Blog Archives

Why Word Count is Fairly Worthless

I don’t know much about writing novels, but I know this. Counting words is a waste of time.

I have written six and a two half novels so far. Oh, and two novellas, which are a whole different kettle of fish.

I know how to write a novel because I’ve obviously done it before. But I don’t know anything about HOW I did it.

Nothing worth transmitting to others who might try to do it themselves.

Except that.

Counting words is a load of bollox.

It doesn’t tell you shit about how much work you have done, how much of a novel you’ve already written, or, in anything but the vaguest terms give you an idea of the shitload of grafting you still have ahead of you.

I’ve read too many quotes saying that a thousand words a day will give you a novel in three months.

Bollox.

Such shite was perhaps written with the best of intentions, to encourage would-be writers to get their finger out of their arse and get something down on paper.

It seems so easy.

Write a novel in a month, they say every November. Fifty thousand words crafted, or cobbled together, anyway, and Bob’s your uncle: a novel under the belt.

No.

Not true.

Sure, there are a few great novels out there with scant word counts.

Ninety thousand words is a decent-sized book.

But is it your book?

Did those fifty thousand words spill out of the typewriter ribbon as such, or were they the last standing syllables of a Mongol horde of words that got massacred until they resembled a roman army in perfect discipline?

Did their author stick to a thousand words a day? Did he or she spend two weeks locked in a hotel room and thump upon the keys with his/her fingers twenty-five thousand times a day for ten says straight? Or sit with a pencil between his/her teeth for ten hours and get two hundred words down eventually, before breaking open a bottle of whisky at the end of the day?

Are ninety thousand words enough to tell the story that you need to tell? Or will two hundred thousand do it?

We create universes, us writers.

True.

But just like this one we’re all condemned to share, if it was made by some superior being, once it was made it pretty fecking quickly got away from it’s maker. Your universe will expand to the dimensions it requires within a very short time of its inception.

And you can do nothing but watch, and oblige its demands by filling it up with the structures it needs, however many words that requires.

You might find that you have fifty thousand words of a mess that will require more than one month just to get straight in your head.

Happened to me, after a fashion.

The 70k half book I have now will turn into, as far as I can judge from what I have uncovered of the world I am creating, around 150k. Much of what I am writing will be deleted. Only after they are written, can I hope to cut out the words the story probably doesn’t need.

My shortest novel is 30,000 words. It’s a children’s book. My longest, so far, is 175K. Each book I have had published has been shaved down. There were parts that weren’t necessary. But I didn’t know that until I wrote them. Some of these I noticed myself, once they existed. They could disappear. Others I didn’t know about until they were pointed out. But in every one, the thousand words a day would not have led to a finished story in the simple multiple of days to the final word count.

The other half-novel is currently at around 200K. I have an estimation that it will end up at 400K. I have no idea whatsoever whether it will stay that way, or will get chopped in half. I only know I have many more words to write, but no notion of how long that process will take.

So, check out your word count, by all means. Just don’t think you’re halfway done if you have 45K written.

You might be nearly finished, or you might only be starting out.

The story will decide.

You can only obey the rules of the universe you have created, and give it all the space it requires, however many years that will take to do.

Human evolution: looking back, looking forward

I have said this before, but we really are a strange species.

On the one hand, the Aboriginal Australians have stories that go back ten to fifteen thousand years, describing how their formal lands were flooded when the sea level rose after the last ice age. This made me remember an article about disposal of nuclear waste and the super intelligent nuclear physicists thinking about how to label the area so that future generations will know it’s there. The local Native American tribe told these scientists not to worry – they’d tell the future generations. It made me laugh.

But then, on the other, Yuval Noah Harari writes a book:Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind about how our species of humans becoming so powerful because we can believe stories (including complete bullshit), and thinks that the first really big impact of humans in the world was the arrival of humans in Australia, after which the megafauna of that continent disappeared from the record (a little further back than the sea-level rise in the story). The second big impact he says was when humans arrived in America and destroyed even more species of giant mammals.

In case it’s not clear, the book does not say the rise of humankind was in fact a great thing: for individual humans or for other species. He does speculate about the future, and reckons that humans will quickly evolve into some kind of new human-computer hybrid… But first, there will probably be a speciation event between the poor and the ultra -rich, the latter going on to becoming superhuman and somehow avoiding the coming problems.

One thing he seems to have missed (from the radio show I listened to), is that there are still people who live like our ancestors did, hunting and gathering, and they are, I hope, still as happy as Harari believes (and I agree) our ancestors were. I can only say that the this book is a huge reason to support NGOs like Survival International (to which 10% of the royalties of my second book in the Silver Nights Trilogy will be donated) so these people can be left alone in their happiness, and not made sad just because we are so blind to our own sadness that we think we are helping them. I can only hope that in the future, when the rest of us have evolved into whatever strange stuff will befall us, there will yet be uncontacted tribes living in the forests the way they have since they destroyed the megafauna.

