During the process of writing this draft, I’ve had a lot of setbacks, a lot of blocks, obstacles and anxieties that have stoppered up my word-producing flow. One of them has been the word-limit, which I imposed upon myself because I thought that pressure of that kind – an arbitrary restriction on what I was allowed to do with my work – would make me more creative, provide me with an impetus to solve problems that I would run into if I was allowed free reign and could write into infinity, and also so that I would not, in fact, write into infinity, and that the draft would have a cut-off point that was not a date in time, because judging my working-to-schedule habits from university study, I assumed that this approach would be a bad one to rely on.
And the word-limit has helped. It has made me conscious of how long the draft is, what has happened in it compared to what I wanted to happen in it at the outset, and as a result of that I’ve also learnt that my initial intentions did not take into account the reality of writing each scenario, what impact that would have on the story, the characters, and me as the one writing all of it and striving for a sense of the believable without sacrificing a sense of the folkloric and fantastic. It’s given me a framework within which several areas of awareness have arisen, and I’m glad that it did.
And now that I’m almost at the end of the draft, story-wise, I don’t know whether my choking nerves have been roused by the fact that it’s almost over and I didn’t get to do everything that I wanted to, the fact that I am habitually conditioned to get really resentful in the face of time-pressure and procrastinate as a form of adolescent defiance towards ‘structure’, or because I just don’t want to stop writing.
I don’t know that I’ve used this limitation as effectively as I could have. And that’s something that I think I didn’t take advantage of: using limitations as tools, rather than restraints.
A word limit for a novel is going to be fairly big. I started out with 80k, which I have just recently surpassed, with less than two thirds of the story that I had in mind actually told. That’s not a number that you can easily sit down and plan out your usage of. something like 2k or 3k, something like a university assignment; I’m used to that. that’s around about the length of a single chapter of this draft. it does not take very long to write 2-3k words, to use them up, to plan out how best to use them. 80k is almost limitless in comparison, to me anyway; I have no efficient way to gauge how much story can get told within 80k words, and therefore no clear method of approaching it in terms of planning it out. that gets done by writing the words, and only afterwards going back and seeing where they all went.
And to be fair, that’s what I did with essays as well – essays just get written a lot quicker than a novel, and so the feedback on word-consumption is far more immediate and less of an abstract notion of ‘completion’ of the writing process. 80k words, in comparison to one of my essays, may as well be 800k, for all the clarity it will bring me of how best to use them all.
But … as I’ve said before, a word-limit seems stupid in the context of writing a first draft. And having used one, I don’t think that that’s necessarily true – I just think that I didn’t know how to use it, again, as a tool, as something to guide and inform my writing, because there was no way I could know how without trying it first. so having done it, having learnt from it, this is now my opinion:
A word-limit, if you work well with word-counts from experience, is just as useful as any other arbitrary limitation to your writing, and I do think that those are important, because nothing gets your mind ticking like limits. they do not produce incentive to write – in fact, they do the opposite, as you might imagine – so they will not substitute the desire to write in the first place, and that must come from … well, wherever it comes from. if you don’t want to write, then all the fancy psychological pressure-appliers you can conceive of are just going to drive you further away from the task. assuming that you do want to write, however, these kinds of limits and restrictions begin to lend you the advantage of being aware of your work, of keeping track of it (which is also invaluable, so keep a record of your progress like a wall-planner or a diary or both), and that is perhaps the most useful tool you can have as a writer: a record of your progress. it’s the same reason I say to take notes, all the time, perhaps especially when you’re in the middle of writing a big emotional scene (though let your intuition tell you whether to just write it through or write down your brilliant ideas, depending on how your momentum is; sometimes you’ll have it for both at once): because if you have that record, you will understand what your work and effort is accomplishing, have it immediately reflected back at you for evaluation, and that is exactly what you need for drafting.
So a word-limit is not good because it makes you write cleverer scenes or anything; it’s useful because it reminds you how how much work and time and mass has gone into producing and containing whatever it is that you’ve written so far. and if you’re afraid to look, then you especially need it; it’s not something to shame yourself with, it’s like checking how much space is left on your hard-drive – you can be free to do it without that kind of self-judgment, and just check. if you’re doing something creative, of your own volition, then shame has no place in anything that you do, because nobody else is involved, and shame is a social emotion. this space is yours and yours alone; enjoy it, and allow yourself to take advantage of not having anybody else’s input to react to. I’m not telling you to shut yourself off from the world and other people, just that we can sometimes feel the need to be ashamed of ourselves, and that’s an awareness of space. that’s why I think showing a first draft to other people is an exercise in futility; you want the clarity and openness to be able to reflect upon your work privately, because in the end it is your work – to begin with. eventually you will actually want feedback and all of that other stuff that makes a good story, but for this first step, maintaining the privacy of the specifics of your product is what you want. that’s my experience anyway. though telling people about what you’re doing is equally helpful, in different ways.
Well. That was … something.
Back to word-limits – I would say that they have been a useful tool for me, and therefore I would suggest trying them out – with the proviso that you are allowed to change it at any time.
Which is what I think I’m going to do now; within the context of having used one right up until now, so for the past six months or thereabouts, I am now doing away with a word-limit altogether, and instead instating a time-limit, because I know I’m so close to the end, and that I want this ending to work, that counting words is not going to help. I have until the 20th to get this thing done, no matter how many – or few – words it takes.
And in the end, my word-limiting was connected to the idea that I wanted to finish this draft by a certain date. granted, that date was three months ago, but that’s life; that’s experience. that’s learning what works, and if you’ve kept a record of it, then the lesson is all the more effective at teaching you what you’re looking to learn: what you have accomplished, and how, and what you have given yourself to build on in the future.
So that’s that. now it’s just down to writing; and if I didn’t want to write as badly as I do then this removal of the word-limit and going for a time-limit would be silly for me to do, because time-limits do not work very well for me. I tend to do all the work at the very last minute, so in this case, when it is the last minute anyway, it’s pretty safe for me to let go of this particular restraint. it’s important to accept these things about yourself; your own peculiarities are also limitations and restrictions, and therefore they are also tools and opportunities. take advantage of them; you get them for free.
And with that, the story draws to a close. it’s exciting, as it should be.
Let’s see how it goes.