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Is Word Count Overrated?

I’ve seen a lot of writers posting their word counts, which is awesome, especially so close to NaNoWriMo. But word counts need to have context. There are really just three situations where word counts matter:

  • You are a professional writer. Some or all of your livelihood depends on being able to hit those word counts on a daily basis.
  • You are just starting out as a writer, and you are still getting used to measuring by words instead of by pages.
  • You are extremely busy with any combination of getting the kids out of bed, going to work, studying for class, going to the gym, walking the dog, cleaning the house and quite a few other things that spill chaos into your day. You are posting your word count to celebrate a momentary victory of a couple hundred words over of your hectic schedule.

I think we all fall into the third category more than we’d like. But this is important, because learning to celebrate is an important part of being a writer. The process of writing is long, solitary and prone to rejection . . . lots and lots of rejection. The celebration of just a couple words of days is important to morale and staying motivated.

But on the other hand, it takes more than simply writing to improve as a writer. I have heard quite a few theories of what it takes to become a competent writer. The figures range from seven books to fourteen years to a million words. The last one seems to be the most prevalent. I’ve spoken to many writers who treat this like a homework assignment, and really don’t think of themselves as writers . . . until they’ve reached a million words.

The problem is one million words is actually a vague goal. Are we just talking about prose here? Do all the comic scripts I’ve written count? What about all my blogs? Does this post count? And what about revisions? Do negative words . . . the words I’ve replaced from editing and revising . . . also count?

Does writing a million words make you a competent writer? I think writing a million words would make you a more comfortable writer, perhaps even a more confident writer. And while both of these attributes are important, neither are a measure of competence.

So if word count isn’t the answer, what is required to make us better writers? The answer is simple: people. I’m not just talking about people to cheer you on, though that is important. You need people to help you learn and grow. Join a writer’s group, even if it is just online. Listen to a podcast or two. Take a writing class. Attend a writing conference. Whatever you do, make sure there’s human interaction. Writing is a solitary process, but the life of a writer doesn’t have to be.

This doesn’t mean aiming for a million words is a bad goal. It does have one clear benefit: it keeps you humble. It helps you realize you have a long way to go. And don’t think famous writers are immune to this. Let’s say you write that New York Times bestselling novel before you even reach 500,000 words. What are you going to do for an encore? Or the one after that? Humility and perspective aren’t luxuries in this business – they’re essentials.

So if you want to keep celebrating that word count, don’t aim for a million. Aim for a billion, a trillion and whatever comes after a gajillion.

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Why I’m Not Publishing on Amazon (Yet)

When I tell people I’m a writer, the inevitable question is “Are you published?” I tell them while I have been published, my work hasn’t appeared very widely. This always leads to the dreaded follow-up question: “Why don’t you just publish on Amazon? It’s so easy.”

Normally I just smile and reply “I’ll think about it”, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated. To understand why I’m not throwing books up on Amazon left and right, you have to know a little bit about the publishing landscape, which is currently in a great deal of flux. There are (at least) three ways to publish. I’m going to give an overview of each of them, along with the reasoning behind my current publishing strategy. The two factors to keep in mind, however, is that a) your strategy has to tailored your own goals and dreams and b) you can – and should – revise your strategy as time goes on.

The first way writers are published is through traditional publishing. This is the way publishing has worked for decades. Writers seek out an agent, who present their work to a publisher, in return for fifteen percent off the writer’s earning (this is a standard throughout the industry). A publisher agrees to produce the writer’s book, providing not only publication, but also cover design, editing services and some marketing. Major publishers also usually have the connections to put the author’s work in bookstores across the country. The writer usually receives an advance as well as subsequent royalties after the book sales have paid out the initial advance.

One of the biggest downsides is that this way is fraught with gatekeepers. From the agents themselves to the editors acquiring the book, there are tons of hurdles a writer has to clear in order to land a deal. While these gatekeepers ensure a certain standard of quality, it’s still a very difficult process for writers. Don’t believe me? James Patterson and J.K. Rowling were both rejected at least twelve times by publishers and I’ve heard of major authors being rejected upwards of fifty times.

In spite of these hardships, this is the path I’ve currently chosen. I want to eventually make enough from my writing to do it full-time, or at least most-of-the-time. This way, I’ll have an agent in my corner to help make that happen. While I realize the lion’s share of the work falls to me, and that there’s only so much agents, editors and even publishers can do, I like the sense of structure and teamwork. Plus, these are my first novels. Having them rejected gives me more incentive to go back, revise and ensure they really are the best work I can produce.

But of course, that’s not the only way to publish nowadays.

The other way is through self-publishing. Most self-publishing is done through Amazon’s CreateSpace, although there are tons of other self-publishing services. For years, self-publishing was looked down by traditional publishing entities, but the advances in printing technology and the widespread availability of print-on-demand services has changed that. Unlike traditional publishing, self-publishing is simple: as the name implies, you do it all yourself. It’s actually a lot easier than you think. You just buy an ISBN, upload a PDF of the text, provide a cover, click a few buttons, and then you have a book.

