Jul 4, 2011

On word count and mashed potato...

by Emily May

At the moment I'm wrestling with Ye Dreaded Word Count, and I was reminded of an experience a friend of mine had that almost involved death by mashed potato. I'd like to share her experience with you.

A conversation at a dinner party.

MAN:  So you're writing a novel?

WRITER:  Yeah, trying to. It's not going as fast as I'd like.

MAN:  Well, how fast can you type?

WRITER:  Sixty words a minute.

MAN:  So type for an hour, you’ve got 60 times 60 words - that’s 3600 words.

WRITER:   Uh-huh.....

MAN:   So you write for 10 hours a day - that’s 36,000 words!

WRITER:  Thirty-six thousand words! That’s half a book.

MAN:   You see what I mean?

WRITER:   So by your calculation I ought to be able to write a book every couple of days?

MAN:  Yeah, why not? You might need another day to fix the spelling and stuff.

WRITER:  Put in some punctuation?

MAN:   Yeah. Editors probably like that.

WRITER:  So following your plan I should be able to write 122 books a year?

This is the point in the conversation where he narrowly escaped having his head pushed into a plate of mashed potatoes...

36,000 words a day! Imagine being able to write that fast....

Well, actually, when I think about it, I don't want to write that fast! There'd be no sparkle in the words, no depth to my characters -- it'd all be fast and shallow and superficial, kind of like a really rushed paint-by-numbers painting as opposed to a painting by Klimt. Not that I'm saying my books are masterpieces, because they're not! But any novel is a work of art, and works of art take time.

I wonder what kind of word count J K Rowling averages per day? Is she slow, or fast? Or Stephen King? Or Nora Roberts? (Actually, I'm pretty sure Nora is one of the fast ones.)

Word count is such an individual thing, really. There are people who can write 5,000 words a day, easy peasy, and others who slog to get 500 words done per day. And sometimes it can depend on the book -- some books gush while others are like squeezing blood from a stone. My current book is a step up from squeezing blood, but it sure ain't gushing!

Would I like to write faster? Yes. 36,000 words a day? No. But maybe I could aim for a tenth of that? 3,600 words per day? Or maybe I should be realistic, admit that I'm not a writing machine, and aim for an achievable twentieth, i.e. 1,800 words. Doesn't have quite the same ring, though, does it?!

Mashed potato. Mashed potato. Mashed potato. Look, six words! And that was another three. Actually, maybe I could write 36,000 words per day! But -- and this is the big question -- would they be worth reading?

And maybe I should leave that question unanswered and head back to my current manuscript and try to get some sparkly, hard-won words written!


  1. Emily

    I have never written a book and probably won't I couldn't imagine trying to write all those words LOL, but of course I love reading them and I agree they are master pieces and a lot of thought goes into them for us avid readers.

    Have Fun

  2. Hey Em, the scene you described made me laugh, having had a similar conversation, myself. When you do the math like this, turning out a mere 10k words a week ought to be a walk in the park. I guess the time gets soaked up by all that pesky punctuation.

  3. Hi Helen -- thanks for thinking our books are masterpieces! So glad you enjoy reading them!

  4. Yes, Zana, let's blame it on the punctuation! All those badly behaved fullstops and commas and speech marks. And as for the semi-colons -- downright evil, they are!

    You're right, 10,000 words per week should be a walk in the park, and as for 5,000 -- an absolute doddle!

    Good luck with the words this week -- and with wrangling that pesky punctuation!

  5. Oh, man! Do you know how bad 36,000 words per day would be for your back?

    And where did writing for 10 hours a day come from?

    Emily, if I'd been talking to him he would definitely have worn the mashed potato. :-)

  6. Emily I'd be lucky to write more than 5k a day - and anything over that is complete gobledegook! Wonder what the man would think if he was told how easy his job could be!

  7. Not just your back, Michelle, but your arms and your neck and your fingers... You'd be an RSI wreck!

    I agree, he deserved to wear the mashed potato! I think my friend showed great restraint!

  8. I never thought to ask what his job was, Mel! Must ask her. Something that doesn't require too many brain cells, methinks...

  9. That's the giant misconception. When books are easy to read, one might think they are easy to write. If only!
    Then again Ernest Hemingway once said,
    "It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way."
    Think I read in On Writing Stephen King averages 8 pages a day. God only knows with Nora!

  10. Yes, Robbie -- if only books were as easy to write as they are to read! Although, then everyone would write them, right?

    I've never read On Writing, but I've heard so many people mention it that I think I should!

    Love the Hemingway quote, btw. Thanks for sharing it.

  11. Emily, that's the second time I've heard your friend's dinner conversation and it made me laugh as hard as the first time! Thanks for posting it. I think I would have been too stunned to push his face into the mashed potato. :)

  12. Glad it made you laugh again, Rachel! Yes, I think I would have been speechless, or maybe gobbling incoherently like a turkey -- and not thinking fast enough for any mashed potato usage!

  13. Love that conversation, Emily - he is a lucky, lucky man to have escaped without a good mashed potatoing!

    36,000 words a day - whoa, our fingers would have friction burns! But 3,600... now that'd be nice... wouldn't that be nice... I think that'd be nice!

  14. Yeah, it would be nice, Sharon! How about I wish it for you and you wish it for me -- and maybe our wishes will come true! (Oh, and while you're at it, please wish that I win Lotto, too. I promise I'll do the same for you!)

  15. Oh Emily, I can so relate to this - if only it were as easy as 'typing'!
    I've done some big word tally days in my time (on deadline!) but find I'm absolutely ruined for the next few days - I usually end up with a migraine!

  16. Yes, if only it were as easy as typing, Natalie!

    Take care not to give yourself any more writing-induced migraines -- I hear they're horrible things (being one of the fortunate ones who never get migraines ... and now I must rush off and touch wood!).