Daily word counts and daily writing -necessary habits for serious writers or an inflexible burden? by Anna

There are many controversies in the writing world – do you mainline tea or coffee?  Are you a pantster or a plotter? I would say every right-thinking person drinks tea whilst making up a hundred ideas on the spot but obviously there are many who would disagree, waving their triple espressos and meticulously kept notebooks at me. But one topic that’s cropped up recently has been a) whether a writer is only a serious writer if they write everyday and 2) serious writers should have a substantial daily word count to aim for. In part I think this arises from the current focus on goal-setting and being accountable for those goals, something which I do find extremely useful. But what I’ve learned in recent months is setting too unrealistic goals is, for me, really counterproductive.

For the record, I’m a huge fan of projects such as Nanowrimo. My novel ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ began as a Nanowrimo project in 2010. What I found liberating about Nanowrimo was that I’d never finished any project that I’d started on because I didn’t have confidence in my own writing. I would always give up. Nanowrimo made me write 50,000 words and for once I didn’t worry about whether they were any good. I just got the story down. At that point in my writing journey, a daily goal of 1667 and a target of 50,000 words was exactly what I needed. To achieve my goal felt like a massive accomplishment. I knew I had a character and world that I loved but that much of the plot required work. It took seventeen re-writes, lots of input from talented agents/editors and seven years before it was published (in the UK, France and the US) but it go there in the end.

Ten years on, I’m not so sure daily or inflexible word counts are helpful for me.  In a hugely optimistic mood I’ll commit to writing 2000 words a day for a month. However, what I have found is that if the 2000 words a day aren’t of the best quality, (and the last 500 words always are rubbish) or that I find a plot hole and can’t sort it so that writing much more seems pointless, then the whole idea of writing words that I know aren’t my best becomes a negative rather than a positive process. Like many people, I have a busy life. Currently, I’m working on a PhD full time, running a tutoring and editing business, have family and caring responsibilities and am writing a YA/crossover novel as well. Recently I’ve also been a judge on a short story competition and volunteered as a mentor for WriteMentor, both of which have been wonderful and time-consuming activities. I have good health days and bad health days. So, do I write every day? Not on my novel, no. I think about it everyday and I’m a massive fan of latent processing, letting your mind wander through your work as you drive, walk, cook so that you solve problems and let characters develop whilst getting on with other things. Then when I’m ready, I set realistic writing goals, plan ‘rest’ days so I’m not committing to writing seven days a week and then get to work! I’ve also learned that anywhere between 1000 and 1750 words a day for me is really positive. After than I start to feel like I’m repeating myself and I need a new day for new words.

In short, what I’ve learned about myself as a writer is to trust myself and my instincts. Sometimes I need weekly/monthly targets. Sometimes I need to let my mind wander for weeks. Part of being a writer and indeed a human is the need to reflect on your writing, your aims and adapt your writing to changes in direction. In short we need to be reflexive at all times. I think that makes me a serious writer, regardless of whether I write every day.

GOALS by Louisa

I’ve been doing a bit of Twitter lurking, rather than posting, recently and yesterday I stumbled across an interesting thread started by the brilliant children’s author, Sophie Anderson. She asked people to reply to her question:

 “Writers, what is your one most important goal, right now, as a writer?”

Tweets came flooding in –  from established and new writers both – and some of the answers echoed my own feelings. Clearly, it’s been quite a year and very few people have found themselves coming out of it totally unscathed. It’s no wonder many of us are finding it tricky to see where we go with our writing from here.

Some of the questions that came up on the twitter thread include:

  • How do we stop ourselves from falling into a creative slump?
  • How do we sustain a career and have longevity as writers?
  • How do we prioritise our writing when there are just so many other calls on our time?

As someone who writes, teaches and tutors for a living, I feel as if my brain is currently a bit of a wasps’ nest, and if the state of my desk can be seen as an externalisation of my mind then it’s pretty clear I’m not imagining, nor managing, that internal tangle and hubbub very well. I’ve always been busy, but it feels like this year the busyness has actually started to tip over into panic style levels of either action, or its dreaded opposite: inertia. I’m not objecting to being busy, as the great Flannery O’Connor advises,

“It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged.”

And I absolutely agree that just sitting staring at a screen all day is no way to get the job done. But how on earth do you write, and write well, when there’s just too much noise?

I don’t have the magic answers to these questions (and really wish I’d been able to attend the brilliant Mel Green’s SCBWI goal-setting workshop on Saturday because I feel she might have been able to shed some much-needed light!) but I will share one thing that I think might help to answer the first question. 

