I don’t know if it’s because of NaNoWriMo or just that everyone likes quantifiable markers of progress, but writers–especially new writers–seem to place an extraordinary amount of emphasis on word count. This seems very wrong-headed to me for several reasons, but I’m only going to discuss one in this post.
It’s easy to let numbers get in the way of progress or become a false marker of it. I hate seeing writers (usually on Twitter) feel deflated because they didn’t reach their daily word count. Writing is a complex art. It’s hard enough without piling some arbitrary goal like the number of words one can click out on top of it. I don’t have a daily word count. I try to write a little every day, but sometimes “writing” means daydreaming about my characters while I do dishes or wash my hair, plotting scenes on a spreadsheet, or reading about writing. I’ve released two novels, a novella, and a short story this year and didn’t fret about the word count a single day.
Sometimes life gets in the way of writing. It just does. This is okay. Sometimes the words flow. Sometimes they don’t. To me, obsessing about word count can interfere with this natural rhythm, stressing out writers who need to relax so they can write more. I often see people setting their daily writing goals too high. So many people want to knock out 3,000 or more words a day. I often don’t write more than 1,500 words on “paper” per day. I write, however, in some form or another, every day.
Writing is too beautiful, too meaningful, to turn into some sort of drudgery. It should be something that is difficult at times, but mostly fun–like a thrilling, high-maintenance lover. It should never be like working at a factory turning out widgets. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your word count requirements, please take a deep breath and remember to ENJOY writing. If you have to back off and read about it, that’s time well-spent. Learning how to craft a story is far more important than banging out some arbitrary number of words.
And here’s the fun part–a good story will naturally result in a good word count. If you have interesting characters, a fleshed out plot with a satisfying resolution, a world of specific details, and stimulating dialogue–I can guarantee that story has a good word count.
No. There isn’t. There are as many ways of doing something as there are people on the planet. I hate writing instructors (or reviewers) who act as if there is only one way of writing or one kind of book. (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to get upset with reviewers. They are entitled to their opinions, and I believe that wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel butt hurt when one doesn’t understand the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story.)
But back to writing tips. Years ago, I was in a writing group where one writer berated another for saying she couldn’t control her characters. I knew exactly what the ‘I can’t control them’ writer meant. To some extent, that’s how I write. My characters come to me in an organic fashion. Writing often feels more like an archeological dig than a creative process. I feel like I’m discovering the characters, discovering the story. There’s something profoundly Jungian about it.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to step in more. I’ll have a flash of inspiration for a plot point or an attitude shift and insert them and watch the story reorder itself. Or I’ll give the protagonist a nudge in the ribs. I can’t even fathom the sort of rational mind who views the characters as chess pieces and feels in control of everything. I’m not arrogant enough to think that person is wrong. I realize they are different. It’s okay for people to be different. Why do so many of us have a problem with that?
I was thinking about Kite from Lover, Destroyer today. I pick on him a lot, but I feel deeply sorry for him. As soon as I thought that, I wondered what the Vulcan from that writing group would have said. “You created his backstory! You created him–how can you feel sorry for him? That’s insane?”
Well, yeah. But I didn’t intentionally create him. He came to me that way. Damaged, possessing a frightening power, manipulated into doing something that preys on his conscience for the rest of his life. Technically, I created him. But I swear, he was broken when I found him.
There are many ways to do the same thing. Mine just happens to be a bit insane. And I’m perfectly fine with that.
Sometimes I get writer’s block because I’m out of ideas for a story, stressed and having trouble relaxing or focusing, or just need to get a better feel for the backstory. These are all things that can be solved rather easily through writing exercises, or simple things like mediation, bathing, or going for a walk.
However, for me, sometimes I have writer’s block because I’m depressed. It’s almost a warning sign that something is wrong with me. In that case, taking a quick inventory of what is happening in my life can sometimes help me track what might be causing the depression. Clinical depression is serious. If you think you may be clinically depressed, please seek help. I’m bipolar, so I see a therapist on a regular basis. I also see a psychiatrist periodically and take medication for my illness.
For me, the red flags that I’m not just having writer’s block but am sinking into depression are:
- Either sleeping too much or waking up too early.
- Not paying attention to personal hygiene. (Like wearing the same clothes several days!)
- Overeating (especially sweet stuff.)
- Withdrawing (more than usual–I’m an introvert, so I’m always somewhat withdrawn.)
- Not wanting to do anything, not being interested in anything.
Number 5 is where writing comes in. I’m interested in and passionate about many things, but writing is where my heart is. If I’m not writing–and maybe not even wanting to try some writing exercises–I know that’s a big, flashing warning sign that I’m not okay.
One of the worst bits of advice I ever got regarding writer’s block was someone online suggesting to take a break from writing and not write until you feel like it. Maybe that works for some people, but for me it sent me into a downward spiral of not writing that lasted over a year. Not writing led to more not writing, and I became more and more depressed. Once depression gets a toehold, it’s easier for it to get worse.
So, instead, I recommend being mindful of how your body is functioning and how you’re feeling. Make sure that your writer’s block isn’t a cue that something else is going on.
Sometimes trying to write can be daunting. Here are some questions I ask my POV character when I’m having trouble getting into a scene.
1. Who are you?
2. What are you doing?
3. What do you want?
4. Are you alone? If not, who are you with and how do you feel about them? Why?
5. What are you wearing? Is there anything significant about anything you’re wearing?
6. Where are you? What does it smell like? What does it feel like–emotionally and in a tactile sense?
7. What do you see?
8. What do you hear?
9. What day, month, year, season, time of day is it?
10. Is there anything significant about today?
These things will usually get me moving. Happy writing!