Thursday, May 24, 2012

So... Why Pulp? ~ On Staying Accountable

I got to witness an interesting online debate a couple days ago. The topic was page count vs. word count as a way to judge writing performance. Both sides had their supporters and detractors, and there were some very telling comments. One thing writers of any ilk—but especially New Pulp writers—love to talk about is how to use these neat little tricks that keep the words flowing. And you know, there’s just something about a regular tally that brings out the competitor in all of us. Let’s see… if I did 1100 words or 5 pages today, can I write 1500 or 7 pages tomorrow?

You know what? I don’t think it matters one way or another whether you count words or pages, because depending on what you’re writing, how it’s formatted, whether you have lots of white space due to staccato dialogue or virtually none because of packed action scenes, your count is going to vary. What does matter is that you are aware of approximately how much you write when you’re comfortable and things are flowing well, so you have something to judge a story’s progress by. So count those beans the same way each time, and at least strive for some kind of consistent middle road. But don’t beat yourself up because every day doesn’t end with you having logged a certain number. Writing is not a sporting contest; it’s an art with a bit of science thrown in. Art has to evolve slowly sometimes, more rapidly at others. Science supports the theory of evolution, so there you go.

Yeah I’ve fallen into that self-competitor category too. I’m a word counter. These days though, I don’t drool or pull my hair out over tallied amounts as much as I use it to measure effort. I still do a daily word count, not so much to try and make it to some self-imposed average or beat a past record, as to reassure myself something significant is getting done, writing-wise. Having the evidence in front of me at the end of a session tells me a lot of things beyond how much or how little I got on those pages. It shows me that I actually did more than sit in front of the monitor, staring at pictures of ogres and battleships, or reading Wikipedia articles and watching Youtube videos. Oh I do all that, most of it in the course of researching ideas for a story, now and then just for a momentary distraction (I’m human) or in fascination leading to fodder for another project. But having a word count tells me I used a good portion of my time for actual writing. And when it’s a very low word count, it shows me that either I got too distracted, had a lot of interruptions, or struggled with something. A low word count on more than one day in a row says I seriously have to change something about this story.

I keep a hand written tally sheet for each story until it goes out to the publisher, and then I throw it away. It’s really nothing more than a small piece of scrap paper shoved in a mini clipboard along with others, each one bearing the name or acronym for the story I’m currently working on, and each day’s total. No, I don’t date them, I just add the newest count on the bottom of the list, but I do the math to see what the actual difference is. Besides the incentive of watching that word count actually climb, I have a rough idea of where I am in the story in relation to the minimum and maximum length allowed. That’s a very important balance to understand because most of the small New Pulp publishers have pretty tight parameters for what constitutes a short story, a novella, and a novel, and word count can make or break your tale fitting into a specific publication schedule. If I see word count climbing past what should be the three quarter mark and I’m not halfway through the story, it’s got to be reined in somehow or at least rethought. Conversely if it is supposed to be a 10,000 word short story for a specific slot and I am at 6500 words and about done, I’ve either been pretty terse or the plot might have been too simple. I usually fall into the overage category, but by keeping track on a daily basis, I’m getting better about hitting close to the optimum size while still getting the entire story told. Generally speaking, it’s better to be under than over, because there is always going to be someone else with a bang up story that is a tad too long. In the end it all tends to even out.

Now, I know some of you reading this are snorting at me and saying, “Oh, I don’t worry about word counts or getting X-amount of pages done—I let the writing flow naturally, and it takes care of itself!” Well yeah, I do that too; I don’t obsessively check word counts all day long. Generally it’s only at the very end of the session, right before I save and shut the file, that I do a final tally. I agree that it’s best not to get too wound up in setting goals and writing to a formula. But if you write for a specific publisher or publication, you are now a professional. That means you have deadlines to meet and certain things are expected of you. Having some system of checks and balances is going to keep you honest, especially on those days when the distractions are myriad and tempting. You may think the morning read through all the news sites and afternoon email checks with evening solitaire and all day long Twitter updates aren’t affecting your writing, but if you find yourself doing more of that and the bean counting productivity is going down… you have the truth staring you in the face. Time to cut back a bit, and maybe set the smart phone aside, and get yourself offline.

Let me mention some things counting beans can’t show. It can’t tell you how hard you worked on the bad days when the words don’t flow, the phone is ringing off the wall, the kids have strep, and you can’t for the life of you describe 1925 New Orleans from a hot air balloon or what a troglodyte looks like when it’s angry. We all have those days, and there’s absolutely no sense in beating yourself up over them. You look down and see you got maybe 2/3 of a page written over five hours between running after a toddler and cleaning up cat barf. Or you see 350 words and wish it was more, but you worked late and it’s now ten PM, your mother is sick and she’s going to be in and out of the hospital for a long time. Yeah, life does get in the way of all vocations, so the way I see it, most people would have given up after the first five minutes or the first 35 words. Some folks would not have even attempted to write. If you sat there for whatever time you had, and have at least something to show for that session, you’re still ahead for the day. Making an effort to get something on the page shows a sense of commitment to getting the writing done, no matter what’s going on in your own personal sphere. That’s what the pros do, so pat yourself on the back for being a dedicated New Pulp wonk.

There have been days when a few hundred words or even well under a hundred were all I got done, but I was perfectly pleased with that. I might have finally gotten through a difficult scene, one I had to do a lot of research for. Sometimes it was just a late in the day effort, after company left or I came back from shopping, and that little bit was a catalyst start of a new section that I can’t wait to dig back into. Maybe it’s just the seminal beginning of a brand new project. Whatever prompted that little bit, at least I wrote something that day, and I can close the file feeling smug and fulfilled. Which makes it all that much easier to open it next time and get right back down to work.

So bottom line here is, it really doesn’t matter how you account for your writing time, by number of hours invested, word count, or how many pages you planned to do. Be flexible but be consistent in what you’re counting and how. Stories and novels don’t generally get written in one sitting, although I’m sure it does happen. Writing is something you need to be doing on a regular basis if you want to call yourself a professional author and have a string of published works to back that claim up. Each project starts and ends with a writing session, and you need to at least show some progress for the time spent. So count it up folks, and before you know it, you’re going to have a whole lot more done than you ever expected, and the habit of sitting down and getting right to work will become automatic.

Now go forth and pulp up the world, make me proud of you!

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