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.)