Friday, November 22, 2013

Know Thy Word Count

I seem to be taking on the roll of contrarian (or devil's advocate, if you prefer) in the bordello. Because, quite frankly, word counting beyond the basics (of I wrote x number of words today) is a little too much like clock watching for me. It's stultifying. It indicates that something's wrong in my scene. I mean, the ideal is to get lost in the flow of brilliant prose. So maybe, on reread, it isn't as brilliant as all that - but you know what I mean. At least it's on paper, right? Who doesn't want a couple of hours to zoom by leaving you several thousand words richer? It's the perfect world scenario.

Tell me true, though. How often does it happen to you? Not often enough? Yeah. Me, neither. We aspire to an ideal that may only be achieved upon rare occasion. Of course, the only way to approach that lofty state is by showing up at the keyboard as often as possible and laying down words. No matter how tortured.

Sadly, counting (and subsequently keeping track of) words written is about the only objective metric we have available for measuring progress on a WIP. It's useful for deadline management and for knowing how long you take to write a solid book. If it is true that the writer should indeed know him or herself, then you need to know how many words a day you're most comfortable writing. Note I don't say 'capable of'. 'Capable of' has a high burn out rate. And the one thing word count can never tell is whether a novel is any good. At all. Sure, we all have good days and bad days. Some of us produce much better prose when we're forced to go fast. Some of us crumble like stale oatmeal cookies when the pressure's on. Know which one you are and then let me know. If there are cookie crumbs, I'm going to want tea.

Where was I? Oh yes. Know thyself. Know thy process. For example, I know I'm a pantser. I know that I start a project quickly, slow to a crawl through the middle, and then ramp my writing speed as I close in on the ending. I know I draft almost exclusively in dialogue (read that as 'all talking heads, no action') and that this annoys me.

But also? Know that you can change. You can change you and you can change your process. You aren't likely to change core issues - if you're a plotter, you'll probably always be a plotter - that's how story makes sense to you. But let's say you have the opportunity to leave a day job and begin writing for x hours every single day. If you're already keeping track of your writing habits, you have a base upon which to build. If you only have a few stolen moments per week to write but you'd like to step up your output? You have to know where you're starting before you can begin stretching your limits. Yes. That's what I've been doing for myself - stretching. Pushing my limits. Hence a few books and articles on productivity that Jeffe alluded to early in the week.

So here, for the curious are my goals.
  1. Write every day for four hours per day
  2. Write at least 2k words per day
My actuals? I don't get to write every day. Migraines do not permit that. They steal about four days a month when I'm lucky. When I'm not lucky . . . let's just say the month of October 2012 was a real downer. Just about any other illness can be written through (in fact, writing while loopy with flu has some benefits - but only in the drafting stage because writing with a fever ensures you'll need to correct a bunch of really entertaining mistakes). It is incumbent upon me to plan for migraine days and factor those into my production schedule. The four hour time commitment isn't a problem. It's first thing in the morning when no one I know wants to be awake anyway, and the rest of the day is dedicated to the family and mastery of the mundane. So there's very little resistance on the home front.

Tracking takes place in a shared spreadsheet. A couple of my critique partners and I enter our *supposed to be* daily word counts. This is not my favorite thing on earth. The site, has another tracker where you enter in how many total words you have in your WIP. (If like me, you write in different docs depending on scene, you have to keep track of how many words you wrote toward your quota, then add that number to the nanowrimo word count.) The nano site then provides a word count breakdown based on how close you are to 50k words versus how many days are left in the month. I find it satisfying. Maybe because I didn't have to design, program, or maintain it.

As for 2k words per day? My actuals come really darned close. Some days, I get 5k. Some days, I get 1k. On the 1k days, I know I've got a problem in the story line that has to be resolved. That requires an hour or more of notes about the story in the evening - immersion into defining the issue so I can fix it the next morning during work hours. What am I capable of? 8k per day for several days straight - but only at the end of a book and the error quotient will be high. It isn't where I'm comfortable, though. Equate it to training for a marathon. I have to log a bunch of slow days before I can log a couple of fast days. My writer brain needs contemplation time and different brain wave states to ferret out continuity issues, motivational inconsistencies, and such in a story.

I love Jeffe's spreadsheets and graphs. For her. They do exactly what she needs - quantify progress and provide benchmarks. I can't use them. Tracking my work to that extent becomes an impediment to me actually doing the work. Do your job your way. There's nothing wrong with it. Unless you discover your way isn't working for you. And the only way you're going to know and/or change that, my friend, is to start counting and keeping track in a way that makes sense to you.

1 comment:

  1. I wondered how many of my bordello mates would notice what activities I imagined for them!