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It’s February, which means three things: 1) I meant to write and send this last month because it made more sense as a January newsletter, whoops; 2) it’s time for my annual word count recap, and 3) it’s time to set some goals for the new year. This year, I figured I’d marry the recap and goals together, because I’ve been tracking my word count for years, and blogging about it annually for almost as long. At this point, I don’t know that it’s all that interesting to hear me say “yeah so I write pretty consistently about 1,000 words in 30 minutes” and then talk about how many half-hour sprints I did.
That said, to do a quick check: in 2023, I wrote about 11,000 words of the now-trunked WIP of doom, to finish it off and get it sent out into the world; I then pivoted to the new project, where I produced about 20,000 words of pre-writing, worldbuilding, and planning stuff; I then wrote 73,000 words of the draft. (The draft is not yet done. That’ll be my main goal for the year.) So for the year, that puts me at about 104,000 words.
As is the case with most years, I finished the year feeling like I didn’t do enough until I looked at the numbers and saw that, objectively, I did plenty. 104,000 is a lot of words. It’s not my highest year or my lowest… And word count alone doesn’t get into the time spent on the emotionally draining process of querying and then trunking the project. Given all that, yep, 104,000 words is plenty to be proud of, and it’s given me a good start on what I want to do in 2024, so let’s talk about that.
Like I said: my main goal for the year is to finish the draft of this new project. But, as I’ve written about a little before, I don’t want to rush through and get out a shitty draft. I know I can do that. I also know, from all of the tracking I’ve done through the years, and also hard lessons in spending too long on a broken project, that if I write a shitty draft, I will just end up rewriting it, and maybe rewriting it again, and then large chunks again and… Listen, the now-trunked project I finished off last spring took five years and about seven different versions. I don’t want to do that again. I would rather spend more time on the draft, and have a draft that works, then do endless ground-up rewrites.
So far, I think I’m on track. The whole thing is a biiiit too long (at 73,000 words, I’m only at the midpoint in my outline, eek), and the structure is kind of floppy… but tightening the word count in revision will probably also tighten up the structure, if the right story is there. Which so far it seems to be, though who knows, I don’t want to count any chickens before they’ve hatched over here. All of which means that my 2024 goal is not just getting done, and is not about a specific number of words. It’s to get done with good words. Will I still need to revise? Yes, of course. Will it be an endless slog of rewriting? Hopefully not.
So that’s goal #1. It will trump goal #2, when it comes down to it. Speaking of which…
I do love having a more tangible goals to measure against. Word counts get emphasized in writing circles for just that reason: it makes for a really easy measurement. And with years of data, I know pretty much what to expect … Or at least, I thought I did, until I looked at my data.
The thing is, my initial gut reaction when I’m drafting is to set a word count goal of 20,000 words a month. That is very steep. It’s also something I know I can do… or rather, it’s something I know I have done. Writing at that pace, I’d be done with this draft in just a few months, and that would be lovely. My brain likes to oh-so-helpfully roll out memories of all the times I’ve written that fast and paint it as something I’ve done frequently.
It, uh… isn’t.
That’s the nice thing about having data: like I said earlier, it reminds me that every year, when I think I didn’t write anything at all, that I actually wrote plenty; and it reminds me that sometimes, what feels like a reasonable expectation for myself, is not, in fact, reasonable at all.
I want to be realistic and thoughtful with this goal, so I took all of my years of data — nine!! I’ve been tracking my writing for nine years now! — and put the monthly totals into a spreadsheet. I was hoping to spot patterns or trends, which I did not really. Instead, what I saw was this: yes, I absolutely can write 20,000 words in a month. I’ve done it twelve times in nine years. That is not a lot of times.
You know what I have done a lot of times, though? Written fewer than 5,000 words a month. Specifically, that happened in 54 months… which is fully half of the months I tracked. (In fact, in 39 of those months, I wrote zero words.)
