Are word counts killing your writing?

Word counts have both benefits and drawbacks, sometimes occurring simultaneously. After reading a post on Victoria-writes, it really struck me that I haven’t written with a proper word count in the past three or four years.
For some, having a set word cap sets a goal in place. Providing a proper finish line allows writers to focus on reaching the end point.
The biggest drawback for word limits, I think, is the potential for the content to suffer.
On one hand, the writer may need to cut back on key elements of a story just to make it fit a specific word limit in order to please a publisher. In a sense, that forces writers to be creative and cut down on some of the descriptive details that may otherwise bog down a story. Trimming the fat and making your piece flow smoothly is much better than overwhelming the reader with the description of an ornate wooden staircase that isn’t seen later in the manuscript.
Conversely, setting a word count can kill a story that isn’t meant to go on for 100,000 words (or whatever the word count is). Sure, it can be argued that, once again, it spurs creativity as the writer is then forced to whip up some extra details for the manuscript. In some cases, the additional material could provide background to a character, explaining their motives and what drives them in the story.
Over the past three or four years, I’ve written news articles that had a minimum requirement of 500 words. It was generally accepted that you’d go over that level, as there’s almost always something more to say. But, excepting about once every two weeks, there weren’t any set word limits. It was freeing to have the ability to shape a story, or news report, in a way that could best benefit customers.
In the end, I don’t think there’s a straight answer to the question of whether word counts are helpful or detrimental. Like everything else in life, having moderation in writing is a good thing. Also, there’s the old adage that comes to mind: “Leave them wanting more.” If writers overstay their welcome on the page, it’s ultimately doing more harm than good.
So what’s something to take away from this? Have a general word count in mind when starting to write. That helps with pacing, tone and the story itself. Instead of searching for the right timing along the way, having a general idea of when certain actions happen helps all of the plot elements fall right into place.
How do you approach word counts, if at all? Have they been beneficial for you?


My own case study: building a storyline

I wasn’t expecting writing inspiration to come from watching “The World’s End” last night, but to my great surprise, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg went through their process for writing the movie.
As I mentioned last week, I struggle when it comes to nailing down a storyline. I’ll frequently get decent ideas only to see them crumble in a heap of disappointment and frustration after trying to give characters a purpose for their existence.
Back to the movie. Wright and Pegg showcased numerous pages of their development process, from the basic one-line idea behind “The World’s End” to a complicated set of paragraphs and a fully realized 105-minute movie. They were struggling to creat the same thing I wanted: a solid, entertaining storyline that takes people on a journey through characters’ lives.
So, this afternoon I set out to attack a short story in a similar fashion to their scriptwriting process. Start with a simple concept and develop the storyline from there, branching out to describe the setting, motivations for the main character, Marty (Monica Woods’ “The Pocket Muse” was a great help to get the ball rolling). My morning today was spent getting Marty’s background in line and giving him reasons to exist in the world I create for him.
Before I begin putting the story on the page, I’m describing the important parts of the story: a new store in town, Marty, and the town itself. From there, I’ll give a 40,000-foot description, breaking down the plot into acts and summarizing the big events in each section. Each next step down, like Wright and Pegg, will add more to the story, factoring in the little elements that can turn a small idea into one that’s manageable and interesting.
Sure, my concerns about turning this simple idea into a fully-developed story are still there. But it won’t progress into the next stage by taking up space inside my head.
The roadmap of our writing lives is often full of detours and delays of our own creation. “Will this sell?” “Why would anyone want to read this?” “I don’t know enough about that subject, so I can’t write it.” “This idea about elves and spaceships isn’t mainstream enough.”
Instead of worrying about whether something will sell, just write. Think a story isn’t good enough to turn into a novel? Just write and see.
This week, I’m blocking out 40 consecutive minutes in front of the keyboard every day. It’s a start, but actually taking the time to hammer out an idea will get things rolling, even if it’s not the direction you initially wanted.

