Sometimes I think writers, on their blogs and when giving advice, over-emphasize word count. It’s certainly important for writers to understand that discipline is important and that no work exists without getting butt in seat and words on the page. But there’s a wider context to writing that sometimes gets lost.
That context? Thinking about writing is vital, and staying in touch with your characters and story can be as important as the actual writing. Words on the page created without finding the time to exist fully in the world of the story often means a writer misses possibilities that would deepen a work of fiction. I don’t like hard-and-fast rules, but if I had to lay one down, it would be to set aside the time to live with your fiction, not just write it. Sometimes a compulsion to not sit in front of the computer and type isn’t laziness—it’s the subconscious saying you’ve missed something, that you haven’t gone far enough, that you haven’t made all the connections you need to make. So to some extent the continuous living within the fictive dream of the narrative is more important than a continuous physical act of writing.
Every writer is different in how s/he approaches the act of creation, and that has to be kept in mind at all times, including while reading this post. But for me, it tends to take the form of a kind of circling and layering. I will write for three straight days and then take a day or two off. But I’m not really taking those days off. I’m writing down ideas and fragments as they occur to me and I’m continually re-living the scenes I have down on paper and imbuing them with additional life and nuance. On those “off” days, I’m staying in touch with the material, and the material often changes in surprising ways as a result. Without this slowing of the process, without this “work-avoidance,” the stories suffer, and I find myself with much more revision on the back-end—and sometimes the sense that what I’ve accomplished at the end is more of a “patch” than an organic edit.
These notes and fragments also develop a life of their own. They start as scribbling on torn pieces of paper and then I type them up into a Notes document, and in typing them up much of it gets fleshed out and I suddenly have little mini-scenes and additional impulses or connections created with the actual partial draft document. And in finding where these mini-scenes and snippets fit, the partial draft changes once again.
This thinking about the fiction is especially important given the Age of Fragmentation we live in. It’s extremely important to do this thinking away from the internet and away from mobile devices. Distractions of this kind—multi-tasking distractions—tend to dull our ability to really think deeply about what we’re working on. And then, our brains lacerated by so many other voices, through social media, blogs, etc., we turn to the actual writing without having had the time to live in the fictive dream ahead of time.
The imagination is a muscle, and like any muscle, you get out what you put in. If you neglect a muscle in your work-out or you only intermittently pay attention to it, it begins to lose mass; it begins to atrophy.
I also think that thinking about writing is a form of meditation: it’s restorative to peace of mind. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of writing—the sense of excitement as connections form you didn’t know existed, as characters take on texture and depth you hadn’t suspected. As you push it further and farther than you would have otherwise.
It’s in this context that word count matters: with the proper undivided attention having been devoted to the writing beforehand.