Ah, November, the annual hunt for the 50,000 word count.
The mating call of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the sound of a million fingers tapping out 1,667 words a day for 30 days.
There are lots of tools and encouragement to help us cross the finish line: NaNoWriMo’s coaches, Twitter and writing sprints, write-in’s, and all other kinds of traditions, tips, and even superstitions (but seriously, this isn’t the playoffs, you really need to change your socks!).
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sometimes climbing the 50,000-word mountain just seems impossible. It’s an immense amount of words to get down in just 30 days.
If it’s not trying to figure out what is going to happen next, it’s trying to curb a meandering scene that just won’t die, or struggling to come up with just another 50 words, or making the best use of a stolen 15 minutes.
However, having worked for years to figure out my own writing styles and rhythms, I’ve discovered an inherent structure to scenes and chapters. This structure is the word count reserve that I will use to tell this part of the story.
And, I’m going to share it with you.
COUNT ON IT
If we write as a hobby, any pace is fine. We can write 3,000 words one day and 45 words the next, and it won’t matter. However, if we are professional writers, then knowing our sweet spot pace is crucial.
It doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a pantser. Professional writers work at a professional pace, and almost all of us can tell you what our sweet spot pace is and what our best and maximum word count per hour and day is.
For me, my word count pace breaks down as follows:
- 30 minutes: 350-500 words
- 1 hour: 800-1,000 words (sweet spot pace)
- Daily best quality maximum: 2,500-3,000 words
- Duress pace (deadline): 5,000 words
Does it happen like this every single day? No. Of course not. But does it happen like this most days when I write? Yes. Yes, it does.
As a result, when I set up a project or need to know how long it is going to take me to write a book, I look at my pace, and I know what a realistic timeframe is for completion.
This isn’t just for NaNoWriMo. Learning your sweet spot pace is a discipline that will serve you for the rest of your career as a professional writer.
TRICK ONE: COUNT TO FOUR
You don’t have to have your entire book plotted out (though, I usually do) to take advantage of this trick. When we are about to go into a scene or a chapter, just remember:
THERE ARE FOUR PARTS OF EVERY SCENE AND/OR CHAPTER:
- The Problem
- But Then
- Death Threat
The Problem is the situation that the chapter or scene starts off with. Depending on the plot, the Problem can either be a continuation of the problem the characters are dealing with at the end of the last chapter, or it can be a new issue.
Whatever the case, the Problem sets the stage for moving the plot forward. It determines which characters will be present in a scene, what clues will be revealed, actions taken, etc.
Progress is what the characters do to attempt to resolve the problem. It can be discussion, interaction, information, etc. However, it is crucial that Progress does not end up solving or resolving anything. Why? Because then we can’t get the…
…But Then, which is when Progress gets interrupted by a twist, obstacle, confrontation, or any number of delightfully disruptive options. The But Then takes whatever is happening and makes it worse. Never better. Because better is boring.
The Death Threat finishes up the whole thing, takes the But Then (which was already pretty bad) and puts it on the knife’s edge of disaster. It’s not always a literal Death Threat to one of the characters. It could be the death of a clue, the death of a character’s trust in another character, the death of a lie or a hope. But the Death Threat is what keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next.
trick two: COUNT TO 1,000
When you start writing with this four-part structure, the easiest way to get used to it is to break it into four 250-word sections.
- The Problem: 250 words
- Progress: 250 words
- But Then: 250 words
- Death Threat: 250 words
That means that every scene or chapter that uses this structure will be 1,000 words. If you want to write a 2,000-word chapter, you can do either two 1,000-word scenes or one 2,000-word, scene, in which case, each of the four sections would be 500 words.
But here’s the beauty of all this…if you know your Sweet Spot Pace, then you know exactly how long it will take you to write each of the 250-word sections.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT…INDIVIDUALITY
I know this kind of structure can feel restrictive, especially at first. Putting any kind of *gasp* limit on creativity seems like anathema, a cruel symbol of the cold, corporate nature of publishing.
However, we should think of it more like playing the piano. Before we can play Tchaikovsky, we first need to learn how to play scales. Basics before mastery. Scales, then exercises, then simple pieces, more complex compositions, the ability to play masterworks, and finally, the ability to improvise and even compose our own work.
In this age of quick hits and quick fixes, there are still some truths we cannot deny:
- Taxes will always be a bitch.
- Cat videos can cure almost anything.
- There is still value in taking the time to learn, practice, and learn some more because mastery is achieved in no other way.
Okay, okay, I admit it. That last one is actually the real point (but CAT VIDEOS!). So, maybe for NaNoWriMo, the goal isn’t just to write 50,000 words in 30 days, ending up with a manuscript that looks slightly less coherent than a cafeteria Sloppy Joe.
Maybe, we need to use NaNoWriMo to grow by challenging ourselves to find our sweet spot pace, practice writing consistent chapter structures, and hit predictable word counts.
Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What will you be writing? Leave me a comment with what you are going to work on and a Twitter handle so I can follow you! You can also find me almost every single day on the live chat room on WANATribe.com where writers from all over the world come together and sprint all day long…ALL YEAR LONG.
Good luck! May the word count be ever on your side!