Friday, February 5, 2016

Writers Owe Readers More Than Word Count by Alison Henderson

I just deleted half of yesterday’s work. Ouch! Why would I do such a painful thing? Word count is hard to come by. The writing wasn’t awful. It added a few character insights. But it didn’t advance the story. And story is the key to satisfying readers.

Most writers I know, especially writers with contracts and deadlines, set daily word counts for themselves. Some post their daily accomplishments on Facebook. I assume they’re looking for a virtual pat on the back or maybe an opportunity to shout out to the world, “I did it!” Whatever their motivation, I usually look at those impressive numbers and hang my head.

I’m currently working on the second book in my female bodyguard series. Since I haven’t written a new full-length novel in almost four years, I’m more than a little rusty. I’ve tried to avoid stressing myself with things like goals and word counts, but I really want to finish the manuscript by Labor Day. I know how long my books usually run, and I’m not laid-back enough to keep myself from doing the math. Only a certain number of words per month (and by extension, per week and per day) will get me there. It’s not an insurmountable mountain of words and it’s not carved in stone, but it will require much more self-discipline than I’m used to.

As I’ve been paying closer attention to my own productivity, it’s got me thinking about the current emphasis on being a prolific writer. We are constantly urged to write faster, but not to write better. We’re told the way to build a successful career is to produce several books a year—keep cranking them out and keep ourselves in the public eye. Our books are a product, our writing “content” that must constantly be refreshed in this age of instant communication and miniscule attention spans. And it’s true. As fewer people read books regularly, avid readers must be nurtured and cherished. Of course they want new books by their favorite authors frequently, so we work give them what they want.

But are we paying a price? Are we forcing them to pay a price?

In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed changes in the work of two of my favorite big-name authors. Their books have always been automatic buys for me, but that’s changing. I won’t mention names, but you’ll probably recognize at least one of these NYT bestsellers.

The first author writes three full-length books a year in three different sub-genres, and I have always loved them—until the last two. In her latest contemporary suspense book, the villain was obvious from the first chapter, and the pace dragged miserably. It read like she was being paid by the word. The second book was the first in a new grand fantasy trilogy. The characters and plot were so flat and lifeless I doubt I’ll read the sequels.

The other author writes in the highly popular, extended family series sub-genre. You know the kind—large families with numerous siblings, each with his or her own romance. I loved the first several books, but the last couple have felt rushed and formulaic.

I think both authors are paying the price of success in today’s market. They are under enormous pressure to produce, and because they’re professionals, they do produce. But their characters and stories are not as fresh and imaginative as in earlier books—the books that won legions of dedicated readers in the first place.

Writers create. We don’t make widgets. Our products need to have magic, and sometimes magic takes time. The creative well must be allowed to refill. Sadly, publishers (and readers) these days are often too impatient to allow that to happen. Because I self-publish, this isn’t an issue for me, but the pressure to write fast and publish frequently raises the risk of burnout for many writers pursuing commercial success. Some will end up not putting their best work out there. And that’s a big disservice to themselves and their readers.

Alison
www.alisonhenderson.com

35 comments:

Alicia Dean said...

Well said! In spite of today's demands in the writing world, quality should always take priority. It is gut-wrenching to delete so many of our hard to come by words, but if it doesn't make the story better, you are right, get rid of it. Good luck...I'm sure you'll make your deadline with a fantastic book!

Brenda Whiteside said...

A timely post for my current situation. I'd started a daily word count...twice. When the first one got shot to h--- because of family matters popping up, I redid the count. A few days into that, I realized I had enormous plot problems. I couldn't continue without a fix, slash and burn, rewrite. At that point, I threw out the daily word count. I found it made me nervous and feeling defeated at the end of the day. I'm breathing easier again. I let my publisher know, I'm having plotting issues and might not make the deadline. Lucky for me she said, no worry. Now, I feel like the quality of what I'm writing is so much more! Nice post, Alison. Good luck.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Alison, I'm with you. I've tried the word count thing...never even went near that NaNo thing...it doesn't work for me. I'm more of a scene at a sitting kind of gal, but those sittings may not be every day. Because I'm more productive in the a.m., I purposefully only play one round of golf a week in the a.m. with my golf club. I also make dentist/doctor/hair appointments in the afternoon. So, what I'm saying is, I make a schedule that allows me time in the mornings to write. Seems to help.

Jannine Gallant said...

