Tag Archives: Word count

Writing Mind, Big Mind, Judging Mind

My friend Amy Sundberg talks about the Writing Mind, in response to Jeff VanderMeer’s missive that forcing your concentration to meet a fixed daily word count isn’t a universally good idea. Even when you aren’t writing, you can still be writing. The imagination is always busy, and sometimes it does its best work when we give it space and time. I know that for me a daily word count is not all that helpful. The words will come when they come. I might get other words to come, but the chances are that if I force it, they won’t be the words I need.

Amy’s idea of the Writing Mind reminds me of what zen buddhists call the Big Mind. Most of us, most of the time, live in our Small Mind. If you’re worried, stressed, anxious, uptight, angry, being needlessly aggressive or competitive, that’s your Small Mind doing what it thinks it needs to do to keep you alive. I say ‘what it thinks’ because when you look back at the sum total of time your Small Mind spends worrying about things, you can be fairly sure that 90% wasn’t worth worrying about, and the other 10% wasn’t improved by worrying about it anyway. Your small mind is about you. What you need. What you want. Your survival in this big bad world.

The Big Mind is all about We and all about Us. It understands that the world is made up of 7 billion interdependent human beings and that in anything but the short term acting selfishly for your own interests alone doesn’t get us very far. And because the Big Mind understands the interconnectedness of all things, it understands that there is really no need to worry. When you are relaxed, happy, calm, blissful, joyful and at peace, that is your Big Mind being in charge.

(If your internal voices are shouting ‘This is all nonsense! I have to look out for number one first and foremost!’, well…that’s your Small Mind talking.)

The other thing that your Big Mind does is create. Whether it’s a work of art, or an essay, or a business, anything humans create has to come from our Big Mind. Small Mind isn’t good at creating. Creativity is risky. That book might not sell. That essay might get a bad grade. The whole business might go bust. It’s better to do things that are routine. Where the outcome is assured. Keep the money coming in. Pay off that mortgage. Get that pension scheme built up. Don’t, whatever you do, decide to become a writer. If Small Mind has one ultimate commandment, that’s probably it.

A daily word count can be a way of dealing with Small Mind, by powering past it. But it can also be capitulation to the Small Mind. Because you are turning the creative act of writing in to a routine act that Small Mind can control. Get those two thousand words written. Sell a book a year. Earn enough from writing to…pay off that mortgage. Get that pension scheme built up. Not that you shouldn’t have these things. But the part of you that wants them isn’t often the part that creates anything splendid and beautiful.


British Fantasy Society logo (circa 2008)
Image via Wikipedia

I’ll be exercising my Judging Mind as a judge for this years British Fantasy Awards. Which is…quite cool and exciting. I can already feel the power going to my head. If you are a member of the British Fantasy Society or attended / attending the 2011 / 2012 FantasyCon you can vote for the shortlist, from which we judges will be selecting winners. So go and vote, and give me some good stuff to read.




And a little bit more on Big Mind…

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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.