At the beginning of the year I joined a group with a single aim: In the month of January, produce 50000 words. It’s like the National Novel Writing Month, but in January instead of November.
Cut to thirty days later.
I’ve completed two novellas. Roughly one week per story. Both are military science fiction, one is probably rougher than the other, but I intend to publish both someday soon. Comes to 42229 words.
In the other two weeks, I was working on a variety of writing related stuff. People who follow The Online Citizen would notice that I was covering rallies, walkabouts and other matters during the Punggol East by-election. I also put together other writing-related stuff, lesson plans and proposals and the like. Total of 13373 words.
Put them all together and you get 55602 words.
Technically, I haven’t quite met the goal if you count fiction alone. But if there weren’t a by-election, or if I didn’t have to write the proposals, I might have met the goal. I do intend to try this again, maybe not for NaNoWriMo, but for some other occasion.
Still. The point of writing this is not to show off. (Well, not just to show off.) When I was in primary school I wrote a full-fledged novel. 300 A4 pages long. 300 pages of utter rubbish.
And that was the problem. I wrote to meet a self-imposed page count. But little else. Now, a little older and wiser, I wrote to meet other expectations. In both novellas, I didn’t just put words down for the sake of having words. I tried to put together actual plots, inserted as much craft as I could, and generally tried to capture the experience of warfighting in the future. I’m not sure how well I did, but it was definitely better than my boyhood attempt.
I’ve long known I could put together novel-length works with enough willpower. But that’s not enough for me now. If I am to become a successful novellist I need more than words on paper. I’ll need stories with heart, characters with soul, worlds that stand to scrutiny and words that resonate in the reader’s soul. And to do this, and more, for the length of my career.
Publishing has changed dramatically, but one thing remains: quality of writing. The only way to improve is to write with an eye towards growth, and that is what I do with every story I write.
To do this, I think there are some questions writers should keep in mind when writing. I’ve outlined them below.
1. What am I trying to accomplish with my story? How does the story meet this?
2. How will my characters, given their background, talk, act, feel and think in this situation?
3. What is the arc of the narrative? How dependent is it on plot holes, out-of-character stupidity and other mistakes?
4. What is the setting like? What is the atmosphere created? How is it relevant to the story? Does it hold up to scrutiny?
5. How do the words I choose contribute to the story? How do they not contribute? What feelings do they evoke, if at all? What deeper meaning do they evoke, if at all?
6. How do the answers of the above questions serve the story goal outlined in the first question?
These questions are like blueprints. They keep you on track while you’re building the story. It’s easy to get lost in the writing and lose sight of the larger goal. The point of writing isn’t to pad out word counts — it’s to communicate. So the story comes first, words just help you get there.
In the stories I’ve written, I hope to have answered these questions as well as I could. I do my best, and I strive to do better each time. And with any luck, it might even pay off one day.
Word counts are good for people who want to keep track of their work. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of writing. Words are just that: words. They are the building blocks of your story, but too many blocks or too few or putting them in the wrong place makes a building weird. The story comes first — everything else is secondary.