Tag Archives: NaNoWriMo

The Density of Words

At anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 words or more the average commercially published novel might seem like a huge space to fill. I know the idea of creating that many words is often intimidating to my writing students, who may never have written more than 2-3 thousand words on one story in the past. But once you start to work at the novel length, you quickly begin to realise that even with 150,000 words to fill, you don’t have words to burn.

Once you establish the scene structure of your story, the style and structure of your chapters, and the information on character, setting and action you need to give the reader to support the story, there really should not be much dead space on any given page of your novel. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(The last time I posted this on Twitter I got a tweet back from @Neilhimself with the addendum “or be funny” which also works for me.)

NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise. It’s a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you *can* find the time to write around all other commitments. And it’s great fun. But. Whether you achieve the 50,000 words in that month or not, I would suggest that 50,000 words a month is not a realistic writing goal for any writer.

Can you write 50,000 words in a month? Yes. But they will most likely fail Kurt Vonnegut’s and Neil Gaiman’s advice. Can some writers write 50,000 *good* words in a month? Yes. But only under exceptional circumstances, in an established style they can produce effectively at that speed. Do some professional writers produce and publish 50,000 *bad* words a month? Yes. But do you really want to be one of those writers?

I’m personally comfortable producing around 5000 words of fiction a week, or around 20,000 a month. That’s about what I’ve been doing every month for the last three years. At that speed my first draft is 80% of where I want it to be. Any faster and that dips radically to 50% or less. Any faster for me would certainly not be better.

What rate of wordage do you find most productive?

Wordcount – an overrated measure of progress?

As writers it is natural that we look for some measure of our progress, day to day, when it comes to the work of writing. And make no mistake, writing is work. Yes, it’s inspiration also. But in truth, most things worth doing require some element of inspiration. And they also all require work, the uninspired, often mundane act of placing one brick on top of another until the wall is built, and the great palace of the imagination completed.

So it seems like common sense to use a wordcount as a measure of work done on a piece of writing. From one perspective the word is the basic building block of writing, the brick from which we build our walls. It’s a common sense assumption popularised by the pulp writing ethos where words written literaly equated to pennies earned, and by participatory writing programmes like NaNoWriMo where just getting the words down on paper is the goal. I’ve grown up as a writer with the pulp ethos, and will continue to fail at NaNoWriMo as long as my fingers are able to type, but increasingly I wonder if wordcount is a counterproductive way of measuring our progress as writers.

In fiction at least, it is not the word that is the basic building block, but the scene. When I’m writing well, I’m not thinking about how many words I’m putting down on paper, any more than a draughtsman counts the number of strokes in a drawing. I’m thinking about what I need to do to make the scene at hand live and breathe. What do I need to say about the location? What narrative information do I need leading in to and out of the scene? What do the characters want, and what is going to change for them as the scene turns? Beat by beat the scene plays out on paper, and scene by scene the story is built.

Now I can sit down and write two thousand words and not write a single scene. Alternatively, I might spend the same amount of time and only write two lines of dialogue, but if they are two lines that turn a pivotal scene and bring the sory to life, I’ve made more progress. Or in the time taken to write that two thousand words, I might just sit and let my imagination flow and discover a wonderful new level of depth in one of my characters which I then capture in two hundred words and again, though the wordcount is less, the progress is greater.

Wordcount satisfies our most literal need to feel we have made progress with the work of writing fiction. But in satisfying that need, in pushing through to some arbitrary wordcount it is easy to neglect the space that the imagination needs to do the real work of creating a rich and meaningful story.

As alternatives to a wordcount I use two things. The first is a scene count. If I write a full scene in a sitting, including dialogue, description etc ec then I am happy. Alternatively, I like to put aside a block of time, usualy two hours, during whch I will work on the story. I might write three thousand words, or I might find the deep motivation of a character, or might just draw a little doodle. Its amazing how many times the doodle ends up as something more important than the three thousand words!

The imagination works in mysterious ways, and it’s wonders are not always best measured by counting words.

Damo’s NaNoWriMo Write-In


The David Wilson Library at the University of ...
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I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. I have a Work In Progress and want the progress bit to happen faster. NaNo seems like a good focus for achieving that.

My strategy this year is to throw myself body and soul in to the effort. To that end, I shall be at University of Leicester library EVERY EVENING IN NOVEMBER between 7-9, and quite possibly longer. In fact, almost certainly longer because I won’t be leaving until the day’s 1667 words or more are done. The only nights I won’t be there are Wednesdays, when I will be at the Speculators writing group.

And you all are welcome to join me. I love writing with company, so if anyone wants to come along and do some of their own writing, NaNoWriMo related or otherwise, you are all welcome. To join in you will have to get a UoL Library membership (these are free) and promise not to talk during writing sessions. There is a coffee shop open till 10 where talking can happen.

OK, announcement over. Be about your business now.

Leicester vs. Nottingham

It’s just over mid way through NaNoWriMo and my home city of Leicester are down 1,101,763 words to 1,471,111 against nearby Nottingham. Come on Leicester…just write fish over and over again! I made the sane choice of not doing NaNoWriMo this year, I have another writing target that takes precedent which I will reveal at some point on this blog.
Some things you should know…
Small Beer Press try to sneak onto Twitter, but we ain’t gonna let ’em!
A review of Carrot Nappers by Keith Large.