Thursday, 24 October 2013

Why words count



Last week's post about word count seems to have attracted more interest than most. The original Linked In discussion was also noticeably more involving than a lot of them. This set me to wondering why so many writers are quite so obsessive about word count.

I was listening to a programme on Radio Four last week (for US readers, Radio Four is the main UK talk radio channel) and it was discussing the difficulty of defining "work". It turns out that most people like to be thought of as doing quite a lot of "work" but nobody is quite sure what to include in it. My personal bete noire is when businessmen say that they work 16 hour day in which they include lunch and dinner because they're talking to colleagues, so this is obviously "work", isn't it? When I was working as a freelancer, there was always the question as to whether journey time counted as "work" or not. Given that I might be expected to travel from London to Manchester as part of the job, this was hardly a trivial issue. For writers, the whole question of what is "work" is even more difficult to pin down. Donna Tartt has apparently said in an interview that she "works" all the time, partly on the grounds that she carries a notebook with her and constantly jots down things that she might put into a novel. Given that she has written three novels in 21 years, her definition of "work" does, I think, stretch it about as far as you can. And in that last, ever so slightly bitchy, comment, we come to the nub of the concern about word count. For when I say that three books in 21 years hardly seems like full-time employment, what I am saying is, ultimately, that she doesn't write a lot each day.

Now I spent my last post ridiculing the idea that your creative effort can be measured in words per day, but here I am, doing just that. Why? Because, like all writers I want to be taken seriously as a writer and, until I win the Booker, how do I define the "work" of writing?

I could, of course, just say that a writer is anybody who writes. But, every so often, someone comes up with the idea that almost literally everybody in the country has, at some stage, started to write a book. I can quite believe it. I have even seen computer programs being sold that claim to enable you to turn your brilliant idea into prose even if you do not really have a plot, any characters or the first clue of how to write. On this definition, we are all, it appears, writers now.

I have a friend with an English degree who decided that she would like to write. She joined a Writers Circle, because people in a Writers Circle will be writers, yes? After weeks of listening to a group of not noticeably talented people reading their Special Words to each other, she gave up. The worst thing, she suggested, was the unspoken social contract whereby you agreed that the other person's Special Words were evidence of real talent in exchange for them doing the same for you. It's quite possible that some of the people in the group had real potential, but in the atmosphere of mutual onanism, nobody was ever going to find out. It does seem fair to say, though, that membership of a Circle does not make you a writer.

Once upon a time, the test of whether or not you were a writer was whether or not you had a book published. But that's hardly a test any more. Many really rather good writers are self-published or published by independent publishers that no one has ever heard of. Unfortunately, so are some people whose work, by any standard other than their own, would struggle to be judged as a "proper book". Some people have tried to replace the test of "had a book published" with "had a book published by a mainstream publisher". But, looking at the books published by mainstream publishers, I don't see that as being any test of quality either. Even after you've taken out the celebrity books (often written by someone whose name is not on the cover) you are left with some works of dubious worth. I'll name no names because it's a grey area, but we can all think of some very doubtful stuff that is getting mainstream publication these days.

So if the test isn't "I've had a book published", what defines somebody as a "real" writer? It would be nice to suggest that it is whether or not you make a living out of writing. Unfortunately (he said with feeling), the last time I looked, which was, admittedly a few years ago, the average amount made by somebody who actually writes for money was £7000 a year. Obviously Dan Brown and JK Rowling manage rather more than that, but for most writers, the idea of it paying a living wage is just ridiculous. At one level, this is quite a good definition of a writer, but it suffers from the opposite problem of defining it as "somebody who writes". While almost everybody is in the first category, practically nobody is in the latter.

I think it is the absence of any useful definition that makes us so obsessive about word counts. It's almost as if, in the community of "serious writers who haven't had a bestseller yet", we define a writer as "somebody who writes down about 1000 words a day". It's a measure of our insecurity. And we are all so very insecure. It's a lonely life and we look for all the validation we can get. And in the absence of Amazon reviews (hint, hint) and massive sales (even bigger hint), we look to our word count for the validation we aren't getting anywhere else.

That's a thousand words.

I'm a proper writer, I am.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

How many words must a writer write down, before he can rest with a beer?

