This Means War: On Word Counts and Jihadi: A Love Story
By Yusuf Toropov
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, suggests a daily word count of 2000, proposes a minimum acceptable daily count for fiction writers of 1000, and gets damned insistent about it.
I took him up on the low end, the 1000 words a day commitment – as a target, anyway. That’s what I aim for six days a week, no matter what. A thousand words a day. That target is my personal declaration of war against procrastination. And I don’t think I would have finished my novel Jihadi: A Love Story without it.
I alienated any number of strangers from the ‘wait for inspiration’ school by insisting online that this is the right way to write a book: declaring war on complacency, and waging that war by means of daily word counts. That was a mistake, alienating them, and I have stopped insisting on that. I can’t tell you that this is the right way for you to write a book. But I do reserve the right to declare war on my own tendency to wait for ‘inspiration’, not so much because that always gets good books written, but because doing so keeps me sane. That is Stephen King’s biggest message in On Writing, by the way. Writing supports sanity.
I want to be clear here. I do not always, or even usually, write 1000 good words. Many of the words that issue from my keyboard are terrible. And I don’t always write 1000 words on a current piece of fiction. These words, for instance, count against my 1000 a day. (Note from me looking this over after it’s done: My word count today is 1322). My rules are as follows:
• The 1000 words can be terrible.
• The 1000 words can be about anything.
• The words can be a reworking of words I’ve written on a previous day, as long as each paragraph that has words I’m counting a) has been edited or changed by me in some substantive way, and b) has not yet been included in my ‘prime time’ word processing document – the draft that’s my best effort right now. I get to define what ‘substantive’ means. My decisions on that are inconsistent, arbitrary and final.
• Some of the 1000 words – ideally 250 or more, but I do make exceptions – have to go into a current work of fiction.
• All of the 1000 words have to be intended for something with my byline on it.
• Notes don’t count. The 1000 words have to connect to a piece that means to get published.
As you can see, I make it pretty easy on myself. In fact, I make it so easy on myself that I’ve had people tell me that my routine is not like setting a daily word count target at all. I disagree. I count the words at the end of the day. It’s a word count. The bar is set low, yes, but that carries three benefits: 1) making me happy I have attained my goal six days out of seven; 2) giving me text to work with and rewrite tomorrow; and c) moving a work of fiction forward.
I spent eight years working on my first novel. The first five years were awful. Most of the time, nothing happened. Sometimes I woke up hating the project. Then, in 2013, I read On Writing. I realised what was wrong. I was ‘waiting for inspiration’ – a habit Mr King says is reserved for amateurs. In reality, I was putting off finishing the novel because I didn’t want to be held accountable for its quality. I took up Mr King’s challenge.
My debut novel is now available from Orenda Books. Let me tell you why I think that would not be the case if Mr King had not got in my face.
On page 165 of Jihadi: A Love Story is a scene where in which an American intelligence agent, held in an overseas prison after killing a father and daughter in cold blood on the streets of Islamic City, receives an unexpected letter. In that letter, a mysterious person offers to help the intelligence agent get out of prison. The letter appears in full, and its arrival in the prisoner’s hands is a major plot point.
The version you see in the book is 203 words long. That version took me maybe thirty minutes to write. Note, however, that there were at least five different versions of this letter before that version, and note, too, that I worked on that letter over a series of months. It was one of the places I went to when I had to hit my word count and I didn’t know what the hell to write about. Even when I didn’t feel inspired, and I usually didn’t, I could work on that letter. I knew it still wasn’t right.
There was one version of the letter that went well over 3000 words and attempted to summarise the Theory of Relativity from an Islamic perspective. No, I am not kidding. (No, I won’t let you see it. I destroyed it.)
I actually thought I was on to something with that Theory of Relativity thing. Then I came back to it after a week or so and nearly threw up. Thank God I wrote it, though. There was one sentence in it that I kept: You are clearly aware that there is such a thing as sin. I needed that line.
My point is, I have to work through lots of early, terrible versions before I get to the version that I like. And daily word count targets are, for me, the engine of that work. Virtually every page of the finished novel is like that letter, in that it has something that really, really sucked in the first draft, something that I had write badly in order to get to something else that worked.
You can wait for inspiration if you want. It’s your right. All I’m saying is, Sgt Stephen King kicked my ass with his battlefield rants in On Writing about word counts, and so far it has stayed kicked, thank God. I intend to keep it kicked. That’s how soldiers stay alive. And sane.
Jihadi: A Love Story is out now.