I began taking a daily word count after I sold my first book and was working on its successor. It was – and is – one of the easiest ways to calculate my progress, especially if I’m writing with Word or Pages. Oh, the joy of hitting my target and then overshooting!
But it is also a bit of a blunt instrument. It’s all too easy to use it to beat yourself up. And there are other risks attached, too.
There is more to writing a novel than volume of wordage, after all. A book needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Above all it needs a point. If you lose sight of that, watching the words pile up gives you an entirely false picture of your progress.
Unexpected Risk of a Daily Word Count
Confession time here. This is something I did myself, when I was in my first few years of writing for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I was on my fourth or fifth story and thought I’d got the process sussed. I’d recovered from the illness which set me off writing so hard in the first place and I had a full time job.
I had moved into a flat that was pretty much next door to St James’s Park Underground Station. On a bad morning-after-the-night-before, it was pillow to desk in 35 minutes.
So there I was, writing my books in a regular early morning slot before I left for work. A standard contemporary Harlequin Mills and Boon was a maximum of 55,000 words. My plotting had improved immensely with editorial guidance, as my then agent had prophesied. I turned in Book No Whatever at 54,500 words on the nose and skipped along to meet my lovely editor, positive that I was on roll.
“Yes, the plot’s fine now,” she said kindly. “But the characters are like little puppets, sitting up and saying the right thing for the story and then collapsing.”
She was absolutely right. The heroine was a pretty doll. The hero – a dashing Beau Brummel type, sophisticated and witty, whom I thought I loved – was a statue who raised one eyebrow occasionally.
That daily word count had told me that I was working my way along my planned plot line nicely. Only, I’d never really got in close enough to my characters to feel their pain. Wooden puppets they were, every single one.
Didn’t make that mistake again. It was flying into the mist for me, from then on.
Writing Time, Reading Time and Rhythm
A daily word count tells you nothing at all about the reader’s eventual experience. However slowly the reader may read, it’s always going to take her a fraction of the time, it took you to write the thing.
One of my most loyal and kindly readers once told me that she loved my books because she could read one from cover to cover during the course of a single bath.
I’d just finished the marathon El Sodh which cost me 23 months of hell trying to find a satisfying ending. (In the Arms of the Sheikh if you’re interested.) And my reader could finish it before the bath water got cold? She meant it as a compliment. Which, in its way, I suppose it was, if the 23 months of tears and gnashing teeth didn’t show.
Bath water lady was a fast reader, of course. Some readers are genuinely unable to put down a book they love. They will read through the night to finish it, if they have to. (I’ve done that a couple of times, not more.) But most readers will leave a book aside to take the washing out or have a swim before the family arrives. When he or she returns to it, she will go straight into the book’s own rhythm.
That rhythm will vary from scene to scene, as the plot progresses. It will certainly not be the same as that of the writing process, especially by a steady 1,000 words a day. It’s important to make sure that a daily target doesn’t make you write at the same de-dum, de-dum, de-dum pace all the time.
Daily Word Count of Arnold Bennett
The 1,000 words daily word count target was the first I’d ever heard of, set by Arnold Bennett, a favourite of my mother’s. She gave me Anna of the Five Towns which I loved. But when I wrote about it at school, my teacher complained that it was a pot-boiler. There are now at least 3 editions in print in various “Classic” series, including Penguin.
In this she followed Virginia Woolf , who dismissed his work, saying he had “A shopkeeper’s view of literature”. Indeed, Bennett himself said much the same thing: “I am a writer, just as I might be … a grocer, or an earthenware manufacturer.” He was hugely successful in his day, but the modernists did for his reputation after he died in 1931.
He achieved something or revival via radio and television adaptations of his novels about the Potteries in the 70s and 80s. Professor John Carey mounted an appealing reassessment in 1992 in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992): “His writing represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals’ case against the masses. He has never been popular with intellectuals as a result.”
But in 1907 he announced he would write a major novel of 200,000 words and on August 30 1908 recorded in his diary : ‘Finished The Old Wives’ Tale at 11:30 a.m. today. 200,000 words.’
