Tag Archives: Writer Resources

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?

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Inspirational words for artists from Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman did not graduate from university. He did not even go to university. Instead he pursued his creative ambitions, and became one of the worlds greatest writers. Here he shares some words of wisdom with graduating students from The University of the Arts.

One or two of my favourite Gaiman quotes from this talk:

“Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it.”

“People get hired because they get hired. People keep working because 1)their work is good 2)they’re easy to get on with 3)they’re on time. You only need 2 of the 3.”

I studied with Neil at the Clarion writers’ workshop in 2008. He told me off for my apostrophes, but also gave me three of the best bits of advice about my own writing I have ever had. If I ever get famous enough to give a commencement speech, I will share them with you.

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Yep. That needs another draft.

It’s a great feeling to finish a piece of writing. Triumphant. So looking at work you thought was finished and realising it isn’t finished at all is painnnnnnful. The mind goes in to self-defence mode. Or self destruct mode. Obviously you suck. What ever made you think you could write at all. Give it up. Anything, except the truth of the situation.

Yep. That needs another draft.

Swear a bit. Punch something inanimate. (Try not to break your hand though, you’re going to need it.) Have a stiff drink and / or a smoke. Then knuckle down and get writing, because what separates the professional and everyone else is the willingness to tear your writing apart and put it back together again, better, faster, stronger than it was before.

It’s going to be a long weekend.

Pick me! Pick me!

“Employees wait to be picked for promotion, or to lead a meeting or to speak up at a meeting. ‘Pick me, pick me’ acknowledges the power of the system and passes responsibility to someone to initiate. Even better, ‘pick me, pick me’ moves the blame from you to them. If you don’t get picked, it’s their fault, not yours. Reject the tyranny of picked. Pick yourself.”

Seth Godin, Poke the Box

Writers are never employees. Even when they are employed. A writers job is always to say what no one else has yet said. And you can’t wait for your boss to tell you what that is. This is one reason why those structures where writers are employed, are waiting to be told what to do, businesses like newspapers and publishers, are either collapsing or going through revolutionary change, and being beaten in to the ground by dynamic systems where writers do not wait to picked, by blogs and other social media.

Writing is now such a competitive career that saying ‘pick me!’ is hardly even an option anymore, if it ever was. Too many writers think of editors, agents and other publishing professionals as people who are waiting to pick them. The truth is that no good editor or agent interested in making a living is interested in picking a writer. The writers worth working with are the ones who have already picked themselves, who are instigating and building their own career and who understand the value of the relationship they have with other professionals, agents and editors.

What does this mean in practical terms for you as a writer? Above all else it means you need to be aware of what you need to do to instigate your career. If you have never written a word and dream of writerly stardom, you need to enrol on a good course and spend a few years learning your trade. If you have published a few dozen stories and have a strong novel in progress you need to get out and network at events where you will meet people who might publish the book. You’ll quickly find out if it has potential. If you’ve sold 400 million copies of your novels about an orphan boy at magic school it might be time to ditch the agent and the publisher all together and sell direct to your readers.

Don’t mistake a rash leap in the dark for instigating your career. Self-publishing a multi-volume urban fantasy on Lulu is just another way of shouting ‘pick me!’ at a readership swamped with other desperate hopefuls doing the same thing. But don’t fear if you happen to have done this or any of the other host of miss-steps writers take early in their travels, for a fortunate consequence of this kind of failure is that, by definition, no one will have noticed.

(But it is probably a good idea to take that 18 volume saga off Lulu well before you actually publish a real book.)

And now go and read the combined wisdom of Clarion as introduced by James Patrick Kelly.