Word Counts Don’t Count When You Should Be Editing

I used to joke that the worst thing in my life was that George RR Martin still hadn’t published The Winds of Winter. I have this theory that the last two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series are all finished and he’s holding back the releases because the expectations would kill him. He’d rather spend the rest of his life editing, and he certainly could, because editing is an infinite process, and theoretically the longer you spend editing the better the piece will get. Writing a great book, especially when you have enormous distractions like wealth and fame, or a regular full-time job, takes a long time. 

Some lucky writers churn out books after books, series after series like it’s an annual event, while other writers struggle to get one great short story published in their lifetime. This makes me wonder: what’s happening? Isn’t writing consistently the key? The higher your word count, the more books you’ll write, right? Getting the word count up may be easy for some and hard for others, but regardless of how challenging it is to get the words on the paper, the next part — editing — will be twice as challenging.

When we think of writers, we often think of them in the act of typing, creating the words. But what writers are as well are editors. They need to take what they’ve written, all the words they’ve typed, and polish them up so all together it becomes a cohesive story worth reading. Depending on the project this could mean more research or it could mean rewriting the whole story from a different perspective or it could mean restructuring the plot so it’s no longer in a linear timeline. Whatever editing requirements are necessary — and there always are some — this is where the work truly begins. 

There are days where you will stare at the screen and debate whether you should cut a word or the whole sentence. There are days where you won’t add to your word count. There are days where you’ll be losing words. There are days where you’ll feel as though you are undoing all you’ve created, reversing the time and effort you spent writing. There are many phases where a story can die and from the first to second draft is a common place for a work-in-progress to remain in that status forever. You’ve written yourself into a place where it is futile to even edit. Quitting is the natural solution. 

How do you get yourself out of this hell, save your project, and salvage all the work you’ve done? There is no simple answer to this question. A lot of it will depend on you, but be sure of this, the likelihood of you starting a new project and getting it past this phase is unlikely if you can’t get past this phase this time. Yes, it might be a whole new project and you might be able to write yourself clear of any plot holes, but how can you steer clear of these hazards if you can’t identify and resolve them this time? 

Starting a new project and tracking your growing word count is enticing, especially after you’ve been trapped in your current story, and you’re not seeing any progress or movement. But the time you spend struggling to repair your work whether it be by conducting interviews or participating in a writing workshop or just staring at the screen, it doesn’t matter, these experiences are qualitative. It makes you a better writer by examination. The better you become at reviewing your work and not only composing, but you’ll also become a better storyteller all around. 

Counting words on a page may feel great. Seeing the giant document saved onto your hard drive is something to be proud of. However, your dedication to making it better. Your patience to sit in front of the words you’ve written and look at all of it objectively and not get overly emotional or discouraged will be the greatest power you wield going forward into your writing career. 

Are you failing to see any progress in your work? Check out this article about how to stay motivated.

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How to Write a Scene When You Can’t Picture Everything

A shattered vase lies on the floor. Once beautiful pieces are now sharp and dangerous. The barefooted woman dares not move. 

When writing a story, you don’t need to have the whole scene figured out. To begin, start with an image, something that can ground your reader in a physical place: a shattered vase on the floor. Set the tone: Beautiful. Sharp. Dangerous. Finally, ask a question: Is the barefooted woman okay? 

From that point on, you have everything you need to keep going. You have a space to work in, a tone to follow, and a question to answer. 

There are two types of writers: Plotters and Pantsers. 

Plotters are writers who create a plan before starting. They have an outline, a blueprint, a set of characters, and a clear ending to reach. Plotters are architects. They want to know where every nail fits. Being a Plotter is great. They have a clear direction for their stories and tend to be less burdened by writer’s block. 

Pantsers, on the other hand, are those who write by the seat of their pants. Because there is no plan for the Pantsers to follow they can take their characters in any direction and with this flexibility, they encounter creative surprises and unexpected revelations. 

I find that a balance of both can be the most beneficial. These are the Plantsers. Someone who has an outline to get unstuck, while embracing surprises. 

