September 26th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
On Daydreaming and Word Counts

I spent some time a couple of weeks ago thinking about word counts, which got me thinking about the purpose of daydreaming.  What’s the connection?

Recently, I was asked if I was able to write a lot more after I quit my day job.  And the answer, shockingly, was no.  I seem to write pretty much the same amount now as I did before I became a full-time writer.  In the couple of years after I sold my first book and before I quit my day job, I wrote about two novels and a handful of short stories per year.  After I quit working — about two novels and a handful of short stories per year.  I explained that my output doesn’t necessarily depend on the amount of time I have to write, but on the number of stories my subconscious can deal with.  What I think happened:  my low-intensity administrative day job meant I spent quite a bit of time on the job daydreaming and woolgathering.  I’d make notes, and when I came home from work, my writing for the day would come out of those notes.

Over the last couple of years I’ve learned that I still need that time to daydream.  I still need to sit around, make notes, churn through ideas — woolgather — to have anything worth writing.  I probably only spend a couple of hours a day actually writing.  The rest of it’s a muddle, building up to writing.  But the muddle has to happen, one way or another.

On my personal blog, I wrote about word count, in response to Jay Lake’s post about word count.  Namely, many writers post their daily writing output in terms of word count on their blogs, twitter feeds, whatever.  The numbers are often astonishingly impressive (at least to me):  two, three, four or more thousand words per day.

I always feel deeply inadequate reading these.  My average daily word count?  800-1000 words.  Maybe 1200 if I’m on a roll.  2000 words is a fantastic day for me.  (This is one of the reasons I’ve never attempted NaNoWriMo — I know my average daily word count isn’t up to the challenge and I have no desire to push myself in that kind of marathon.)

It turns out, 800 words a day is enough.  It’s more than enough.  It’s two novels and a handful of short stories a year.  I have no reason to feel inadequate.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if writers who don’t post daily word counts are like me — in the three figures and embarrassed to admit it.  Well, if you are like me — don’t worry about it!  There’s a club for us!  If you finish your book — if you’ve finished multiple books — it really doesn’t matter how you got there, just that you did.

What does this have to do with daydreaming?  I’ve started to wonder if people who write a lot of words at a time do their woolgathering before they start writing.  They’ve got it all in their heads and it just has to get out.  On the other hand, those of us who don’t write more than a thousand or so words at a time do our woolgathering while we write.  I know I have to stop a lot while I’m writing and think about what I’m doing, and that a bulk of my writing time is spent in this thoughtful muddle.  I don’t think this is the same as the “panster/plotter” divide.  Because I do outline.  But an outline doesn’t put words on the page.  For that, I need to daydream a little.

This actually makes me feel a little better about all the time I spend staring at the screen, or out the window, or shuffling through old files and blog entries for no reason at all.  I may not look like I’m working, but my subconscious is churning away the whole time.

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7 comments to “On Daydreaming and Word Counts”

  1. Nancy J Nicholson
     · September 26th, 2011 at 8:01 am · Link

    I am so with you on this one. In order to write, I have to do a lot of wool gathering. I find knowing what I’m writing tomorrow, helps my subconscious sleep mind prepare me.

  2. Laura Lee Nutt
     · September 26th, 2011 at 8:39 am · Link

    This is exactly why, when I’m really struggling with a section of a book, the best thing is to do something else: take a nap, wash dishes, sort laundry. The story flows out of me so much easier when I’ve had time to daydream about it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Michael A. Rothman
     · September 27th, 2011 at 3:24 pm · Link

    My most productive moments, I hate to admit, are between 3am and 6am – oftentimes involve time spent on the toilet. 😉

    The advent of the laptop has been a dog-send.

  4. Tamela R. Price
     · September 27th, 2011 at 5:46 pm · Link

    This is me!!! Thank you for posting this, your honesty about your word counts, makes me feel a little more normal, and not so guilty about mine. Spending time daydreaming, is not a bad thing, its what makes the better writers.

  5. olleymae
     · September 28th, 2011 at 8:07 am · Link

    Seriously, this was so encouraging. I always thought I was weird that it was a miserable struggle to get out more than 800-900 words a day, but really a lot can happen in 800 words and my brain needs time to picture all the possibilities one chunk of writing at a time. Your honesty has really helped me. It is so nice to hear that a successful writer works similar to me. Thank you thank you!!!

  6. Dirk Sayers
     · September 28th, 2011 at 3:42 pm · Link

    Hmmm…when the true litmus test of a writer’s effort…to say nothing of competence… becomes a daily word count, I think we’ve done something to art and creative process that feels wrong, to me.

    We should move constantly be striving to roll the peanut forward, but word count…irrespective of those words’ quality is (IMHO) not the right approach. Time itself is an anachronism. Some days I have written almost nothing and other days, I can’t stop until I have the arc of the story or a segment of it, down.

    As a writer, I can’t imagine posting how many words I wrote “today.” Don’t our readers really want to know: “When can I read it?” Just thinking out loud on paper… 😀

  7. Carrie Vaughn
     · September 30th, 2011 at 10:28 am · Link

    That’s really the point of these discussions, that daily word count is such a nice metric to focus on, because it’s concrete, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s the end product, a finished book, that matters, however you get there.

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