There's a writers group online (it's a Linked In group) where there's been some discussion lately about the number of words that people should aim for in a day. In so far as there is a consensus, it seems to be around 1,000 words a day.

It seems a strange notion to me. Some people have argued that you have to know the number of words you will write in a day if you are writing commercially. There is some truth in this. For many years I was a hack writer – that is, I would write pretty well whatever I was asked to write for a commercial rate. This was non-fiction and it was usually written to a very tight deadline and sometimes on the basis of a competitive tender. There would usually be a contractual requirement to produce a certain number of words. Even if there wasn't, the client had an idea of the sort of length of the document that he expected to get. Knowing roughly how much I could write in a day was essential if I was going to make a living out of it, which I did reasonably successfully. However, even in these particular circumstances, the idea that I had a general "average number of words written in a day" is misleading. In some cases, I was essentially rewriting material that was provided to me, or writing something based on information readily available online. Here I would write a lot of words in a day. In other cases, I was being paid not only to write, but to research. Typically, if I was writing a project that was going to take two months, about a month might be spent researching and the second month writing. In these cases, the "number of words written per day" in the first month could well be zero, while the second month would involve quite intensive typing.

Now I write fiction, I have a completely different approach to putting words on a page. With non-fiction, written to a deadline, the important thing is to get words down. You have to write fast, sometimes to a template and usually using a kind of business language that does not concern itself overmuch with the finer points of style. Even here, there are quite significant differences in the amount of attention that has to be given to the detail of the writing and, hence, the number of words you can produce. I had a friend who wrote documents presenting government policy. Much of her work involved putting forward ideas using language that would make people more favourable to them than they might otherwise have been. She wrote far more slowly than me but she was paid much more highly because her clients needed the level of craftsmanship she brought her work. In fact, only yesterday, another friend who writes policy for government described a long exchange of e-mails over the changing of a single word. She doesn't write 1,000 words a day, and nor would anyone expect her to.

Writing fiction, I am trying to put over ideas in the most vivid way that I can. I will spend a while thinking about a situation and getting a clear idea in my own mind of what was happening and only then will I start to write it down. Sometimes, once the words start to flow, literally thousands of them will come out at once. More often, after a few hundred, things will stutter to a halt and it is only after a significant pause looking out of the window, doing the washing up and staring aimlessly into space that the next few hundred may emerge. It's often even worse than that because I write historical fiction with a very firm basis in actual events. Before I even start writing, months may be spent reading about a period without anything more than a few scratched notes emerging in the way of solid output.

I do notice that the people who most enthusiastically espouse writing high word counts often express their views with a remarkable lack of punctuation and more than occasional typos. There is, for most people, a trade-off between speed and accuracy. One person in the discussion I've been reading dismisses anyone who does not set a high word count target and stick to it. He is even more abrupt at the suggestion that anyone should spend time editing and rewriting their work. This is a man who does not use capital letters. at all. he's not that big on full stops either. If he is getting published, some editor is putting in the hours to correct this and, once we take account of that, his average is going to drop quite a bit.

If you're writing fiction nowadays, you are also expected to spend quite a lot of time writing to promote your work. That, in the end, is what this blog is all about. If I included the words I write for this in my daily target, I would have already achieved almost 1,000 words. Does that mean I only have to scratch out a few more paragraphs and then I can put my feet up with somebody else's good book? Alas, no.

In the end, writing is not a competition, won or lost on the number of words you produce. It's a completely meaningless figure. For what it's worth, the average novel nowadays probably has about 80,000 – 90,000 words in it. (Mine are a bit longer, but historical novels usually are.) My impression is that most well-known full-time authors produce, very roughly, a book a year.  That's around 230 words a day. Does this mean anything? No, it doesn't. But if somebody asks how many words you should write a day, you can tell them that 230 is a reasonable sort of average. So I've written over four days' worth now. See you next week.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Change of address - for one week only

I'm not doing a regular blog posting this week because my blog on the rise and fall of the East India Company has just been published on 'English Historical Fiction Authors'. Go and visit and read it there.

If you enjoy posts about the history of India and the events leading up to Cawnpore, you could check out these earlier blog posts here: Indian Mutiny or War of Independence?, Nana Sahib, It was 155 years ago today, and The aftermath of Cawnpore.