10 September 2018

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

by Steve Hockensmith

Warning: This post is for writers. Not only that, it's for aspiring writers. Not only that, it's for aspiring writers who write slowly. Not only that, it's for aspiring writers who write slowly and are named Gladys and live in Cleveland with a husband named Mike and two border collies named Orson and Welles. If you're an aspiring writer named Gladys and you live in Cleveland with a husband named Mike and two border collies named Orson and Bean STOP READING RIGHT NOW!!! THIS IS NOT FOR YOU!!!

On second thought, strike that last caveat. You don't have to be a Gladys in Cleveland to read this. But the rest of the warning stays. This is writer talk -- an extremely specific kind that'll probably hit non-writers like a double dose of NyQuil with a vodka chaser.

I'm going to talk word counts. Specifically, my word counts. Which don't require a ton of counting, because they're usually so low.

Recently-ish on this very site, the über-productive writer Michael Bracken declared himself to be a slacker because in his "worst year" he only averaged 387 words a day. Yet in that same year he finished 32 short stories. 32! See what I mean by über-productive?

Michael was responding to an earlier post about productivity by my old Bouchercon buddy Brian Thornton. Brian had mentioned 1,000 words a day as "a healthy goal" for "working writers." And I agree, I agree...with another caveat: that we define "working writers" as "people who make their living by writing."

That was me, once upon a time, and 1,000 words a day was what I shot for. I usually made it, too, with plenty of bonus words ladled on as gravy. (Still awake, Gladys?)

But then I became a different kind of working writer: one who worked in order to write. (It's hard to write when you're starving, you know.) At my busiest as a pro, I had contracts for three different series at once. Yet though I was producing lots and lots and lots of words, that didn't mean I was making lots and lots and lots of money. I wasn't even making lots and lots, at that point. Or even just lots. It was just money -- barely enough to pay for crappy health insurance for my family with the occasional run to Pizza Hut to celebrate the fact that none of us had to use it.

Then some of us did have to use it, and there wasn't enough left over for one of those soppy slices from 7-11, let alone a trip to Pizza Hut. Long story short (don't tell me it's too late for that, Gladys -- nobody likes a smart-ass), it was time to become the kind of working writer who's not usually working on writing.

Sidenote: It was nice to see so many people on the Internet rally around actor Geoffrey Owens last week when certain websites did the Simpsons kid "Ha ha!" at him for bagging groceries at Trader Joe's. I came sooooooooo close to bagging groceries at Trader Joe's. Hell, life is weird. I could still end up bagging groceries at Trader Joe's. So could you, Gladys. Don't be the Simpsons kid. Until it's Alex Jones. Then pointing, laughing and going to the produce section for tomatoes to throw is heartily encouraged.

Hmm...where was I?

Oh, yeah. Long story short (and this time I mean it): day job blah blah blah long commute blah blah blah life. All of which has left me with about one hour of free time a day. An hour in which, when I'm really cranking, I produce maybe 350 words. Though it's usually more like 300. Closer to 250 when it's one of my "Holmes on the Range" stories. (Those are a little tougher, for some reason.) Sometimes, when I'm really stuck on something, it can be as little as 100.

Can you imagine that? Getting up at 5:30 in the freakin' morning to write and sitting there for an hour and only having 100 usable new words when you drag yourself away from the keyboard to get the kids ready for school?

Yes, Gladys. I know you can imagine that. Because I wrote this for you.

I'm not a math guy, but this much I understand: even 100 + 100 + 100, if repeated often enough, will eventually = 75,000. Book length. So don't let this talk of 1,000 words a day intimidate you: 100 or 200 or 300 will do the trick if you stick with it.

That's what makes you not just an aspiring writer but a working writer, Gladys. The sticking with it. Not the length of time it takes to get something done.

Now get back to your keyboard -- and tell Mike, Orson and whatever-his-name-is I said hi!


  1. "Can you imagine that? Getting up at 5:30 in the freakin' morning to write and sitting there for an hour and only having 100 usable new words when you drag yourself away from the keyboard to..."
    Steve, I feel your pain. We are twin children of different mothers. I write EXTREMELY slowly, and on top of that, I can be distracted by the flopping of a dead hollyhock against my window. Or my own shadow.
    But. I do keep writing. And that's what counts! Thanks.

  2. Good essay. When people used to ask me how I wrote while working full time I used to say "If you write a page a day at the end of a year you have a book." The fact is, of course, that at the end of the year you have 365 pages. They may be a book or they may be bird cage liner.

    Thanks for including the link to the story about the actor-bagger. I remember reading that back in the fifties/sixties a lot of very successful actors would apply for unemployment when they weren't working. One guy went to the unemployment office and filled out the form, saying he hand no income for X number of weeks except one week where he made an astonishingly large amount (he had been in a tv commercial.) The bewildered clerk asked what he had done for that money.

    "I chased a blonde around a table," said Harpo.

  3. Not only do I write slowly, Eve, like you I'm also easily distracted. Sounds like we have not only the same mother but the same brain. When I do get into the zone writing-wise it's almost physically painful to get yanked out of it by a knock on the door or a ringing phone or whatever. It makes me wish I could do all my writing in a sensory deprivation tank. Maybe you and I should go halvsies on one! I'll have it January through June. Unfortunately, it's gonna take a lot of stamps to send it to you for July through December.

    Great story about Harpo, Rob! I Googled it to read more and found a fun fact: Not only did Harpo go to the unemployment office, he once cut in line in front of Lou Grant. https://twitter.com/theonlyedasner/status/958717062037225472?lang=bg

  4. I'm worse, Steve– I'm the slowest editor ever. ⬅︎ Took me all day to edit this sentence… almost.

    Glad you mentioned Owen. Mayhap his positive attitude will bring him more acting gigs.

  5. I was hoping to respond to this post sooner, but I was sidetracked by Facebook most of the day. I did, however, manage to write a couple of sentences for an anthology proposal, so I'm going to chalk this up as a high-productivity day.

  6. Oh, you're not the slowest editor ever, Leigh. After all, you still replied within 24 hours. That's actually a hell of a response time!

    "Being sidetracked by Facebook" could still count as productive, Michael. It's "online branding development" so long as people see your likes and comments on those cat videos, right?

  7. No worries, Steve. It's not a race. Heck, it took James Joyce 17 years to finish FINNEGAN'S WAKE. I'm just sorry you haven't been able to write as much as you (and we) want.

    And if you REALLY want a story about slow productivity, how about this? I worked on my second published short story ("Death at the Althing") for 18 years before I finally decided it was finished and sent it out. (I have plenty more such stories in my book on motivating writers, for obvious reasons...)

  8. Hey, Steve! So it took James Joyce 17 years to finish Finnegan's Wake, huh? What a coincidence. It took me 17 years to finish Ulysses -- and I was just trying to read the damn thing.


    I'm kidding, of course. I've *never* been able to get to the end of Ulysses.

    Congrats on finally finishing "Death at the Althing" (and selling it to AHMM)! Are you working on a new book? If you spent 18 years on short story #2, I assume we'll be seeing novel #1 sometime in the 2050s...?


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