Word Count

If you don't have time to read ...

... you don't have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)  

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I'd written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn't start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I've stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light

The Fast and The Furious: First Drafts

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.—Connie Willis  

You guys. Guess what? I finished the first draft of my second novel last week. Wait, what? A second novel?

I know, right?

On January 13, I began sketching out characters. On April 2, I typed THE END at, well, the end of a 105,368 word manuscript.

How did that happen? How did this writer go from taking eighteen months to bash her way through a first manuscript—one that split its seams at 167,000 words before it came to a stop at 99,000—to a ten-week blitz of a pretty clean first draft?

Crikey! Can I do it again?

Well, let's not worry about that now.

Let's think about what went right.

I had no idea what this story would be about when I sat down in January with a blank notebook and a blue Pilot fine point. I knew the setting: southwest Ireland. That was it. Once I had the characters and their internal conflicts roughed out, the external conflicts and themes gradually took shape. I cobbled together a very general outline that provided guideposts along the way. It's an outline I'll redraft in far greater detail when I begin Draft Two.

Conversely, with Refuge of Doves, I had a story idea—an image in my mind of a woman standing before the ruins of a Cathar citadel in Languedoc, France—and a "what-if?" of history, around which I built the plot. But I had no idea where it would take me. I didn't know my characters all that well. In a couple of cases, I still don't. And it shows.

Blossoming  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Really, I had no idea what I was doing the first time out. I just needed to start writing. I knew if I got bogged down in research or plotting, I'd never start the story. I had to develop the habit of writing every day and trust that the rest would sort itself out in time. And so I did. And so the story did, too. Over the course of months, a narrative began to take shape and I fell in love not just with the process, but with my people.

But I did not write sequential scenes. Primarily because I had a beginning and a vague idea of the end, but not much notion of what would happen in between. I just wrote a bunch of stuff.

So, a year after typing the opening words to Refuge, I had to lay out the scenes—and I mean literally: the living room floor was a giant grid of 8 1/2 " x 11" pages, with my prone body on top, sobbing—and try to put them in some sort of order. I spent the next five months cleaning it up and straightening it out, simply to get to The End. Of a first-ish draft.

What happened last week (let's give it a name, shall we? Working Title: The Crows of Beara) was the product of a writer determined not to repeat the past. I set a weekly goal of 10,000 words and butt stayed in chair until that happened. I wrote scenes in order. I shut down the inner editor (repeatedly, daily, hourly, by the minute) and just wrote.

I'd planned to reserve one day a week for editing, but I abandoned that notion early on. Editing mired me down in minutiae and side-tracked me from simply letting the story pour forth. I jotted notes where I knew I needed more character development or technical research or where theme threads dropped or things got backstory heavy, but I left the writing alone.

I wrote fast. I wrote furious. It was a joyful experience. So much so that it's all I want to do. I just want to write first drafts, you know? First Drafts Are Art, Baby. Unfettered by the rules of craft, playing loose with grammar, throwing ideas and not bothering to see what sticks and what drops to the floor like limp spaghetti.

Alas. The First Draft Fantasy. First drafts are like those early, googly-eyed days of a relationship. No matter how besotted you are by the First Draft, at some point there will be morning breath and the electric bill and someone's red shirt in the washer with your white socks. At some point, there will be a revisions. Many. Revisions.

Refuge of Doves, which I finished in December, sits on my desk—set aside, but not forgotten. I'd been dreading the inevitable rewrite(s), but as I think about what went right this second time out of the gate, I know I can sort it.

One of the greatest unintended consequences of burning through the first draft of The Crows of Beara has been the building of eagerness to apply what I've learned about myself as a writer—and the shoring up of my weaknesses—on the massive project that awaits me.

And more than ever, I realize that the eighteen months I spent writing Refuge of Doves were eighteen months spent learning how to write a First Draft. Now I'm ready to turn it into a novel.

 

Worth Checking Out:

Why Your First Draft Isn't Crap by Bryan Hutchinson for Positive Writer

Get Messy with Your First Draft by Elizabeth Sims for Writers Digest

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft by Jon Gingerich for Lit Reactor

The Elephant in the Room: Are you ignoring your story revision instincts? by Alythia Brown for Wordplay: The Writing Life of K.M. Weiland

Mind the Gap

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. ~Hilary Mantel  

True Confession: I'm a tad obsessive when it comes to my running mileage. If I set out to run seven miles, by God, I'm going to run seven. If the Maritime Center—my ending point—is fast approaching and my Garmin reads 6.43 miles, I'll take a left at Taylor and track and up and down each block until I close in on the magic number. Do I run past my mileage goal? Heh Heh Heh.

