Unless writing is a part of your life, for creative or academic reasons, you probably don’t have much of a relationship with the Word Count function of your word processing software. But for some of us, that glance at the word count is a reflex, and the number it displays can make your heart sink, or provoke a little bubble of pleasure in your stomach.
I’m currently writing a crime novel which will total 80,000 words.
Doubts creep in: What do I really know about Portuguese police procedure?
Isn’t that clunky sentence in chapter 4 evidence that I actually can’t write and I’ve chosen the wrong vocation?
I’ve just spelt the word ‘February’ wrong. Further evidence that I chose the wrong vocation.
Is anyone except my parents going to bother reading this book?
Hadn’t Graham Greene or Stella Gibbons published several bestsellers by my age?
What could my income have been if instead of studying English and spending my student days reading Caribbean Poetry, sprawling Victorian novels, and obscure works of Gothic Romance, I’d studied Law, Medicine or Finance?
Having written 60,000 words of an 80,000 word novel, have I just realised that I don’t think it’s working?
These and many other doubts rise up and make me ask: What’s my motivation? Sometimes motivation comes from the sheer energy you get from a good idea. That energy rarely lasts for the writing of the whole novel. I remember Terry Pratchett saying that to motivate himself to finish his current novel he would think about the excitement of starting the next.
For writers with works in progress, these will be familiar thoughts.
Money and contractual obligations could be motivation, but if you’re a writer without an agent or publishing contract, these factors don’t really feature. Maybe you will get money for the novel at some point, but surely that’s too far away to motivate you. I remember when I was writing radio comedy for BBC radio I was motivated not just by contractual obligation, but the fact that the producer believed in me and I didn’t want to let him down. With a novel no one has asked you to write, these motives are absent. (Although I’ve heard stories that Douglas Adams was notoriously late when it came to deadlines, and William Golding was plagued by doubts with almost every novel. If big names like this still found it hard, maybe this is a constant struggle?)
Something that has struck me in reading widely and reading about writers is this: some very average writers have had great commercial success through sheer determination and luck. Conversely, some astonishingly talented people have got nowhere because of lack of discipline and lack of endurance (and perhaps bad luck too). It’s not just about your talent. It’s also about how hard you work at writing. Have you ever picked a book to read at random, been underwhelmed by it, and thought ‘I could do better.’ Perhaps you could do better. But the person who wrote that book finished it, then edited it, then rewrote parts of it, then worked hard to find an agent. You might be more talented than them, but do you have as much determination to work hard and finish that manuscript?
If you’re an aspiring writer with a work in progress, you must push all your doubts to the side. They will undermine every chapter you try to write, every story you try to construct, and will make you push the snooze button when your alarm goes off at six o’clock in the morning because you planned to get a few hundred words in before the school run.
It’s not going to be easy. As Carlos Ruiz Zafon put it, sometimes you have to ‘squeeze your brain’. Writing a novel is sometimes a romantic idea. We picture Colin Firth in Love, Actually, writing a novel by a picturesque lake with seemingly no commitments around him. Oh, and he found a marriage partner at the same time. How easy was that?
There is room for self-criticism and questions over specific aspects of your book later on. There is time for an editorial process. But for now you need a first draft to work with. You need to hit your word count. So block out the questions that undermine you, block out the ‘Nothing will ever come of it’ voice that pops into your head, and WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!