Friday, 2 December 2011

Do it! Do it now!

Writing is hard. There's never been a time when I've sat down to put some words on the page that they've instantly flowed out of me, falling perfectly into place and forming up into crisp, clean prose. Every time I sit down to make myself write, I always hear that voice that says "Really? Why bother? You're not very good at this." And that's the thing about writers; I believe that we all have that insecurity. We're all plagued by self-doubt and we can never be truly happy with our prose, that's sort of what drives us on to do better. This insecurity is why I'm driven absolutely crazy by a fairly common practice on the net, and particularly on social networking sites: the urge to post your wordcount for the day.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing like having a really productive writing session. It puts a spring in your step and seems to give you validation as a creative. But the thing is that every time you've had a great writing day, there's a hundred writers who've struggled to get 200 words down, and each of those had to be wrenched out of them with a claw hammer. And then that writer (okay that's me most days) will then go and catch up with friends online, only to stumble across such messages as: '3000 words done today. Now time for a quick cup of tea before the next 2000';  'Hit my first 1000 by 9am' etc. Now I've no doubt it's my insecurity and self-doubt speaking, but people who post their word counts drive me up the bloody wall. My first thought is NEVER ever, 'Hey man! Good for you. So pleased.' No, my first thought is 'You utter utter bastard. Dammit!' And that's horrible, it shouldn't be that way. But as I said, we're an insecure bunch.

I do think, though that social networking and the internet can create a unecessarily competitive air to the act of writing. Quite a lot of people seem more concerned with how many words they can get out, than with actually what they're getting out. As an editor (and a general reader) I don't want to read something that's been rushed over in the race to reach the end in order to have that great feeling of actually having written. I want the prose I read to have been thought through carefully, to have been honed to the best of the writer's ability. (By the way, authors of mine. No, this does not mean I'm free and easy with deadline dates). I think with the constant updates to remind us of how much people are writing, it can drive us to rush more, in order that we too can be as productive. But just as important as productivity, is that the author feel the story, that they care about what they're writing and they write because they want too.

Discipline is necessary in writing fiction. You should absolutely write every day. But equally you shouldn't feel worthless if one day the prose flows less well than on another. Write because you love it. This is why I'm slightly suspicious of NaNoWriMo. I think for those who have seriously considered writing but perhaps haven't done much, it can be a useful exercise in coming to terms with how it actually feels to write a novel. But also, I think this idea of writing as a kind of race is counter-productive. I'm not convinced that this approach is going to get the best out of your writing.

But, hey, you know what? As a man whose second novel took almost a year and a half to write, and clocks in at a fairly slim 80,000 words, I'm sure that maybe when it comes down to it I'm just a little bit... dare I say it?... Oh go on. Jealous!

Writing is a joy. When it works. When you're in the zone. When you're not and those goblins of self-doubt are sitting on your shoulder, let's face it, it's pretty bloody horrible.


  1. Besides which, a daily word count is meaningless is you've tightened up the previous day's 2000 by slashing 1000 of the little buggers to create a much improved couple of pages.

  2. I post word counts (not every day, only on the good days, which, lets face it, aren't that many) as an incentive to keep me going. Dividing a massive task into small, easily digestible chunks. Mind you, I don't edit util I've done the first draft, and then it turns into "how many words can I get rid of before I'm allowed a Bourbon?"
    And teeth-grinding envy of other people's word counts spurs me on....

  3. I know exactly what you mean, Jon. There was an article in the Grauniad a few months back about a writer who was desperately looking for someone to say something positive about her work. Every time she found that someone, she found that she instinctively rationalised that they had some ulterior motive for saying something nice - they were good friends, so "they would say that", they weren't experts, so "their opinion was probably flawed", they were fans of the genre, so "couldn't be objective", etc, etc. She said she was driving herself crazy by always dismissing whatever praise she got in search of a more and more rarified validation. I guess if even Shakespeare had said "cool beanz", she'd have thought, "well, he would say that - he couldn't even *spell*"...

    I know my own insecurities as a writer constantly look for disinterested approval - more so in fiction than RPG work. Maybe it's just because it's so personal, I want to know that "I'm all right". I definitely sympathise with the self-doubt - and I think it's part of what we do.

    Regarding wordcount, I found it a great incentive when I was doing Mindjammer to track my progress - largely because it seemed such a mountain, and it was all untrodden territory. This time round I'm less inclined to give daily announcements, although I'm utterly obsessive about it behind closed doors :-)

    I think I share some of your feelings about NaNoWriMo. I know I couldn't write like that, and I guess I envy those who can! I think also, as you say, it's excellent experience for people unused to intensive writing to get the "feel" for the discipline involved.

    Thanks for the post - very thought-provoking!

  4. Some days I hit a magic word count and others I spend half an hour trying to fit the right word into a sentence and I agree, checking other folks word counts can drive you insane.

  5. There are days when I feel in the zone and great about what I'm writing, other days when I look at the words and think "I hate everything I've done". It's good to know I'm never the only one who feels the self-doubt when writing.

    In-depth and interesting post - I will link to this. Thanks for writing it.