BRAZ-UNC-GM-10_screen

 

Along the Shore, a poem

I was reminded of this by a friend on facebook today in reference to my second novel, Five Days in Ballyboy Beach, just accepted by Tirgearr Publishing.  It is also, sadly, appropriate from the less romantic viewpoint of the amount of rubbish swirling round in the ocean – a paper just the other days suggested that melting arctic ice would release trillions of tiny pieces of plastic back into the water.

 

Image

Along the Shore

 

 

I walked along the shore

Searching for stories,

And saw from the tide line there

Was no shortage of them:

 

A small apple, still intact,

Discarded from a recent

Cider-pressing at a nearby orchard,

Taken by the rain down a drainage ditch;

 

A balloon, lost by a boy

Who stared skywards, crying

As it sailed out of sight

Inside the blue, at

The truth of his father’s words

That it would fly away if he let go

More than at the loss of his toy;

 

The arm and lens-less frame of

A former pair of pink, heart-shaped sunglasses

Lost from a inflatable boat

Bouncing over the Caribbean,

Bought in a stall in the resort

At two in the morning by a gentleman

After travelling from a Guangdong factory;

 

A piece of string – a balled up knot of

Baling twine – tied to a gate on a mountain farm

In place of a hinge that had long since rusted off

And fallen into the mossy rocks,

Until it wore through with use,

Taken by the wind to the river

There to flow towards the ocean

Entwined in twigs and tree trunks

Till they too, rotted away, then

Enticing turtles as if tentacles;

 

Seaweed, streams of it, several hues of

Green and brown clumps covered in sand

Some curling as they desiccate, smelling of

Sea and the denizens of the deep,

Symbolising and indicating some

Small piece of the unseen reaches beneath

The lapping waves, wondrous, dangerous

Violent and intense as any city-street.

 

 

Thoughts of a Proud Parent : should some offspring be drowned at birth?

You know the answer to that question is yes.

No, I’m not advocating actual infanticide, just literal infanticide. I only have one child while she’s not perfect, her imperfections are shared by myself, so are unimportant.

But tomorrow my first novel will be published. As such I’m like a proud parent on the night before an oldest child’s wedding: my work done, happy to see the child go off into the world. I still see a few defects, but I can only hope that the new spouse (readers) don’t spot them, or see them as charming idiosyncrasies.

Yet I can’t relax, can’t put up my feet and enjoy the moment as if I’d nothing else left to do. I don’t. I do. I have ten more little bastards at home screaming for attention.

Viewing books as children is a double-edged sword: while you can take all the credit when they are good and do well, you can’t blame the other side of the family when they turn out terrible. And some of them do. Some of them should indeed have been destroyed at birth, before they got onto a page, before they sucked the time and energy out of your life.

Now that the eldest has flown the coop, after twenty years, the rest are clamouring to get out, or at least grow up. And like children, some of them are great and some of them are just impatient. I have one that I’ve been ignoring for way too long, but it just sits there, picking its nose in the corner, waiting. Poor thing doesn’t realise it’ll probably get no attention until I’ve ceased to have any other ideas.

There are stories I can trust to be ok. They know I’m getting back to them, soon enough, and when I do, they’ll be just as good as they were when I left them. The next word will be just right there. There are a few that are grown up already and are just waiting to have somewhere to go. And of these, there are one or two that never have to leave, because Daddy loves them and if nobody else wants them, well that’s just fine. Fuck them. I wouldn’t change a thing about them. Well only minor things. A word here and there. Ok, if it’s really necessary….

But can I really spend time putting up hair, ironing dresses and shining buttons for one child when there’s one right beside her with vomit all the way down his front and no pants on? Because I have one like that. I can’t take my eyes off the fucker or he’ll just be a complete fucking mess. I’ve been spending way too much time on him, neglecting much worthier children, but if I don’t stay focused, I may as well hand him a razor blade and tell him to go play.

Oh, he was great when he was small. But then I had to go and let the bastard grow up, expand a short story into a novella. Why? Don’t ask me. Of course, it probably wasn’t that great back then, either, but it wasn’t the clusterfuck it looks like now. With this guy there’s no pride, no willingness to keep him at home, in my heart. I want that fucker out the door. Now. I am going to dress him up in shiny clothes and send him out and hope to hell he slips in under the radar and someone takes him without looking too closely, without spotting the defects. And if he ever tries to come back to me I’ll take on a pseudonym and hide. If nobody is fooled, well, it’s the basement and a life of darkness for that kid. A novella? No, never written one…

And when he is gone, either away or into a drawer, I’ll breath a sigh of relief and smile, and turn back to my other children and actually, you know, enjoy this writing lark.

 

By the way, for the next week or so, I’ll be reposting blog interviews I’m doing on other blogs out there, talking about Leaving the Pack, apart from my own blog post about My Writing Process (still two places left if anyone is interested).