Word counts and other bad habits
So, I’ve developed a terrible new bad writing habit. The word-count.
I’ve never been one of those writers who counts words. When someone says to me, ‘how many words do you write in a day?’ I tend to look blankly at them, or raise an eyebrow. I don’t count words. I have writing goals. I’d like to finish that tricky scene, or the end of that chapter. Perhaps tie off the character arc. I do not do word count.
Part of it is the way that I write. I don’t have a rigid schedule. I have children instead. I write as and when I can. Sometimes I manage no more than a sentence in a day, sometimes less. I’ve been known to leave the document open with the words ‘main character gets in the shit’ as the total sum of what I wrote that day, simply to remind me what I was thinking about for the next time I open the work.
But then I had this deadline given to me. I have to write a whole, entire book by the end of June and suddenly word count becomes important. No, an obsession.
I have, Arnold Rimmer-like, created a timetable which is getting updated on an almost daily basis according to what I have or have not achieved. It is colour coded.
I have a certain number of chapters to complete per week, according to my other commitments, the children’s school holidays and so on. Chapters are roughly ten pages long, I cannot plan a word count per chapter. I don’t know why I am obsessed with word count and not completed chapter headings. I just am.
I know that the book is due to be around 90,000 words. Each word I add brings me one satisfying step closer to meeting my deadline.
It isn’t as if I’m not enjoying the writing. I’m very much enjoying it. I am now setting my alarm for 6am, rising, working for two hours (generally going over the writing from the day before), sorting the kids out and doing the school run. Then I run errands or go to the gym for two hours. Then I write again until three, when I have to pick the kids up and start the evening round of clubs, activities, tea, bath, bed.
This schedule is working well for me. I find that I can achieve a lot in the time before the kids wake up, when the daylight is pinkening the sky around the window-frame in the study. For that two hours I have no responsibility to anyone but myself and the characters. No-one else is up and on Facebook or Twitter, so I have no impulse to check social media. I don’t even make myself a cup of tea, I get straight down to writing. So I have developed some good habits.
As the day goes on though, I begin to check my word count. By three I’ve probably checked it five or ten times.
At three I close off my chapter and nod my head, happy that I’ve added another three thousand words or thereabouts. I go to collect the kids from school. I worry that next week I won’t be able to make the same word count.
I’ll be fine. I do not miss deadlines. Never have. But when I have one I panic like Arnold Rimmer until the end is in sight.
34,990 words so far!
Extract from Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (abridged), by Grant Naylor.
In fact, it was now possible for Rimmer to revise solidly for three months and not learn anything at all.
The first week of study, he would always devote to the construction of a revision timetable. Weeks of patient effort would be spent planning, designing and creating a revision schedule which, when finished, were minor works of art.
Every hour of every day was subdivided into different study periods, each labelled in his lovely, tiny copperplate hand; then painted over in watercolours, a different colour for each subject, the colours gradually becoming bolder and more urgent shades as the exam time approached. The effect was as if a myriad tiny rainbows had splintered and sprinkled across the poster-sized sheet of creamwove card.
The only problem was this: because the timetables often took seven or eight weeks, and sometimes more, to complete, by the time Rimmer had finished them the exam was almost on him. He’d then have to cram three months of astronavigation revision into a single week. Gripped by an almost deranging panic, he’d then decide to sacrifice the first two days of that final week to the making of another timetable. This time for someone who had to pack three months of revision into five days.
Because five days now had to accommodate three months’ work, the first thing that had to go was sleep. To prepare for an unrelenting twenty-four hours a day sleep-free schedule, Rimmer would spend the whole of the first remaining day in bed – to be extra, ultra fresh, so he would be able to squeeze three whole months of revision into four short days.
Within an hour of getting up the next morning, he would feel inexplicably exhausted, and start early on his supply of Go-Double-Plus caffeine tablets. By lunchtime he’d overdose, and have to make the journey down to the ship’s medical unit for a sedative to help him calm down. The sedative usually sent him off to sleep, and he’d wake up the following morning with only three days left, and an anxiety that was so crippling he could scarcely move. A month of revision to be crammed into each day.
At this point he would start smoking. A lifelong nonsmoker, he’d become a forty-a-day man. He’d spend the whole day pacing up and down his room, smoking three or four cigarettes at a time, stopping occasionally to stare at the titles in his bookcase, not knowing which one to read first, and popping twice the recommended dosage of dogworming tablets, which he erroneously believed to contain amphetamine.
Realising he was getting nowhere, he’d try to get rid of his soul-bending tension by treating himself to an evening in one of Red Dwarf’s quieter bars. There he would sit, in the plastic oak-beamed ‘Happy Astro’ pub, nursing a small beer, grimly trying to be light-hearted and totally relaxed. Two small beers and three hours of stomach-knotting relaxation later, he would go back to his bunk and spend half the night awake, praying to a God he didn’t believe in for a miracle that couldn’t happen.
Two days to go, and ravaged by the combination of anxiety, nicotine, caffeine tablets, alcohol he wasn’t used to, dog-worming pills, and overall exhaustion, he would sleep in till mid-afternoon.
After a long scream, he would rationalize that the day was a total write-off, and the rest of the afternoon would be spent shopping for the three best alarm clocks money could buy. This would often take five or six hours, and he would arrive back at his sleeping quarters exhausted, but knowing he was fully prepared for the final day’s revision before his exam.
Waking at four-thirty in the morning, after exercising, showering and breakfasting, he would sit down to prepare a final, final revision timetable, which would condense three months of revision into twelve short hours. This done, he would give up and go back to bed. Maybe he didn’t know a single thing about astronavigation, but at least he’d be fresh for the exam the next day.
Which is why Rimmer failed exams.
Which is why he’d received nine ‘F’s for fail and two ‘X’s for unclassified. The first ‘X’ he’d achieved when he’d actually managed to get hold of some real amphetamines, gone into spasm and collapsed two minutes into the exam; and the second when anxiety got so much the better of him his subconscious forced him to deny his own existence, and he had written ‘I am a fish’ five hundred times on every single answer sheet. He’d even gone out for extra paper. What was more shocking than anything was that he’d thought he’d done quite well.