I just read an article that said Nora takes 45 days to write a book. Her publisher had to create J.D. Robb just to keep up with her. The woman is possessed! I honestly haven't read a big name author in quite a while, so I'm not sure if the ones I used to auto buy have gone downhill. I have found that with a reasonable goal, I'm more self-disciplined. I have a six month goal for finishing each book. I try to write 5000 words a week, which gives me about 6 spare weeks for editing (my rewrites, my CP's suggestions, and my editor's rounds). Usually I write 1000 words a day, so I can take a day off. I can have a low count day. Some days I write more and give myself a cushion. In other words, I've devised a system where I feel comfortable but still have to sit my butt in the chair and get it done! I've also noticed that after 15 books, I'm better at staying on track and don't have to delete or edit as much as I used to. So, practice might not make you perfect, but I think it helps make you more efficient. Find a flexible comfort zone (whatever works for you, personally) and stay in it. You'll get your book done, and it'll be great!

Alison Henderson said...

Thanks, Alicia. So far, I'm still on schedule. I hope I can still say the same in three or four months.

Alison Henderson said...

Brenda, I'm glad you're breathing easier. You can't write if you can't breathe (literally and figuratively)! If you're feeling nervous and defeated, the right words won't flow. I'm glad you've given yourself permission and time to sort out your plot issues. You'll be happier and the book will be better for it.

Alison Henderson said...

Rolynn, I've always believed we have to honor our own process, and we need to leave room for life to happen.

Alison Henderson said...

Jannine, I think your 5,000 words a week and two books a year pace is very reasonable and appropriate. You're working steadily and able to produce top quality books. But think how you'd feel if you had to double that! My current goal is 3,000 words a week (which is a huge increase from just diddling around), but so far I'm right on target. And you're so right about it getting easier and more fluid with practice.

andreadowning.com said...

I'm absolutely with you on this. Obviously, if I have a deadline, I want to meet it--it would be unprofessional not to. But for creating a book, no--like Rolynn, I wouldn't go near NaNo. Aside from anything else, I believe you have to have an outside life to bring to the table--or in this case, the desk. Otherwise, what are you writing about? It is said the best promo is more books and that may be true, but surely not at the cost of quality. Thanks for posting, Alison

Ashantay said...

I agree that finding your internal writing clock is more important than pushing the river, trying to make everything move faster. I know I have work out there that is not my best, but it was my best at the time I wrote the books. So do NYT authors - I know, I've read their early work! Some of our work may be clinkers, so all we can do is our best on each particular day. I have no doubt you will complete a book worth the wait.

Alison Henderson said...

Andi, even the thought of NaNo gives me hives. I know many writers say it taught them to write fast, but it's not for me. Based on a couple of reader's blogs I've read lately, they're starting to complain about the lack of quality and variety that result from the current emphasis on quantity.

Alison Henderson said...

Ashantay, we all grow and improve with experience--even NYT authors. I wasn't thinking about an author's first few books. I'm more concerned about mid-career and later authors who feel so pressured to write faster that they can't give each book the creativity it deserves.

Susan Coryell said...

You are so right--even the BIG names like Geraldine Brooks seem to be rushing their latest works. I am such a slow writer--can't imagine how any author puts out more than a book a year! Nice post.

Christine DePetrillo said...

Great post. I write four pages a day. Could be four pages of genius or four pages of crap, but four pages a day keeps the flow going and leads me to something that is editable where I may take more time. Unfortunately, it is true though that if you don't constantly have something "new," you can easily fall off the radar with readers. In the world of "one-click" buying, it is nearly impossible to keep up with the way readers devour books. BUT if you don't stay on their minds, you're toast.

Nicci Carrera said...

Awesome post. I couldn't agree more. To me it is just not worth it not to put out an awesome book. My goal is a great book. A really great book, and I am always stretching toward that goal with everything I have. I have time goals, but if they have to be changed to allow me to do my very best, then so be it.

Good for you for not compromising.

Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

I agree. I Agree! I AGREE!!! My writing has certainly suffered from being contracted to turn in my manuscript by a certain date.

But there's more. I'm also being asked to read and review other authors' books. My editor has just sent me my 3rd book a mere 15 minutes after I turned in my advance review for a previous book I did not enjoy. Try writing a positive review for a book you suffered to finish! These 3 books have been handed to me since I started book 2 of my new series. I'm only on chapter five of my own book that has to be turned in by April 1st.Panic is starting to set in.

Book one had her approval for the first half. She ordered me to rewrite the last half in a month. 40,000 words in a month. She claimed the ending of my book was plot heavy AND she doesn't like my humor.