 

And so it is with my daily word count. Each writer defines their own good "butt in chair" day; I find a word count goal keeps me focused and motivated.

 

When I embarked upon the Novel #2 journey two weeks ago, I established the weekly goal of 10,000 words. Factor in a day for editing and research, another to work on other writing projects, and (here come my mad math skillz, look out!) that's 2000 words each day I work on the Novel. I try to crank out 3k on Sundays—the start of my writing week—to build in wiggle room for the unexpected during the week, such as last week's weird 24-hour flu bug. So far, I'm holding steady.

 

Sunday. Today. The start of my work week. I'd left myself notes for a new scene, had already visualized the setting, the conversation, the emotions. I planned a 3000 word day—easy-peasy. I couldn't wait to get started.

 

Then, I couldn't get started.

 

Five hours in and only a thousand words, some of those written last week and left hanging in an earlier scene. My brain, mushy after two poor nights' sleep and still throwing off that flu bug, just couldn't muster the words.

 

If I feel the stall during a run, I force myself to keep on. Ignoring exhaustion, soreness, boredom, I focus on the next half mile and get through it. Endorphins take over and finish the job for me.

 

But every so often, I'll get a couple of miles in and know today is not my day. I might take a walk break and resume the run, but if the mojo truly is gone, I reset the Garmin and find a shortcut home. As a morning runner, I can always salvage the day with an afternoon hike.

 

If my writing focus fades, I keep the fingers on the keyboard, give myself permission to write crap and keep moving. The story takes over, suddenly it's hours later and I'm telling myself, "You must stop at 4:00. You promised to go for walk/make soup/see a movie. Good job, Little Buddy!"

 

Today I couldn't pull it together.

 

Stop. Reset the Garmin. Find a shortcut home.

 

Word Count be damned. Open the gap. Create the space.

 

Today, I stopped scowling at the problem. I bundled up and headed out, Bach in my ears and trail shoes on my feet. I breathed.

 

Saturday, I set out to run 8 miles. I went to 9 because it all felt so good.

 

If you'd told me two weeks ago, when I typed "Chapter One," that I'd be 21,337 words into a new novel in fourteen days, well. Dude.

 

Find the Gap.

Getting some perspective. Admiralty Bay, Port Townsend 2/02/14 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Time The Avenger

I've arrived at one of those "If someone had told me a year ago, I'd be here/doing this" moments.  Do you do that? Look back, I mean. Pick an arbitrary point and see the recent past unrolled behind you like a tapestry and marvel how much things can change in such a short period? I do. And I'm always relieved that reflection's opposite isn't possible, that the laws of physics deny me the power of foresight, for I couldn't bear knowing what the future holds. Even if its palm extends to offer me what I wish for. And a year ago, that wish was to write full-time. I don't believe things happen for a reason. As in, there is no grand scheme for our lives with the wonderful and the wretched meted out by an omnipresent deity. I'm more in the "Shit Happens" camp. I believe we create reason from the compost. That doesn't stop me from praying, of course. But by the time I get into prayer mode, the shit is already happening, so I guess prayer is just an attempt to create reason, with hope and desperation mixed in.

I do believe in paying attention to the little shifts that are the universe's way of trying to get our attention. Not a full yanking of the rug out from under our feet, just the tugs that keep us off-balance. Wait, doesn't that mean I believe things happen for a reason, that there is an omnipresent...something? No, I think it's a matter of opening oneself up to possibility, of casting one's intentions into the wide world and then listening and watching carefully for the ripples of circumstance that follow in our wake.

So, things happened. The past year is what it is. We wrested control from circumstances not of our creation, we recognized the grace of opportunity, we leaped and we landed. I'm not writing full-time because of all that happened. I'm writing full-time because this was the reason we created from the compost. Be careful what you wish for.

Scrivener tells me I have three days. Three days to reach my goal of 78,0000 words on this novel. It's a date and word count I set just over a year ago, not long after I wrote this post, here: Today was the day.

I wasn't certain--with a full-time job, a shaky idea of my plot, all that research on medieval France, a writing habit that wasn't yet habit--what I could hope to complete in just over twelve months. I wasn't certain how many words constituted a full-length novel. So, August 1, 2013. 78,000 words. Sounded reasonable.

