2016-04-10

How Important Are Word Counts

Update
I took a short break from writing all last week. Yesterday, I opened up the Word document with the comments from Lee on Dragonverse Origins. I was expecting a bunch of red. I found very little. I had given Lee an early copy of the first half of the book and he made some comments. That was when I was working on professionalizing the books of the Galactic Alliance series. When I finally went back to writing Origins, I started from the beginning to refamiliarize myself with the book. I also incorporated Lee's suggestions. That's why he had so few comments.

I also applied a lesson that took me some time to learn - don't rush the ending. It was one of my faults and it's been pointed out to me on several occasions by several people. I normally set a goal of 85,000  words when I begin a new novel. Once I hit that goal, there's a psychological push to end the book -- soon. By that time, I'm to the point where I want to hurry up, end the book, and begin the process of getting it ready for publication. In short -- I'm rushing.

I was very tempted to rush the ending of Origins as well. This time, I didn't and Lee's comments are a reflection of that change in behavior. The book clocks in at just over 98,000 words. That's a hefty novel! But not rushing has made it a far better book.

I am now in the process of doing my editing pass. The book's next stop will be my wife who is tasked with making sure I've found and corrected all the bad grammar. She also does a bit of content editing but I've made few changing in a story due to her comments (mostly because she is not a big fan of science fiction). When I get her comments back and the changes incorporated, I will be sending the book to a reader in Germany for his take. During all this, I'm searching for a cover.

I was supposed to meet with the person who might do the cover yesterday but a Spring snow storm resulted in our staying home. The writer's group meeting was also canceled (at the last minute) and I didn't feel bad about not making the trip to the bookstore. I spent the day with my wife and left Twitter and the internet alone.

Word Counts
Several authors I know maintain a historical record of their daily word counts. One has automated the process to the point where it is now completely automatic. He can pull up historical graphs and charts showing his daily word count going back for years. I've always questioned the value of doing something like that. But Scrivener makes it easy and I've found myself looking at the daily word count more often than not as well as reporting it here in my blog. The question I'm forced to ask is: does it matter?

Counting the number of words you've achieved on a daily basis can be a measure of your productivity. But what about when you're editing? I can easily spend 5 hours editing something I've written, making changes here and there and at the end of the day end up with a negative number on my word count. I've been very productive, but the word count shows I've actually failed miserably.

Word counts can serve as a 'push' to get a writer going. "Crap! I have to make my 1,000 words today and it's almost midnight!" But is that a good thing? Writing words just for the sake of writing them is never a good thing. You'll end up deleting them in the future if they're bad enough or spending so much time editing them that you've actually wasted time.

In my case, setting a word count goal for the total size of a book gives me an artificial target to shoot for. Once I hit that target, my mind starts telling me I need to hurry up and end the book. It can result in rushing the ending. When you're writing a novel, having a set number of words as your goal can have a negative influence on the quality of your writing. If the book is moving along well and you pass the mid-point in the story but you're only 30% of your target word count, you're going to be tempted to start adding scenes that don't add value.

Word counts are important if you're a short story writer. Magazines and anthologies have word count guidelines and you must remain cognisant of those guidelines as you write. That's one reason I'm not a short story writer. If you write novels, then setting a target word count is an artificial goal and it should be adjusted as the book progresses. Counting daily word production can be a useful tool and it does give you a way of reporting to others just how hard you've been working. But meeting your daily goal can cause you to write junk. If you're struggling with a scene and after 3 hours of head-banging thinking, you crank out 125 words, then you've had a good day. On the other hand, if the story is flowing along and you're 'in the zone', then blasting out 4,000 words is also a great day. A daily word count is a subjective and artificial goal.

Rushing
Earlier on, I said I have a tendency to rush my endings. Patience in this day and age seems to be a characteristic of people that is rapidly fading away. I see it every day and in all aspects of our lives. People expect things to happen NOW. Back when I was young, I communicated with my friends via snail mail (even the name denotes slowness). I would write a letter and send it off. A week or two later, I would get a response. If I needed something now, I would pick up the phone and call. This was back when all phones were based on land-line technology and people often were not at home. If I was lucky, that person had an answering machine.

Today, we communicate via instant messaging, texting, emails, and even direct phone calls. But the communications device is often within reach of the person you are trying to contact and that person will respond within seconds. I can order something off Amazon and it will be at my house in two days. In the past, we would search through catalogs, fill out a mail-order form or pick up the phone and call it in and we would have our goods in 3 to 5 weeks. Dial-up modems are a thing of the past and now the internet runs at megabit speeds.

All of this has happened within a single lifetime! People have forgotten how to slow down and enjoy life. If fact, if you're one of those people who haven't forgotten and you have patience, you'll find yourself being asked to hurry up. This sort of attitude is spreading into all aspects of our lives. If we sit down at a nice restaurant and the service is a bit slow (often due to a person calling off) the server gets blamed for being slow. Highway speeds are set for a reason but few people follow the law. The police don't even enforce the speed limit unless you're driving at least 10 miles an hour over the limit. Our tendency to rush is now putting us in danger.

People tailgate because they don't have the patience to wait. They think they can intimidate the person in front of them to speed up by riding their bumper. It causes accidents. People zoom through yellow lights because they don't have the patience to sit at a red light for 60 seconds. When the light does turn green, they hit the accelerator and slam into the person who just ran the light because neither of them have any patience. Even daily conversation is being affected. Listen carefully sometime and you'll see it. People talk over others and they don't listen to what the other person is saying because they're thinking about how to frame their reply so they can immediately blurt it out.

We live in a world of instant gratification and it's beginning to affect the quality of our lives. People don't interact with other people the way we used to. When I was a young child, I remember my mother spending all day in the kitchen baking. The neighbors would come over and my mom would sit and socialize over a cup of percolated coffee. Things were slower and more laid back then. Now, we have coffee makers that produce a cup of coffee in under 2 minutes. We don't bake our own foods. Socialization is done at such a speed it's a wonder we ever get to know the people we call friends.

I'm not going to rush my endings because it makes for a better book. If our lives are a story being written fresh every day, then why would we want to rush through any of it? Slow down. Savor your existence. Learn how to be patient. You will live a much better life.

Time to get back to editing.