Productivity, Word Count, and Fiction Writing
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been about seven years since I broke up with my cowriter. We had a manuscript in submission and had even received a request for a full from an agent. Things had already waded into the deep end at that point, and there were frequent sinkholes abound.
One was finishing a book. I noted that publishers had a year deadline for finishing projects, and frankly, I was alarmed because our rate of finishing a book was quite a bit longer. So I said something about us needing to learn how to write faster, and he poo-pooed and said everything was negotiable. I was horrified. I had this immediate picture him blowing off the deadline as negotiable until the last minute and me stuck with trying to meet it.
That was a wakeup call for me because I realized that he didn’t have writing on his priority list. Everything else was more important. So I started writing every day.
And you hear that everywhere. NanoWri is this month, and the focus of getting 50K done in a month is hitting the mark of about 1700 words a day. I’ve also seen writers admonish from their blogs: “I write X words a day. I sit at my computer and don’t leave until I have X words.” The implication, of course, being that everyone else should do the same and that we aren’t being productive if we aren’t.
Then there’s the other crowd that goes with slow writing. I haven’t quite figured out that definition. In typing this blog post, I hit 267 words in about six minutes. Sometimes I type fast, sometimes I pause to think, and sometimes I make a lot of typos. I often do a lot of pausing as I’m figuring things out. So exactly how slow are people writing? One sentence a day? Or are they talking about not writing that often?
These conflicting opinions create a certain negativity that has filtered into my writing at times, and I’ve had to fight to keep them out. At one point, I was trying to produce words every day, so I brought a laptop to work and did it at lunch, then went home and wrote some more. Then suddenly I was starting to hate the writing because it felt like work rather than anything fun. Sometimes I wanted to read a book at lunch, and instead, I was thinking, “I have to write.” I felt guilty on weekends when I had all this time available, and I spent half a day running errands.
In other words, I focused on doing it, rather than focusing on writing. I suspect though there’s a lot of people saying that’s what they do and not actually doing it. Two K a day is 500,000 words a year. That’s five or six novels, or more novels if they’re shorter. It pays to check the person and see if they actually have a lot of books or not. I looked at one who is selling a book on productivity, and she has, well, not a whole lot, to be telling people how to produce.
So is there a secret? These are some things I’ve learned:
It’s really important to have fun while doing the writing. If I’m fighting with a scene, I’m not going to get much done. I can think of all times when I was working on a past project that had run way too short, and I had my eye on that word count. Every time it dropped, I just berated myself. That sucked the fun totally out of the writing.
Now I sometimes have to go back a scene and think about why I’m not having fun. For me, it’s usually that I went too dark and didn’t catch it.
Yet, so many writers talk about much work it is, how they enjoy having written, but not doing the writing. Why write then? This is something purely optional, and certainly, if it’s not fun, it’s awfully hard to find any motivation to do it.
Another area is I found to help is NOT focus on word count goals. Those often get labeled as a sign of success because it’s very measurable, but it’s very easy to think about completing the goal, not about having fun writing it. Or at least it has been for me. On an early story, I tried do it in thirty days. I mapped out how many words I needed to accomplish that, and towards the end, I ended up adding scenes to the story to get the word count, not because the story needed it.
What works better for me is say that I’m going to work on the story for an hour. Then I can stop and do something else. This tends to give me 800 -1200 words. It’s not a straight through type — I have these pauses where I’m trying to figure out what the heck is supposed to happen, and sometimes I’m trying out something and it doesn’t quite work the way I’m thinking of. Sometimes I’m dashing off to look a word up in the dictionary. I still can get at least 800 words usually.
After I finish my hour, I stop for a while. Usually it’s watch TV. Then I come back and do some more. Often, I’m wanting to come back and do some more! And sometimes I’m just tired or my sinus are acting up (this time of year is sinus headache time). Just about 90 minutes a day like this and I can do 8K-10K a week.
Finally, I also forgive myself if I have a day where I just don’t get to writing. Yesterday, we got a cold front in, and my sinuses took a nose dive. I had such a bad sinus headache that I couldn’t concentrate on anything. So, no writing even though I wanted to do it. I couldn’t get my brain functional enough. Yes, there’s so much guilt-trip stuff out there that sets everyone up for failure that’s easy to feel like if you miss one day, you’re instantly behind. There are some days where it’s not going to happen. That’s all there is to it.
But a lot of it, really, is simply making the time, even if it is only 15 minutes. The only failure is not writing at all.