To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

Because* I’m a writer who is thisclose to completing the draft of her next novel, I was telling someone today about how many words I wrote when I went off on a writing retreat this past weekend. (I know, I know. Another writer talking about her book. You’re yawning already. But do try to stay awake, because I promise I do have a point. And a question for you.) It’s the second January in a row I ran away from home for a weekend to write, and while I can’t yet call it a tradition or habit, I think I shall make it both.

The person I was telling isn’t a writer, and so the numbers–2K words late Friday night, 9K on Saturday, and 2K Sunday morning for a total of 13K—meant nothing to him. But he did ask me a question that surprised me: “Why in the world do you keep track of the number of words you write? Are you in some kind of competition?”

I definitely did not see that coming.

One of my best friends, an enormously successful writer, has kept track of her words on spreadsheets for well over a decade. But I also know a writer who has been writing for a half-century and couldn’t tell you precisely how many stories she’s published, let alone the number of words.

The subject of word counts comes up frequently when you’re an emerging writer. Agents only want to see a certain number of pages, and competitions, magazines, and writing workshops all set limits. When you sell that novel, there will be a word count mentioned in the contract, and when it comes time for delivery, it better be close: if there aren’t enough, it won’t meet the contract; if there are too many, it could negatively impact the production schedule and projected costs. Word counts are relevant.

But should word counts have a place in your creative life? What do word counts mean to you?

This might sound a little crazy, but keeping track of my words satisfies the voice in my head that says, “use your time well.” Word counts are by nature quantifications. Proof that I’ve written. It doesn’t matter if I’ve written badly. It doesn’t matter if I throw them out later. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even like them. I’ve written. I’ve worked. It sounds a little cold, but sometimes you have to feed the voice. (Now, these are only my thoughts. If you don’t have that scary neurosis voice in your head telling you she’s watching how you use your time, good for you.)

The softer, more right-brained view is that the more words you write, the more practiced you become. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Writing begets writing.” This is so true. When I write, I work things out on the page. The more words I get down on paper, the more room there is in my brain for birthing new ideas. My brain feels larger, happier when it’s planning new words.

At the end of December, I started tracking my word counts in my daily blog. The person who asked me why I tracked words wondered if I was in some kind of competition. The answer is yes. I am in competition with myself. I like to know how much I’ve written, and it keeps me motivated—not just to improve the numbers as I go along, but to have some markers along the way.

What about you?

(Oh, and I wanted to share a bit of news with you all: I’m excited to have a story, A Paler Shade of Death, nominated in the Best Short Story category for 2017 Edgar Awards. I’m thrilled and honored and a little freaked out to be nominated alongside four of my writing heroes!)

*Yes, I opened this blog with the forbidden word, “because.” Please don’t try this at home.

(Photo by George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures.net)

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel is The Abandoned HeartVisit her at laurabenedict.com and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.

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Hail Thee, Book Festival Day

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With my table mate, the irrepressibly talented Amy E. Reichert (l), at Books by the Banks 2016

 

If there’s one occupation I never imagined pursuing again, it was being a salesperson. During high school, in between various food service jobs, I worked a Christmas gig selling office supplies in a mall kiosk, and later sold ladies clothes in a rather grim department store. In college, I was hired by a temp agency to cold-call businesses over the phone to get appointments for the woman who did the actual selling. I was petrified of cold-calling. They gave me a script, which I’m sure had been developed by corporate sales professionals. I hated every moment of those calls. I dreaded going to work, and energetically did every other part of my job that didn’t include cold-calling. They should have fired me, but they didn’t, because I worked hard to make myself otherwise indispensable.

I’m on an extended book tour for The Abandoned Heart all this month, and the early part of November. Tours are a lot of fun. I like to drive, so I don’t mind hopping in the car to do a reading, conference, or festival that’s within a one-and-a-half-day traveling radius. When I started touring almost ten years ago, the norm was single- or two-author bookstore appearances. But there are a lot fewer bookstores these days, and a lot more authors looking for readers.

