The Numbers Game

It’s nearly the end of November – or, as it’s also known, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In a few days’ time, millions of would-be writers will be emerging from their shells, blinking in the morning light, having (we hope) banked at least 50,000 words on their novels in thirty days. I haven’t done NaNoWriMo myself this year, but I did set myself a writing challenge – to produce 60,000 words over twelve weeks on my fantasy-novel-in-progress, The Silvergreen Sea. My self-imposed writing regime has worked well so far, and I reached that milestone – my planned half-way point – a week ahead of schedule. So well done me – my sit-down-and-crank-the-words-out approach is thus far successful, in its own terms at least.

How about in any other terms? I’ve noticed that, when people ask me ‘how’s the writing going?’ they are sometimes bemused to receive a firmly quantified answer rather than a vague ‘fine, thanks’, and I can’t make any claims to rigorous quality control. Or indeed, any quality control. For the moment, it’s a numbers game: before you can polish your words, you have to write them. And there’s something very reassuring about the daily accumulation, the steady progression towards my goal.

Of course, there’s a strange tension between my neatly measured progress, and the nebulous nature of what I’m actually doing. I can claim I’m half-way through, but is my finished book going to be precisely 120,000 words long? Probably not. The truth is that I’ll just have to keep writing until I reach the end of the story, whether that takes 80,000 words or half a million. And then I’ll have to edit, revise, re-revise, cut, add, trim, make some tea, re-edit, re-cut, re-re-revise, cry into my cup of tea, feel like deleting the whole thing and throwing my laptop into the Trent and Mersey canal, cut some more, re-re-re-revise, call it finished, send it to my agent, await her comments, and then probably do a whole lot more editing and re-re-re-re-revising after she points out the gaping plot holes. I can pretend it’s a numbers game for now, but when was the last time you read a book review which said ‘the author wrote 115,765 words. Jolly good.’?

I’ve sometimes heard writing a novel compared to running a marathon. That’s true, only you don’t know how long your route will be when you start running, or where it’s going to go, and once you get to the end, you may have to go back and run by a different route. Also, you’re not running, you’re writing. So it’s not much like a marathon, really. It’s not like anything, except itself, and the only way you can learn to do it, is by doing it. And the real measure of success isn’t how many words you’ve written, but whether it makes the reader wish you’d written more.

But hey, 60,000 words is good progress, so I’m going to give myself a pat on the back and a G&T.


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