There are a lot of different reasons for having zero- or low-wordcount months. Some of them are even writing related: months when I was working copyedits or page proofs back when my books were in progress; months of letting projects rest, so I can come back with fresh eyes; months of editing, not leading to new wordcounts but still very much getting important work done. But there were also plenty of months when I just wasn’t writing. The last nine years have included all kinds of upheaval in my life — buying an apartment, changing jobs, family deaths, and oh yeah, a pandemic.
If you’re curious, for the rest of the months: 28 fell between 5,000 and 10,000 words; 14 fell between 10,000 and 20,000 words; and as I said, 12 were 20,000 words or more.
One more wrench to throw into the works, referring back to goal #1 above: those numbers don’t at all capture the quality of my writing. And I’m trying to write a cleaner draft, damn it all.
Given all of that, is 20,000 a reasonable monthly goal wordcount to help me toward getting a workable draft of this manuscript done? lol. No. The word that it actually brings to mind for me is “unsustainable” which is code for “if you do somehow manage this, you will be so freaking burnt out after… and by the way, if you don’t, you’ll feel like crap about it.” I have fallen into the trap of setting an unreasonable goal and then feeling bad so many times before. I’d really rather not, thanks.
Let’s go back to my data. Looking at 108 months, what is my actual average word count per month? It’s about 7,130 words.
It would be pretty easy to set 7,000 words as my monthly goal. Assuming my project will end up around 140,000 words — which is too long, oy, but about what I’m tracking toward — it would take me roughly ten months to finish up, which would have me drafting through October. Which currently feels so far away, and I will be honest, I really, really want to get done more quickly than that. So I want a higher goal than that, but still not unreasonable.
Here’s where I eventually landed: goal #2 is to write 10,000 words a month until this manuscript is done, which would be July. That feels better emotionally, and should be doable. I can knock out about 3,000 words in a weekend without sacrificing quality… if I make myself sit down and do it. (That’s another issue entirely.) Four weekends a month, 3k per weekend, actually puts me over that goal. But I’m not shooting for the stars, here. I’m trying to make this sustainable.
Except let’s be real: I’m not always going to meet that goal. I didn’t in January: covid finally got me and it knocked me flat for two weeks, and after that I was sulky about the momentum I’d lost and so I put off writing even longer, and only scraped together about 4,000 words. On the other hand, I wrote 4,000 words in January despite having covid and throwing a temper tantrum! There are also more fun reasons I’ll fail: I have two vacations coming up that will take me out of the country, which will be amazing and I will not regret losing that writing time at all, but yeah, I won’t be writing. Life still happens.
When I was in physical therapy last year, my PT told me something about working out that applies to writing too. She said it’s like winning the lottery. Yeah, you’d rather win $10,000 but you’re not going to complain if you win $1,000. (Yeah, you wanted to walk three miles but only walked one, but hey, you walked a mile. Yeah, you wanted to write 10,000 words but only wrote 4,000; you still wrote 4,000 words.) This mindset is something I struggle with, so while it’s intangible, I think that’s goal #3: be flexible, and be kind to myself, because some progress is better than none.
Okay, I’m almost done. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be finishing my draft sometime in July, or at least over the summer. Fingers crossed. But that gives me a large chunk of the rest of the year to play with, so… what else? Well, I don’t want this to be another five-year project, sooooo I’m going to say, tentatively, goal #4: finish the first revision pass on this manuscript. The first pass is always, always the hardest, because there’s the most stuff to fix. But, refer back to goal #1: I’m really hoping that, while it’ll still need a lot of work, the base that I have to work from will be stronger, so it will be doable in, say, four months. Honestly, I think this will be harder than goals 1 or 2, and it’s highly dependent on both of those being achieved, so… well, we’ll see.
There are, of course, other things I’d like to do with my year. Generic ones like “read more” and “exercise more” and “floss more so my dentist doesn’t yell at me”, which yes, I do want to do but not enough to define what that actually means. I have a vague plan to pick up a new hobby. I have all that cool travel! I won’t lie, starting the year off with covid felt like a bad omen, but I don’t actually believe in omens. I’m writing this with one month already down, and it wasn’t great, but somehow I still feel like 2024 could be pretty rad. We’ll see, I guess!