Sunday, December 19, 2010

Forget those word counts.

As anyone who has ever talked writing workshops with me knows, I am a survivor of the Oregon Coast Professional Writers' Workshops and a proud member of OWN, the Oregon Writers' Network. These intense one and two week courses are now the stuff of history and legends; but the same crew have shorter, but equally intense workshops throughout the year. If you can get there they pay for themselves. During the short story workshops everyone writes a story a day. As in a topic is assigned when classes end at 4PM and a 3000-word story is due for review at 10AM the next morning. Their guiding philosophy – and one that guided me for many years – is that writers write stories.

I'd gotten away from that mindset over the years, wandered from the course that had taken me from wannabe to published writer. And I didn't realize I was wandering because I was still selling stories. Then real life slapped me around a bit and I discovered just how far off the path I was.

In 2010 I sold every short story I finished. In terms of sales per product produced, that's my best year ever. Of course, that ratio would be a lot more impressive if I hadn't submitted my last completed story of 2010 in March. In absolute terms, 2010 was my worst writing year since 1998. With the end of 2010 less than two weeks away, I can say that from April through December did not finish a single story. Oh, I did write. I outlined some stories and plotted two novels – I've even started writing on a few projects – but I haven't finished anything. For the first time in over a decade I have a backlog of half-done projects, stories I started then lost sight of before I got them on paper.

What happened? On the face of it my first thought was lack of discipline. But as I examined what I had done I realized it was the lack of intelligently applied discipline.

Twenty-ten was a rough year for me. The big event was of course my father's death last month. But before that there were a couple of family crises I don't know you well enough to share, and I lost two full-time day jobs, the ones that pay the bills, six months apart when the agencies I was working for went under. Through it all I tried to stay true to my daily word-count goals – made them more often than I thought I would, too – but in the end it didn't do me any good.

The Oregon Coast workshops taught me I can write fast and well at the same time. I developed a schedule (writing before waking the rest of the family) and set myself a goal of writing a story a week. I never sustained that for more than two weeks in a row – at my peak I was producing and submitting three short stories a month – but striving to meet that goal worked for years. Not only did I develop as a writer far more quickly than I would have at my old story-a-month-pace, I sold dozens of short stories and three novels (one of which was published online as a serial).

With those novels – written between 2006 and 2008 – I changed my writing goal from a story finished weekly to a number of words produced daily. I developed a 1,000-words-a-day average; on typically hectic real-life days I wrote 600 and on rare writing-only days I produced 2,400. At this pace I completed each of the three novels and their inevitable editorial revisions in less than 120 days. I figured I was on to something with those word-count goals, and adopted them for all my writing projects. Since at that time I was doing an eclectic mix of fillers, articles for role-player reference books, web content, and short stories, it also provided a universally applicable scale for tracking my output. But useful as counting words was, in the process I taught myself to think of the word count as the objective. I forgot my job is telling stories.

This wasn't really a problem while things were going relatively well. I dealt with the usual family crises, day job dramas, car repairs, home projects, etc., and fit my writing in around the edges. As long as I hit my weekly word count, I thought I was doing alright.

And I was until my non-writing life got out of control. I believe the emotional stress of my 2010 would have made it difficult for anyone to write. And I think I did better than I might have expected in terms of what I had trained myself to do. I wrote words. My discipline of producing words enabled me to hit my daily and weekly word-count goals more than you might expect. But the words I was writing – scenes and expositions and descriptions and dialog – did not add up to stories.

A professional writer must write every day for the same reason a professional athlete must practice every day or a professional musician must play every day. Not just working out, exercises to develop strength or endurance or flexibility; but practice the rhythms and moves and tactics and skills and tricks specific to her particular sport or instrument. In this way they not only perfect their craft, but they prepare themselves for the unexpected; they have a ready reserve of honed responses to whatever obstacle they encounter.

As writers we tend to think of our job as writing words, and we set ourselves goals based on that internal model. I very publicly set myself a daily word-count goal at the beginning of 2010. But we are at our core storytellers, and what we do every day should reflect that.

If I had stayed true to my original model of writing a story a week, I would have produced saleable stories all through 2010. Not as many as I would have in a good year; at this stage in my professional development that's beyond my abilities. But stories. I should not have focused on the number of words I needed when mapping out my strategy for writing my novels. I should have focused on scenes and chapters. A scene a day perhaps, or a chapter each week, would have served me better. Because then I would have been practicing and honing my skills at handling the tools of my craft as a storyteller. I would have had those tools and skills on hand when I needed them to produce good fiction in the face of adversity.

So if you're tracking words saved to the back-up disk (You do back everything up, don't you?) as a measure of your progress as a writer, stop. Write stories. One a week is good. And don't require the story to be a particular length; there are a lot of really good 3,000-word ideas out there that would die if bloated to 6,000. If you're working on a novel, make your weekly goal a scene or a chapter – whatever fits your pace and your vision of your work.

Not only will producing finished stories (or scenes) give you a more tangible sense of accomplishment, you will be practicing the skills particular to our craft. And developing the resources you'll need when life gets in your way.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good point. I don't typicaly think much about word counts. I'm only generally aware of them when I'm working on a piece that has a specific word count target. I always stress for myself the need to make progress. Some years are hard thoguh. 2010 was rough on me too and it showed in my production of new material, although I did quite a lot of polishing on stuff that needed final touches.

Anonymous said...

Good post. It reminds me of something a friend once said about a PhD thesis: "Never mind the quality, feel the width." It's easy to become fixated by word counts, especially if you've recently taken part in NaNoWriMo, and forget to concentrate on the actual story.

Liane Spicer said...

You're on to something here. Now that I think about it, I didn't bother with word count when I first began writing, but used scenes and chapters to measure progress. I never even checked word count until I'd finished the first draft of my first novel.

Don't be too hard on yourself on account of the 2010 stats, KeVin. It was a tough year for you.