Kelly Maher

A word, or many, on word counts

I’ve been very lucky in the guise of alter ego to make friends with a lot of authors. There are quite a few I admire from a business standpoint as well as from a storytelling standpoint. I pick their brains for how they conduct the business of writing. I’m very lucky that they’re so willing to share their experiences. A number of my friends are also high-producing writers. From the outside, this appears to be a part of their success. Because they produce so much, they get that much more practice in the craft of writing. Because they get so much more practice in the craft of writing, they produce better quality work with every new project they tackle. Because they produce better quality work, they are recognized by readers as creating well-crafted stories. Because readers recognize they create well-crafted stories, readers buy lots of their books. Because readers buy lots of their books, they presumably make a very nice living for themselves. And because they produce so much, they also have large backlists for readers to purchase 🙂

Do I believe if I imitate my friends to the letter in how they work, I’ll magically become a “famous” and best-selling author like they are? Hell no.

The primary thing I as a writer can control is producing the best possible story I can write. That’s it. I would like to produce a lot of best-possible-stories-I-can-write. I can control that, too. Were I to choose the self-publishing route, I could control the availability of the stories, but as I’ve mentioned before, that’s not a task I’m willing to take on at this time. What I cannot control is reader response to my stories. I cannot control the purchase of my stories. I could write a story worthy of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, but if no one wants to buy them, what am I doing with my valuable time? I’m a commercial writer which means I write for money. While it would be cool to say I won the Pulitzer and Nobel (and yes, I’m perfectly aware the Nobel is generally awarded for body of work rather than one item of work), and the award would provide me with some greater name recognition with the public in the year I received the award, I also don’t write the type of story which is generally recognized by those award committees.

In the pursuit of producing both better quality work, and more of it, I made the decision earlier this year to give myself a production word goal. I’m pretty sure I’ve discussed this before in various places, so I hope I don’t retread too badly. From June 1st when I started actively writing Project Ulna until August 31st which was the original date I had as the deadline for Project Ulna, I produced 105,422 words. That encompassed the first draft of PU, the first 40% of Project Occipital, and the start of Project Maxilla. My goal for the year was to produce 100,000 words. Done. As I’ve previously noted, halfway through PU, I hit a wall. I changed my methods. That change resulted me in producing more words at a faster rate. Part of my decision process was this article on “Changing Your Process” by Ann Aguirre. That post grew out of conversations I had with Ann, and I know I was one of many people discussing the topic with her.

I’ve burned myself out before by ramping up my writing targets too quickly. I worried I was doing the same as I upped my goal after only a month and a half of working at a pace of 1000 words per day, every day. The new pace was 2000 words, but only for five of seven days a week. I’m positive I succeeded because of changing the time of day I was writing in addition to the amount of words. If I had continued writing after the day job and increased the word count, I would have failed utterly and been back in the mental cycle of cursing myself for reaching too high, too quickly. I am in no way a morning person, but I am a morning writer. I’m not bogged down by thoughts of what happened at the day job. Part of my brain is still asleep and is not telling the more creative side to tweak this or that. I also write crap first drafts. I vomit words onto the page with the expectation I’ll be changing, cutting, or adding as part of the edit process. What also works for me is having a very rough outline of where I see the story going in the space of the words I’m trying to achieve that day. Very often I diverge from that plan, but it gives me something to center on when I begin a writing session.

Yesterday, Labor Day in the US (ie. off from the day job), my pre-assigned word count goal was 4500 words. In the last month of working on PU, and confirmed by the first week of working on PO, I realized that I can average 500 words per 15 minute session. I use the timer on my phone. When obtaining words feel like pulling teeth, I can usually get at least 400 words in that time frame. When it flows, I’ve hit around 650 words. One time I came close to 700. I will sometimes write an extra minute or two to finish out a thought. I try to limit myself to 5 minute breaks between writing sessions so I can do three full sessions in a one hour period. This means I can get around 1500 words per hour of writing. Yesterday morning, my first session netted me just over 1700 words, the second just over 1800, and the last just under 1600. I hit exactly 5100 words for the day. In three hours of dedicated writing. I scheduled out my day via a to do list rather than specific times. I started with twelve points, but added two more. I had twelve of them, eleven of the original (number twelve was dinner) checked off by 6 pm. I started working on the list around 9 am. Those points included writing sessions, exercise sessions (I often walk laps in my apartment for thirty minute intervals), and household chores. I was able to do all of this because I know myself, and I know my writing process.

If you’re only beginning your writing career, beware of burnout. Writing is exercise for your brain. Starting small and gradually increasing generally means you’ll be able to sustain a faster pace. Only a blessed few can run a marathon with no prior experience and no training. The same goes for writing a novel. It is a marathon, make no mistake about it. Part of why I’m currently working on novellas is because I crave the high of getting to “The End” faster. It also means that I’m going to have two to three different items available for sale as opposed to one were I to write a novel of comparable combined length. According to the word count on WordPress, between this post and one for alter ego, I’ve written an additional 1600 words for the day (I generally write these posts the day before for scheduling purposes). 6700 words for the day not including emails and tweets. Maybe I can give Maya Banks a run for her money one day 😉

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