Word Count Dependency

I tend to measure my day-to-day progress on a project by the number of words I’ve accrued. It’s easy, straightforward, quantifiable. You know where you stand. If you’re in the hunt for an agent or a publisher, the likelihood is their guidelines will tell you you need to write between 70 – 100,000 words (probably more if you’re writing a genre novel). So you know that if you eke out 1000 words every day for three months – hey presto! – you’re in novel territory. It’s a handy guide, but it can also be somewhat punishing if you’re not careful. Your ‘segments’, if you don’t sand the edges, can have ‘thousand-word chunkiness’, for want of a better description. The joins might show. Also, you feel in thrall to the limit you set yourself, so for example, you might dash through a thousand words and think, that’s my work for the day done, where’s the beach? You switch off. Even if you decide to stick around and do more, internally, you’ve clocked off. Or you might find you’re having one of those days when the words come slower than a legless turtle in a puddle of treacle.

But it’s difficult to get out of that mindset, especially when you consider that many of the legends that went before us worked in the same way. Although not all of them enjoyed it. Graham Greene stopped writing as soon as he hit the 500 word point – his manuscripts are dotted with handwritten numbers where he has counted his output, eager to hit his mark so he could go off to play Russian Roulette or spend the afternoon with a prostitute. What are the alternatives for a writer, someone who is eager to amass a clutch of pages at the end of the day to prove that some marvellous alchemy has occurred?

I asked Adam Nevill, my old editor at Virgin and a superb writer of horror in his own right (check out Apartment 16, The Ritual and Last Days), what his methods were, remembering a discussion we’d once had regarding word counts and work routines, and he sent me this pithy response:

“My lack of awareness of the word count led to a situation while writing LAST DAYS when I noticed I’d hit 140K on the first draft, and remembered there was something about a 120K word length in the contract. And I still had a fair portion of the story to write too. This could have had a major impact on the publisher’s costings for pagination with a print run, so I went hot and cold and informed my editor, who said it was fine and 120K was only a guide (just as well!). The book eventually hit 160K. But that really revealed to me just how little attention I pay to word volume these days. So, I don’t word count and sense that I have harboured a vague prejudice against the practice over the last few years. So answering this question has made me think a bit harder about why I don’t observe a word count now.

Photo: Tania Glyde

Photo: Tania Glyde

“Though it’s not always been the case. I once wrote nine series fiction novels under another name, one per year, to strict deadlines and they could not exceed 80K words or fall much below 75K, so I once watched the counter like a hawk and it was an uncomfortable experience because my tendency was to either go over 80K or under 75K. After one carefully revised and balanced novel hit 86K I was asked to cut “something out” (preposterous!). Also, I remember closing on 70K and knowing another 10K would not be sufficient, and once thinking a story should stop at 70K. Nonsensical. My problem with word limits is similar to my problem with word counts, in that stories cannot be told in the same amount of words, just as they can’t all be told in the same way, and neither can the individual scenes I hope to write in each writing session. So I can’t recall word counting on a novel since 2005 and no word limit has ever been imposed on my horror novels. Instinctively, I always know when a scene, and eventually a story, is finishing. And as every year goes by my inner reader gets better and better at judging pace, so my internal pace measurer is more useful than a word counter. If I counted words, I suspect that going under target on a poor day at my desk would create a lingering indigestion.

“So I approach writing a novel incrementally; I keep in mind what I need to achieve in each new scene, scene by scene, and each new scene has the life and implications of the last scenes within its DNA. But how I reach the end of each respective scene has no relation to the length of the scene in actual words. So I judge the progress of what I am writing, as I go along, by what each scene achieves in relation to the entire story that has past, and what I anticipate is still to come. Each session’s writing is judged by how strong a scene feels and if it works for the story. If a scene comes out quickly, I tend to go away and think on what it means to the next part of the story, rather than blasting straight into the next scene because I feel I am on a roll. So an afternoon or evening thinking about the next scene I need to write, and making notes, is more useful to me than writing continuously. Ultimately, I also don’t trust anything I’ve written until I’ve been through it like a customs official goes through a car that smells of cannabis at a ferry port; the final draft usually occurs around the last month of a deadline, so how many words go down each day until the end is largely irrelevant to the way I think about putting a novel together.

