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Planting Clover

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on April 27, 2009

Wordcount is both a blessing and a curse. If you’re anything like me, then drafting a novel is all about keeping track of those little numbers. Sure, you can just write and see where it all turns out, but writing lacks an inherent work structure – we have to create one for ourselves to mark our progress, whether that be keeping track of hours worked (as in an office job) or, more commonly, the actual output.

The trouble is, wordcount doesn’t mean anything. Sure, you might be aiming for a book that is 70,000 words or 120,000 words. Sometimes you even have a minimum number built into your contract, and some books (like category romance) simply have to be a specific length. But often it doesn’t actually matter if your book is 110K or 130. It certainly doesn’t matter if it’s 80,453 instead of 81,292.

More importantly, the wordcount means nothing because it doesn’t specify quality. You can write 5,000 words in a day (cough, splutter, yes, possible) and they might be the best thing you’ve ever written, or the next day you might have to erase them all and start again.

Still, we (those of us who do it) measure word count. When you’re trying to get a large writing project done, especially to deadline, sometimes the only way to get the thing written is to parcel it out. To work out how many words you have to get down a day, or a week, or a month, in order to have a product at the end, even if that product is a rough draft that needs to be stripped down to the skeleton and rebuilt from scratch.

My current schedule is that I have to have the revised version of Book 1 to the publisher by 1 August (mostly done, but needs polish), then Book 2 by 1 January and Book 3 by July/August the following year. If I waited until 2 August this year to start on Book 2, it would simply not get written in time, and that’s even without the fact that I’m having my second child mid-August. Editing can be done intensively over a short period. Writing first draft, for me, cannot.

Nanowrimo was brilliant, with an output of 50,000 words over a month (a first for me) and a completed novel that is apparently pretty close to publishable. Excellent news. But the pace of that was gruelling, and the Book 2 I have to deliver in January needs to be at least 120,000. I can’t just, sadly, throw myself into Nanogear and write maniacally for 3 months, then spend 2 months editing. Works in theory, but it might well kill me, and would almost certainly lead to issues with my family and small business, which also require some of my time.

I’ve been working on pacing myself. My ideal was to get book 2 drafted before book 1 had to be handed in. So far I’ve written 50,000 of book 2 (over the last two-three months) and it has already thrown up plenty of things I have to change about book 1 – a new structural thread and a few characters/events to seed earlier, among other things. After footling around in Jan/Feb (while multitasking on another project) I wrote 15K in March, and decided to up it to 30K in April, once ROR and other commitments were out of the way. This meant, quite simply, 1000 new words written every day. If I did extra, that was nice, but it didn’t count towards the next day’s total.
To my delight and surprise, it went really well. I didn’t miss a single day (unlike Nano where I often fell short of the 1600 words or so you needed to do daily, and had to scurry to catch up later). I wrote it in bite-sized chunks, often checking in with my writing buddy Kaia first thing in the morning and last thing at night (the only times we are both awake thanks to recent time changes and the fact that she still inconveniently lives in Sweden – honestly, it’s all a bit Ladyhawke) so we could do our writing together, something which always makes it go faster. As of last Friday I had gone past my goals for the month with flying colours, and was actually averaging more than 1300 words a day over April.

But there was a problem. I was getting the words done, but they were getting emptier and emptier. I had reached that dread stage you get to somewhere round about week 3 of Nanowrimo where you put entire scenes, conversations or notations to your future self in square brackets – [insert battle scene later] [insert witty conversation hitting 3 plot points] [Make Write Good].

I had an end point I was striving for – the middle part of my book, where there is a climax and then a pause and time jump, and I was allowed to stop drafting and go do some of that essential editing on Book 1 for a while. Also I planned to [Make Write Good] revise this first section of Book 2 before carrying forward. But the closer I got to that essential stopping scene, the worse my writing got. The lazier I got. The less attention I paid to my characters. The more I hated my heroine.

Just because you can write 1000 words a day doesn’t mean you should.

So I took the weekend off. I deliberately busted my ‘didn’t miss a day hitting my quota’ record in April by stopping 300 words short of my Friday goal. I could have waited the 5 days or so until the end of the month, but it was too late for that.

By Saturday morning, I couldn’t read a page of a novel without scribbling down character ideas, plot details I needed to remember, etc. I was feeling energised enough to go back. Maybe I could write a bit extra today to make up for Friday…

No. I got stern with myself. I had to be strong. I had to plant clover, to let the field lie fallow, so good things could grow next season. I found other things to do. Housework. (I KNOW) Playing more with my daughter. Not writing stuff. And now my self-imposed exile is over, and I have a few days to get this section of the novel done. I am hoping I can do it with something of the style and oomph I’ve been missing for the last few weeks.

Wish me luck.


3 Responses to “Planting Clover”

  1. Rowena Cory Daniells said

    I’m hanging out to read the finished version of book one and book two, Tansy!

  2. Havock21 said

    Dam!, well, I have done sessions where we end up with 3K, but thats 3k of MY SORTA quality, possibly NOT, what you want and realistically, I have NFI. BUT, what i did see was that your self diagnosis appears to be on target, root cause identified and fix in place. only time will tell if its right or not, better some form of action I say, than continuing on with what you know is crap and that applies to everything, NOT JUST WRITING. Best of luck.

  3. Havock21 said

    PS, excuse the following profanity ( thats a first BTW).

    I may not always comment on what you guys leave here, its a case of, well, lets say its better to leave some shit, in the bin where it belongs.

    BUT, its bloody interesting and insightful, its a peek into the workings and I for one are fucking glad you lot have this little corner of the world where you do these dumps.

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