There is more to life than simply increasing its speed. (Gandhi)

A lot of people use word count to try and chart their progress. I can understand this. It’s a solid-looking thing. The hours spent thinking about the story are abstract. Some of that might even happen while you’re sleeping. The things one might learn from writing the previous story (or the one before, or the one before that) are also part of the process of the new material. Again, hard to measure. So, things like NaNoWriMo or are spawned to try and create writing time as habit, with structure, even. Because in today’s world it’s hard to find time to sit and write. The soccer moms do it while they’re sitting in the minvan waiting for practice to be over. Commuters that use mass transit steal time between work and home. Or it’s after the kids go to bed or before the kids get up. It takes dedication… obsession… a certain level of insanity…

But, today, around the blogosphere, I am seeing entry after entry crop up about writing speed: like what John Scalzi says, and truepenny sensibly advises, and then matociquala contributes, plus Tobias Buckell links to a few more and offers his own insight. The thing is — it’s all relative. And you’ll get a different answer from nearly every writer about their own process.

Yes, the going knowledge among editors and agents is that a professional writer of fiction should attempt to turn in at least one book a year to keep their name on the shelves and build some sort of sales momentum. It generally seems that most careers will need that sort of goal-posting despite there being cases *cough* Peter Beagle *cough* Thomas Pynchon *cough* where it’s been shown not to be a hard-and-fast rule. Thus, there is a certain economic value to writing steadily (for some variable value of steady). But. If you rush that book and then it doesn’t sell, that won’t help with that equation at all.

I have a client who turns in a book about once every four years. I have another who wrote several books in one year. And I have everything in between. From my perspective, the book takes as long as it’s going to take. I expect writers to honestly assess their productivity levels when we’re discussing dates for contracts, and to keep me advised if they’re going to miss a deadline. (I hope they never have to. I’d recommend avoiding that if at all possible because it does, indeed, have a ripple effect on things such as production schedules and so forth.) I don’t ask a writer what their daily wordcount is when I sign them up. Quality is more important than quantity for the long haul, and I anticipate working with the writer for years.

As Caitlin Kiernan said: one should not ever think this is a race, the writing. It is not a race. Speed is mostly irrelevant, unless we are to concern ourselves solely with matters of deadlines imposed and finances and other things that actually have very little to do with writing.

11 responses to “There is more to life than simply increasing its speed. (Gandhi)

  1. Speaking as one of the Production Fairies, I don’t think writers can even trust their editors to give them accurate deadlines. Editors and marketing people (increasingly interchangeable titles, more’s the pity) think we on the production end just wave our wands and ::poof:: it’s in the bookstores.
    Ideally, if you know the date the book is supposed to be published, count back 10 months and turn in the final-final-no-more-rewriting manuscript. Less than that and the production people want to cut into the writer’s review (of copyediting, of first pass) time.
    Of course, the delay is often not on the writer’s end, or the marketing people suddenly move a book up in the schedule. This is just one of the many small things a writer can do to potentially make the process easier on him/herself.

    • Ideally, if you know the date the book is supposed to be published, count back 10 months and turn in the final-final-no-more-rewriting manuscript.
      Please define “final-final-no-more-rewriting”. Because I have added/deleted whole paragraphs at the copyedits stage. They said I could.
      I think that on at least one occasion in the past few years, I made your life a living hell.

  2. time not word count
    To build momentum on a new project, especially after a hiatus, which is often necessary for me after finishing a project, I use time, not word count. I set the timer and write for 40 minutes. Then I take a 20 minute break. Sometimes at the beginning I just write one segment a day. And soon I’m adding two. And then three. And then four. After that, it’s got a life of it’s own and the timer is strictly just so I walk away from the computer to save my eyes. I stole this idea from the fabulous Canadian author, Arthur Slade. It works for me.

  3. And even more interestingly, it can change from book to book, as each one can offer its own challenges and properties. There is no one way to write a book, just this current book, right?
    I’m happy to see so many writers saying ‘it depends’ and ‘write the novel in the time it takes.’
    Tobias Buckell

  4. Speed
    It’s true. Some of the best books take years. Some of the best books take months. It really depends. It’s all about developing a feel for how the work is going more than anything else.
    The trick is to not flog your muse to death in search of the hard-and-fast word count when it’s tired, and knowing how to push it for a couple extra lines when it’s lazy.
    The word count that comes out of that give and take is a byproduct, if the work is going well. Sometimes you flog and flog and only get a paragraph or two.
    I realize this probably sounds like some sort of poorly translated Buddhist teaching, “The only art is no art,” but that’s just the way it is. There’s no formula.
    -DisposableScribbler (

    • Re: Speed
      The phrase ‘flogging your muse’ sounds dirty, I can’t help it. I’m going to be walking around all weekend saying it now.

  5. Practice Makes Perfect
    For me, the stories are already written in my head, so it’s just a matter of banging out a solid draft, and then polishing it up. That’s easy to do by requiring a certain number of pages per day of myself. The first novel I polished up for submission took a lot longer than my second is taking. The first one was such a huge learning experience! I figured out my groove as a writer during the process and now I just go with it. Of course, I’m also careful to constantly remind myself that I am still learning.
    Kimber An

  6. I’ve started posting my writing progress, not because I care about speed so much as an attempt to keep me focused on it. There are many distractions in life, I have my fair share of them. And I know there’s no way I write nearly as quickly as most of my more successful writer-friends, but the act of knowing that I’m going to publicly announce (well, as public as the three or four who actually read my lj) my daily progress does tend to push me to do some constructive work. Sure, I’m always thinking about and plotting and writing in my head, but I’m wondering if this added impetus to write every day will help cut down the thinking about time required. We’ll see…

  7. word count to chart progress
    The only time I use word count to chart my progress is in the editing stage — counting the number of words I’ve cut, trying to get 115k down to 90k.

  8. I have tried just about every method under the sun and moon to keep myself writing. When I first decided to treat my writing like a career instead of a hobby, I started small: I simply had to write every day. Then when I had the idea for my novel, I set a word count–I forget what it was. After I did my outline, I made a goal to write a scene a day. And now that I’m in the revision stage, I set a certain number of hours to work per day. I have to admit, that latest goal has been the hardest to keep.
    Depending on when you want to count as being the “official” start date for my novel, it’s been between 2 and almost 3 years since I began. I don’t know if I can do a book a year! I’ll shoot for that, but ultimately, I’ll tell my agent that it will probably take me longer. Because I just won’t turn in anything that’s not my best. The fact that I can make money at this is awesome, but that’s not why I do it, and I’m not going to sacrifice quality for the scant advance it’d earn me. In fact, I argue that it would cost more money in the long run. My favorite author produces a book about every 2-3 years, and each one sells better than the last. I’m convinced that this is because he, too, refuses to settle for something that’s not his best.

  9. Obviously, not enough coffee.
    Too much ink.
    Correct URL: Ink in My Coffee:

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