Quality Over Quantity & Defying the ‘Word Count’ Gods

The nightmare began sometime in mid-April

Despite being on point with my word count, one evening I had a horrible thought: what if after 50,000 words I didn’t like my story enough to actually shape into a proper novel?

That evening’s writing session had hit an all-time low. By now, I could see massive, gaping, awkward holes in my narrative, which I had no idea how to fill.

The organic development of my narrative began to feel forced. My exuberantly imperfect inner scribbler was feeling trapped. Trapped in a messy writer’s room of mind-skulduggery and coerced to make words appear on the screen. Meanwhile, the Tahoma 12 point font was screaming at me to write more! ‘We need more words or the word count gods will be angry!’

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The process was, to a degree, still enjoyable, but my spidey-senses were telling me something wasn’t right. I had to stop. I couldn’t bring myself to write another word. That night my word count was in the region of 26,000 words. I hit ‘save’, shut down the computer and lost myself in American Horror Story.

The Next Day…

On my way to work, I (stupidly?) re-read Chrissie Manby’s Writing For Love and something she said made me reassess my attempt at ‘exuberant imperfection’.

It’s all very well having all these great ideas, but when it comes to stretching an idea into a novel, you’ve got to have a plan. But plans are so restrictive. How can you be creative if you’re working to a plan? Trust me, when you hit the fifty thousand word mark, you’ll be glad that you are.

Chrissie Manby, Writing for Love (Hodder & Stoughton)

Another uncomfortable gut-grumble (nothing to do with that morning’s breakfast), made me revisit (read: pay attention to) Chris Baty’s chapter called, ‘I wrote a novel. Now what?’

What will I do with my story, once the word count has been met and the deadline has passed?

“Do I want to devote a year of my life to making it better? The answer may be no… With our busy lives, we have to pick our battles, and there’s every chance that you just won’t like the book you wrote enough to wrangle it into shape. Two of the five novels I’ve written fit into this category.”

Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (Chronicle Books LLC)

Instinct told me that like Chris Baty, I too, would find myself relegating my 50k tome to the slush file. That depressed me. Deep down in my lady-plums depressed me.

So, like any Type-A personality, I did what I do best: I made a plan.

plan-b

The Excel Spreadsheet

I took stock of what I had written, saw the storyline I enjoyed and sketched out a plan. It took three separate sessions, but eventually I had a road map to follow.

Personally, it doesn’t even matter if my work is any good. It’s more important for me to strike a balance between creativity and discipline.

Where does that leave me? I know have about 10,000 words of story that’s following a narrative I can understand and I can write around. There are still holes, however, I can deviate and casually navigate scenes as they come to mind, knowing that at the end of a session my words will fit in to my narrative’s plan.

Now I need more coffee. I got words to write. #amwriting

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Exuberant Imperfection vs Type-A Perfectionist

Organic Story Development

A part of the process to write 50,000 words in 30 days is about exploring possibilities, including (but not limited to) allowing stories to develop organically.

What do I mean when I talk about ‘organic development? Writing with little to no interruptions from your Inner Editor, Inner Naysayer or Google: the process is 100% creative writing in its truest and simplest form. You listen to the story in your head and then you write.

Prior to starting this insane challenge, I had a few days to pull together a mini-plan and do some basic research into what I thought was going to be the heart of my story’s plot. Almost four days in and my narrative is already very different to what I had planned.

Usually, I would have stopped writing by now, however, I signed an agreement (the “Month-Long Novelist Agreement and Statement of Understanding”) to follow the commandment of Exuberant Imperfection!

Exuberant Imperfection vs Type-A Personality Perfectionist

Imagine that for a Type-A Perfectionist, the theory of writing a novel might look like this:

your_plan-reality-plan A

Diagram 1: your plan

You’re the writer, pedalling along the smooth tarmac of a well-planned narrative. After 30 days, you’ll reach the finish line and brandish your ‘I WROTE 50K WORDS’ flag victoriously!

You expect no snags, bumps, sharp turns, U-turns, punctures or breakdowns of any sort for (a) your story (b) your characters (c) yourself writing in the real world.

However, reality is never smooth sailing. Instead, replace diagram 1 with the image below:

your_plan-reality-plan B

Diagram 2: reality

It starts off smoothly. A few days in it’s all an uphill struggle until wham – you’re swerving to avoid potholes, battling freakish storms and climbing Kilimanjaro with nothing but a spare box of spearmint dental floss!

Meanwhile, your characters are having temper tantrums, your spouse/kids/cats are sulking in a corner somewhere and you’ve managed to run out of all forms of caffeine, smack in the middle the most difficult paragraph in your novel!

You get to finish line after 30 days of blood, sweat, tears and mild RSI, wrapping your victory flag around like a protective blanket, while you fall sobbing to your knees and praising the gods you made it.

 Where does that leave me?

I’m still sticking with the agreement and EXUBERANT IMPERFECTION has become my new mantra.

I still fight urges to fact check or Google something, this is a learning process after all. But I like where my imagination is taking me, so for now, I’m just along for the ride.