“If it’s that easy, what aren’t you doing it?” you might ask. “Heck, why isn’t everyone doing it?” Well, that’s the problem: nearly everyone is doing it. At least a million books are published a year in English alone. The competition is fierce. And remember, you are doing this all without a publisher, which means you provide the cover, you do the editing. Flubbing either of them can put a black mark of your book, making it difficult to land publishing deals later on in your career.

I think self-publishing works for two kinds of writers on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first are the hobbyists. These writers aren’t looking to make it big or turn it into a career – they just want to get their feet wet. So they put together a well-edited book with a basic cover and see what happens. It worked for Andy Weir, whose book “The Martian” started out self-published, and is now a bestselling novel and movie. The other class of writers are the ones who have tried traditional publishing to no avail and decided to put their work up on Amazon – again with solid editing and a good cover. My friend Cat Stark did this with her book “The Elven Prince”. She’s happy with the results and preparing to publish another book very soon.

Last but not least, there are the hybrid publishers. This is a nebulous category at best, but an important one nonetheless. Like all forms the media, the publishing industry is experiencing a rabid amount of change. What worked thirty years ago in publishing doesn’t work anymore, heck, what worked ten years ago might not work anymore. Hybrid publishers represent those writers with one foot in either camp. It could simply be a writer who uses both traditional publishing and self-publishing venues to get his or her work out there. Or it could be a writer who teams up with a vanity press and then uses crowdfunding to purchases ala carte services to obtain publisher house quality for their project. Or it could mean something completely different.

The industry is rapidly changing. Hybrid publishing acknowledges publishing doesn’t have to be binary choice of either going through the gatekeepers or going it alone. If there’s one part of the industry that’s going to grow in the next couple years, I suspect it’s this one – but how and where, I don’t have a clue. All I can say is if it sounds like a great plan and you’re willing to take the risk – go for it – but keep it mind all experimentation involves risk, and all risk involves failure. Publishing in general is a thorny business to innovate, filled with plenty of good ideas attempted too soon or too late – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try in the first place.

Ultimately, the 21st century has made publishing personal. Thus, the tools and strategies we use have to be tailored to our own objectives, but don’t be afraid to restock or completely revise these strategies from time to time. After all, no plan survives the battlefield.

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NaNoWriMo Is Not A Cult

Let me preface this by saying National Novel Writing Month – aka NaNoWriMo – is awesome. The annual event challenges you to write one novel – or 50,000 words – in one month (namely November), all while providing you with an awesome community to brainstorm, share your work and compete with and much more. If you want to write a novel or have ever thought about writing a novel, stop reading this and sign up now!

But . . .

But . . .

If you are a seasoned NaNoWriMo participant and can’t seem to hit 50,000 words, or you just aren’t happy with the finished results, it might be time to consider if Nanowimo is part of your writing process or not. I’m a three-time NaNoWriMo winner, but something was missing from each project, preventing me from making the much-needed corrections during the revision phase. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered what it was.

I am a pantser. I still use an outline, but I write best with the freedom to move around and explore my narrative from the seat of my pants (or more accurately, shorts). While having a one month deadline is a great motivation for my deadline-oriented mind, it really kills the creativity in scene after scene. I need time to explore my story, time to get to know my characters. So over the past two years, I’ve carved out several months to write a novel. Now I have two finished projects – one that I’m sending out to agents, and one that I’m workshopping through a writer’s group. In either case, I came to the same conclusion: taking it slow and steady worked better than rushing through.

Of course, you might find the opposite to be true – NaNoWriMo might work wonderfully in your wheel house. If you are an outliner or a singularly focused pantser, you might be able to write a satisfactory 50,000 word draft with little problem. Or you might be like me, and require a little extra time to get the bugs out. Everyone’s writing process is different.

You can still use NaNoWriMo’s tools to craft your novel, even if you aren’t taking the 50,000-word plunge. Every time I start a new novel, I buy a copy of NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s workbook “No Plot, No Problem”, which features tons of exercises for figuring out your story before you begin. I’ve heard of writers customizing NaNoWriMo for their own needs, such as by number of hours editing or outlining in a single month. There’s also Camp NaNoWriMo, a summer/spring version which lets writers customize their own word counts for the months of June and August.

Even if you aren’t participating in NaNoWriMo at all, you should still try to approximate its tools to your own writing process. Make sure you have a writing group or organization to provide you with a sense of community. Try to listen to podcasts from fellow writers and other creative types to keep motivated. Don’t forget to set a goal or deadline – but make sure it’s one which doesn’t rush you or hinder your creativity.

NaNoWriMo provides an excellent kick in the pants for many writers. It helps you find the cracks in your schedule where you can squeeze in writing time while also evicting all those nasty doubts. But it’s not a cult sacrifice to your muse. It’s not the writing tax you have to pay in November. It’s not any kind of obligation. It’s simply a great way to start exploring your own unique process.

Where you take your writing from there is up to you.