How I learned to stop worrying about wordcount and love telling stories again
So one of the questions people who want to be professional writers ask me is, "How much do you write a day?"
This is code.
It's code for, "How much do I have to write a day to be a professional writer?"
So here's an answer to the question people who want to be professional writers want to ask.
The answer is, "Some."
I track my wordcount. I do it for two reasons.
One is so that when my brain tells me that I am a horrible lump of flesh who just sits around on Twitter all day, I can say, "Nuh uh, I wrote over 200,000 words last year, despite all the traveling!" And despite all the days when I produced no words at all.
(Also, for me, I only get an endorphin cookie from my brain when I finish a project. So I need palpable things that I can use to reward myself along the way, or I get sad and despairing and feel like I'm spinning in sand. Watching that finish line creep closer makes a huge emotional difference.)
It's also so I have a reasonable idea of what I can produce consistently, so I can set my deadlines in a reasonable fashion that allows me time to have a life.
I know what the maximum I can produce in a year is. It's about 600,000 words.
That's actually a pretty unreasonable amount of words. If I were doing that much work every year, I would basically not be able to do anything else. And I would have to establish a couple of pseudonyms to have markets for my work, because I would autocompete "Elizabeth Bear" off the market.
And I think my quality would slip a lot, too, because the year I did that I didn't edit a great deal, and I certainly didn't have promo and production deadlines to deal with. Or a life. And I trashed my health.
Also, my boyfriend would leave me, and my dog and my mother would sulk.
And, honestly, I write more slowly now than I did then. Again, for two reasons. One is that my draft copy is honestly a lot better. It's doing more things, and I think it's more fun to read.
The other is because, well, I've written 27 novels and 110 short stories. At this point, I've said all the easy, glib things that were in me to say. I have to think up new things now, and thinking takes a lot longer than typing.
I'm thinking right now, in fact. Before dinner tonight with friends in Boston, I took a nice long walk around Commonwealth Avenue and the Common looking at the lights in the trees and the skaters on the ice and trying to figure out how the story I'm working on now ends.
I have everything but the ending. The walk didn't produce it, but it probably brought me closer.
I could write an ending that was just the first or second things I thought of, but neither of those were the right ending, the ending that gave me a little shiver of recognition when I thought of it. So, I will walk and think some more. Maybe tomorrow.
Fallow time matters. Recharging the well matters. Thinking new thoughts matters. Reading new books matters, for all of that.
So, in practical terms, how much do I write a day?
My best day ever was a little over 8,000 words. I've also written over 7,000 once, and a couple of times broken six. I get up after a day like that with aching hands and no will to live, though. It exhausts me.
The fastest I have ever written a book was By The Mountain Bound, which I wrote in June of 2002. I don't know the exact dates, but basically, I sat down at my keyboard and it fell out of my head. Of course, there was a 4-day cross-country drive in a limping Chevy truck with no radio immediately before that.
I had some time to let my brain ponder, is what I'm saying.
Also, it was my third novel. And it was the third novel with those characters, so I knew them. Writing was easier then (writing gets harder the better you get at it) and I had a fair amount of time to let the back of my brain chew on things along the way.
But my averagedaily wordcount varies, depending on the year, from somewhere between 700-1200 words per day.
Three to five pages.
And yet I have a reputation as an extremely fast, extremely prolific writer. I write at about the maximum capacity my career, under one name, can support. And I think I am writing at a comfortable pace these days, within myself, that allows me time to produce a good amount of quality work--without often being forced to turn in something that's hasty or raw. (It does happen, of course. Deadlines get away from one. Family members get ill. Non-writing professional demands, like promotional appearances, proliferate.)
That's two novels a year, guys. Or a novel and a pile of short stories. Or a novel, some short stories, some essays.
(I don't count blogging and so forth, unless it's paid in some way.)
Basically, an ability to generate massive wordcount is not a prerequisite for being a writer. In some ways, I feel that focusing exclusively on wordcount can be a detriment, because we start thinking of our productivity only in terms of new words. And not brilliant ideas or masterful sentences or character moments soaked in humor, pathos, or both.
Or braining. Braining matters a lot. If I force myself to write when I don't have the braining in place, I'll wind up throwing all that away.
I'll tell you a secret. For a while, I quit tracking word count, actually, because I was getting into a mindset of "I must have X words evey day or I am a horrible person!" Tracking wordcount was becoming very bad for me. The compulsive workaholic equivalent of calorie-counting to somebody with disordered eating issues.
At the time, it was bad for me. Bad for the muse, and--far more importantly than the muse--bad for the timid little mammal who lives down in my belly blinking its big dewy eyes and shivering its big translucent ears and generally needing all the encouragement I can give it to get up in the morning and get back on the damned hamster wheel for another hard day running in place.
That animal needs encouragement. It needs cookies. It needs rewards.
I bribe it with nice clothes and gadgets if it finishes a project. "Look, little shivery animal. Finish the book and I will buy you a nice warm sweater in a pretty color! I will buy you a pair of frivolous shoes!"
It works out much better than kicking it ever did.
We're so hard on ourselves, and as a by-product, we inadvertently train ourselves to avoid our creative work. Because we punish ourselves with really brutal goals, for example.
(Which is not to say that an all-night cram session can't be fun, of course. It's fun to push yourself sometimes, and sometimes in the 11th hour it's really nice to get the damned book over with any way you can. In fact, if I could figure out how, I would like my books to generate by montage. With 80s music.
And a succession of cute outfits to show time passing. I'd progress from fingerless gloves and a knitted scarf, a candle by my keyboard, to a long summer evening of slanted light and a wind ruffling my hair as if through an unseen window. Maybe we could watch me type from the point of view of a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding from trumpet vines in the yard or something.)
Anyway, I started tracking again, because I was feeling like I didn't do enough work. But now I make a bigger effort not to goal shift on the little critter, and to make sure it has a nice warm cave with cuddly blankets, and some healthy food to eat, and other little animals to cuddle with sometimes.
The important thing is finding a way to get to a good story, preferably in the time frame in which I promised to deliver it. Not in making sure I spend a certain number of hours on the hamster wheel every day.
Today I wrote about four pages. Pretty good ones, I think. Tomorrow I might work on something else, though, because I still don't know how this story ends.