Silencing the ‘Inner Naysayer’

It starts as a whisper

Early on into my ’50k words in a month’ challenge,  I noticed the internal whisper of self-sabotage began talking louder than usual.

While out to lunch, my Inner Naysayer (let’s call him Colin for the sake of the story) was dismantling my fledgeling story:

Colin: “Who wants to read this kind of story anyway?”

Me: “I do for a start – ”

Colin interrupts: “If you say so. Personally, I think you’re a tad bit delusional. But what do I know? I’m just a figment of your imagination!” 

Me: “Lalalalalala! I can’t hear you, Colin!”

I ended that conversation quickly and tuned out Colin’s high-pitched giggles with an episode of Chuck on Netflix. *head in sitcom sand*

Silence the Inner Naysayer with a Novelist’s Agreement

Chris Baty author of No Plot, No Problem, talks about this conundrum in some detail. You have to make a pact with yourself that you will not allow that self-sabotaging sonofab*tch inner gremlin to have a seat at your writer’s table.

There’s no space for you here, Colin! Got that!!

It’s also important to read the “Month-Long Novelist Agreement and Statement of Understanding” frequently:

I understand that I am a talented person, capable of heroic acts of creativity, and I will give myself enough time over the course of the next month to allow my innate gifts to come to the surface, unmolested by self-doubt, self-criticism, and other acts of self-bullying.

An open letter to my Inner Naysayer

Dear Colin (Inner Naysayer)

Your feedback has been duly noted but I’m choosing to ignore you because I think you’re a bit of dick.

So next time you’d like to offer an opinion, you can shove it where the sun doesn’t shine!

Sincerely,

Not listening to you anymore!

Books on Writing Books & The Next Deadline

In recent months I have read the following books on writing books:

  • Chris Manby – Writing for Love – a fantastic, step by step guide to help you plot out your novel from a very successful novelist.
  • Chuck Wendig – 500 Ways To Be A Better Writer – anecdotal, funny, rude and helpful while being highly entertaining!
  • Chris Baty – No Plot, No Problem – A ridiculously funny book on writing that only slightly mad (or desperate) people would imitate in order to get words down on paper at any cost! (Right up my street then!)
  • Cathy Yardly – Rock Your Plot – detailed and well referenced. Great for pinning down plot details to help you create a wire-frame to build your story.

(I’ve just noticed that each author’s name begins with ‘C’ – how freaky).

Each one has proven valuable, but my favourite so far has been Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem simply because, right now, I need to break through hell hole that is known as the first draft!

As the founder of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – where thousands of writers sign up to pen/type 50,000 words in one month) Chris Baty is well placed to discuss the merits of writing for writing’s sake and worrying about the rest later (a.k.a. editing and any kind of sensible prose).

For a perfectionist, Type A personality like me, there’s a heady appeal to writing simply for word count alone. It’s similar to learning a new exercise: you have to do it again and again before you can master it!

If I keep worrying about a first draft that is flawless, I will be eighty before I finish writing this damn book!

If you read my earlier post The Plan Is… then you will know that tomorrow is my plot deadline. Well I managed to create a very basic plot for two books! *high five*

The next deadline!

From 1st until 30th April, I will be undertaking my own unofficial NaNoWriMo. That’s right! 50,000 words in 30 days! That’s 29 days of 1,666 words and 1 day at 1,686 words.

I have signed the “Month-Long Novelist Agreement and Statement of Understanding”

I hereby pledge my intent to write a 50,000 word novel in one month’s time. By invoking an absurd, month long deadline on such an enormous undertaking, I understand that notions of “craft”, “brilliance”, and “competency” are to be chucked right out the window, where they will remain, ignored, until that are retrieved for the editing process. I understand that I am a talented person, capable of heroic acts of creativity, and I will give myself enough time over the course of the next month to allow my innate gifts to come to the surface, unmolested by self-doubt, self-criticism, and other acts of self-bullying.

 

During the month ahead, I realize I will produce clunky dialogue, clichéd characters, and deeply flawed plots. I agree that all of these things will be left in my rough draft, to be corrected and/or excised at a later point. I understand my right to withhold my manuscript from all readers until I deem it completed. I also acknowledge my right as author to substantially inflate both the quality of the rough draft and rigors of the writing process should such inflation prove useful in garnering me respect and attention, or freedom from participation in onerous household chores.

 

I acknowledge that the month-long, 50,000-word deadline I set for myself is absolute and unchangeable, and that any failure to meet the deadline, or any effort on my part to move the deadline once the adventure has begun, will invite well-deserved mockery from friends and family, I also acknowledge that, upon completion of the stated noveling objective, I am entitled to a period of gleeful celebration and revelry, the duration and intensity of which may preclude me from participating fully in workplace activities for days, if not weeks afterward.

 

Date: 31st March 2014

Novel Start Date: 1st April 2014

Novel Deadline: 30th April 2014

Feel free to tweet me encouraging quotes and messages! Care packages and foodstuffs will also be gratefully accepted! And if you decide that I’m crazy and you don’t happen to be writer: SHUT UP and keep it to yourself – and I mean that in the most loving and gracious of ways.

Signing off.

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