The goal date held steady. August 1 looms. But that word count? I recall upping it to 82,000 in the fall. Then 98,000. 105,000. 115,00. There, that should do it. The target bar in Scrivener shifted from red to orange to yellow and various shades of green as I approached 115,000.

Earlier this month I crested 130,000 words. There is no color shift in Scrivener when you exceed your target. That bar just glows a steady green. Good Girl, it says. You did it.

Since then, I've embarked on First Draft, Revision B and in the slicing and dicing and rewriting, I'm in the neighborhood of 126K. That's about 330 pages of a novel, if you're wondering.

I didn't set a goal of finishing a novel in a year. Thank goodness. Because I'm not finished. Good God. I have months of revision ahead of me. But it's all there--beginning, middle, and mostly the end. I'm muddling through the final third. Some days I run in place, others I leap hurdles. I try not to think ahead, not to worry about where I will be in a month or in a year.

But I do wonder.

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.

- Gloria Steinem

Your present circumstances don't determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.

-Nido Qubein

Seeing the forest for the trees.    Quimper Peninsula

Related Posts:

The Personal Apocalypse--When Are We Real Writers?

Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run. The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer's Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less - I'm straddling the fence here. Since we're discussing word count, I'm sticking with fewer than, but I'm open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling "bulk" case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you - months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I'm already a little queasy at the thought - but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes 'round again. I'm braced for the "Now, what do I do?" feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others' that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces - from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm - a poetic flow - but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday's workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I'm epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn't include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

Entering the Wilderness

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.” ― Alan Alda This year - no longer new and fragile, but not yet settled in its skin - has been defined by intuition. I've held my intuition at arm's length, examined it from all sides and shoved it back in the drawer. Only to take it out, shake it out, and embrace it at last.

Intuition is what you turn to when you have exhausted the alternatives. It's the last entry name on your dance card, the partner ready with a firm hand and a sure foot to waltz you into the new day.

We knew, way back that dreadful New Year's Eve day, that moving on was the only option worthy of our consideration. But we argued against it, fearing the unknown; fearful of losing the comfort and security which appeared like magic in our bank account every two weeks; of losing our identities, our community, our friends.

But we knew. I knew the moment I heard Brendan's shaking voice on the telephone telling me he was coming home. He must have known several minutes before, standing up from his chair and standing up for his dignity. We would have to go.

And we did. We moved on, in our own time. In our own way. Ten weeks later - our decisions made, papers signed, notices given, bags packed, boxes filled - we turned faces westward, toward the water, toward the mountains. Toward home.

I gave in to intuition again last week, knowing that no matter how much you hope something will be the right thing, it can often be the wrong time. Or you're not the right person. So I rinsed off my gumboots and set them on the back patio. Yesterday morning, I walked down the hill to a new job, one my gut tells me is the better choice.

Without tapping into intuition, creative writing is about as inspired as a grocery store list. It's what compels a writer return to the page day after day. By releasing our creative unconscious, by listening deeply to our instincts, we connect with our characters and through them, our true stories are revealed.

I had a word count goal in mind for this first draft - something in the 110-115,000 range. A complete novel. Not a long one, but something of substance. Not that word count much matters in the dung heap of first drafts, but it gave me an end point from which I could see across a chasm of edits to less crappy drafts. I also allowed for Plan B - the Intuition Plan - that gave me an out if I felt Draft 1 was ready to be pillaged and plundered by my red pen in search of treasure worth salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the Intuition Plan was put into effect 'round about the time I unpacked the last box, set my office to rights, and this long winter of our discontent came to a close. I had a beginning, a bunch of middles, and an end. I had started to write circles around myself, falling into plot holes and bringing the earth down around me in my attempt to clamber out. It was time to bring scenes together, to strategize and lay out, in systematic fashion, the story's arc. And to shake out the bogeys. IMG_0183

April 1, (no foolin'!), 90,000 words of Draft 1 became (magically!) Draft 2. While I was upending all other constants in my life, why not toss my writing routine into the mix?

Early morning sessions with my blue Pilot and Moleskine, scribbling to fill blank pages with scenes and silliness became, after a few awkward attempts, early morning sessions with my red Pilot and 8.5 x 11 Helvetica-filled Hammermill.

And hours - at all hours - of retyping and tweaking, shuffling pages and shaking my head.

