A Novel Approach, pt. 9, (Stop Counting Words)

(Continued from yesterday.)

One more piece of advice I have is to stop counting words. We live in a world where everything has to be quantified all the time, and it doesn’t help that most if not all word processing programs offer word counts at the bottom of the page—yet another reason, I suppose, it might be good to write in a notebook.

My main concern with counting words is that it encourages us to think about writing in terms of speed—how many words we write per hour, per day, per month. The thing about writing, and especially about writing a novel, is that it takes time. And if you want to do it well, chances are good that it’s going to take a lot of time.

When you start counting words, you start getting down on yourself—especially if, like me, you compare your word counts to your friends’ word counts.

The other guy’s is always so much bigger than mine.

So I start to feel bad because I’m not generating however many thousands of words per day my writer friends say they’re generating. As a result, I forget all about why I’m writing in the first place—that I enjoy the process. What’s more, hanging a number on my writing obscures everything else. I stop thinking about how satisfied I am with the work I’ve done or how meaningful the subject matter is to me, and I dwell entirely on that terrible little number.

(Concluded tomorrow.)

A Novel Approach, pt. 8, (Maybe the Notebook)

(Continued from yesterday.)

One trick I use to keep my ideas flowing when I steal five minutes to write is to begin with a simple word: Maybe. Start with maybe and you’re telling yourself that you’re not locked into anything. To put it another way, you’re giving yourself permission to experiment—or to completely screw up.

Again, remember that at this point, your work is private. Your “maybe” is just an idea, so you can follow that maybe as far as it will go without worrying about what other people will say. At this point in the game, you’re discovering things about your characters. Think of it as a maze that you’re constructing as you go along. Or, better yet, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you hit a dead-end, turn back. Start over. All you’ve lost is five minutes.

Along similar lines, another thing I’ve started doing is keeping a five-subject notebook. Again, the idea here is to keep myself from getting too bogged down in the “permanence” of the writing endeavor. When I see words on a screen in front of me, perfectly formed in Times New Roman or Cambria, I can’t help thinking that what I’m doing is really serious work. Additionally, I’ve found that spending too much time in front of a screen can get depressing after a while. So I’ve taken to carrying a notebook around with me and writing in it whenever I get some free time.

One reason I think writing in a notebook works for me is the simple fact that I’m switching to a different medium. When sitting in front of a computer starts to get old, uncapping a pen and making words by hand can be a refreshing break. At the very least, it frees me up to doodle a bit—which in itself can be very helpful.

Sometimes I’ll try to diagram the relationships between characters. Other times, I’ll map out a timeline, or even map out the development of my own thoughts on a subject: When I was twelve I thought love was such and such. When I was seventeen, I thought it meant this other thing. Now that I’m nearing forty, I tend to think of it as whatever.

As for why I suggest a five-subject notebook, it goes back to my point about having a few different projects going at once. Usually, I’ll reserve the first section of the notebook for free writing. It’s where I’ll do a lot of my five-minute open-ended exercises. I think of it as my warm-up. After I’ve done some free writing to get the gears in my head turning, I’ll move on to something more specific in a section of the notebook reserved for a particular project.

Sometimes, I might skip the free writing. On those rare, precious occasions when inspiration strikes out of the blue, I’ll flip to the appropriate section of the notebook and get right to work. Some sections of the notebook fill up faster than others. I tend to take this as a hint as to which projects I’m more passionate about. What really matters, though, is that having the notebook on hand means that I always have somewhere to record my ideas—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

(Continued tomorrow.)