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Tracing progress and telling stories: keeping readers informed

Just over a decade ago I had an intense discussion with the editor of my first novel. We were talking about The Art of Effective Dreaming, which was going to be my second novel before Rita and Ike and Katrina effected the first block of gross interference. The editor’s name was Tamara and she told me, adamantly, she didn’t want word counts. I was giving her my progress reports in terms of numbers of words completed since we had last spoke and she said very firmly that she didn’t want to hear them. It took me a while to train myself out of telling her, each time we met, how many words I’d written and how close I was to my target.

I’m deadline-person. I love word counts and targets because they help me see where I’m at. They’re not dry to me. In fact, they give me clues as to what I should be doing at a particular stage. If I’m in the middle section of a novel, I have to watch for sag. If I heading towards a certain point, I need a bit more excitement to waft past. It’s not a numbers game, it’s how I measure where I am on the path and how long before I have to finish that particular journey.

But that’s me. I have the whole novel inside me. Anyone reading the same count from the outside doesn’t see what I’m seeing, which is why Tamara said what she said and why she was right and why I only occasionally announce word counts.

I’m still counting words. In fact Jennifer Fallon gave me a lovely little Excel sheet to make it as easy as easy to count, to know where I am at, to measure it against my deadlines and fit it into my other work. Every day I write novel, I fill in the spreadsheet for that particular one and I can see if a few months of research rather than writing has affected progress and I can see where I’m up to and I can recalculate the plot trajectory and I’m happy.

It’s taken me until now to see just how wise of Tamara this approach was. By switching off from the number count, Tamara could focus on the writing. By not having to pay attention to weekly numbers, she could look at what counted. And she did. She’s a marvellous editor. She knew I was deadline-person so me getting her anything on time wasn’t an issue. Her looking at the story was the issue.

Right now, publishing word counts are very trendy. I have half a dozen writer-friends announcing word counts every day. What this means, in reality, is that about 40 writer-friends are counting their words and then a bunch hit my inbox or Facebook. That’s why I’m seeing the wisdom of Tamara at this precise moment.

All the writers who are measuring publicly by numbers are writers from whom I (previously) had a clear vision of language and style. If you’d asked me why I liked their work, I could have told you, without hesitation. In fact, I did tell people. “You want to read such-and-such a book because it exactly fits what you need this week.”

This morning I read a number from a rather good author who has a distinctive style and who has much verve and I didn’t see the style or the verve. In fact, I thought “I have no idea what this book is about.” The numbers had overtaken any excitement about the story or about the writer’s style. I know that this many thousand words have been written, but I don’t know what the novel is. I don’t know why I should want to read it, even though it’s coming out next year.

In that one case I went to my shelf and hauled out a previous novel by that writer to remind myself of his style. In all the rest, I noted to myself “I’m happy for the word count, but…”

I’ll worry about getting enthusiasm for the book when it comes out. I’ll have to, for the numbers have separated me from the excitement: there’s a giant curtain now between me and these novels. The authors will have to work extra hard at their reveals when the time comes, for any readers like me are now cheering the numbers on, not the story.

It’s a bit ironic. A good documentary turns engineering into story. It’s why we watch about bridges being built and mountains being moved. Here are a whole bunch of writers turning story into engineering. Very few of us read novels to rejoice in the engineering.

2 comments

  1. Monissa Whiteley

    I know that this many thousand words have been written, but I don’t know what the novel is. <— I think this a lot, although not in relation to other people's novels 🙂

    1. Gillian Polack

      This is an entirely different problem! There are techniques for handling it, though. One day I’ll look at them. If I don’t, feel free to prod me!!

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