So, while I may have an outline to tell me what to start writing about, how to actually start the scene is open to possibilities. Sometimes, I’ll have a scene that appears clearly in my head. I could close my eyes, do a three-sixty, and see every detail. All I have to do is pick a place — a description of the furniture, a smell in the air, a sound coming from the floor below — the choice is up to me. 

Other times, the scene is unclear. I know I need the characters to interact in this way to get the plot to the point where I need it to go, but the setting, the tone, the atmosphere, the lighting, the fragrance of the season, all that is unclear. If none of those details are coming to the surface, don’t worry. Focus on the one thing you see, because all you need is one thing to start. It could be the clenching of a character’s fist. Or it could be the words “I hate you!” coming from a character’s mouth. Whatever’s the first image you have, go with it. 

Once you have that first image that’s where the writing fun begins. Like a seed, your story will grow roots below, sprout upward, and blossom out. Your first image will put you on course to creating the tone. Fist clenched. “I Hate You!” This story is starting in an angry place and the question sparks: Who’s fighting? 

No matter how much you prepare, there will always come a scene where the details may be a bit blurry or the character’s motivations aren’t completely clear. What you do then is find that image. This image can be as small as a crack on the floor or as big as a collapsing star. Once you focus on a singular point, your imagination can expand out from there.

It’s hard to translate what seems so picture-perfect in our brain onto paper. But hey — we might not need to. To do so may hurt our story. Even if a Plotter has every detail figured out, putting it all in words can lead to a story being unnecessarily weighed down. That’s why I like to blur the focus of my imagination as I start writing. I know enough to know where I need to take the story, but how I get there, what details of the scene I choose to focus on, that’ll only become clear as I write. 

The image, the tone, and a question to be answered, everything else will surprise you. 

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Who to Write For When You Have No Audience or Readership

At the beginning of your writing journey, you won’t have a following. No audience. No readers. Nobody knows who you are. It’s almost impossible for them to find you. It can be an awfully lonely place at the start, and in this solitude, you’ll ask, “Why am I even writing this? Nobody will read it.” 

Writing is more than putting words on pages. Writing is communicating. To solve the problem of not having a readership, all you have to ask is “Who am I communicating with?” Now, at this point, you might have an epiphany and discover your audience are the children of Mexico or all the pregnant women in their second trimester. If that’s you. Great! All you have to do then is direct your writing efforts towards schools in Mexico or building a pregnancy blog, and in a matter of time, you’ll have an audience. 

But then again, maybe you’re starting out and you don’t have a specific audience in mind. No worries. You don’t need a niche to be a writer. You’ll always have two audience members that you can focus your writing towards. Those two people are You from the Past and You in the Future. 

You from the past: 

Wouldn’t it be great if you could give advice and share your wisdom with yourself when you were ten, thirteen, or eighteen years old? There is so much you can teach the younger version of yourself. 

Think about all you know now that you didn’t know before. There is so much to tell that kid. Your experiences with school, work, and friendships, for example.  

The thing is, there are ten, thirteen, and eighteen-year-olds everywhere. And while some of your stories may come across as a curmudgeon complaining about how things worked “back in my days…”, experiences are also a part of being a human and your personal approach to surviving those moments may help someone else who’s going through something similar today. 

By writing for yourself in the past, you identify which moments and ideas impacted your life. It’s an effort to tell your younger self what really stuck with you after all this time. 

Yourself in the future: 

Memory is a funny, fleeting thing and if you don’t capture it, it fades away or morphs into something that is not what it once was. 

While we can take pictures of ourselves to capture what we physically look like, photography fails in recording what is on our minds. Writing offers that solution. Like time travelling, writing allows you to communicate with the person you’ll become in the future. 

Getting old sucks! However, when you write for the future, you’re passing on a little bit of yourself, allowing your thoughts to travel a little further down the line. The ideas have more mileage. Writing gives memories physical presence in the world for you to revisit when the time is right. 

When you write for yourself, whether it’s yourself from the past or yourself in the future, the act becomes a protest against time. While you’re writing, your memories, stories, and ideas are immortalized. When you’re uncertain who will be reading your work, turn the target inward, and you’ll find two audience members eager to know what the current version of you has to say. So don’t hold back! Let them know what’s on your mind. 

Who would you rather write for? Yourself from the past or yourself in the future? Let me know in the comments below. 

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