Sunday, December 29, 2013

How Many Words?

Picture In addition to Thanksgiving and my birthday, for me November means National Novel Writing Month. And since no one can procrastinate like a writer on a deadline, November also often means finding new and creative ways to put off having to commit words to paper (or the screen). This year, the way I came up with to procrastinate was counting my lifetime output of words.

Many writers have a strange obsession with word count. In the days of using typewriters, you gauged how much you accomplished by how many pages you had written. Now that most writers use computers, pages are irrelevant and productivity is measured by the number of words you wrote. National Novel Writing Month requires 50,000 words to complete the challenge. Agents and publishers specify the number of words manuscripts need to have to be considered for publication. Writers set goals of 1000 or 2000 or 5000 words per day.

And there's a bit of common writerly wisdom that it takes a million words to get good at writing (or, alternatively, "the first million words are crap"). Like most common wisdom, there's some truth to this, but it isn't entirely true. It is true that writing is something you get better at the more you do it. But the measure of a million words seems kind of arbitrary. Someone who is an avid reader and/or got good grades in English (or whatever language they're writing in) is probably going to start out ahead, quality-wise, of someone who's never read a book or who doesn't know how to put understandable sentences together. Granted, some people have a natural instinct for storytelling that transcends proper writing mechanics, so they're ahead as far as that goes, but writing is communication and it doesn't matter how good your story is if you can't communicate it in a way that your readers will understand.

On the other hand, other people might have a gift for writing beautiful prose but no sense of how to put together an exciting, entertaining story. So they have a lot of work to do, too. (I, for one, would rather read an entertaining, engaging story that is written in inexpert prose than something that's beautifully written but boring.)

So, not every writer starts out at the same level of crappiness. Then there's the factor of how hard they work at improving their craft. If you write a lot, you're almost bound to get better at it without even trying. But if you read good books to learn how prose and storytelling work, and seek out good writing advice and really work on applying it, you're going to get better even faster.

But even with all these qualifiers, some writers (or me, at least) are curious about how far along they are on that fabled million words or how long ago they passed it by. So, in the spirit of NaNo-ly procrastination, I totaled up my lifetime word count (as an adult; I didn't count the stories and plays I wrote in elementary school :-D).

First, for non-writers, numbers of words might not really mean anything. How much is 50,000 words? How much is 1000 words, a million words? Here are some examples to give some idea of scale, of word counts of famous novels (from this site):

Harry Potter and the Philospher's/Sorcerer's Stone:
77,325
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198,227
The Hobbit: 95,022
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 30,644
Nineteen Eighty-Four: 88,942
To Kill a Mockingbird: 99,121
Fahrenheit 451: 46,118
Lord of the Rings Trilogy: 455,125
A Game of Thrones: 284,000 (from here)
Brave New World: 63,766

Methodology: first I looked up how to add columns in a spreadsheet. (More procrastination; plus I'm pretty clueless about spreadsheets.) I only counted the latest version of each work, instead of earlier drafts, so there are a lot of cut scenes that didn't get counted. In cases where I re-wrote something from scratch, I did count both the earlier, abandoned version and the new version. I counted novels, novellas, short stories, and story fragments, but not my handful of poems because writing poetry is a completely different discipline from writing prose fiction. Also, it isn't that many words. And I am most definitely not a poet. :-P

So, counting that way, my lifetime word count between 1990 and 2013 is 1,614,156 (counting the novel I wrote in November; I added it in when it was done). Well past the million-word mark, you'll notice.

Broken down further:
1990-2000: 444,095 words
2000-2008 (when I began writing fanfiction through the last year before I seriously did NaNoWriMo for the first time): 405,878
2009-2013 (when I got a big creative kick from completing NaNo for the first time through the present): 632,176.

If you're adding along with me, you'll notice I passed 1,000,000 words sometime in 2010. As for when my writing graduated from "crap" to "not crap," I like to think it happened (if I say so myself, if it doesn't seem like I'm being arrogant to assume that my writing has made that shift) sometime in the early 2000s, when I was turning out large quantities of fanfiction on a regular basis. Lots of writing in a short period of time with close attention to quality will elevate the level of your writing, no matter where it starts out.

This year, 2013, has been my best writing year ever, with 271,303 words. 195,927 of those words are books 2-6 of the Daughter of the Wildings series. I expect to add quite a few words when I revise (I generally tend to "write short" and then fill out details in revision), so my lifetime word count will go up by the time that series is ready for publication.

Fanfiction got me back into writing at a time when I had lost heart for writing for a few years, and from 2000-2003 I wrote a great deal of fanfic. 405,878 words of it. I also wrote the original version of Chosen of Azara during this time, about 70,000 words, but I counted that in my 2009-2013 output because I re-wrote it pretty extensively this year and last year and extended it to 81,000 words. My lifetime fanfiction total is 632,176 words and original fiction total is 981,980. All those words of fanfiction were a significant factor in reaching the first million words, and I think I improved a lot as a writer while writing them. My experience with fanfiction is another post for another time, but I will say that, even though I keep my fanfic writer identity separate from my identity here, writing all that fic helped make me the writer I am today. (For whatever that's worth!)

Among the pre-2000 output are my first two complete novels; the second one is actually a sequel to the first and I had totally forgotten that I had finished it. So that was an interesting surprise to come across! I plan on evaluating them to see if they're worth revising and publishing; I think they probably are. There are also some fragments of novels set in the same world as Chosen of Azara, that I'm looking forward to developing and completing. Once Daughter of the Wildings is into the final revision stages and being released, sometime next year, I'll start on those.

On to two million!

(Image credit: Zsuzsanna Kilian, stock.xchng)

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