Counting Words

So, yesterday I finished the first draft of a novel, and as I am wont to do on the last day of writing a book, I wrote a lot. A whole bloody helluva fuckbucket of a lot. It’s just a thing that happens as I get close to the end — I tend to write books that, ideally, move a bit like thrillers and by the time you round the bend on the last 10-15% of the book it’s like, whoosh. All the scree is kicked loose. It’s avalanche time. Rocks fall. Everybody dies.

I tend to publicly chart those potential final days of writing a novel — meaning, I talk about my progress on Twitter because basically I live on Twitter and basically I’m just a fictional digital construct of Twitter (seriously, ask my wife who is actually just an Apple Magic Trackpad if I’m real and she’ll say nothing because she’s just an Apple Magic Trackpad). I chart my word count as it escalates because it gives me an excuse to take a break from the story. It gives me motivation and momentum and it also serves as kind of a self-driven application of pressure born from the promise of telling the world: “Hey, holy shitkittens, I might finish this book today.”

At the end of the day, I wrote just shy of 10,000 words. Final tally: 9,826.

It was a big day.

I do not usually write that much in a given day.

In fact, after writing that much in a given day, my brain felt not unlike the long snarl of rotten hair you pull out of the shower drain after forgetting to clean it for about six years. It looked like the little girl crawling out of the TV in The Ring. By that point, it became a bedraggled, wretched thing. Dead and dripping. (And it’s why I went out afterwards and had margaritas and tacos with the family because that’s how I recharge my batteries. TACO FAMILY TEQUILA POWER. Woo!)

But here’s one of the responses I get when I announce this rather not-small word count.

I get people saying, “Wow, I only wrote [X] words today.”

And sometimes it’s accompanied by a kind of regret or self-deprecation (however jokey).

That variable, X, might be 100 words, or 1000, or 4,000.

But as long as it’s shy of 10k, there might arrive a sense of disappointment.

Horseshit. Stuff that disappointment.

Let’s realize something, shall we? I get to write 10,000 words in a day because I have a great deal of advantage. This advantage is not inborn — I did, in fact, work my buttpucker to get it. (Er, not literally. My buttpucker has no known skillset and no matter how much I demand it learn to complete even the simplest of tasks like chewing gum or using lightswitches, it fails to perform at every level.) It’s vital to realize, however that:

a) I’ve been working professionally as a writer for ~18 years, now.

b) I’ve been working on and off as a full-time professional writer, which means my (and my family’s) only money-making function in this world is to form the quantum entanglement between my ass molecules and my chair atoms in order to vurp words into the world and get paid for them. I do literally nothing else for money. Not even sex! I’ve tried!

c) I am now fortunate enough to have my own private SHEDQUARTERS / MYSTERY BOX / MYTH LAB, which means I have a writing shed (take a tour here!) in the woods where I can come and write and scream and drink and frolic about in whatever strange costume I have deemed appropriate on that given day. My productivity is in fact way, way up since moving into the shed. I moved into the shed at the end of December and I’ve already written two entire novels and edited two other entirely different novels.

There.

Did you feel that?

That twinge? That pinch?

When I said that last thing — “I wrote two novels since December” — you might’ve felt the same pang as when I said, “I wrote 10,000 words yesterday.” A twinge of jealousy, or panic, or disappointment in yourself.

Again, I say:

Horseshit!

Hog-hokum!

Baloneypants!

Flamingotrousers!

*shakes fist at you*

Word count matters to the professional writer because it’s the metric by which we measure the work. Freelancers often get paid per word. And most writing contracts stipulate not a number of pages or chapters or lines of dialogue or bad sexual metaphors but rather, those contracts demand a certain word count. (And different genres and age ranges will also require different word count targets.) Budgeting your word count and actually scheduling it out over a number of days can actually tell you (roughly) when you’ll start and finish writing a given book. Particularly once you really learn to start writing to spec — meaning, writing to meet the word count assigned.

Further, word count has value in that it measures actual effort. Sometimes, writing feels like an act of ditch-digging rather than art-making, and that means a single shovel-load of dirt, no matter how quality the dirt or shapely the hole dug, will not complete the job. You gotta dig a lot of dirt to dig up a ditch, so you measure the effort (the quantity) rather than the immediate result (the quality). Particularly since the quality of first draft word count can veer dizzily between:

THIS IS NOT TOO BAD

and

THIS IS A MISCARRIAGE OF LANGUAGE AND MAY BE AGAINST THE GENEVA CONVENTION.

But. But! But.

Be proud of the words you write, not the words you don’t or haven’t. If you write 100 words today, cool. If you write 1000 or 5000 or a whole 10k, fuck yeah. Jump up and high-five yourself. Yes, to be a writer, you have to write. But you also have to set realistic goals and be excited by whatever progress you make, big or small. Sure, you can push yourself — as long as you don’t break yourself (translation: check yourself, but don’t wreck yourself). Sometimes, writing is a game of inches. Sometimes it’s a act of great, clumsy leaps. You gotta take pride in the small steps as much as in the big jumps. (Bonus: my 350-words-a-day no-fuckery writing plan.)

Always remember:

Word count is not the most important or the most interesting thing about your story.

Writers tell stories, not word counts.

*drops mic*

*mic lands on a sleeping squirrel*

*squirrel is angry*

* * *

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