Word Count: Hit Your Daily Number or You’ll Never Get a Novel Completed

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

Do I own 500 words a day or do they own me?

Note: I’m writing about my experience with process in my writing, specifically my fiction. I find observations about creativity from other artists useful. If you don’t like personal observations, as opposed to more academic ones, then be forewarned!

When you set out to write a novel, the first thing you should forget about is whether it is any good. It’s not. But you have the ability to fix it later, so don’t fix things now. Why? Because you will never understand the direction it wants to take on its own. I know this sounds pretty mysterious, but trust me. Don’t edit as you go. It’s fine to fix typos and I know there are writers who read the entire thing everyday before they continue writing (aka ‘masochists’), but try not to decide what you wrote sucks, even if it does. You have to just keep banging it out.

I have a fascination for process when it comes to writing. When something happens to me as a writer, I go out there and look for interviews, memoirs, and other reveals about technique from writers I love and respect. I want to know if these mysterious things are universal or a quirk. They are almost always universal, at least among the writers I prefer. For example, I know writers who have worked on a novel for years and those who write them in a month. There is little correlation between time spent and quality, so far as I can see.

My personal indicator that a project is going well is word count. Not the total, the daily output. If I can do at least 500 daily on a steady basis then I know a novel is emerging. It may be ugly and covered in blood and mucus but as long as it is squealing I know it is alive. You can always wash off the mess.

I self-published my first novel, in part because I just wasn’t sure it was good enough to run the gauntlet of agents, editors, and publishers. Now, a few years later I’m polishing it up and planning to try the traditional publishing route. The reinforcement that made me change my mind was the emergence of a sequel, a second volume taking the characters deeper into the world I’d created. It poured out, though I’d had no intention of writing a sequel.

After finishing the first one, and writing a good chunk of the second one, I diverted myself. A very different story needed to be told that had no connection to my world-building. So I had a third one and it was slow going, in part because it deals with a very serious set of subjects (suicide and the recovery of a spouse). It was important to get it right and it was coming out slowly. Then it stalled. So I went back to my sequel, which was writing itself.

Now, the suicide book has come back to life and I find myself working on two different fiction projects while editing a third. Considering that the writing that makes my living generally adds up to 1000 or more words daily, trying to do 500 word chunks on the novels is a stretch. Or is it?

Stephen King treats writing as a job and writes a large word count daily. It is hard to argue with his output and his success, though I am not a huge fan (just not interested in horror- I really respect his skill at storytelling). Other writers might do a page a day or less. Some claim to be happy with a sentence or two. There is a definition for obsessive compulsive behavior.

I’m too old to spend years writing a first draft. I have stories to tell and I started late in life with fiction (I’ve written nine non-fiction books, all nationally published, nothing very interesting). In my non-fiction daily word counts were critical. I often only had a few months to crank a title out. But in my failed attempts at a novel I was not applying this simple discipline. I waited for inspiration. Big mistake.

It was only when I made myself hit a daily word count on a fiction project that it began to take a coherent shape, a shape that eventually emerged as a story, a world, and a set of characters that I care about. They have lives of their own with rules not of my making. This is fascinating and the only way I can reach it is with that word count. It opened the door to the creative subconscious.

So let me break this down a bit. First, I’m not a plotter, I’m a pantser. I always leave an opening at the end of a day’s writing that helps me pick it up the next day, stopping when I can see the next scene. Hemingway called it ‘leaving some gas in the tank’. As I stated at the beginning, I do not believe in extensive editing or rewriting until you’ve finished a draft. My five hundred words almost always takes around half an hour, but it is a half hour of weirdly intense focus. This generally takes place after my brief fifteen minute meditation session in the morning. I honestly don’t know if there is a correlation.

I do know that I have to do this before I do any marketing work or even a Medium piece like this. Fiction uses a different part of the mind and I need to keep them apart.

Do I own 500 words a day or do they own me?

Note: I’m writing about my experience with process in my writing, specifically my fiction. I find observations about creativity from other artists useful. If you don’t like personal observations, as opposed to more academic ones, then be forewarned!

When you set out to write a novel, the first thing you should forget about is whether it is any good. It’s not. But you have the ability to fix it later, so don’t fix things now. Why? Because you will never understand the direction it wants to take on its own. I know this sounds pretty mysterious, but trust me. Don’t edit as you go. It’s fine to fix typos and I know there are writers who read the entire thing everyday before they continue writing (aka ‘masochists’), but try not to decide what you wrote sucks, even if it does. You have to just keep banging it out.

I have a fascination for process when it comes to writing. When something happens to me as a writer, I go out there and look for interviews, memoirs, and other reveals about technique from writers I love and respect. I want to know if these mysterious things are universal or a quirk. They are almost always universal, at least among the writers I prefer. For example, I know writers who have worked on a novel for years and those who write them in a month. There is little correlation between time spent and quality, so far as I can see.

My personal indicator that a project is going well is word count. Not the total, the daily output. If I can do at least 500 daily on a steady basis then I know a novel is emerging. It may be ugly and covered in blood and mucus but as long as it is squealing I know it is alive. You can always wash off the mess.

I self-published my first novel, in part because I just wasn’t sure it was good enough to run the gauntlet of agents, editors, and publishers. Now, a few years later I’m polishing it up and planning to try the traditional publishing route. The reinforcement that made me change my mind was the emergence of a sequel, a second volume taking the characters deeper into the world I’d created. It poured out, though I’d had no intention of writing a sequel.

After finishing the first one, and writing a good chunk of the second one, I diverted myself. A very different story needed to be told that had no connection to my world-building. So I had a third one and it was slow going, in part because it deals with a very serious set of subjects (suicide and the recovery of a spouse). It was important to get it right and it was coming out slowly. Then it stalled. So I went back to my sequel, which was writing itself.

Now, the suicide book has come back to life and I find myself working on two different fiction projects while editing a third. Considering that the writing that makes my living generally adds up to 1000 or more words daily, trying to do 500 word chunks on the novels is a stretch. Or is it?

Stephen King treats writing as a job and writes a large word count daily. It is hard to argue with his output and his success, though I am not a huge fan (just not interested in horror- I really respect his skill at storytelling). Other writers might do a page a day or less. Some claim to be happy with a sentence or two. There is a definition for obsessive compulsive behavior.

I’m too old to spend years writing a first draft. I have stories to tell and I started late in life with fiction (I’ve written nine non-fiction books, all nationally published, nothing very interesting). In my non-fiction daily word counts were critical. I often only had a few months to crank a title out. But in my failed attempts at a novel I was not applying this simple discipline. I waited for inspiration. Big mistake.

It was only when I made myself hit a daily word count on a fiction project that it began to take a coherent shape, a shape that eventually emerged as a story, a world, and a set of characters that I care about. They have lives of their own with rules not of my making. This is fascinating and the only way I can reach it is with that word count. It opened the door to the creative subconscious.

So let me break this down a bit. First, I’m not a plotter, I’m a pantser. I always leave an opening at the end of a day’s writing that helps me pick it up the next day, stopping when I can see the next scene. Hemingway called it ‘leaving some gas in the tank’. As I stated at the beginning, I do not believe in extensive editing or rewriting until you’ve finished a draft. My five hundred words almost always takes around half an hour, but it is a half hour of weirdly intense focus. This generally takes place after my brief fifteen minute meditation session in the morning. I honestly don’t know if there is a correlation.

I do know that I have to do this before I do any marketing work or even a Medium piece like this. Fiction uses a different part of the mind and I need to keep them apart.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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