Enter the book festival. Book festivals are a blast, and a win-win-win (-win) for authors, booksellers, libraries, and charities. They foster a love of books and a love of reading in both adults and children. (If you follow this link, you will disappear down a path leading to pretty much every festival in the known world, and may find yourself imagining that you, too, should definitely be invited to the Blenheim Palace Festival in the U.K. or the exclusive The New Yorker Festival. Ignore the fab photos of the famous actors—you know everyone really will be there to meet the writers!) Book festivals enjoy an economy of scale undreamed of by a single bookstore or library. There’s lots of room for authors and their books, and readers are wonderfully motivated to meet their favorite authors and have their books signed. Plus, a festival is a great opportunity to hang out with other writers.

The flip side is, of course, that you’re cheek-by-jowl with your competition. Friendly competition, but still competition. Writers are there to sell books, and readers are there to buy them.

This past weekend, I was at a table at Cincinnati’s wonderful Books By The Banks Festival, which featured around 150 authors. It was the festival’s tenth anniversary, and I’m not surprised that it continues to thrive. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated, the authors seemed delighted to be there, and it was bustling with readers all day long.

I saw three kinds of authors there: 1) Super-famous authors who had all-day lines; 2) Bored-looking authors who waited—often in vain—for people to come and talk to them; and 3) The rest of us—writers who spent most of the day standing, chatting, laughing and, yes, selling.

I didn’t leave my table often, but as a reader, I found myself pretty overwhelmed. Even though I don’t much read YA or children’s literature, I still buy gifts, so every book was a possibility. And there’s something magical about picking up a book and having it signed—right there—by the author. I still geek out about it.

Something about being face-to-face with readers trying to make a choice between one of my books and another writer’s book reminded me how intimate the relationship between reader and writer is. As writers, we are engaged in a kind of seduction. A tease. Our words must immediately entice a reader—bonus points if a killer cover piques their interest first. During a personal appearance, the writer, rather than the book, has to do most of the talking. That’s what she’s there for: to answer questions, to give the inside scoop, to facilitate the decision without being pushy. It’s a sales transaction, but a delicate one. The buyer is purchasing something with which they will spend long, intimate hours. It’s way more like speed dating than going to the local independent for coffee and a browse. Few readers buy carelessly at book festivals.

I found myself a little annoyed by the bored-seeming authors. I wanted to ask why they even bothered to come. It’s entirely possible that they were shy. After all, most of the 150 authors in attendance got there because they spent many, many hours alone in order to get their books written. But shyness isn’t an excuse. Unless you’re Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King, you’re going to need to make an effort to sell books. (To be fair, all three of these writers are engaging and interesting people who speak up about their work.)

As difficult as I find it sometimes to come out from beneath my writer-rock, I love connecting with real live readers, and not just the hypothetical ones in my head. The ones in my head frighten me a little. The ones I meet on the road are always friendly and generous, and they renew my energy for writing for them. Truly, salesmanship is the least of it. There are times when I feel a little silly hawking my wares (books), but when I connect with a reader, and I see that spark of joy in their eyes when they slide a book across the table, saying, “Will you sign this for me?” any thought of selling or having sold something slips away. It’s just the two of us, with happiness in between, and I think, “Yes. Yes, this is why I do it.”

 

Have you attended a book festival? How do you feel they compare to individual author events?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

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Writing Backwards: Sometimes It Works (Guest: Laura Benedict)

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

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Before Laura Benedict joined TKZ as a new member recently, I had lined her up for a guest spot when her new book would be launched. I hope you’ll indulge us in allowing me to keep my promise in featuring Laura and her work. Take it away, Laura.

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When I decided that I wanted to write a series of suspense novels, I didn’t do what many writers do: plunge a character into earth-shattering change, see how they respond, rebuild their world, have a successful conclusion to the story (meaning they survive), and move on to the next book. No, I wrote a different sort of series.