Running into the hurdles of writing

One of the most difficult parts about writing, for me, is storyline.
I’ll get a concept going, albeit a small one, and try to form it into something coherent. Sometimes that works, most of the time the idea ends up in a folder in the corner of my closet, buried underneath plastic bags of clothes I haven’t touched for years. On the rare occasion that it actually works, I’ll be at the keyboard for hours at a time, hammering out the details and making characters and situations follow the melody of that storyline.
A storyline is really quite easily compared to a song, one where the rhythm is persistent and purposeful with every action the characters are made to take.
The challenge of making a coherent storyline is the reason why I stuck to writing short stories for a while. (That is, when I actually made the effort to write them.) For years, I let my professional writing intrude on the personal writing. Instead of creating stories about a young man discovering the true story behind a box of items willed to him by his grandfather, I focused on making sure my newspaper article was properly structured.
Instead of writing that spinoff to “The Office”, I stuck to ensuring I didn’t have more than three or four sentences in the paragraph of a news article.
And, instead of bolstering my creative writing, I made excuses and told myself “I’ve done enough writing this week. There just isn’t any left in the tank.”
You see, writing isn’t easy, and I’m not trying to boost my ego or make further excuses here. For some, crafting a story with various subplots and making everything flow smoothly in line with the storyline’s drum beat is easy. For others, writing a 20-plus word lead and filling in the rest of the details in an article just over 500 words is easy.
For myself? I can write a traditional news article simply enough. It’s merely churning out a simplistic storyline and tossing some quotes in to balance the article’s objectivity.
But ask me to create a world from the chaos of my imagination and turn it into a coherent work? That’s not easy. Add in the challenge of making it marketable to a mass audience, and that’s a pretty tall order.
That is precisely why I’ve strayed from creative writing over the last few years. It isn’t due to a lack of ideas or a lack of ability. Creating a cohesive plot that works for several hundred pages is enough of a challenge on its own, and one that I haven’t ever successfully accomplished.
I would, however, like to add that to the ever-growing list of goals for this year.
A couple of good friends have already published their own novels. It’s time I join their ranks.

2014 goal – Write Less by Writing More

My priorities have changed this year.
Lately, I’ve been encouraged from numerous sources to write more. In a way, writing has always been my passion, but I never really took notice of it until college.
Sure, I wrote silly stories about a chicken plant exploding with feathers flying everywhere, Star Trek fan fiction, the ever-elusive third Ghostbusters movie and plenty of other silly pieces throughout my younger years. I think I even still have a few of those saved somewhere among my numerous files back home.
It was only when I needed to finalize my reason for going to college that I realized how much fun there was in writing, and that I wanted to make it a career. With a stroke of the key, I could create a brand new world, start friendships, pit enemies against each other and listen to the melody of a storyline as it progressed through the page. My priorities changed along the way, and I began pursuing a career in journalism, focusing on a different style of writing.
But, since 2008 or 2009, writing has taken a backseat to photography and design.
I love photography and how it can capture a story in one frame, or a set of them. A family’s grief at the loss of a loved one, celebrating a birthday, or even just a visit to the local mini golf company all factor in to a great story.
That brings me back to the promptings to tell my story this year.
In all honesty, I’m not sure what part of my life is worth putting down on the page. I’ve had great things happen, no doubt, and some terrible experiences along the way. But I’m not a military veteran, I wasn’t a college graduate at the age of 16, nor do I consider myself remotely influential in people’s lives. Then again, that’s the beauty of storytelling. Even the most mundane, repetitive things in life can show someone’s personality through the actions they take each day.
So what SEO-oriented statement can best define my goals in 2014? It’s simple: “Write Less by Writing More”.
Be purposeful with words and actions in life. We’re given an opportunity to leave a legacy each day that we spend on this planet. It’s time we make the most of it.