Intimidating, or what?
Daily Word Count of Graham Greene and others
Graham Greene – who protected himself from the intellectual snobs by designating his books as “entertainments” or “novels” – famously only did 500 words a day. His editor at Simon and Schuster, Michael Korda, called it his daily penance and described him writing by hand in a small notebook.
Greene’s up and coming hero in The End of the Affair, Maurice Bendrix, explains further, “Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene.” He works in the morning and says that when he was young any love affair had to wait until after lunch.
Ah yes. Real life will intrude.
But if Greene only did 500 words a day, an interesting table on the Writers Write website, shows that the late Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and R F Delderfield (A Horseman Riding By), writers separated by a couple of generations and the Atlantic Ocean, each aimed for 10,000.
Plenty aim for 3,000. Anthony Trollope, writing by hand, often on trains while he travelled for the day job with the Post Office, knocked off his target in 12 quarter of an hour bursts of 250 words a time.
I’ve heard stories of Edgar Wallace writing a book in a weekend, (70,000 words in 3 days). He dictated his books onto wax cylinders, in 72-hour marathons, fuelled by cigarettes and pots of tea, which he took with sugar. Secretaries then typed them up. Though his books were more widely disparaged even than Arnold Bennett’s, he had a cracking way with a plot and they were definite page turners. Their energy may well owe much, as the Wikipedia article points out, to his method of intense composition.
Beyond the 10,000 Word Horizon
Also, even in a first draft, I don’t drive steadily onwards. I divert. Sometimes I go back to a puzzle I’ve just remembered. Or I jump forwards. (That’s the way I tell my Significant Other about my day, too. Drives him mad.)
For instance, sometimes I write intensely. The result tends to be urgent, fast flowing, a bit clipped. It reads very well, but some of the stuff the reader needs to know is missing. That means the following day I have to back and prepare the ground in the preceding chapters. Sometimes this will result in an info dump, which needs to be chopped and scattered tastefully through the book. And sometimes, I just go so deeply into my characters’ world that I lose all sense of physically writing at all. I’ve done that a few times
It seems that Agatha Christie had the same experience. Listening to the radio on Saturday morning, I caught a programme about Agatha Christie. Let me be frank. I wouldn’t have chosen to listen to it. The tone of You’re Dead to Me is not one I warm to – irritatingly jokey, with people under instruction to be funny, failing and getting in the way of an interesting story.
But I pricked up my ears when I heard, “She wrote a book in 3 days, 17,000 words a day, ending up with a 54,000 word book, Absent in Spring by Mary Westmacott.” And no, the sums don’t add up. I’m assuming that’s publication length, post editing. Now, I knew Christie said she took 3– 4 months to write a novel. So this was clearly an exception.
It is essentially the story of rather irritable, conventional upper middle class woman, suddenly alone becalmed on a train journey in Iraq, who takes stock of her relationships. It is powerful stuff. These days a reviewer would probably call it unflinching. It is a book you want to think about, once you’ve put it down.
Lucy Worsley, author of a new biography, Agatha Christie, A Very Elusive Woman, pointed out that this was wartime, Christie was on her own in London, with her beloved and very supportive husband, Max Mallowan posted to Cairo, and this was the book she had “been working up to all her life.”
It was tagged as a romance, for marketing purposes. It clearly isn’t. Actually, I don’t think any of the Mary Westmacott books are. But it does that have intensity that I recognise as a hundred miles away from any word count whatsoever. Lucy Worsley said that at this lonely, difficult time, Agatha Christie was at the height of her powers, going deep into her fictional world as much as she could. This seems to be partly for the consolation of keeping busy, partly for a sort of emotional release.
I conclude that Absent in Spring is an excellent example of what a book will sometimes do to you, without your planning it or possibly even suspecting that it will happen.
You go into the maze, unprotected but hopeful, and who knows when, where or how you will come out? It may even change you. But – the important thing – you can’t forecast it. And you can’t rely on it to happen again.
Just be grateful.