My vision of the Bliss House novels came to me all at once: five novels set in the life of a grand house that was built in Virginia in 1878 by a Long Island carpetbagger named Randolph Bliss. I knew Randolph Bliss to be an evil sumbitch, but he couldn’t be my series protagonist because of the extended time period, 1876-2014,—though since the supernatural is involved, I guess he technically could have been the protagonist. But the stories that came to me weren’t primarily about Randolph, or any other human. Their common actor, the character that drives the stories, stirs up and engages in conflict, and even changes over the years, is Bliss House itself.

I wrote three Bliss House novels: Bliss House was published in 2014, Charlotte’s Story in 2015, and The Abandoned Heart comes out next week, on October 11th.

Rather than start the saga of Bliss House with the house’s initial construction, I wrote the last book, first. Bliss House is a contemporary novel, set around 2014. By starting at the end, I was able to jumpstart the series with a story in which my protagonist was at its most powerful. (To be clear, though, the series is actually more of a collection of novels than a series. They all work as standalones.)

Oh, did I mention that Bliss House is haunted?

I had long wanted to write a haunted house novel. My favorite gothics—Jane Eyre and Rebecca—are set in houses that heavily influence the novels’ action. And then there are the novels with actively haunted houses: The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Hell House, The Turn of the Screw. The Haunting of Hill House, and The Turn of the Screw appeal to me because it’s possible to imagine that their hauntings are psychological, rather than organic. One of the premises of the Bliss House novels is that a house can be imprinted with the personalities and acts of its inhabitants. Thus, by 2014, Bliss House is replete with acts of both evil and goodness. But imprinting can work both ways: a story’s characters can be heavily influenced and even changed—physically and emotionally—by a house’s personality.

Think about your own experience with houses or even other types of buildings. There are buildings that make us feel good, and energized. And then there are the places that seem to sap our energy—a house, a school, a garage, a basement—places where we’ve experienced trauma, or that signal that something is just not right. Sometimes it has to do with unsettling angles and corners. Architecture can be claustrophobic or unfriendly. Every building has a distinct personality.

Years ago I saw a film called The Enchanted Cottage and was mesmerized by its plot: a disfigured WWII pilot played by Robert Young marries a homely young woman played by Dorothy McGuire. They settle in a charming honeymoon cottage in the English countryside, and soon after their marriage, they begin to see each other differently. Whole and attractive. They’re certain that the cottage has worked some magic on them, and they’re eager to surprise their loved ones with the happy results. Of course, it’s revealed to them that they have not physically changed, but now simply see each other through the eyes of love. It’s an unabashedly romantic story, originally written as a play produced just after WWI. I am no eager fan of romantic stories, but I am fond of fairy tales with hints of darkness. Perhaps I’m the only one who saw the possibilities of darkness in this story, of the house that might have manipulated these two people for its own reasons. Was it to trick them? To expose their deepest fears and wishes?

But back to the writing backwards thing. I knew from the moment I wrote the first lines in Chapter One of Bliss House that whatever was manipulating the house’s inhabitants was threaded through the very ground on which it was built:

“The blindfold kept Allison from seeing, but the chilly air around her smelled sweet and damp. There were flowers nearby—roses, she guessed—and the drip drip drip of water. They might be underground, even in a cave.
How thrilling!”

I knew Randolph Bliss and his two (consecutive) wives were at the heart of the story that began nearly a century and a half earlier. There are elements in Bliss House whose significance isn’t seen until they’re introduced in The Abandoned Heart. And there are many things in The Abandoned Heart that I couldn’t see clearly until I had written Charlotte’s Story, which takes place in the 1950s.

I remember thinking that it might be somewhat easier to write the Bliss House novels starting with the last one, rather than starting in 1878. It was not. When a book is written and published, the story is pretty much set in stone. Family lineage of the characters is already chosen and established, including numbers of siblings, and physical traits. The geography is set. The house’s reputation as a dangerous place has to be carefully constructed in order to make it reflect the first (last) book.

