When I started writing seriously, I attacked the challenge of the short story. The first few times out the gate I remember how difficult it was to hit what I considered the minimum length for a serious story – 2500 words. I worked out characters ahead of time, almost like a role-playing game stat sheet for each one – not because I intended to use all of that information, but because if I knew it, it could inform the decisions and dialogue of the character.
I believed that there needed to be a set number of plot twists, and that there was a particular point in the story where you had to be working on the conclusion. I was fond of twist endings, cliché as they usually turned out. I read constantly through the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer, and I bought all the popular books on writing. Oddly, what I don’t recall doing is sitting down and trying to emulate a particular formula or style. Considering all the dissecting, prodding, poking and plotting that was going on, it’s an odd omission.
I don’t want to dwell on formulas just yet, though, I want to talk about the constant desire of authors I have known (myself included) to keep score on the words. As I said, in the beginning, a 2500 word story seemed pretty long to me. Over time, I started to stretch them out to 3, 4, and even 5000 words, but throughout that time I managed to hold onto the ability to be succinct. To this day I can write flash fiction under a thousand words without much effort, and with pretty good results.
Unfortunately, in the world of short fiction, you are paid by the word. In the world of novels, you often have guidelines you need to fall within – like 70-80k, or “about” 100k. If you are winging your novel, writing from the seat of your pants, these sorts of guidelines can drive you crazy. They are one reason that I took up the fine art of the outline a few years back. I don’t need explicit instructions when I travel – in this world, or one I’ve made up – but I like to know where I’m going and about how far I expect to travel before I get there.
I remember clearly a cruise I took on board the USS Guadalcanal, one of the ships I served on in the US Navy. I had two computers at the time – I took the older one with me to the ship. It was an old 386 with Word Perfect 6.0 loaded and ready. Along with that computer I had a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500 – the sturdiest, most reliable printer I have ever owned. I took a drawer full of ink cartridges, and a case of paper. I remember sitting down before I left and figuring out that, at 250 words per page, there would be half a million words printed if I used that entire case. I came very close.
I was the Leading Petty Officer of the Electronics shop during that period. I didn’t have an office of my own, but I had a UHF Transmitter room that I sort of took ownership of. Most of the equipment in that room was mine to maintain, and there was a workbench that would hold my computer. I also had a large “boom box” and a box of CDs. Those became the soundtrack for several novels; not all written on that cruise, but at the very least revised and completed. I had floppy disks with all my books and stories, and I worked constantly. The ship served dinner between 4:00 and about 5:30. After that, every night that I did not have duty, I was in that room, typing away, until around 11:00 PM – sometimes later.
Depeche Mode and Concrete Blonde were my friends. I memorized the first two Crash Test Dummies CDs and learned to love a band called Ten Inch Men, whose album Pretty Vultures is still one of my all-time favorites. The singer from that band, Dave Coutts, went on to sing for “Talk Show,” along with members of the Stone Temple Pilots. I met Dave, and several other members of Ten Inch Men, when they found my review and comments on their music in my Live Journal online. Again – another story.
The point is the words. You just don’t see how they add up until you let yourself think about it. Most professional writers I know claim about a 2,000 word per day output. In those days on the Guadalcanal I averaged 3500-5000 a day and had days that topped 10k. These days I fall in the 1500 -2000 word range, but here’s the thing.
One of my great pleasures every year is participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge. 50,000 words in thirty days. When you say it that way it seems like a horrifying challenge. When you break it down to the reality – 1,667 words a day, you see that a lot of working writers write more than that every month. If you add in what I do for the Crossroad Press site, and the blogs I write to promote my work, I’m sure I’m still doing the 5k a day shuffle myself.
So…in reality…if you concentrated, you should be able to churn out 3-6 novels a year with some regularity, although broken up by short stories, essays, reviews, etc. Writers write, and though there are certainly times this is less true than at others, a steady stream of words produces a prodigious output over time. I have been at this a very long time, and have determined that I do not – at this point – want to know how many words I have written. In fact, I cringe at the thought of it and want to run away, pulling out what little hair remains to me and go screaming off into the night. I’ve written so much, and yet, I feel as if there is so much still to accomplish. There are so many stories waiting, and now they are piling up against the end gate as I plow into them, trying to fight my way through in the allotted space of a lifetime.
You can get buried in the words. You can get lost in worrying over the numbers. In the end, those that can’t be held back will escape your fingers, and your personal mountain of words will grow. I’ve decided to make mine tall enough to touch the sky, beautiful enough to attract climbers and wildlife, and solid enough to withstand time. Foolish, simple dreams that make me smile, and keep me working. I have always loved the mountains.