Sometimes an editor can ruin a book. I don't know how else to put it. I'm not a fabulous author, but I know my strong points. An editor can strip those away, especially if she waves the "sighed contract" in your face.

Diane Burton said...

We tell newbie writers to find what works for them. You'd think by now (most of us have been writing for quite a while) that we'd know what works for us and follow it. Keeping word count makes me feel better than to think "I wrote today." I like to know how much. Eventually, I get to the part where I slash & burn. I note that in my log. Do your best, Alison. What works for you.

Alison Henderson said...

Susan, at this point I'm happy with one book a year too. The day may come when I want to (and am able to) write more, but I doubt it.

Alison Henderson said...

Chris, four pages a day is a great, steady output. My problem is getting back to writing every day. I'm doing much better in 2016, though.

Alison Henderson said...

Nicci, thanks for stopping by. I'm so glad to hear you're keeping quality as your #1 goal!

Alison Henderson said...

OMG, Vonnie! Your writing schedule is brutal enough. I had no idea they would ask you to read and review so many other books. It is very tough to write a positive review for a book you didn't enjoy.

Alison Henderson said...

I've given myself a word count for the first time, Diane. I hope it won't make me crazy. So far, so good.

Liz Flaherty said...

I've tried to do the word count thing--it doesn't work for me. It's just one more thing to beat myself up over. Another thing, having to do with the authors you talked about, I think this mad trend for series has some of those series going on for too long. No matter how wonderful a family or group of people is, sometimes they just need to go to the house!

Great post, Alison!

Kathryn Knight said...

Great post! I'd be thrilled if I were a prolific writer who could turn out the quality I strive to achieve, but I'm not. Yet I feel like I'm in the minority! Pressure can be our own worst enemy.

Kathryn Knight said...

And Vonnie, I can't imagine having to write a nice review or tag line for a book you didn't love! It's funny, the things that come with achieving our dreams.

Alison Henderson said...

Liz, I couldn't agree more. Most series lose their freshness after 4 or 5 books. By the time the 8th rolls around, even the author is tired of those people.

Alison Henderson said...

Kathryn, I feel like I'm in the minority too. I'm glad to hear from so many others in the same boat.

Joanne Stewart said...

I have to admit I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m one of those writers who tends to post word count. I also write fast. On average, a 60k book will take me 3-4 months, depending. My fastest book was 6 weeks. And truth be told, most of the big publishers, so far, can’t keep up with me. Because I’m not Nora, so the big pubs want to see how the books they have sell first before they’ll take anymore.

But I don’t force myself to write every day or make word count goals. I’m a pantser and I take my inspiration as it comes. So when I post word counts, it isn’t to compete against anybody, and I don’t mean to make anybody feel bad. I post them because it's my accomplishment for the day. You know, of the "holy cow. I actually did it." variety. Especially if I’ve been struggling with a book. Which I do a lot, because the muse, she is a fickle one. lol But on those days when the words won’t come, and the days pass without anything, I go into panic mode and depression sets in. There was a time when I couldn’t write, when the words dried up, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again. In fact, I didn't for 6 years. And I’m terrified it’ll come back. I also tend to write in spurts, so a 2000 word day may be the only words I write all week.

So I say don’t compete against anybody but yourself. We all have our processes.

Madeleine McDonald said...

Your blog post is spot on. I deleted the entire first chapter of my third book (ouch!) when I realised it contributed nothing to the story. Less is often more.
Madeleine

Colleen Donnelly said...

You said this so well - we, as writers, do create, and creation takes time. It takes loving and nurturing time so that every word is worth loving and nurturing by the reader.

Alison Henderson said...

Joanne, please keep posting your word counts if it's part of your motivation. The way the rest of us feel is our problem, not yours. I hate the idea of you becoming depressed or losing touch with your muse.

Alison Henderson said...

Madeleine, I've done the same thing when I realized I started a book in the wrong place. However, I loved that chapter so much I saved it. Perhaps I'll use it later in another story.

Alison Henderson said...

Beautifully said, Colleen. Loving and nurturing are what it's all about.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Pressure to create in quantity certainly can put a damper on creativity and quality. I'm also a pantser from the word go. Yesterday, I sat down to work on chapter 13 and a couple of scenes for chapter 22 popped into my head. There was nothing I could do but run with them! Bottom line, as has been said, we need to go with what works for us.

Alison Henderson said...

That's frustrating, Margo. When that happens to me sometimes I'll add a few blank lines then type the lines or scene notes, so they'll be out there ahead of me when I need them. Or, since I always have at least a basic plot outline, I'll add them in the appropriate spot in the outline.