Rebekah James Author

OK, I am taking a plunge here and joining in on ROW80 an informal writing contest organized by Kait Nolan. It is a self-paced, self-moderated writing goal, and for me is a big step to take on another writing contest. I’m setting what I think are realistic goals for myself – finishing up a “fast” project for a submission I was invited to do by July 15, and polishing up on my larger MS that needs to be turned in by Sept 1.

This is a big thing for me because – while I adore the people in my writing group, and I have been fortunate enough to cultivate many encouraging, talented, and supportive friends – I hate, hate writing for word count goals alone. I really have come to hate writing contests that insist that you need to meet a specific word goal, or you have failed. Even if you do “win,” it is guaranteed that someone else did three times more than you did, so you still are inadequate. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a little less than 50k and would have lost the most famous of the word goal contests, NaNoWriMo. Dan Brown took 5 years to generate his most recent best seller Lost Symbol. Word count alone does not equate with quality.

Don’t get me wrong, word goals are important. Goals keep you focused and on schedule. Word counts are a fact of life for a writer. Word count is your time clock. Daily and overall goals tell you if you are keeping up enough to go ahead and go out to dinner with the girls, or if you need to glue your backside to the chair and let your fingers dance instead.

That being said, word counts alone do not make you a writer. What the word count contests ignore is that word count is only part of the writing process. Whether or not you are a plotter like me, at some point you do need to figure out what is happening and who your characters actually are. For me, these contests encourage sloppy writing habits. The last contest I “won” produced 80k of utter trash. I ended up editing it down to just under 29k just to get it to make sense and I’m still not done slashing at it. Nothing is more frustrating to me than knowing that I spent a month working on something that I knew was rubbish when I was writing it, feeling that I would have to just keep going and fix it later. It has been 2 months of editing to try to fix the mess. (Worse, I spent that time imposing on the good will and support of my husband who was neglected without complaint so I could spit up the trash I am now deleting.)

The other thing that these contests forget is that you do not live in a writing bubble awaiting the arrival of a Muse who hands you a fully formed story ready for print. (If this has actually happened to you, send me an email because my Muse is definitely not offering that kind of service and I’d like to know where you hired yours.) They play to the romantic notion that writing is something best done in isolation, preferably by feverish starving artists who scratch out their masterpieces in some drafty garret and pen in “the end” as they finally succumb to the death throes of whatever tragically incurable disease they have. The truth is that the most successful writers have real lives. They have day jobs, families, friends, and laundry that all need to be taken care of. If you are going to be a writer on a professional level, you need to find a way to work with your real life on a long term, permanent basis or there will be nothing to write about and no way of sustaining your writing habit. One of my favorite quotes at the moment comes from James McAvoy (speaking about acting but the same principle applies to writing):  “Where it gets difficult is when you get two or three jobs back to back where you’re playing leads and doing 13, 14 hours a day, six days a week, and you suddenly think, hang on a minute, how can you have a life like this? Do I work to live or live to work? How can I work properly with no life to inform the work?”

With the above rant in mind, I am setting what I hope are reasonable and sustainable goals for me, with enough push to stretch my limits without losing focus. I’ll be checking in on Sunday and Wednesday for this to both update and encourage. If you are interested in playing along visit Kait Nolan’s page:  http://aroundofwordsin80days.wordpress.com/ and follow her instructions. If you meet your goals, we will all cheer for you, and if you need to reassess what you are aiming for, that is OK too. The point is to keep pressing onward while actually living your life. (Because, with respect to Verdi et al, that is what real writers do.)

8 Comments

  • Katherine says:

    I *love* word counts. Love, love, love! I’m very goal oriented and they’re the most solid way of marking writing progress. And to my eternal dismay, only 20% of my time as a writer is spent generating a positive word count. The rest is development, editing, rewriting… Such is life! Luckily, RoW80 isn’t necessarily about the word goal. Good luck & wishing you lots of words…er…progress. 😉

  • Katherine, there are a lot of people who write really well with that kind of pressure and YAY for you if you are one of those does! I actually really envy you because I *know* that word counts are important, I just get so paralyzed with the whole contest thing.

  • Lauren says:

    I’ve seen lots of ROW80ers that use time writing instead of word count. And everyone that does it that way, swears by it. I do a combination of the two which seems to work out pretty well. Good luck with your goals!

  • frbrown906 says:

    good luck with meeting your goals. Having a word count helps me because if I set a time goal, I may just sit there staring at the screen most of that time and still barely get anything written. If I have a specific word goal though, it gives me something to work toward. I know different things work for different people though.

  • Good point Lauren “writing” time seems to be a more constructive way for me to measure goals, especially on those days when you slash away while editing and end up with a lower word count than when you started 🙂 I have been doing that for the last few months, and ending up with much better work.

  • alberta ross says:

    I use writing time in that I write – I count words at end so that I can keep vague eye on balance of parts/chapters and know if I’ve waffled too much – combination of all – haven’t tried a word count competion yet tho’ will try NaNo later this year more for the experience than not

    good luck with your goals

  • I think what hurts the most is thinking that we spent a lot of time and energy just to produce “crap”. But this is *not* time wasted! This is a very important part of the writing process. Like you said, the muse is not going to hand us a fully formed story ready for print!

    I like #ROW80 (this is my first time) because it lets writers decide for themselves what their goal should be. NaNoWriMo was earth-shattering for me, because I finally turned out an actual, complete novel. It needs a lot of work to make it marketable, and in the end I might just abandon it, but it was well worth the month I spent cranking it out. It was exactly the start I needed.

    Now I need something different. NaNo worked for me partly because I was able to ask my hubby “Please let me do this for just one short month!” but now I must find something more sustainable. #ROW80 is helping me do that.

    Good luck with your goals! I look forward to checking in with everybody on Sundays and Wednesdays (ooh! That’s Tomorrow!)

    • Amy, I certainly hope that you didn’t take anything I said to mean that i think there is no value in these contests, or that I think that everyone who does them writes poorly. *I* produced a very poorly written novel during NaNo, because I was so busy focusing on word counts, that I didn’t go through my normal process of editing the previous day’s work that I normally do when I start “writing” for the day. For me this was a bad idea, but certainly there are a LOT of people who DO well under these circumstances. I am terribly sorry if anything I said offended.

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