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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-11-17 04:55
Subject: [process] On Word Count
Security: Public
Tags:books, process, sunspin, writing
I made the following remark on Twitter and Facebook yesterday about word count:
"Wondering how much writers are intimidated by wordcount... novels used to seem impossibly long to me."

The responses, especially on Facebook, were interesting and varied. Click through that link and go read. I'll still be here when you get back, I promise.

One thing that I found fascinating was how few people seemed to share my orginal assumption. Specifically, when I first started writing, the idea of completing a novel-length manuscript seemed horrendously intimidating to me. This is related to, but not bound up in, my concept of "span of control". High word count seemed unattainable. That is to say, I shied away from big, complex stories.

Another interesting bit is how many people seem to be indifferent to word count, at least in my comment thread. While I no longer am spooked by it (Sunspin will be 600,000-750,000 of first draft, I believe), I also don't obsess about it. But word count is a useful tool for measuring daily productivity and assessing the progress of a project. And in Microsoft Word, at least, the word count is in the window footer, until you hit the bug at 100,000 words. (That application was clearly not designed by anyone who wrote at length.)

Like I said, to me word count is just a tool. An interesting one, with applications ranging from idea sizing to market targeting to contractual factors to productivity measurement and progress assessment. My emotional relationship with word count has improved immeasurably as my career progresses.

What does it mean to you? How closely do you pay attention to word count? Why?

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User: eljaydaly
Date: 2010-11-17 13:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I identify freakishly with "the idea of completing a novel-length manuscript seemed horrendously intimidating to me." Right now I'm trying not to obsess over word count. Better to get the right words, ones that won't result in another dead end. Better to make sure I put the time in, using the clock as my measure of progress. I do hope that once I figure out how to manage this horrific span-of-control mental wall, I'll go back to using a daily word count as a goal.

You give me hope, though, as always with your process posts--so thank you! I'll continue to watch this space.
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Reynardo the Red
User: reynardo
Date: 2010-11-17 13:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's the first time I've seriously tried writing the book-that-has-been-rattling-around, and yes, I'm doing it for Nano, more because it'll get me into the discipline of writing than anything else.

I hit the 50K a couple of days ago, and realised that I'm probably about 2/5th of the way through. Mind you, I also realise that yes, this is the zero-th draft, and oh boy is it going to need more.

So I'm paying attention to word count only insomuch as it relates to my curiousity about what will be the actual novel length.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-11-17 14:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Heck, yeah, I'm intimidated by word count. I thrive on immediate gratification. Give me something I can finish in one day or one weekend. Sustained effort scares me!
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-11-17 15:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am with you. When I started out word count was extremely intimidating to me. I remember I kept thinking, "There is no way I can write all those words. How do people do it? I don't think I can say that much to make up a novel or long story."

It truly worried me.

But now I don't pay attention to word count at all. If I have an idea for a short story and it turns into a novella, tough. If I start a novel and all that comes out is a short story, that's what I go with. I let the story dictate how long it has to be now, I don't force anything at all.

I figure, "Hey, the story HAS to be smarter than I am." :)
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User: barbarienne
Date: 2010-11-17 15:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's a bug at 100K in Word? What does it do? (I always break up files into smaller bits, simply because it makes the program run better--faster saves, faster opening.)

Word count is important to me as a measure of progress, but I don't get crazy about it because I don't write in volumes measurable in Lake Units. When I'm on, I can get as much as 1000 words in about two hours. OTOH, sometimes I only have half an hour, and I often generate 400 words in that span. Pressure seems to help.

The idea of a novel being scary-length is alien to me. I started writing novels when I was too young to be scared. I was 10 or 12, and it never occurred to me that 100,000 words was a lot. I just knew to begin and keep going. I had no discipline of "write every day" and weeks or months would go by between writing-jags, but by the time I was 16 or 17, I had generated many notebooks full of material.

My natural length is 100-120K. I don't write short stories very much, because they don't feel comfortable to me. The few shorts I do write tend toward 3000 words or less. It's that 5000-10000-word zone that confuses me. My idea of "complex" is Byzantine, and telling a story that, to me, feels less complex is very strange.

(I like reading stories of that length. They usually seem plenty complex to me. But it's different in my own head for my own work.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-17 15:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm familiar with the whole 'read what you don't write' thing. I will also point out that short work can be very complex, it just requires a different craft to get there. But you knew that. ;)

(And the Word 100,000 word bug is that the word count display in the bottom bar stops working after 99,999 words. I rather suspect Microsoft would not even consider this a bug...)
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User: cuddlycthulhu
Date: 2010-11-17 15:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think one of the reasons why it's intimidating to people is due to two things:
1. that word count = work done (or, depending on how you look at it, work still yet to be done) and
2. the ability of people to get distracted.

