Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Do you set yourself writing goals?

There was an interesting session at the Sheffield Childrens Book Award where all the authors in the YA and Quick Read sections sat along the stage and answered some very good questions from the young audience.  One of the said questions was: 'Do you set yourself writing goals?'

I was the first to answer, simply by dint of me being sat at one end and I made the classic mistake of trying to make a general statement about writing.  There is no one kind of writer any more than there is one kind of writing.  But my answer went pretty much as follows...

I said that I am - and always have been - a bit suspicious of writers who say they work every day except Christmas Day and write 2000 or 3000 or whatever, every day.  Personally I can't see how that works.  It certainly wouldn't work for me.  I can't promise myself that I will write a certain number of words on a given day, neither would I want to force myself to write that number simple because it was my 'goal'.

When I say I am suspicious of this, it isn't that I don't think a writer can write 2000 or 3000 good words in a day.  It is perfectly possible to write 6000 good words in a day.  It's not even that I doubt that this could be done every day - which I do doubt - it is that writing large amounts of words is only part of the job of a writer.

Writing lots of words is a big part, don't get me wrong, and when you have publishing deadlines you need to keep that word count up or you quickly get into trouble.  When I am writing a book I set myself deadlines and usually hit them, but I don't set myself a daily target.

But I don't see where editing fits in.  Or planning?  Or dreaming.  Or living?  On one hand I have the undisciplined's admiration for the disciplined, but on the other I simply don't understand it.  One writer said they wrote 5000 words every day.  Every day?  That's 1,300,000 words a year on a five day week.  Really?  That's a lot of words for a writer of children's books, even allowing for over-writing.

The writing of fiction - for me anyway - is a messy pulling together of persistent imaginings - things that refuse to go away and demand to be put into words.  I am not talking about waiting for these things to come unbidden - I have a mortgage to pay and don't have the luxury of waiting passively for my characters and plots to turn up.

I was looking through my computer once looking for any ideas I might have forgotten.  I say a document headed 'Head floating up through clouded water.'  Intrigued, I opened it up to find that it simply said, 'Head floating up through clouded water.'  That is how most of my ideas come to me.  They emerge out of the fog.  They demand my attention.  They follow me about.  They nag me.

I write like I draw and paint.  I do a little bit.  I pace around for a while.  I pounce on it again and do some more.  I pace around a bit more.  I rarely have a rigid framework to work within.  It is normally a set of unconnected images and scenes that I have to find a home for.  When I am caught up in a book I can write for hours, but when I am trying to make sense of a book I can write next to nothing.

But I am guilty of thinking that this makes objective sense - rather than that it makes sense for me. I can't present this as a technique.  It is just the way I am.  Books are different because writers are different.  The books have been prepared and cooked in different ways, even if they appear superficially to be using very similar ingredients.

As in so much with writing, there is no 'right' and 'wrong'.  It is all about the result and finding a way that suits your temperament and the books you wish to write.

When asked about their working day, writers tend to fall into two camps - as we did here - between those who have an amount of time they set aside to write and hope they will write a reasonable amount, and those who have a specific word count in mind.  Often it is a mix between the two - Anthony McGowan said that he feels bad if he doesn't write at least 1000 words and I'm the same.

But I would be lying if I said that I don't feel bad regularly.  If not often.

The important thing for me is to write something - even if it is just a few lines in my notebook - and to keep alive that fragile sense that I might actually write something really good. . .


  1. This is beautifully put and I agree. Most days of my life I write ZERO words. It's only when I'm working on the first draft of something that I set my target (2000 words a day for me). The dreaming, scheming and planning happens for months before that, the re-writing and editing happens for weeks afterwards. The trouble is that in most interview or Q&A situations there isn't time to explain that, or if there is, that's the bit of the answer that gets forgotten. It's much catchier to say '2,000 words a day' and that's all people seem to remember. I try to be careful these days and clarify that for me it's 2,000 words on any day WHEN I'M WRITING A FIRST DRAFT. But mostly people still don't take that in.

  2. I have a writing goal. She's called Philippa.

  3. Ha! Yes - me too! Saviour is referring to our lovely agent Philippa Milnes-Smith.

    Thanks Joe. Good point. I think that is often what other writers mean too. 2000 words a day, on the days when I am writing an actual book (rather than planning or editing). I read somewhere that Graham Greene used to write every day between 6.30am and 8.30am. What do you do the rest of the time? he was asked. 'I live!'. Living is also part of the job of being a writer.

  4. Feeling bad regularly, why is it such a pre-requisite for the writing life?!

  5. Well it is part of being creative. We are creators and the first audience for what we create. Just because we make it doesn't mean we necessarily like it - quite the reverse. We are our own critics too. But of course we also feel bad about NOT creating. It's amazing that anything gets done at all.

  6. I know, so much of my energy is taken up with feeling guilty, it's very tiring. I love that Graham Greene quote. Roald Dahl only worked for four hours a day too, and spent the rest of his time betting on greyhounds and suchlike. I'm a big admirer of the Tales of Terror books. I just read the third one, the pairing with David Roberts is perfect and the stories themselves are so brilliantly crafted.

  7. Thank you! David Roberts did a fantastic job on those books. I'm glad you like his illustrations and you are right - they were a perfect match for the stories. I am often asked why I didn't illustrate them myself, but to be honest I don't think I could have done a better job. Mine would have been very different, but I'm not sure they would have been better.

  8. Do you set yourself writing goals? My first reaction was 'no - I got a daytime job, mate'. But thinking about it (great piece you wrote there by the way!)íf I ever set a goal, it's not about the amount of words I'd write (1000, 3000 or more - if it's not what I mean to say, I write 0), it's the týpe of words I'd use. What kind of story would I like to tell? Just like you (head floating up through clouded water)I write on anything I can get my hands on once a hunch or idea - even if it doesn't make sense at that moment - pops up, before it grows legs and runs off again. Months later this can lead to interesting finds: long lost & forgotten note once found says:"remember, he has twó daughters!" Húh? Who does?! It must have been important at that time but doesn't ring a bell as yet. It just demanded, pretty much the way your ideas come to you as well, my attention. When people ask me what the fun of writing exactly is, instead of telling them that my ideas nag me too and I simply got to get my ideas out, I tell them it's like sitting at a table with a big heap of jigsaw-puzzle pieces in front of me, and no example-box to go other than the picture in my mind. It doesn't matter if I write 3000 words or not, I just got to find the right pieces to complete the puzzle. And sometimes that just means writing a few words that don't make sense on their own.
    Well, having said that, I agree with Sheena: David Roberts illustrations indeed go well with the stories - great job! And in regard as to setting writing goals: do you ever set a goal, or want to try and write something completely different, like maybe an adventure-novel, or sci-fi or something? (I tried poetry once -hahaha! No sir, I better leave that to the pro's! God, I'm awful!) Trying something different - even if you fail - might help you along just as good as writing 3000 words every day.