The inequality of words

OHI0153-NaNo-WordcountEnvyClinic-v2-600

I am on Twitter most days and one of the things I see most frequently is the author’s daily word-count. In it a writer will simply say how many words they’ve written today, or this week, or whatever. And it’s great. It’s lovely to see how people are getting on, to be able to support people if they’re struggling and to be inspired by another’s successes.

These totals vary from a few hundred – Ben Aaronovitch, for example, typically commits 500-700 words a day, though these are, I hear, finished, publisher-ready words – up to a friend’s purple-patch of around 6,000.

What gets me, though, is that these numbers are all treated as equal, as equivalent, when in reality they tell us very little. They are often a stick with which to beat ourselves when the comparison is, so often, completely unfair.

How does someone write 6,000 words a day? By sitting down behind a desk and getting on with it. Great stuff. But if they’re doing that they can’t be earning money. Unless they’re professional writers they must have either a job or a support-network that enables them to take the time out to write such a prodigious number.

word-count-typewriter

I have a small child, a part-time job and I get occasional freelance editorial work. These all take precedence over my real writing. I also have a spouse who works full-time and pays to send the smolrus to nursery two days a week so I can do my own thing. I’m very lucky – and yet my writing time is still horribly restricted. I could probably average about 5,000 words a week if free to get on with first-drafting.

But even that is a useless, artificial number: where in the first draft? At the beginning, when you’re filled with inspiration? At the end, when you’ve the joy of things coming together and you can see the finish-line? Or in the middle where every word has to be individually dredged up from the deep purgatory of your soul?

Not all words are equal.

If you’re out there with a full-time job, or with similar full-time commitments, it’s not fair on yourself to compete with these people who have the freedom to write at will. Averaging 100 words a day is fine – great, in fact. Anything better than zero is good. Hell, maybe you’re deleting vast swathes of experimental nonsense and your daily total is decisively negative. You’ve still accomplished something. Today you’re closer to the finished novel you envisaged than you were at the same point yesterday.

So by all means go and tell the world if things are going well. Just remember that numbers may be as much a reflection of privilege as of genius.

And make sure you share when things are a struggle too. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the real inspiration. The strength to get down a single word when the world is falling  around your shoulders will always stand with me as much as 15,000 done by someone who never has to leave the comfort of their study.

On luck

Compoco Black Cat

Enamel badge from Compoco. Not a recommendation, merely an apposite image

Way back in the mists of time I attended my one and only writing conference. The keynote speaker was Julian Fellowes and the theme of his talk was this: we don’t know any more than you.

The people who have ‘made it’, he said, had done so through luck. There was no real advice they could give other than the technical; there was no road-map to Successville.

[I accepted this at the time but now I wonder how true that is: could white male upper-class privilege have had something to do with it? But that’s a subject for another day]

Now, five years later, I find myself in possession of a publishing deal – for the same book, incidentally, that I was hawking at the aforementioned conference – and now I ask myself: how did this happen?

The answer is, of course, luck.

Through sheer good fortune my manuscript found itself on the desk of a person who was looking for that particular story at that particular time. On another day she’d have been running late and would skim my work without really taking it in. Or she’d have just signed a remarkably similar novel by someone else. Maybe she’d have been dyspeptic after an especially generous lunch and would have been too distracted to appreciate genius.

Luck: someone retweeted a submissions-request from a new imprint on Twitter. Luck: I decided to send them my novel and not just try and drum up some proofreading work, which had been my initial plan. Luck: without really trying, or putting much thought into it, I bashed out a cover letter that didn’t send them rushing to the ‘delete’ button so fast they gave their fingers a friction burn.

Luck: it fell into the inbox of someone who saw potential profit (not the same as talent; not by a long shot, and perhaps rarer) in my work.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not your book gets an agent or gets published is out of your hands.

But sometimes you will hit the right person in the right mood on the right day. And it’s for those narrow windows that you must make sure your work has the biggest chance of success. To do that you must:

  • Write a novel (or other work of your choosing)
  • Edit that novel
  • Edit it again
  • Another edit can’t hurt
  • Find the right agent/publisher for your work. I mean really – don’t waste your time sending a gritty urban noir to a lit-fiction specialist. The only special opportunity you’re giving them is the opportunity to turn you into another irritated ‘don’t do this’ screed on Twitter
  • Write a good synopsis
  • Check the submission guidelines. Check them twice. Keep the webpage open and keep checking as you…
  • …Write a solid cover letter

None of this will result in guaranteed publication. What it means is that, when the dominoes finally fall your way, you have a chance.

[And don’t expect the offer of representation/publication to be the final stop on your journey. There will be more editing to come]

Imagine what’d happen if all the stars aligned and you got the right editor/agent in the perfect mood – and your work wasn’t up to scratch.

Luck? Yes, it’s luck. But you’re not helpless before the fickle fates. Improve the odds. Write a good story and follow the rules and you’re already ahead of the curve. Hell, go out and network if you’re the sort of person who can do such a thing.

Then go out and write a better story.

I had tremendous luck when it came to getting a deal for Night Shift. But I earned that luck by working damn hard through nine or so drafts, by beating my synopsis into shape and by evolving my submission technique over many years.

The dice will roll your way eventually – probably more often than you think. It’s up to you to be ready to take advantage.