The one constant had to be the house, even though its appearance and bearing changes with each book. When Rainey Bliss Adams buys it in 2014, it’s in considerable disrepair because its incarnation as an inn that was the site of a brutal murder meant it was vacant for several years. Rainey makes it the showplace it was when it was first built. In the mid 1950s, in Charlotte’s Story, Bliss House bears the gothic heaviness of a house that’s seen three generations of devastating secrets. But Bliss House truly shines in The Abandoned Heart. It smells of new wood, and new gardens. It’s filled with paintings and exquisite rugs and European furniture. It is surrounded by newly-planted orchards and centuries-old woodlands. Most of its secrets are unborn, and the ones extant are fresh, and perhaps not yet dangerous.

If you read the Bliss House books, feel free to start with the last. Or the first. Or even the middle one. I don’t mind.

To move back in time the way I did seems a little crazy to me now. But the only way to be true to a story is to tell it the way it presents itself. Sometimes stories aren’t logical or easy. Here, backwards isn’t a gimmick. It’s just the way the story happened. I was lucky this time around to have a publisher who didn’t mind my doing something a bit unconventional.

I haven’t decided if The Abandoned Heart is the last you’ll hear of Bliss House. A hundred-plus year-old house has a lot of stories living inside it, and clamoring to be told. Ghosts are…noisy.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you ever tried writing a series backwards? Or did you find new inspiration for a series by discovering a great backstory to write about?

2.) Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had experiences with the dead?

The Abandoned Heart is available for pre-order HERE, and will be in stores on Tuesday, October 11th. Laura will be touring throughout October and early November in Missouri, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. Check her list of appearances HERE.

Charlotte’s Story, the second Bliss House Novel is out now.

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Website: http://www.laurabenedict.com/

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How to Write 10,000 Words in a Day, and Why You Should Give It a Shot (at least once)

The most words I’ve ever written on a fiction manuscript in a fourteen hour period is 11,214. I was on a solo writing retreat in a secret location (okay, it was at an AirBnB apartment in St. Louis), laboring over the final push for The Abandoned Heart. My deadline loomed, and I was finding myself way too distracted at home to get the book drafted in time. All told, over the three and a half days of my retreat, I wrote over 26,000 words—certainly more words than I’d ever written before on a first draft in any similar time period.

Part of why I was successful was that I knew I was paying for the time away from home, and I didn’t want to disappoint myself or anyone else. It cost me about $400 for the apartment rental, plus another $125 for gas (St. Louis is two hours away), groceries, and a couple of restaurant meals. My family paid, too, in that they had to pick up the slack at home. The circumstances were definitely extraordinary. But it wasn’t my first time at the Big Daily Word Count Rodeo.

I was lured into my first 10K day a few years back by my thriller writer friend, J.T. Ellison. She was looking for a partner in crime—someone to check in with, someone to be accountable to—and she knows I’m game for all sorts of shenanigans. We’ve climbed the 10K summit many times now, and we even have tee shirts to celebrate our achievement.

If you peruse the Internet, you will find several examples of people talking about tackling the big 10K. But the methods all boil down to a few key elements.

Let’s talk about the whys first.

1. Resistance. If you only have a dozen hours in a day to write 10,000 words, you’re going to have to write fast. Really fast. You won’t have time to worry about what your parent/child/rabbi/auntfanny/spouse/eleventhgradeteacher/coworker will think about your work. You won’t have time to be afraid. You won’t have time to fiddle with word choice and as-you-write edits. The beauty of this goal is that you must put your internal editor on notice: She has to work fast, or get the hell out of the way. Resistance has no claws or hooks in this scenario.

2. Get those words out of your head and down on paper. Your story isn’t doing anything for anyone by sitting there, overcooking in your brain. I’ve never tried to do this below the 30K mark in a story, but there’s no reason why you can’t. It’s a story exploder, in a good way. Even if you’re not quite sure where a story is headed, the story knows. That fabulous subplot that woke you briefly at two in the morning, and you forgot on waking? It’s still in there, and your agile, in-overdrive mind will pop it out just when you need it.

3. Get a big jump in your word count. If you’re going for a 100K manuscript, 10K is ten percent of your total. That’s huge for one day, and the satisfaction you’ll enjoy from that accomplishment will stick with you for the duration.

