the novel so I gave it a try.

It was incredible. I went from stuttering and stalling to flying along at a rate of knots. I couldn’t get the words out quick enough. This approach may not actually sound very unconventional — there are, after all, many decent books written in the first person. However, aside from any stylistic issues there is also a practical difficulty in writing in the first person for my novel in that my plot actually necessitates a narrator, a storyteller outside the action who is able to fill in some blanks for the reader that the main character cannot. So in effect I am going to have to go back and rewrite the whole novel in the third person when I edit it. No doubt this mad scheme would not have crossed my mind but for the one month challenge, I simply didn’t have time to flail about writing in the third person and this fixed my short-term problem. In some ways it will also lend itself to a fuller story once I’ve been through and told the whole thing from the main character’s perspective and then been back over it all to round it out with the wisdom of the omniscient storyteller.

Most of the other strategies I’ve been employing have centered around the idea of letting go. I had read somewhere that you shouldn’t begin writing until you have a one sentence summary in mind. I didn’t. But the days were ticking by so I went ahead and started writing anyway. The sentence popped into my head around 10th January: a super-smart hacker girl fights for a better life for herself and her family in a world where tech companies use big data to control everybody’s fate. It did make it easier to keep writing once I had this in mind, but it was also easier to come up with the one-liner once I’d started writing.

Another thing that I let go of was the need for a title. This is the kind of thing I would normally obsess over but again I didn’t have time to think about it. From the beginning I have been referring to the novel as “the LifeLines book” in my head; “LifeLines” being the personalised lines of code that determine each person’s destiny. I haven’t checked if the name is original, I haven’t asked anyone if they like it (although please do feel free to provide feedback). For now, the novel is called LifeLines and I’ll come up with something else if I have to once it’s finished.

Some people have an idea fully formed when they start writing a novel. It wasn’t that way for me. I didn’t even have a name for my main character. In the end I cheated. I’ve borrowed a name from someone I knew vaguely once upon a time. I’ve changed the spelling but it’s still her name. I’m considering emailing her to ask if it’s ok but it seems like such an odd request. As far as I’m aware, the character is nothing like her. Again, I may have to change the name at some point but it felt right so I went with it.

The cardinal rule of writing in general, and speed-writing in particular, is always move forwards. Forge ahead, no matter what.

I broke this rule early on, in fact just after I wrote the earlier post exhorting myself not to rewrite. That day I scrapped the first 3,000 words I had written. I didn’t delete them but I consigned them to a folder of off-cuts and other miscellany. It wasn’t easy to turn my back on that first abortive foray into fiction but I was so glad that I did. I would liken those 3,000 words to the first little bit of liquid that dribbles out of the ketchup bottle. It is a weak, watered-down version of the real deal that necessarily follows behind it. Best discarded.

Then again a few days later I hit a wall. So this was writer’s block. It was likely I was suffering from a very mild form of this obstruction, not being a proper writer and therefore not being subject to proper writer’s block. This was more an inconvenience than a wracking, soul-destroying state of angst, but as the hours and days passed it became more and more urgent that I overcome it.

Fate presented me with a bona fide writer in the form of a house guest. Andrew Ladd, published author no less, gave me this piece of advice: “you can skip it, you know”. He may have said it more eloquently, but that was the gist, and it was a revelation. I didn’t need to start at the beginning and trudge through to the end. I was allowed to take detours, I was allowed to write in whatever order I wanted. From then on, when I got to a hard bit, I skipped it. I kept going as if I had in fact written that scene in all its carefully crafted glory when in reality it sat, half-formed and languishing, between protective square brackets, which served to prevent it from infecting the rest of the words with the melancholy of it’s crude and chaotic state. Some would call this cheating, since it’s pretty unlikely I’ll have time to come back to those square brackets within the month. I didn’t care. I was officially unblocked.

So where has all this gotten me? It’s January 23rd and my total word count is (drumroll, please!) … 35,000 words. OK, so this is just short of the NaNoWriMo target of 38,333 for day 23, but still! If I’m going to meet my goal of 60,000 words (revised downwards from 80,000 as soon as I started putting finger to keyboard), I will have to write 2,777 words every single day. If you’re not sure if that’s a lot, it is. But also do-able. Even in this short time I’ve gotten into the habit of writing 3,000 words per day, with 4,000 being a really good day and 4,500 being my absolute max. After that I hit a wall and those last 500 words are pretty crap anyway. So the goal is within my grasp… just.

It may seem odd that I’m talking about word counts at all. Shouldn’t I be focusing on how good it is? Whether it’s well written, whether the characters are well-developed, whether anyone wants to read the thing? I learnt very quickly that thinking about any of those things is absolutely pointless. For the first draft it’s about getting it out, getting the ideas out of your head and onto the page. They may come out in a barely intelligible and graceless jumble but at least they will be out. You can craft them into something more presentable later but you can’t edit a blank page.

I recently listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman aimed at aspiring authors and the phrase that stuck with me was that writing is mostly a process of “putting one word after another”. He also said:

If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.

I know what he means because I’m doing just that right now. If I didn’t tell myself “you have to write 3,000 words today” I’d stop for the day after 1,500 and I’d be only a quarter of a way towards a novel instead of nudging past the half-way mark. I am putting one word down after the other and watching my novel grow

As I write, I think about whether the challenge has good or bad effect on my work, and overall I think that it’s good. I look at it this way: if I had triple the amount of time I don’t think the first draft would be 3 times as good, and without the one month challenge I probably wouldn’t have even have written the first word.

Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are some internet bits to put this article in context:

Check out Andrew Ladd’s work on his website, follow his hilarious blog Plethoric Pundigrions, and pre-order his beautiful novel What Ends.

Listen to the interview with Neil Gaiman on Nerdist, expertly summarised at Brain Pickings.


2 thoughts on “All About the Word Count

  1. Keep going Michy,

    I for one am massively impressed with your undertaking, your approach and your ability to change your approach when it’s not quite working out.

    And as for “whether anyone wants to read the thing”, well my appetite is certainly whetted!


    • Thanks so much for the support, Leecie! It really helps when I’m struggling to keep going and to hit my targets. 3,500 words written today!

      On Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 1:24 PM, workerbeefree

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