Why I won’t make a list for 2014

  1. Lists hardly convey what actually happened in a year with sufficient details. Let’s be honest, there isn’t much information for readers when something gets put into a list form.
  2. I took photos this year.
  3. See? Not much detail at all. Just one line doesn’t share that I traveled to Sandpoint, Wallace, Harrison, Grand Coulee Dam, Ocean Shores, southwest Oregon, the Columbia River, Seattle and elsewhere within the past year.
  4. I remember the squishy feeling of freshly-laid sod as I walked through Sandpoint in the pouring rain with a friend. Although I haven’t experienced sinking in quicksand, watching your foot disappear slowly into the ground is unnerving to say the least.
  5. Paul Colman’s newest CD, From the Saltland to the River, was my soundtrack while driving out to Wallace. He has a way with lyrics and different guitar rhythms that made each listen of the 14 or so tracks enjoyable several times through. Given some questions I had at the time, his words hit the right spot.
  6. “Welcome to the Human Race” is a particularly haunting look at humanity and what some versions of religion have become. And then a couple of tracks later, he bursts out into a tune similar to an Irish drinking song.
  7. Wallace, Sandpoint, Harrison – they’re all just a little over an hour outside of Spokane, but provide a breathtaking view of the different landscapes Spokane has to offer. That diversity in geography is why I love living here.
  8. That same geography is also why I hate driving on Spokane’s South Hill in winter.
  9. There’s a love-hate relationship with my love of Spokane.
  10. On one hand, Spokane is the right size to attract great music festivals, like Spirit Fest, which I attended in July. My favorite singer/songwriter Peter Furler was the opening act.


    Third Day at Spirit Fest in Spokane

  11. Peter Furler doesn’t need flashy lights, autotune or confetti machines to put on a good set.
  12. A week after seeing that show, I was baptized.
  13. The next day, I saw Paul McCartney in Seattle.
  14. July was a good month.
  15. In late August, it was time for a week off from the newspaper. It’s a good time for a vacation, but driving across the desert that is central Washington without a functioning air conditioner was a poor life choice.
  16. ADD Moment: It’s a bright idea to regularly check your vehicle’s oil on a thousand-mile trip.
  17. I hadn’t traveled to Seattle on my own via Highway 2, and I’m glad I made a good life choice in that regard. The scenery is incredible, even if you might be roasting inside of a traveling red oven of a car.
  18. Driving through Seattle made me realize why I love the lack of traffic here at home.
  19. A trip from Everett to IKEA shouldn’t take 90 minutes. A more balmy 45 would have been acceptable.
  20. I love to learn new things in life. Facts, figures, dates, events; it’s why I devour historical books with gusto. Just this last weekend, I learned about Jack Jouett, and how important he was in the American Revolution.
  21. I also learned you don’t let a moment slip away where you can visit family. They’re here one moment and gone the next.
  22. A trip in November to Oregon to visit family should have been a joyous one, not one where tears were shed. That said, it was a chance to visit family, and to cherish each moment together.
  23. The year ended the way I consider the last one to have started – in the last week of December on a Sunday morning. Dec. 30, 2012, I was looking for a new church, needing a change of scenery. Memory reminded me of a fun group of people at Spokane Christian Church I once met the year before.
  24. I snuck in the back just as the service started, sitting in the last couple of rows, trying my best not to be noticed. I’ve been told it’s a quality I possess, blending in with crowds.
  25. I didn’t want to be noticed or called out as being a visitor. A few people gave me some quizzical looks, as though they’d recognized me before, but didn’t approach me. I’m thankful for that, now that I look back.
  26. After the service, I quickly ducked out through one of the side aisles, escaping to the car.
  27. My anonymity didn’t last, however, as a good friend from high school dragged me up to one of the front aisles the week after. I was grateful for the gesture, recognizing a friendly face, but throwing this introverted personality in the middle of something completely new like that was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve had in my 24 years of life. Pardon the Doctor Who reference, but it was a moment where yelling “Geronimo” would have been appropriate.
  28. The people with whom I’ve worked and the friendships formed in the past year are too impactful to put in words. Countless people have changed my life for the better in 2013, and I’m certain the same will happen over the next 52 weeks.
  29. Lists won’t ever convey the true breadth of a calendar year, because it’s just not possible to contain it in such a small sample size. When we’re restricted to lists and numbers, abbreviations and acronyms, instead of simplifying our lives, they tend to get more complicated.
  30. Don’t make lists.
  31. Tell your story as it is.
  32. Have a blessed new year.
  33. Make it count.