I consider myself a writer, not a pro-level writer to be sure since I don't have any book contracts but this year I'll have written several hundred thousand words by the time December 31st rolls around between all the fiction I've done and all the rambling blog posts. That being said, last night I got finished 3k and felt accomplished and yet, at the time, I had to re-read that you did 10k words the other day on your flight. In order for me to get 10k words done with how distractable I am, I'd have to lock myself in my office starting at seven in the morning and write until one in the morning. I'm not to the point yet where I can shut out distractions like checking Facebook at midnight or hitting refresh on LJ to see who else might be up. High word counts, to me, can be intimidating because I have a very real sense of how long that would take me and when you consider my average is 2k a night, writing a book the length of Sunspin would take me an entire year if I wrote every day at my daily average. And that book would be all I did for a year.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-17 15:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Anent my 10K words, don't ever take me as a guidepost for daily productivity. I am a freak in several ways. (And there are writers, including seanan_mcguire, who are even bigger freaks than me when it comes to pushing words onto the page.) The more serious message is one we're all familiar with; to wit, everyone's process is their own.
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They Didn't Ask Me: writing-winslet-2
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2010-11-17 16:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmmm... What version of Word are you using, Jay? Because other than the problem of what Microsoft considers a word, my versions of Word (a) don't display a word count in the bottom bar and (b) Word Count works fine at 100,000+ words.

Microsoft Word 95 Word Count

Microsoft Word 2003 Word Count

Microsoft Word 2003 Word Count Toolbar

Of course with Microsoft it's always a matter of "That's not a bug, that's a feature!"

Dr. Phil
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-17 16:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Word 2008 on Mac. Word count works fine at any length I've ever tested it at. The bug is in the display of the word count in the bottom bar. That's an option-click in the bottom bar to turn on in the Mac environment, and a right-click in the bottom bar to turn in the PC environment.
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User: cocoajava
Date: 2010-11-17 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Word count matters to me only in two ways: If I've been assigned to write a 1500 word article, I try my best to stick to it so my editor will continue to love me - and if I've been having a hard time writing, a daily glance at my word count is a comforting milemarker.

I'm not too fussed about how many total words my book will eventually be. I'll just write until I've told my tale.
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User: madrobins
Date: 2010-11-17 16:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not particularly intimidated by Wordcount (productivity is another issue...some days yes, some days no). A book, as I write it, is like what Lincoln said about a man's legs: long enough to reach the ground (or the end). That said, I seem to have a default length of about 105,000 for a book--that's just about when the book is over.

As for a Word wordcount workaround: I save each chapter separately, log the wordcount for the chapter in an Excel sheet, and have a running count thereby. It's three steps rather than one, but it works.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-17 16:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Splitting files makes me nuts because I often do document searches through the whole manuscript to grab something from earlier on, such as change notes or minor character names that have slipped my mind, as I'm writing current stuff. Having to open multiple old files to do that would be, well, weird for me.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-11-17 17:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My first serious attempt at writing was a novel and it never occurred to me to be intimidated by wordcount. It's always just struck me as a tool for gauging where you should be in the multiple arcs of the story. I keep pretty close track and map it to my what happens and scene outlines so that I know when I have to compress or expand the various bits to keep the story flowing at the right pace.

But then, one the ways in which I am a writing freak is that I tend to be able to write to length, at least for novels. The last six contracted novels were all targeted to come at 90k and came out respectively 93, 90, 91, 92, 91, and 97 with the two higher wordcounts coming on first books in a series.
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Twilight: WriterRose
User: twilight2000
Date: 2010-11-17 19:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Right now, word count is a measurement about selling - I'm either a new novel author (so need to stay in the 100K range, or so I'm told - it's a good length for me atm, so that's ok) or a short story writer aiming for a "limit" - it's a tool that tells me I've not violated one of the rules that will keep me from selling my story ;>

Oddly, it never occurred to me to be intimidated by More words - it's writing tight and short that scares the hell out of me!

Edited at 2010-11-17 07:11 pm (UTC)
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User: mikandra
Date: 2010-11-17 20:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I used to freak about the number of words I wrote in a day because I thought it was a measure of how much fiction I'd produced. I've been known to produce as much as 14,000 words in one day.

But word count is not fiction.

Ever since I've started selling some of my fiction, and even more since my first pro sale, my word count per day has dropped dramatically. This week, for example, I've written barely a single word, but I've been reading non-fiction and the plot of a novel has been growing in my mind. I've done more work on this novel this week than I have in the previous month combined. Words are cheap. The right words are elusive. They tend to sneak into the file while you're not counting, and all of a sudden - hey - the work is done.
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User: talekyn
Date: 2010-11-17 21:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The only time I really pay attention to word count is during NaNoWriMo. The rest of the year, I write what I write and whatever length something turns out in the first draft is perfectly fine by me. Since I rarely outline, I often have no idea where the story is going until I get there, which means I don't know (or typically care) how many words it's going to take to get me there.
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selfavowedgeek: Monkeyboy
User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2010-11-18 01:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've settled into a decent rhythm for me--as you mentioned up-thread: process being one's own--over the past several years. Although I don't write rough copy daily, I tend to manage between 1k-2k per week. Over a year and a half, it allowed me to draft a novel while still squeezing in some short stories. Now, there are times, especially summer, when I can average 3k-4k a week over two months, so there's that virtue of teaching and having summers off. I binge-write on holidays like Thanksgiving break and Christmas break, too.

I pay attention to word count in terms of rough copy; there's no revising what isn't *there*. Writing intuitively and scene-based works well for me, so I'm not afraid to kill some darlings and shift around or get two or three drafts into a piece and toss in some addenda scenes/'graphs/etc.

But it won't happen unless I get that 1k-2k per week. However, that sense of discipline doesn't quite hold up when it comes time to revise a story, and I can revise in spurts or let a story simmer depending on what else is going on.
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