On wordcounts

The Wordcount is a capricious beast. It is simultaneously the carrot and the stick. The milestone by which you mark what you’ve achieved, and the one that tells you just how far you have to go.

My current novel WIP is sitting on about 65,000 words. I envision it will come in around 90-100,000 words. Which means I’m about 2/3 of the way there. But, hoboy, those last 5000 words have been a slog. I don’t quite know why. I’ve got the key plot stuff all planned out, but I’m having trouble moving between plot points. Generally this means I’ve got to go back and do a bit more work on shoring up the foundations of my story, but that’s a whole other blog post.

A piece of tried and true writing advice is that if you commit to writing a certain amount of words a day (or a week, whatever), it will only be a matter of time before you’ve completed your 80,000/90,000/120,000 word novel. And that’s true…to an extent. It’s not quite the whole picture, though. You can write 90,000 words in three months, but if by then your protagonist hasn’t yet found the magic widget, vanquished the evil nemesis and saved the cat, you’re not finished. You might have another 10,000 words to go. Or another 50,000.

If you’re a good planner – or, perhaps I should say, if your writing practice revolves around planning your work – wordcounts are probably a really good yardstick by which to measure how you’re meeting your writing goals. You probably know you want to write a 90,000 word story and you know X will happen by 30K, Y by 45K, and Z will happen in the last 5K. Great.

But I’m more of a pantser. I feel like this will be a 90,000 word story. I’ve got my plot bones set out, but I don’t do detailed planning around how I’ll get from A to B to C. I’ve already had to revise my chapter plan about 4 times, because the stuff I thought would happen in chapter 7 won’t happen now until chapter 10. It’s all good. That’s what first drafts are for – working all this stuff out. The thing is, though, I find I just can’t commit to progressing my story to a certain point within a certain wordcount. So, for me, I often find that plot milestones are a better way of measuring the development of my work. Have we found the magic widget? OK, now we’re halfway through. Have we just set out to vanquish the nemesis? OK, that’s the 3/4 mark.


The wordcount is still there, sitting down in the bottom corner of Word, alternating between mocking me and being a triumphant marker of progress. I’ve found myself falling into the trap of thinking “I’m in that mid-draft slump. When I’ve reached 70,000 words, I know I’ll be doing OK.”

The fact is, though, I am doing OK. I’ve written 65,000 words. They’re not perfect, but I’m generally happy with them. And having the manuscript sitting at 70,000 words won’t be any guarantee that the 2000 words between 70 and 72 K won’t also be a bloody hard slog. There are times when it feels like I am inching myself forwards by the raw edges of my chewed-off fingernails. But I’m not in bad company.

George R R Martin on writing A Dance With Dragons:

The last one was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard.

I just have to keep on swimming.



Reading for writing: reflections on a recent read

Coffee time

I finished one of my latest reading-for-pleasure ventures recently, and it gave rise to some useful reading-for-writing introspection and analysis I thought might be interesting to share. The thing was, it certainly had its flaws – some extremely annoying ones at that. But, even so, I found it an overall satisfying read and I’m even keen to seek out the next one in the series and give that a go.

So what’s all that about? How does that work?

And, more importantly (and in keeping with the theme of my earlier reading-for-writing posts), what can I learn about this for my own writing?

First, the flaws.

The story was a whodunnit. Not an actual murder mystery, but a tale of two people trying to solve a spate of serious crimes, in which their lives were very much at stake if they failed.

The villain turned out to be someone known to the protagonist – in fact, someone the protagonist knew well and admired. (OK so far. A bit standard-operating, but solid.) The villain also turned out to have an intimate connection with the arch-enemy of the protagonist’s off-sider and potential love interest. (More interesting.)

What bugged me about the way the plot was constructed, however, was that the villain didn’t get any screen time (so to speak) until the big confrontation at the end. Sure, the narrative had mentioned this character, and had even done so in conjunction with an important clue. But the reader never got to actually meet the villain in her lamb’s clothing, never got to witness the relationship between her and the protagonist, and never even got the slightest hint about the existence of someone with this kind of relationship to the arch-enemy.

The effect of this was that:

  1. The reader couldn’t involve themselves in unravelling the mystery with the characters by pulling together their own theories and testing these against the characters’ sleuthing abilities. There was no Ah-ha! moment where we saw how the puzzle pieces fitted together, because we never knew half the pieces existed.
  2. The reader was unable to engage with the protagonist’s sense of gut-punch betrayal when the identity of the villain was revealed. Further, during the climactic scene, when the villain behaved in a way calculated to provoke a particular emotional reaction from the protagonist, the reader had to be told she was experiencing this reaction, rather than experience it with her (which we would have been able to do, had we been able to build our own relationship with the villain earlier in the story.)
  3. The connection to the off-sider’s arch-enemy came off as ridiculously convenient. It could have been a revelation. But it was essentially meaningless.

So what did I learn from this?

Seed key plot devices early, whether they’re characters, emotional connections or information.

But why did I like the book?

This is actually more important than the book’s flaws, because it’s this that has me hooked and interested in getting hold of the next one. I have to say, it’s embarrassingly simple.

Frankly, it was all down to the two main characters and the relationship between them. I’m not sure it was exactly a romance, but it was intriguing, and emotionally charged, and I want to know where they go next.

And what does this teach me?

Make my characters, their relationships and their emotional journeys arrestingly interesting. (Note: interesting does not mean tortuous or outlandishly dramatic. It means relatable, charismatic and one step away from being completely satisfying.)

Unpicking the seems

260 pages in to a final polish edit before sending novel project #1 out into the big wide world, and I have already removed 63 instances of variations of the word “seems”. Seemingly, I seem to use it a lot, it seems.

Ugh, the shame.

*Update: from 552 pages & 118,000 words, I deleted 152 instances of variations of the word ‘seems’. I had no idea. An example, if ever there was one, of the value of beta readers. Thank you Jane Ainslie.