Yesterday, I wrote 1,721 words on my work-in-progress, otherwise known as my WIP. Today I wrote 1,652. Proud of myself, except that it got me to thinking about measuring writing, if you can do such a thing. Most writers I know judge their daily progress by words written. They set a daily goal—for many it is a thousand words. And they judge themselves at the end of the day and then at the end of the week by how many words they have written. Lord knows I’m among the guiltiest.
Mostly here I’m talking about mysteries, because those are the authors I know who fall into this word trap—and I hasten to add that not all of them do. But bear in mind that the average mystery runs about 80,000 words, so if you wrote a thousand words a day, it would take you eighty days to write a novel, not counting weekends, holidays, and those days when the words just don’t flow.
The downside to all this is that there’s a temptation to set increasingly more difficult goals for yourself. Mine used to be a thousand words a day, but with this new novel the words seem to come easier and I’m averaging about 1500 a day. So now that becomes my goal, and if I only make a thousand, I feel somehow deficient. I’ve slacked off, not tried hard enough, given up. It becomes a contest with yourself.
Of course, the goal of writing should be quality, not quantity. But that somehow eludes many of us. My mysteries these days are indie published, which means I publish them. So I have no deadlines. I may say to myself that I want to get this novel out in time for summer beach reading, but there is no contract under which I’ll be punished if I miss the deadline. No one cares but me.
On the other hand, some among mystery writers—and I’m taking this from posts by Sisters in Crime—believe that what really matters is getting that first draft written. Just pile up the words. You’re going back to revise and edit anyway, and that’s the time to seek quality, not quantity. Some writers do five or ten drafts—or more—before they are satisfied with a manuscript.
I don’t. I tend to write it, go back and check for inconsistencies, awkward phrases, repetition, etc. But I rarely if ever revise to the point of changing major structures in the plot. So what I write is pretty much what stays there and becomes the final book.
When I moved from writing western historical fiction to mysteries, a move I haven’t really finalized yet and don’t intend to, I discovered a whole new world of everything from rough drafts to agents and publishers and, most of all, promotion or marketing or whatever you want to call finding clever ways to say, “Please buy my book.” But one big thing I learned was the difference between plotters and pantsers. Plotters map out the book in advance. Well before that first sentence, they have down on paper what is going to happen in each chapter, how it fits into the arc of the book, and so on. They know how each character looks and feels and how they will act. When you write historical fiction, this is easier, because history gives you the road map.
When you’re a pantser, like me, that road map is not there. Literally, I write by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea, and often it’s the first sentence that gets me going. But then I’m off and rolling—at least that’s what I hope. The plot unravels as I write. Frequently I can’t tell you until well into the novel who is the murderer, sometimes not even who is the victim. My characters surprise me and take the book in wildly different turns.
Texas novelist the late Elmer Kelton used to say, “Listen to your characters, and they will tell you what’s going to happen.” I have known very few authors who disagree with this.
With the cozy mystery I’m currently writing, a culinary novel set in contemporary Chicago (my hometown), I am fortunate because the plot easily moves along, often without my interference. For instance, yesterday when I was napping and semi-asleep, I worked out the backstory that the protagonist needs to know to solve the mystery. So now I have notes that will carry me forward for several days. And I find maybe the mystery is going to be a small part of the story. The relationship between characters is the main story.
Writing, for me, is an exciting process of discovery. But I wish I could get over the fixation with word counts. Even as I say that, I’m checking to see how long this blog post is and finding its way longer than most. Sorry.