Thursday, 24 October 2013

Why words count

Last week's post about word count seems to have attracted more interest than most. The original Linked In discussion was also noticeably more involving than a lot of them. This set me to wondering why so many writers are quite so obsessive about word count.

I was listening to a programme on Radio Four last week (for US readers, Radio Four is the main UK talk radio channel) and it was discussing the difficulty of defining "work". It turns out that most people like to be thought of as doing quite a lot of "work" but nobody is quite sure what to include in it. My personal bete noire is when businessmen say that they work 16 hour day in which they include lunch and dinner because they're talking to colleagues, so this is obviously "work", isn't it? When I was working as a freelancer, there was always the question as to whether journey time counted as "work" or not. Given that I might be expected to travel from London to Manchester as part of the job, this was hardly a trivial issue. For writers, the whole question of what is "work" is even more difficult to pin down. Donna Tartt has apparently said in an interview that she "works" all the time, partly on the grounds that she carries a notebook with her and constantly jots down things that she might put into a novel. Given that she has written three novels in 21 years, her definition of "work" does, I think, stretch it about as far as you can. And in that last, ever so slightly bitchy, comment, we come to the nub of the concern about word count. For when I say that three books in 21 years hardly seems like full-time employment, what I am saying is, ultimately, that she doesn't write a lot each day.

Now I spent my last post ridiculing the idea that your creative effort can be measured in words per day, but here I am, doing just that. Why? Because, like all writers I want to be taken seriously as a writer and, until I win the Booker, how do I define the "work" of writing?

I could, of course, just say that a writer is anybody who writes. But, every so often, someone comes up with the idea that almost literally everybody in the country has, at some stage, started to write a book. I can quite believe it. I have even seen computer programs being sold that claim to enable you to turn your brilliant idea into prose even if you do not really have a plot, any characters or the first clue of how to write. On this definition, we are all, it appears, writers now.

I have a friend with an English degree who decided that she would like to write. She joined a Writers Circle, because people in a Writers Circle will be writers, yes? After weeks of listening to a group of not noticeably talented people reading their Special Words to each other, she gave up. The worst thing, she suggested, was the unspoken social contract whereby you agreed that the other person's Special Words were evidence of real talent in exchange for them doing the same for you. It's quite possible that some of the people in the group had real potential, but in the atmosphere of mutual onanism, nobody was ever going to find out. It does seem fair to say, though, that membership of a Circle does not make you a writer.

Once upon a time, the test of whether or not you were a writer was whether or not you had a book published. But that's hardly a test any more. Many really rather good writers are self-published or published by independent publishers that no one has ever heard of. Unfortunately, so are some people whose work, by any standard other than their own, would struggle to be judged as a "proper book". Some people have tried to replace the test of "had a book published" with "had a book published by a mainstream publisher". But, looking at the books published by mainstream publishers, I don't see that as being any test of quality either. Even after you've taken out the celebrity books (often written by someone whose name is not on the cover) you are left with some works of dubious worth. I'll name no names because it's a grey area, but we can all think of some very doubtful stuff that is getting mainstream publication these days.

So if the test isn't "I've had a book published", what defines somebody as a "real" writer? It would be nice to suggest that it is whether or not you make a living out of writing. Unfortunately (he said with feeling), the last time I looked, which was, admittedly a few years ago, the average amount made by somebody who actually writes for money was £7000 a year. Obviously Dan Brown and JK Rowling manage rather more than that, but for most writers, the idea of it paying a living wage is just ridiculous. At one level, this is quite a good definition of a writer, but it suffers from the opposite problem of defining it as "somebody who writes". While almost everybody is in the first category, practically nobody is in the latter.

I think it is the absence of any useful definition that makes us so obsessive about word counts. It's almost as if, in the community of "serious writers who haven't had a bestseller yet", we define a writer as "somebody who writes down about 1000 words a day". It's a measure of our insecurity. And we are all so very insecure. It's a lonely life and we look for all the validation we can get. And in the absence of Amazon reviews (hint, hint) and massive sales (even bigger hint), we look to our word count for the validation we aren't getting anywhere else.

That's a thousand words.

I'm a proper writer, I am.

1 comment:

  1. Christopher Hawthorne Moss wanted to post here but couldn't prove he's not a robot. (Those damn Captcha things are no fun if your sight isn't that good.) So I'm posting for him:

    I recall the famous Truman Capote remark, "That's not writing. That's just typing."

    What makes a person a writer? What a dreadful question. I never paid much attention to word count, never even looked on the word processing software, not until recently and that has mostly been because with flash fiction you are limited to no more than 1000 words. And flash fiction is way fun.

    I agree with Tom that people use all sorts of often iffy standards for what makes one a writer. Seems to me the proof is in the literary pudding. That is, the finished product, the work, whether flassh fic, short story, poem or novel. This isn't even standardized, since one person's 5 star novel is another fool's 2 star. (Idiot. Not even an explanation why. Not that I would agree with a word of it...)

    I love the plethora of indie published work even though I am now commercially published, the former sign of a real Writer. I love it because people choose what they read rather than marketing departments. Time was that certain tiny genres were never published. I happen to prefer a couple of those myself. So the fact that anyone can put out a book at least insures that there will be books written by people with my interests, and chances are this is true for every other person with peculiarly focused reading tastes. A sort of literary populism. Don't let The Man repress you and all that.

    "Intent" seems a likely element. Not everyone who cooks is a professional chef, so not everyone who puts fingertips to keyboard is a Writer. As much as it galls me, even those lame brains who hear I am a Writer and respond "Oh, really? I'm a writer too!" are in fact writers. Not because they write but because they intend what they write to be Writing.

    As an aside, I once asked another writer, this time a real one, whatever that is, why I should stop self publishing and try to get my work published commercially. He replied, "Validation". I still, though I have been so validated, don't believe that is necessary. C'mon, isn't the response of readers what determines if you can at least entertain?

    What a hornet's nest.