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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.


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.


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.


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.

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).