A couple of weeks ago, I took the plunge and took part in a Yoga and Writing workshop with Stella Duffy, author of multiple plays, novels (her latest, Lullaby Beach which I’m reading and loving) and all-round super-star. I am not great at Yoga, to put it mildly, being incredibly wobbly when resorting to standing on one leg, but I do quite like the feeling it gives me – one of increased energy and clarity –  so despite feeling some trepidation I signed up. Fascinated to make the connection between yoga and writing, I wanted to see if I could get some clarity on some of my own projects and encourage my love of the process to make a resurgence. Bogged down with worry about school, especially, and this year’s exam fiasco, I wanted to clear out some of that mud and find a bit of creative space.

We started off with some (for me) rather tricky yoga poses –  don’t ask for the names –  and then moved into a writing session. And it worked. Stella gave us lots of prompts, but more importantly provided the space to just sit and write and write and write. My pen flew and I filled pages with words, loving every minute and was reminded of the sheer joy that creativity brings. The session continued in the same vein: yoga, then writing, repeat. Thankfully the poses got easier as the session went on (the one which involved moving just your eyes was probably best pitched for my level of expertise) but the sense of warmth and wellbeing, as well as creative satisfaction, increased.

So, in answer to the big question: what’s my goal as a writer right now? –  for me I think I have to take the time out to actually reconnect with the process and find the joy in creating. Whether that means doing more Yoga, forcing myself outside for long walks (notebook in hand), or doing some art (or maybe even tidying my dreaded desk), I need to have a plan to make everything cleaner and clearer and less panicked. With a little bit of luck this plan might help me (echoing the words of many others, including the wonderful Stella) to write the damn book.

How to win the long game in publishing by Anna

A social media site I use brought up a photo from five years ago this week. It was an image of my MA dissertation on the day that I handed it in September 2014. The novel, then called ‘The Lives and Loves of Jesobel Jones’, had in fact been started three years earlier. It began as a writing exercise in the early weeks of my MA course in 2011. The central character, then called Alyssa, began to speak to me and wouldn’t shut up. I embarked on Nanowrimo just to find out what she had to say and for the first time in my life, I managed to finish a project after a fashion.

Very little of that first draft remains in the finished novel – I think the party chapters are the only parts that survived the slashing, burning, re-writing and editing that took place over the next two years. Alyssa became Jesobel and in time, one of my tutors suggested it was time to send it out into the world and on the basis of it, I was offered representation by the Anne Clark Literary Agency.

What followed was not uncommon in publishing. Despite lots of attention and some near misses, Jesobel didn’t sell in the Uk. I moved onto other projects and assumed that it had had its chance. But then two years later, something rather special happened at the Bologna book fair. First there were two offers of publication in France which lead to a very small bidding war. Cue much celebration and jumping around. Secondly, then an offer of publication in the US and Canada! Double and then triple the squealing and general jollification. Jesobel – now named ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ was going international! It was now six years since I’d first started to write a 250 word exercise I’d called ‘Rebel with a Crostini’…

In 2018, I received another exciting email. This time, the publisher Firefly wanted to put out my next novel, ‘Tulip Taylor’. Again, a cork popped and the bubbles were poured. I’d loved having ‘Rebel’ published abroad but I did really want a UK deal…and here it was. Tulip has been out just over two months and it’s been a blast – reading great reviews,  going to YALC, doing my first school visits, being asked to do an event at a library, seeing my book in shops and most importantly, receiving feedback from face to face readers.

And then more good news – Firefly decided to publish ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ – effectively as my back catalogue. It has a beautiful new cover from Niki Pilkington to match the cover for ‘Tulip Taylor’ and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy to add to the many manifestations of ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’.

What can be learned from this? If I wanted to shape a narrative to fit the facts, the message might appear to be ‘never give up’ – just keep on going and good things will happen. Yes, perhaps, but I do wonder if that’s sometimes not the most helpful of messages. I don’t write every day. Sometimes I need a break from writing. It’s hard to write if rejections get you down or just seem too personal. ‘Never give up’ suggests that if it doesn’t happen then it’s your fault in some way for not working or trying hard enough – for just not wanting it badly. I don’t think that’s a fair or indeed a safe message.

What I’ve learned is to keep writing because I love it. When it’s just me, my imagination and a laptop, it makes me very happy. Feedback from my SCBWI group keeps me on track, on my toes and energised. If you keep writing because you love it, then perhaps at some point, someone else in publishing will love your work too. And if that doesn’t happen, you’ll have created something you’re proud of. Either way, the long game will pay off.

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