My dad comes home from work and tells us what he did all day (he works in IT, so it’s clearing up problems on stuff he knows is going to be obsolete in another three years at most. Very fulfilling work with the knowledge of a lasting legacy it is not). My mother tells him how she’d been cooking all day: granola, bread, quiche, other things I’ve forgotten. My sister shows off her four completed costumes folded all nicely on the table, our contributions to a friend’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
My dad looks at me and says, “And what did you do today?”
“I wrote about sheep.”
It’s not the kind of work you can stack up like the costumes, since it’s at the document-on-computer stage right now. And even if I could, it takes several hundred pages to equal the height of the costume stack. It would be at least 150 sheets of paper to be as thick as the bread my mother made (at a very conservative estimate). Were I to be stranded on a desert island, by the time I actually noticed that fact, I’d want the bread-making skill more than the writing one if I were to survive. (Well, maybe.)
There are days where I can say, casually, “Oh, I wrote five thousand words today,” and go on eating like that’s just normal. Or I can write fifty thousand words in a month and my dad admiringly says that’s more words than in the dissertation which took him a year (it was only a year, at that point) to write.
Then there’s the days where I just wrote about sheep.
Not that it’s bad to write about sheep. I haven’t been around sheep nearly as much as, say, chickens or cats or spiders, so a lot of what I know about them comes from reading what other people have written. But it sounds so much more impressive to say “I made four sets of wearable clothes today!” and even “I wrote the climax of a high fantasy novel in which the hero and heroine finally get married!” is better.
And even “Today I wrote a thousand words” (judiciously leaving out the “about sheep” bit) sounds better than, “Well, I sort of stared at the same page in a library book and twiddled a pencil” which is what I’ve found myself doing more than once today.
Writing is weird that way — maybe other forms of art are too, and I just don’t know because I don’t practice them — but not everything that falls in the category of “writing” looks much like writing. Or, not all your writing has to do with word count.
During NaNo, we measure progress by word count. That makes sense, because the goal of NaNo is getting a rough draft out so we can mess with it later. But when you’re doing a second or third or seventeenth draft, the goal is different. The goal is taking what is there and making it better, which sometimes means adding to it, and polishing it generally. You’re taking the sand you shoveled up during NaNo, as it were, and making a sand castle.
There’s research to do. That involves checking out books with titles like Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England — checking them out because you can’t afford to buy them — or Googling things like “How long does it take to die from a stab wound in the lung” (which my friend Hope likes to do). Reading does not increase your word count, but it does help you write knowledgeably, and may I say, good research is essential for good historical fiction.
There’s re-reading what you’ve already written, and marking it up with things to change, double-check, delete, and once in a while, a spot that’s good enough to keep. This can take a long time and, unless you print your story out to look at it, doesn’t look like anything at all, much less writing. (That’s one of the things about writing — to someone who’s not a writer, it doesn’t look like much.)
There’s those lovely times in the shower, when you’re getting ideas right and left and rearranging them in your head and seeing how they fit together and miraculously solving every plot problem you ever had all at once (until, tomorrow morning, your solution turns out to have opened a giant hole as big as all the ones it fixed together). Normally people don’t have a writing instrument to hand while they’re in the bath, but if it weren’t for the getting-ideas stage, you’d never have anything to write down.
Making outlines occasionally involves writing things down, but if you’ve been working on one all day and only have 700 words to show for it, it doesn’t look nearly as important as it is.
Then there’s the days where you stare at the same page in a library book and play with a pencil. Inside, of course, you may be wrestling with moral dilemmas, figuring out your main antagonist’s motives, deciding which of three situations is the best in which to introduce the main character’s best friend, trying to figure out just exactly why a certain statement is so out of character for the person saying it, killing dragons, riding dragons, talking to a character who wishes he could ride dragons, or pretty much anything. You may look like you’re in your bedroom, or living room, or attic, or kitchen (not a safe place to be if you’re in this mood, however), but as a matter of fact you’re in another world. (Don’t drive while in this mood, either.) You look like you’re just lazily sitting around all day doing nothing, but you’re really debating: does X mean I’m in danger of saying Catholicism hasn’t changed at all in the last thousand years (when I know this not to be true), and what does that do with the main character’s arc in the second half of the story?
The word count in your document may not have gone up since yesterday, but that doesn’t by itself mean you wasted the day. Now if you had time to write, and knew what to write, and knew you should write, and decided to do something else just because you didn’t feel like writing, that would be laziness. Time is always running out, and our lives fill up with enough other stuff that when we get a chance to do what we know is our vocation, we’d better do it.
But taking a day off to read a good book might not be laziness. Reading good books helps you write good books (and even the occasional bad book can help you learn what not to do faster than you might learn by just trying things). Spending time with your family is a good thing, or so I hear. Sometimes you do need to take a break, because you’ve emptied out your well of ideas and creativity, so doing something with your hands, or going on a really long walk, is better than trying to force onto the page what you haven’t got.
Each of these states is necessary to making good books. Trying to skip them in favour of writing a certain number of words every day will only result in poor quality. Perhaps you’re not at a stage where you can write a lot of new words every day — maybe that would be bad for the story if you rushed ahead without thinking things through first. And then things get messy, and if anyone will take such a rushed rough draft for publication, it makes a lot of extra work for the kitchen maids! (I mean editors.)