Word Counts and Ambition

Today’s entry is a mishmash of concepts and ideas that have been banging around in my skull for the last few days. The first issue is the question of success and ambition, one that struck me when reading another piece in the great book Write Good or Die. The author of this particular piece, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, spoke about how a writer may achieve what looks like success to someone from the outside, and yet internally feels nothing like success. You can read the piece, by the way, on her site – right here. Read it. There are a lot of other important points that won’t be a part of what I’m talking about but that writers need to understand and which will eventually be addressed here as well.

What concerns us today, however, is that hollow victory feeling. This struck a nerve because it’s something that has been present in my own writing for quite some time. I’m quite aware of the good fortune in my life – after all, even though I work as a technical writer, every day is spent doing some form of writing, and getting paid to do so. Yet it’s always felt a little hollow. Lack of gratitude? No…I apparently enjoy my “day job” more than most others. But no matter what accolades, there is always this lingering feeling that there should be something more. That something more is success in fiction writing.

Now, however, I am working toward something better in fiction writing, and the question arises again: what is success? Is it winning an award? Is it making the New York Times Bestseller List? It’s a tormenting question, but it’s important to examine it. Let’s look at this categorically:

  • Getting an agent? Maybe. There are still some feelings to be worked through here. Sometimes feels like a necessary evil.
  • Publication? Absolutely. Even self-publication. This feels like an inevitability at some point, but it represents crossing a new barrier.
  • Winning an award? Yes. That would feel like success.
  • New York Times (or Amazon) Besteller List? Hardly. Sales figures are nice, but being a big music nerd, I’ve never viewed them as any sort of artistic validation. They’re simply a measure of whom is reached by a work, and some work is not meant to sell to anyone. That’s more than valid, it’s pretty damned wonderful.
  • Other? Honestly, it comes down to intent versus results. Does this book have potential for mass appeal? If so, does it attain some measure of that? Then it’s a success. Having said that, it occurs to me that I define success not by career milestones but by the milestones of a given story. For example, I don’t believe my current work would ever attain mainstream success; it’s far too niche. Gaining a modest audience and modest sales would be an astounding success. The next planned novel, however, will have a wider appeal, and I would hope it would gain more readers. Perspective, then, seems to be key.
So there we have it. I suppose the accusation of one of my college writing teachers remains true: I’m one of those “artistic types” for whom expression is more important than commercial viability. It was an affectionate accusation, by the way, and no reason to get offended over it. Guilty as charged.
The other issue is the question of daily writing goals and metrics to measure those goals. I had been maintaining writing hours in a spreadsheet, but ran into a problem yesterday when it became apparent that my writing time is becoming more efficient. Feeling drained but having written for a shorter period than usual, it was time to figure out what was going on – it dawned on me that I had burned through an entire chapter, not to mention writing a somewhat lengthy blog entry. Time to check word count – close to 3,000 words! According to this blog entry, that’s a more than reasonable daily goal.
So we run into the issue of improving skills and efficiency versus the old metrics. If I’m working fewer hours but the net effect is the same – exhaustion – then perhaps it’s time to start measuring by word count as well as time spent. Perhaps this is the other side of the word count coin, the tyranny that I’ve complained of in the past. We will see how this experiment plays out.
Tomorrow, I want to talk about the perils of First Person, as I’m trying to learn more about it.
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