Numbers and Words

21 Nov

The first time I wrote something that was more than a couple thousand words, I really thought, “Wow, I could be a writer.” I’m sure it was high school and when I broke through that multi-page barrier, it probably felt like a major breakthrough. It’s hard to put that into context now. On a regular basis these days, I will write a few thousand words and just abandon them – or at the very least, just put them aside, in perpetuity.

When I wrote a story that broke the five thousand word limit, it kind of blew my mind. It was double digits in page count and I couldn’t believe it. There was such a sense of empowerment in the work that I totally ignored how terrible it was. I kept going, and every artificial milepost impressed the hell out of me. About the time I hit 30,000 words my storytelling muscles had been completely exhausted. I’d written myself in circles and had no plan for moving forward.

I stuck to short stories for a while after that, and loved carving out tiny pieces of madness. I could embrace the fire for a brief time, but not get burned. And then I wrote a gigantic mess of a novel, hammering out thousands of words a day – writing in the morning, at night, anytime I could find to work. In a couple of weeks I had blown past the fifty thousand word mark and sailed higher and higher. It was a good feeling. Unfortunately, there was nothing in that steaming pile of crazy that could be salvaged. It sat there, mocking me with how terrible it was – goading me to knock it off its smug perch. And when I set out to surpass that record, I hit 60,000 – then 70,000 – on a new project. It was awful too, but in a much different way. There was all the structure and story elements a book needed to be a living thing.

My current and most recent record is just a hair over 110,000 words in length. I know it can be trimmed down – in fact, I’m counting on it. But the size of the work isn’t what matters. This time around, I know better how to put a story together, and what order the bits and pieces need to be in. Whether you think of it as building an engine of interlocking pieces, or sewing up body parts to build a new Frankenstein’s monster, if the gears and guts and motors and organs aren’t where they need to be it is going to be a messy failure. And although I have plenty of bad things to say about my latest/greatest work (so far), I know that it a complete thing, all on its own. I can see how it works, and I’m proud of it.

When I think of works that I’ve read and enjoyed – or fallen in love with – the size of it doesn’t matter so much. Of Mice and Men, or The Old Man and the Sea are incredibly short and packed with power. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books are impossibly huge by comparison, but couldn’t be done with less. The range in size of the most famous books, or my favorite books, is vast. In my attempts to tell a story, the hardest part is not figuring out how many words to use, but which words to use. When I look at infographics, like the one below, my brain doesn’t know how to process it. Which is partly why I enjoy this particular one so much. There is a lot of information, but very little commentary on it.

Like so many other things in life, it is easy to get caught up in looking at the wrong criteria. The price, or color, or perceived value of a thing can be misleading. As a writer – and especially as an editor! – my best work comes through when I can cut away the crap, and focus on the utility. Does this work? What doesn’t work? Did I say what I needed to say? How can I make it better? It’s a messy process, it’s a deeply personal affair, and there is no guarantee of success. What do you do? What can you do? You go to work. You write. That is the only way to make things better.

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Word? Words.

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