4. First drafts aren’t final drafts. Perfection is not (ever) required. This is the place to let your storytelling mind play. Write now (and it will sometimes feel like you’re just typing and that’s totally okay), edit later. Don’t imagine that this will be finished work, but do be prepared to be pleasantly surprised at how readable it is.

5. You write just as well quickly as you do when you write more slowly. I’m not kidding when I say you’ll be surprised at the quality of the writing you produce. With breaks, you’ll be writing between 1000 and 1200 words an hour (my fastest is about 1400), which isn’t unusual. The unusual part is doing it hour after hour.

6. Why not? Test yourself. Push yourself. Life is too short to dawdle. This isn’t something you have to do once a week, once a month, or even once a year. There are lots of things we devote entire days to that we despise. Why not set aside a day to do something that you love?

Resistance will come up with a lot of excuses for why you can’t do this: It’s a gimmick; You don’t have time; Nobody can write decently at that pace; Your family won’t give you time/space to do it; The world can’t possibly do without you for a dozen hours; It’s dumb and unprofessional; You will fail.

There have been a few times when I’ve completed all the arrangements for a 10K day (always at home), and someone forgot their homework, lunch, or got sick. Or the furnace broke or the phone rang ten times and it was my mother. I only got in 8K or 6K or 5K on those days. But I had at least 5K more than I did the day before. The important thing was that I committed to the time, to the work, and that I got a good chunk of words written.

Let’s talk about the hows of a 10K day:

  1. Commit. Decide you’re going to do it, and take it seriously. Sure, things will crop up and demand your attention, but if you’re committed, you won’t be derailed. Stay off of social media for the day.
  2. Enlist. Enlist your family in the project. Announce your intention to disappear into your writing for the day, and make (enjoyable) plans for them or yourself to be away. If they’re already used to your professional attitude toward your own writing, this won’t be unusual for them. If this is new for you (and them), you might want to take yourself off to a hotel, a friend’s house, or a comfortable library with food facilities nearby. Show them what 10K words look like. They will be impressed that you want to produce so much material. (And if they’re not, too bad for them because they should be.)
  3. Choose your ground. Find somewhere comfortable to work where you won’t be tempted to nap frequently, or get on the Internet. For the random 10K day, I prefer to work at home because I can be as relaxed as I like. Declutter your workspace so you can concentrate on the work and not be distracted by bills, school or work communications, etc. Dress comfortably and make sure your chair is comfortable, too.
  4. Plan your breaks, plan your food. The Pomodoro timer method works well. You can get up and stretch your legs for five minutes after each twenty-five minute work block, and take a longer break every couple of hours. Or you can set up any system that you know works for you. The idea is to be consistent. Don’t work through your breaks. It may sound silly to plan your food, but it’s a critical detail. If you only have a fifteen minute or five minute break, every minute counts. When you emerge from your writing cocoon to find a sandwich in the fridge, or an ounce of nuts, or some fruit and chocolate waiting on the kitchen counter, it will seem magical.
  5. Plan your writing.  Make sure you’re very familiar with the manuscript, have a solid idea about what you want to write, and where the story is going. Your list should be completed the day or night before your 10K day. My chapters are about 2K words long, so that’s a goal of five chapters for an all-day session. Remember to write in scenes, and to keep the story moving forward.
  6. Keep track. Make a note of your growing word count. Every time you stop for a break, write down how many words you’ve written. They will add up quickly! Be sure to time your breaks, just like you do your writing sessions. Save your work frequently.
  7. Bring a friend. Bring along a friend (not necessarily in person) to participate so you can encourage one another. Plus, you get to celebrate together at the end.

I know it’s a lot to digest all at once, but I promise that the rewards are huge. I strongly encourage you to give it a shot.

How many words did you write on your very best word count day? Do you have any stories you want to share?

Goodreads is giving away copies of all three novels in my Bliss House dark suspense trilogy, including The Abandoned Heart, which will be released on October 11th. Enter here for a chance to win.

 

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