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because I say so
Thursday, 2 May 2013
The Lengths to Which We'll Go

In recent weeks I've been documenting the struggles I've been having with writer's block. These columns have been like my own twelve-step program, though I had been hoping it wasn't going to be anywhere near twelve weeks before I'd have a major breakthrough. I thought it would be nice to include in each week's post "three weeks without a block." Not exactly anonymous but it might have the same effect.

I don't have any weeks to report yet.

Of late I have been fixating on how long my current novel - W3.doc the current working title, you'll recall - ought to be. Full disclosure: math has never been my strongest suit, and fixating on numbers of words is probably not the best way to overcome whatever anxiety has been keeping me away from the book for as long as I have been. But here are some numbers that have been keeping me up nights:

1) One hundred thousand. This is approximately the number of words I'm figuring that W3.doc ought to be. This is a number I was given by a couple of crime writers who told me with some authority that one hundred thousand is a generally acepted target number for crime novels.

When I turned in Deadly Lessons it came in at 126,000 words. The end product was more or less the same. When I submitted the first draft of Last Dance, it was a whopping 132,000 words. Whether or not there is a hard and fast rule about crime novel word counts, that number was too high. And given the amount of editing that went into it - seriously, I wrote that book about five times - the final version that made it between the covers came in at about twenty thousand words lighter than draft 1. Even still, the published product was about 111,000, which even a reviewer or two highlighted as being on the longish side for this genre.

When I initially found myself beginning to struggle with W3.doc, I took comfort in numbers. If I could bang off one hundred and thirty or so thousand words in Last Dance, a hundred thousand ought to be, well, easy. I'm at twenty-two thousand. A hundred thousand doesn't feel all that close right now. Eighty percent to go.

I took some small measure of comfort when I was speaking at an event a couple of weeks back with fellow crime author and vivacious co-presenter Cathy Ace. During her talk, she indicated her current new release was approximately 89,000 words. Even better: only seventy-five percent to go.

2) Two. Number of Winston Patrick books I already have planned out beyond W3.doc. From the moment I completed Deadly Lessons I knew that I had another book I wanted to write, and not just because the publisher asked me if it was intended as a series and I sensed the correct answer was yes. The fact was that as I wrote the first book I grew very fond Winston and wanted to spend more time with him as he bumbled and fumbled his way not only through becoming a teacher but through whatever crime scenario in which he found himself and for which he was hopelessly unqualified to participate. 

An author I met through a mutual friend told me over dinner one night about the awful pressure he had at one time been under because his contract required him to turn in a sequel in his series by a certain date. He felt the book wasn't ready but he had no choice: his contract demanded he meet the deadline. He believed the second book was horrible as a result. Having read them both prior to our meeting it was hard to disagree, though I said polite things like "Oh no, it maybe wasn't quite as strong but..." He laughed off my earnest politeness with an acknowledgement that being under deadline pressure has potential to undermine the creative process.

Even still, I wonder if even a bit heavier pressure might force me to climb the wall in front of me. 

In much the same way that I was anxious to leave behind Last Dance for W3.doc, the novel that was supposed to write itself. I had the story so nailed down when I rough drafted it out literally in one morning after awakening from a dream that I couldn't wait to get to it.

Eighty thousand words to go.

3) Over 300,000. Number of books published in the United States in 2010. On the one hand, despite what we're hearing about technology having a negative impact on the publishing industry, that's a whole hell of a lot of books. On the other hand, that's an awful lot of print competing for readers and it's possible that's feeding my writer's block anxiety.

4) One thousand. The number of words per day I convinced myself I could consistently write after having one good, productive morning writing session a few weeks back. Really, at a thousand words a day I'd have this puppy done before summertime arrived and when we sojourned to Europe in July I'd be well on my way to a refreshing new book project. Each time I struggle with a sentence and fall off my target my anxiety at triple digit word output seems to slow me down even further.

Still, math phobia notwithstanding, I am remain reasonably convinced a hundred thousand words isn't such an astronomical target. To put it in perspective, each week this column runs between seven to nine hundred words. If I could just produce the equivalent in the book, I'd be there in no time.

Seventy-seven thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eight to go.

Next week: the limitations of genre

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 2 May 2013 1:44 PM PDT
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