The Curse of White Paper

There are few things as scary to me as blank white paper. Gorgons live in blank paper. A ream of paper holds universes. The infinite weight of that potential is a terror.

I’ve been shying away from it for weeks, claiming other jobs and seeking different priorities, but yesterday I finally started work on Grisleymires. It’s been roughly planned for months (the plan gets vaguer towards the end, allowing for inevitable mutation, but it’s all there). Yesterday, at last, I had the brain space AND the opportunity to sit down and start work. I’m still expecting another draft of The Visitors, but hopefully that should be fairly light, and this novel has been clamouring at me. I didn’t want to wait any more.

Working in the wonderful Scrivener, I sat down and blasted through most of the first chapter. 2,750 words, which is pretty good for a disjointed day. A dozen words came easily, and the word count raced to the first hundred. From there, progress slowed. The thousands took hours, and tens of thousands will take weeks or months. A hundred thousand might take me a year, around my various jobs, and that’s how it goes.

To be clear, I don’t think word counts are important to anyone but the person counting. It’s not something to boast about, and it in no way measures the quality of those words. I’ve had great writing days when I’ve written 11,500 words in twelve hours, great writing days where I’ve written a single sentence, and great writing days when I’ve deleted 10,000 words over a pint of beer. I’ve also had a stupendous amount of terrible writing days, where every word is a breeze block.

I think it was Graham Greene who advocated writing no more than 500 words a day. I guess the idea was to make sure those words were perfect, and to be fresh the next day. That doesn’t work for me. I need a word processor, I need to copy and paste and cut as I work. I need to work fast if it suits, or to dawdle over minutiae, depending on what the story wants from me. When I worked as a feature writer for a magazine, I wrote well over 10,000 words of published copy each month, not counting the blogs, the emails, the phone calls or the coffee run. Word counts became the way I managed my work. I had deadlines, and I hit them fast, because that was what paid the bills. When I started writing fiction, looking for a way to save some of my sanity, I brought the same workflow into my stories. Workflow is an interesting word. The flow is one of the things that generates the work. I’m talking about immersion; I’m talking about drowning in a story, and writing as though words are air. Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in a month.

I count climbing grades, too, when I go bouldering. Like writing, climbing is a competition of one. And exactly like the grades of rock climbing routes, word counts measure personal progress. In other words, they exist for me alone.

So, why share them? That comes back to my feeling that writing is a profoundly lonely thing to do – not simply being shut away for the time it takes to actually get words on paper, but to be lost in another world, to know characters better than best friends, to be so buried in a story that big chunks of real life feel like something to endure between writing sessions. Counterintuitively, this is also the good stuff – this is why I write. Redrafting makes something worth reading, but that first draft is where the magic is. Sharing the progress of a story is how I connect with the world outside – how I remember that there is a world outside.

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