When I wrote my first completed novel, I had a goal of 10 long-hand pages a day. When I wrote my second novel (my first NaNoWriMo), I had a goal of 1667 words a day. Continuing on through several other novels, I had daily word count goals, and most days I met or exceeded them. I participated in word-count challenges with fellow writers and I had fun.
But then I stopped making my word count goals. I tried again, on and off, but it didn’t stick.
What happened? I’ve been thinking about this for years, trying to find the answer, and I think that I’ve finally found it–the fuel ran out.
Daily word counts are a tool–and whether a good or bad one depends on the writer. They are a measuring stick designed to get us to make progress. We like quantifying and numbers and charts. We see them all the time, and in something like writing a story, it’s nice to be able to quantify it, isn’t it?
It is, but at the same time, I think setting word count goals need to be combined with other motivations. In my past prolific novelist life, when I could write nearly as long as you’d let me, it gave me a stopping mark. A place to say, “Okay, I’ve done it. Time to fold the laundry.” However, without the fuel of passion, word counts became a grind. During past NaNoWriMos, I’d heard people telling others that if they got stuck on their words to (literally) throw non-sequitor ninjas into the story or an explosion. And if that works, that’s fabulous. But it also impressed on me that when you’re doing that, you might just be writing for the numbers, not the story. In that case, I think it’s more valuable to not worry about your word count and spend some time figuring out what happens next, or why you’ve hit the stumbling block you have.
Storytelling is an art, and art can be difficult to formulate into numbers because numbers are far easier to grasp and understand than your imagination. Word counts are made with good intentions–a goal post to make deadlines–a sign of progress–but they aren’t the end all of storytelling.
So if you aren’t writing to word count, what is the alternatives?
1) Writing until you feel done (or you run out of time).
2) Writing to the end of the scene.
3) Writing until the end of the chapter.
4) Writing until you reach the end of the event in the story (which may or may not fall under 2 or 3).
5) Timed writing.
Options 2-5 still have a feeling of “word count” goal writing, and while Option 1 is my preference, I recognize that it’s vague. Yet I still think of the days when I set 1,000-word goals, and regularly got 2,000-3,000 words in a sitting–on those days, I simply wrote until I was done, and I was satisfied–and satisfied with what I got. Nothing felt forced or invented just to keep the words coming.
Not all parts of storytelling are activities we look forward to–revising seems to cause a common procrastination malady and needing to set goals to gain progress (which I also found hard–if I do 10 pages a day and those 10 pages are clean, does that mean I get the day off?). At the same time, many of us are telling stories simply because we want to tell stories. I want to believe that if we are truly excited enough about this story that’s in our minds, we won’t need number goals to get us through the story. Idealistic? Yes. I’m not saying that word count goals are, in themselves, terrible, but they can be a crutch to be aware of. In recent years, a hard goal of X words a day hasn’t worked, and neither has something vague like “write when I want to.”
Yet, I remember those days–those days when I had word counts, but they weren’t the point. Telling the story was. I haven’t found the path back there yet, but maybe when the right idea steals me away again….