Staying in Touch with Your Writing

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.

14 comments on “Staying in Touch with Your Writing

  1. Jeff

    I’m pretty sure you’re attacking a straw man here. No writer worth their salt bangs on about word count. Just getting words down on a page is completely meaningless. Maybe if you toil in a James Patterson novel factory that’s important but I think most people would agree that two or three well craft sentences are better than two or three pages of cliche or schlock.

  2. jeff vandermeer says:

    Funny how people see things. I’d hardly call it an attack. More a reminder/recalibration that in my experience as a teacher is actually important. If your experience is different, great. But the way you re-contextualize my post isn’t precisely what I meant.

  3. Well said. I’m a musician and composer, and I find this to be true with regards to how I work as well: sometimes there is a need to pause, to have time and space to think – also, sometimes, to cherish the good feeling (sometimes lasting for days) after having taken another step with a daring work, before plunging in and maybe struggle with a less smooth part of the work. Also, for those working at the fringes of things, pushing boundaries, sometimes we “surprise” even ourselves with what we’ve come up with and may need time to catch up with the implications. I find this the most satisfying learning cycle.

  4. Jeff

    I’m not going after what you say, which to me is pure common sense. But I wonder whose these writers are who “over-emphasize word count”? Can we take any writer seriously who thinks its more important to get 800 words, any words, down on the page before breakfast? If these writers actually exist then I apologize, you are not attacking a straw man. But as for me I’d rather read the chap who struggles for a week over a paragraph rather than the character who knocks out a chapter every two or three days.

  5. Dino Mascolo says:

    Thanks for the article. This is helpful advice for me. Please keep them coming.

  6. Graeme D. Robertson says:

    My girlfriend and I both write. Yesterday, she told me that she finds it interesting how I can sit for several hours sometimes and “only” have a short paragraph to show for my efforts. It wasn’t a criticism, just an observation that we work differently. I spend a lot of time searching for words that convey the precise meaning I wish to communicate and juggling things around to improve the rhythm of sentences and the overall flow of the text, but I also spend a lot of time just thinking about what I’m writing. Being the character. Seeing the world, hearing it, tasting it. Often it looks like I’m just staring at the screen.

    Often, too, I resort to paper. Sometimes writing things down by hand sparks into life new pathways of imagination. I brainstorm better on paper, where the pen and blank page represent *true* freedom of expression, quite unlike a Word document. Most of my initial planning is done on paper. Maps, diagrams, schematics, all of these help me to build mental structures on which to hang my milieu, so that when I “go” there, I know exactly where I am.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I agree. And now I really ought to leave the distraction of the internet and get back to what I was doing….

  7. Ben Godby says:

    Great post. That reflection time is definitely of paramount importance. I recently wrote a novel, and–it being my sixth, and the other five having ended in various states of stankness–I decided to write it by hand. It took me considerably longer to do that, than it would have to write it on the ol’ word processor; but that enforced drawn-outness has produced a manuscript that not only needs no major overhauls (of course, a few sections do need some rework), but one with which I am genuinely “happier”–referring to what is inside of me as a consequence of creating it, above and beyond any reference to what is inside the manuscript itself. I have no doubts that this is because–on account of my middle finger aching at the end of ten or twelve (hand-written) pages–I had a lot of time to think ahead, around, and within the world–instead of just farting it onto the page.

  8. jeff vandermeer says:

    Adrian: Well, you do see it quite a bit on fb and in blogs. I don’t know what else to say. But the more important thing is–you keep referring to honing sentences. That isn’t what I’m really talking about. You can hone a sentence or get a paragraph revised any old time. So I think you’re really getting my point.

  9. Gary Archambault says:

    Hey. It seems to me that what you’re saying is even more important when it comes to weird fiction. If I write, say, “She woke and found her husband had turned into a grilled cheese sandwich,” and have no idea where I’m going with it, I’m far more apt to end up with something clever, something which doesn’t quite move me in some odd way, and so it probably won’t resonate with anyone else either. But if I jot that down in a notebook and not quite think about it directly but have it in my head while doing the dishes or whatever, it gives the idea time to grow legs or wings or fins. I’m more of an extreme loner, write-to-stay-sane guy, and I was very glad to have read this article. Word count it seems to me is linked to a feeling of accomplishment, as in I got a thousand words done today, woo hoo, as opposed to I got five hundred words done but I like them. This is going somewhere. Spotting the difference inside yourself between clever and organic is a bastard. I have lost years to overly clever writing because I wasn’t really enjoying it, not fully; it was more to prop up my shaky self-esteem with a sense of accomplishment, but I wasn’t accomplishing anything but that. Writing was an act of doing and less and less an act of being, which is what–it seems to me–you’re getting at: don’t just do, be! How anyone lives without an ever-growing imagination is beyond me. But it’s very easy to ignore those muscles as one tries to accomplish accomplish accomplish. This essay was a breath of fresh air. Thanks.

  10. Not sure that the two are anything like mutually exclusive. I post my word counts to stay accountable to my deadlines. I typically go for 1,000 words a day. That takes about 2 hours. Since I write full time, I then have another 6 hours a day in which I do things like exercise and think about the book, research and think about the book, email and think about the book, housework and think about the book, go for long walks specifically to think about the book. I also usually spend some time thinking about the book right on the edge of sleep to set up my subconscious mind to solve problems and think about the book. Some days I write more, 2,000 or 3,000 words. That’s usually when the thinking about the book has gotten well ahead of the writing the book.

  11. Anthea says:

    Good post – I do sometimes find I lose track of that connection. Not so much because I mean to prioritize word count or writing daily over connecting with the writing as that some days I’m not connected, and write anyway, and wonder why it comes out all wrong. :-p

  12. Agreed. This is also why I never take Nanoo-nanoo month seriously, or whatever it’s called, where everyone scrambles to bang out a novel in thirty days.

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