House-of-Small-Shadows1

“Writing is an incredibly intense experience too, so I would not want to suffer a conflict about hitting word targets, or find another reason to flagellate myself on the office floor. If I am in the zone I write more; if I take a long time to get into the zone, or life overruns my position, I write less. I always tend to revisit a scene that I am dissatisfied with at the start of the very next session on a first draft, so I don’t need to know how many words are in that scene, because it’s going to be changed. Through good and bad days I eventually finish a novel to my satisfaction and I make sure I end a book feeling excited, as well as feeling a trepidation at having taken risks. I don’t think, wow, I’ve worked so hard I’ve written 160K words this year. I’ve seen a few people on Facebook announce that they have hit one million words in one year; I’m still not entirely sure what that proves.

“On good days the pages come and I lose myself in them, and eventually every part of the story, over successive drafts, will have to be rewritten on a good day; that’s my assurance and word counting would miss the point for me, because volume is subordinate to value, and there is always another way of writing something you know is no good, and everything has to be rewritten. I suspect I actually write better because I don’t count words. Who wants to run a marathon with a stone in their shoe? We’re all different.

“I suppose my equivalent of word counting is an on-going, internal time and motion study. I do reflect on time a lot; how much time in a day, and even a week, I am able to write unimpeded (usually as I am trying to sleep) in lieu of my eventual deadline. I evaluate my progress on the quality of the concentration I had in each session, and how much time I claimed for writing, and how well the scene turned out, not the amount of words that came or did not come. I also often write long hand too, so I couldn’t really count the words anyway.

“So my cold-sweat fear is a valid one: not having enough time to do my best on a book within a year, which is the amount of time I have to write each new book. It’s a good chunk of time. But the terror is good because it makes me find enough time to do my best to finish the best book I can. This is why I more or less stick to one novel a year that I can work on nearly every day, and two short stories each year. Not an arbitrary objective; just the way it has worked out since 2009. This work rate gives me a sense that this schedule is manageable and that I am maintaining quality control. Before I was contracted for one book a year, I didn’t look at the calendar either; I’d know when it was done. So quality writing time and sufficient preparation time is something I do measure mentally on a work in progress, (I would guess for the same motive that some writers count words), because it’s those two things that will decide whether a book is any good or whether it risks failure, not the book’s length. Let’s say I could write 100K words in three months; without putting it to the test, I know it would never be as good as the 100K I could write over a year.

“Short stories are a different case, and most editors seem to want stories at 5K. I struggle to write less than 7K on any story and have even panicked when I notice I have hit 10K. It’s like everything starts evolving into a novel…

“I bet Conrad wished I’d looked at the word counter as I wrote this.”

Another friend, and writer I admire, Michael Marshall (Smith), who is responsible for such novels as The Straw Men, The Intruders and We Are Here, has this to say (excuse the bum-numbing length of his comment):

“I never worry about quantity because I know that, when I’ve worked out what the hell I’m doing, the words and paragraphs will flow easily. Prose and characters seldom if ever give me any trouble once I’ve found the backbone to hang them on. I know I can write 3-4k in a day if I know what I’m doing, so I don’t mind – in fact, I thank God for – the days on which I write seven words, but finally get a sense of what’s supposed to happen next… My writing process is like a very drunk man trying to cross a motorway on foot: long stretches of weaving, watchful stasis, interspersed with chaotic dashes.”

Photo: Steve Double

Photo: Steve Double

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Many thanks to Michael and Adam for their time…

Word count matters, obviously, otherwise we’d all write Proustian novels that, well, never ended. There’s some instinct within (or more likely contractual obligation enforced upon) a writer that helps to portion a story, give it its rhythms, its peaks and troughs, creates a narrative arc that rises and falls and finds a natural end point within that magical 70-100,000 word zone. It would probably look rather beautiful if you plotted it on a graph. The end result is the important thing, a novel that hopefully reads well and contains all the good things we look for in a story.

What methods do you use?

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4 thoughts on “Word Count Dependency

  1. It used to be that I had to write 1000 words a day (fitting it around a full time job) in order to feel like I was, you know, ‘being a writer’. The thing is, hitting the target didn’t make me happy, it just felt like job done. Going over was good, but going under tore me up with guilt and added pressure for the next session which did not help. Now my only rule is to write each day, and I enjoy it a lot more that way. That said, I have the luxury (?) of no publisher deadlines, writing for me and then hoping to find a home for the work afterwards.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ray. I’m sure it won’t be long before you have agents and publishers breathing down your neck. Deadlines can make word count slaves of us all! But yes, it’s important to retain the love of it, otherwise it just becomes another sloggy job…

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