• duncanralston

On Word Counts (and Why I Like Them)

Updated: Aug 5, 2019



The creative process in gif form.

Some people have asked if I have a writing regimen.


I've been writing about 10k a week since January. That's good for me. I usually get about 1000 to 1500 words a day (I write slow - editing during so I have less to edit after), except on weekends when I usually take a break to do life stuff. So this is on average 2k per day in a five day work week. It helps that I'm enjoying the stuff I'm writing. I've had a helluva time banging out my latest thriller novella (due out very shortly - and yes, I'm nervously awaiting feedback!) and its accompanying screenplay, along with a new top secret horror novel I've been working on since March.


But it's not just the fun. I've also kept myself on track

by giving myself goals.


In 2016 I started giving myself yearly word count goals. That year I wanted to write 150,000 new words of fiction (ie. editing doesn't count). I beat that goal by almost 20k. Last year I gave myself a low goal of 250,000 words and a high goal of 300k. I hit 268k - a little shy of the high goal - but I didn't expect to reach more than my low goal, which I'd exceeded again.


This year (this post was originally published in 2018) I've given myself a low goal of 300k with a high goal of 350k. It's the end of April and I've already written a little less than 100k. I'll need to bump up those numbers a bit over the summer (which is usually my best time for writing), but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to make my low goal by October.


There's no penalty if I don't make my goal, but

I have yet to miss one.

The key is just to give myself a goal.

The reward is in the achievement.


If I could choose a superpower.


Last year I only published 77k of the 268k I wrote. Despite overshooting my goal that was a bit of a bummer. I did finish a few screenplays and submit them to contests. But I left several books unfinished - the stories just wouldn't flow beyond a certain point, maybe they will some time in the future - including a novel that hit 90k before I decided to scrap it and start from scratch. It's the one I'm working on now and the decision to start over was wise. It's a far better novel for it.


(Not to toot my own horn.)


I don't force myself to write every day. I write when I feel like writing - which just happens to be nearly every day anyhow. Because I genuinely love to write. (There's that horn again.)


I make a list of the projects I hope to complete and publish / submit for the year. This will change. That's fine. It's part of the process. Not every project will work out. I might lose passion for one and swap it with another. Some ideas seem great when they're shiny and new but once you've got them under the microscope you see their flaws. I've got five or six projects on the go per year on this list, including scripts but not including short stories.


I keep track of my word count for each project at the end of every month. Here's an example of my tracking "system" from 2016.


Aside from the short stories "This is the Zodiac Speaking" (an attempt to write to market), "Urban Decay" (which has become an unfinished screenplay) and "Are You Still There...?" (don't ask), each of these was published in 2016/2017. When I finish something, I check it off my list. If not... oh well.


I know plenty of writers who write two, three, even ten times faster than I do. A couple of friends make me jealous of their output. But this system works for me. My ultimate goal - which I doubt I'll ever be capable of (then again, I never thought I could finish a novel in two months) - is to achieve what Dean Wesley Smith calls Pulp Speed One in his blog post "The New World of Writing Pulp Speed." It's a great article and the rest of Smith's blog has taught me a lot about the world of indie/hybrid writing.


One-million words.

So. Pulp Speed One. 1,000,000 words in a year. That's why I started this goal system, attempting to hit a gradually higher word count each year until I hit the speed of some of the old pulp writers like Heinlein.


Theoretically, the more you write (and read) the better you get. (I've seen many writer who are exceptions to this rule. Early success is often an indicator.) So as I write more, I should start to feel more confident about my writing. And I have.


I've leaned less on the writing styles of others (my first published novel Salvage is very Stephen King; my 2016 novella Woom is practically a Palahniuk pastiche) and come into my own voice.

But the goals are always there: Write faster and cleaner. Try writing in different genres. Get out of your comfort zone. Read more and from as many authors as you can in genres you don't write. Figure out what works and what doesn't work in their styles. Absorb fiction in as many forms as possible (prose, television, film, plays, video games - I'll admit to never really appreciating a lot of poetry, aside from dirty limericks and songwriting).


This is all about constantly learning. If you think you have nothing to learn, you are kidding yourself.

There is always something more to learn.

Even the pros will tell you that.


Learn. Grow. Read. Write. Network. Share what inspires you. Feed others your knowledge. Not every piece of writing advice will work for you. "Write every day" is something I will never stick to. "Write what you know" is nonsense.


But "give yourself a goal" is something I've always felt is reasonable advice. Write that goal down somewhere. Keep track of your progress.


That's how I stick to it.

So how do you stay motivated? Is it the validation of your peers or family? Is it a big fat royalty check? Or how about drugs and alcohol (no judgment, I've certainly been there)? Let me know in the comments or shoot me a tweet at @userbits!




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