writers

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?

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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.