I worried that editing would mean an end to creating. Yet, despite the taking away that is inherent to the revision process, Draft 2 finds itself 5,000 new words the richer. And I'm still in the early scenes. I'm have a sense of what Draft 3 will entail (You didn't think this would be over any time soon did you? Honey, we're just getting started): the fleshing out and enriching of detail, the gathering of historical minutiae, most of which will be discarded in...Draft 4? I jest. Or not.

But Draft 1 - there it is, on the table, in black and white. Now being sliced and diced into something resembling a story by my fine point red pen.

I'm still a bit wobbly - one month into this new life - my emotions giddy but uncertain, like a colt taking his first steps. The world around me is so fresh, brimming with the vibrant colors of new growth, the richness of blossoms and sea air, the madness of wind and the changing tides. I feel that delicious disconnect of being far away on holiday, in a place that is so beautiful you feel simultaneously calmed and energized. But I'm not on holiday. I'm in the wilderness of my intuition. And I think I'll stay here awhile.

Theory of Convergence

"I have this theory of convergence, that good things always happen with bad things. I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I just don't know why they have to happen at the same time. I just wish I could work out some schedule. Am I just babbling? Do you know what I mean?" ~ Diane Court, 'Say Anything'  "Julie, I'm so glad to know you are writing. With all that's been happening, I wondered if you still had the energy or will to write..." So said my colleague as I stood in her doorway. I'd just regaled her with a breathless recap of the book proposal workshop I had attended the previous weekend (a shout out to publishing divas Jen and Kerry and The Business of Books. If they offer a seminar in a neighborhood near you, get thee registered).

The energy and the will. With all that's been happening. Still writing. I was touched that someone would wonder if I continued to write despite the distractions of anxiety and anger. And surprised to discover that instead of becoming the thing I push aside, writing itself has become the distraction. The refuge.

Where do you retreat in times of crisis? I turn within. I read - finding solace in others' worlds and words - January alone saw me plow through a half dozen novels. I exercise, tucking in the headphones and letting the miles unroll beneath my feet in an attempt to outrace, or at least wear out, the demons. I try to control what I can, while waiting for what I can not to play itself out. IMG_1105

And in the endless play of shadow and light, in the convergence of good things happening with bad, my writing life has blossomed. Two stories published in the past two months; writing workshops that have injected me with inspiration and motivation; connections made with writing buddies who surround me with empathy and enthusiasm; the application to an MFA program finally out the door after months of equivocation.

And 80,000 words. That's where she stands.

In July, when I started The Novel (at another time of crisis; beginning to see a pattern here), I had a vague notion of a word count goal. 100,000 words seemed just shy of impossible; 50,000 wasn't novel length. Seventy-eight grand sounded about right.

I upped it to 84,000 in October; 92,000 in December. Now I'm headed for .... 105,00? 110,000? Does it really matter? The story will know when it's finished. And then the real work - the slicing and dicing, the killing of my darlings - will begin. And begin again. So much to do - the research, the details, the fleshing out of scenes, the dialogue to bring to life. So many revisions ahead of me that if I think about it all too much, I won't attend to the blank page in my hand.

But in the meantime the story flows. Characters whom I never intended to introduce run into each other in the queerest of ways. Portals open in walls of solid stone. Characters find depths of compassion they are afraid to admit.

I have altered points of view and tenses. I have changed character names and flirted with revising history (talk about an A-ha moment: listening to Ben Affleck interviewed by Terri Gross for WHYY's Fresh Air about the film Argo. Affleck discussing how a writer isn't REQUIRED to follow historical fact with precision. The key is remaining true to history's essence. Discuss.)

After grinding through an extended period of doubt and reluctant writing in the late fall, I find myself aching to get to the page each morning. I transcribe and add to my scribbles at the weekend, curious to discover what my brain wrought during the wee hours, while at its most relaxed and vulnerable.

In coming posts I'll explore the process of assembling my book proposal, how I'm applying what I've learned about scenes in commercial fiction, what it feels like to change POV thousands of words, images and plot points into my story. And what I've been shy about discussing: being published, despite myself.

There is a hint of coming convergence of good with good in life as I know it. It may be February on the calendar. But it is looking like Spring in my life. Beginnings, renewal, growth, hope and all that.

"You probably got it all figured out, Corey. If you start out depressed everything's kind of a pleasant surprise." ~ Lloyd Dobler,'Say Anything'