Hit Your Word Count

How to Hit Your Word Count Without Losing Your Mind

For many writers, the thought of writing a full-length novel seems amazing.  They’ve had the story in their mind for years, and now it’s time to finally put it on paper.  They have backstory ready to go.  Character arc is fully developed–sorta.  Plot points are in place.  The ending is in limbo but they’ll figure that out.

The time is now.

That is, until they think about the numbers.

Writers aren’t by nature numbers people,  but whether you can reconcile your checking account or not, when you begin to think of all those thousands…tens of thousands…of words you’re going to be putting down on paper, it can feel very daunting.

In fact, “how long does it take you to write a book” is one of the most common questions I get asked, from writers and non-writers alike.

Unfortunately, if you’re going to make it as a professional novelist, you’re going to need to learn to juggle these numbers.  Eventually, you’re going to end up being hyper-focused on them because page by page, number by number, is how you end up building a novel.

When I sold my first book, word count wasn’t even on my mind.  My first child was five weeks old when I got the call that I’d sold my novel.  It was off a proposal so I hadn’t even written the book yet.  I looked up the deadline on the contract and off I went, a mad scramble to finish the book in 9 months.  I wrote like a crazy person—I mean that literally.

Since my son was so young, I’d work until 2 a.m., in between feedings, when, you know, your mind is at its sharpest…?  At the time I was employed by a church, so I had a day job, an infant and a novel to finish.  It was something I could’ve only pulled off in my twenties.

By my fifth novel and my second kid I had pretty much learned no lessons whatsoever on disciplining myself with word count.  I had no system other than to finish the book at all costs.  Two weeks after my daughter was born I was back at the desk, hammering away.  I stole pockets of time wherever I could—writing hours on end on one day and five to ten minutes the next, obsessed with the word count number at the bottom of the document, praying I’d make it on time.

It was about seven or so books into my career when I realized that this was not a healthy way to approach the creative process.  It felt frantic.  I was constantly unsure when I could take time off—had I done enough?  What if something happened and I didn’t have enough time?  I knew I had to find a different way.

So I polled a few of my writer friends to see how they handled it.  Some people had good systems…systems I thought sounded absolutely lovely and peaceful…but they didn’t fit the lifestyle of a harried mom of young children.

The problem was that every week had its own set of challenges.  Every day, for that matter. Sheesh, every hour.

I’d tell myself, okay, today I’m going to get the chapter written but then my son would wake up with a fever and there it would go.  Even when they got into school, there were activities that I wanted to be at, cupcakes to bake, neon yellow t-shirts to hunt down for the school play.  Having a set schedule every day was impossible.

But I ultimately found a solution—a way that fit all the unpredictability of being a mom—and it carried me for the rest of my writing career.

It was very simple, once I thought about it.

Most of my books were sold off of proposals, so the most I’d written on the book was about three chapters, or none at all.  So here is how it worked:

  • I marked the deadline on my calendar and counted backward to the current date, calculating how many weeks were between the two.
  • I took that and divided it into the estimated word count. I would get a baseline number.  Let’s say 4,000 words a week.  Not bad!
  • BUT….there were things to consider.
  • The flu. It would hit, no doubt.  Or something like it.  I had kids. They break arms. They get pink eye.  They decide they’re never going back to school and “you can’t make me.”  Things of that nature.  So, I took two weeks out for “kid problems.”
  • Again, the flu. If the kids got it, good chance I would get it. However, I know how to work through illness with enough Dayquil. I didn’t need a week.  Probably two days max.  So I took away two more days.
  • Vacation. Haha. I’m a writer. Never mind.
  • Christmas. All that comes with it.
  • Editing time. Two weeks minimum. Three weeks preferably.

You get the picture. I’d scrutinize the thirty weeks I had, or whatever it was (usually between 6 and 9 months) and figure out the realistic picture of how much time I needed to write.

And from there I came up with a weekly word count.  THAT was key for me.  Daily was not.  But weekly, yes, that was better.  If I came to the end of the week and I was three thousand words short, I got up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and knocked those words out. Or I paid a young teen top dollar to play with my kids for three hours while I hid away in my bedroom. If I finished my word count early that week, I had the choice of taking a breather or getting a head start on the next week.

This method was the way I continued on for all my projects, even to this day.

While I coach writers that you shouldn’t be intimidated by the word count—you can do it!—I also advise that it’s something each writer should take very seriously.  It’s a good thing to begin practicing long before you get a contract.

Deadlines, you’ll find out, are of utmost importance in the publishing world.  Missing a deadline affects a lot of other people and their own deadlines.  Turning your book in “whenever you finally finish it” will not get you invited back to a publisher.  Although it’s hard to imagine how far in advance publishers work on behalf of your book, you must understand while you’re writing the book, sales associates may already be taking the catalog that showcases it to conventions, pitching it to buyers from major booksellers.  It causes everyone in the office, from the marketing department to the editorial department, to shuffle their projects around to accommodate a manuscript coming in late.

Many publishers build in a little wiggle room. Life happens and they know that.  But do yourself a favor and become the writer that publishers know they can depend on. You’ll be cast as a professional, and that is a big win.

Of the 25 books I published over the years, I only missed two deadlines—both due to illness, including one hospitalization.  But I did the thing a professional does. I called, made arrangements for a new deadline, and made sure that I hit that one.

Once you begin making money in this business, it becomes even easier to take seriously those deadlines and a healthy workflow. You’ve cashed the check. It’s in the bank.  You’d like to keep it…so yeah, I’ll forgo that shopping trip with the girls and finish my word count for the week.  Those were the kinds of choices I had to make sometimes.  And I’m glad I did.

One last thing, a bonus tip for working when you have small children…

Working from home has a lot of challenges.  Working at home with small children can feel impossible.  One thing I came to discover very quickly was that the more time I needed to be uninterrupted, the harder the kids would try to interrupt me.

For instance, I would put on a video and tell them, “OK, Mom needs one hour alone to work, so it’s your quiet time.”  And then the creativity would start—every excuse under the sun that they would come up with to interrupt.  One time John said, “I thought I smelled smoke.”

Even when my husband was watching them and they had plenty of attention, it was too much of a temptation to them—somehow, someway, they’d figure out how to interrupt.

So one day I received this little sign from a writer’s conference.  It said, “Writer at Work—do not disturb.  Note: will make exceptions for those bearing contracts or chocolate.”

I decided to add: “Or John and Cate.” I stuck it to my bedroom door.

I wondered–if they had permission to come in, would it be less tantalizing?

So I took both of them to my office/bedroom and showed them the sign. “Do you know what this means?” I asked them.  They shook their heads.  “This means that only you two are allowed to interrupt me during work.”

Their eyes widened.  “What about Dad?” they asked

“Not even Dad.  But you two have permission.”

They looked astonished.

The next few times I worked, they came knocking.  And I greeted them with enthusiasm every time.  But I bet you can guess how it went…after a few knocks, the luster wore off and pretty soon, when I needed an hour, it didn’t even dawn on them to come interrupt.

Sometimes, you gotta be creative to get that word count in.  But you’ll find those times, I promise.  And before you know it, you will have birthed a new child—in the form of a book.

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  1. That makes total sense – breaking the task into bite-size word counts. Love the idea of shifting the mindset from “daily” to “weekly” so that an interruption is incorporated into the flexible goal instead of being an automatic fail for a given day.