Say it’s your first time writing a novel, and you’re a smidge behind. On the 15th of November, you should’ve hit 25,000 words.
Do not despair.
Also: For those who’ve burned vacation time, dumped their significant others and sent the kids to boarding school, because you’re going to hit 50k if it kills you, I say this: dance not the dance of victory, because 50k isn’t actually a novel. It’s a novella. You want to hit 80k or 90k to be safe.
However: None of this really matters. At all.
Related post: Six easy ways to improve #NaNoWriMo
For your first draft, word counts mean nothing
I don’t care if you’ve gotten stuck at 12,000 words or you’re already finished with your 194,000 epic involving the king of the orcs and the vampire mermaid who loves him.
Anybody new to writing a novel, of whatever genre, should ignore the word count demons in this first draft.
Say it with me: It’s a first draft and the word count meants nothing.
The word count means nothing.
One more time: I’ve got 99 problems and a word count ain’t one.
If you steal from Hollywood, you can finish a first draft faster than you can possibly imagine
Screenwriters can write a screenplay far, far faster than you can write a novel.
Not because they make the keyboard smoke at 120 words per minute, riding the writer’s Autobahn, while mortal scribes plod along at a mere 60-70 wpm.
Not because they’re smarter, better looking or busy consuming vast truckloads of some designer drug that lets them bang on the keyboard for 48 hours a stretch.
And not because screenwriters belong to a secret society where everybody wears masks and tuxedos while telling each other secrets they guard from novelists by employing an army of robot ninjas from the future, although that would be a great screenplay as long as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are not attached and the robot ninja clones are all played by Cate Blanchett.
Want to know the secret?
Screenwriters don’t care about word count. At all.
Oh, they care deeply about the number of PAGES, which you may argue is the same thing. But it’s not.
Actors and directors can judge the length of a script by sight, or by closing their eyes and weighing it. The average film is roughly 100 to 120 minutes. A screenplay is roughly 1 minute per page. By some crazy coincidence, screenplays tend to run about 100 to 120 pages.
The formatting is very different from novels, so the number of words per page varies a ton. Doesn’t matter if you’ve got 100 words on a page or 250, it’s still a page. Counts the same.
In fact, if you have a 100-page script, but do NOT pack every page full of words, they like it better. Because it means you’re not getting bogged down in backstory and nonsense, or having actors give giant monologues. Tons of words on every page of a screenplay is a Bad Thing, and should be avoided.
Here’s how they get away with writing far fewer words: screenwriters strip the story down to the bones: dialogue and conflict.
All they care about is the guts of the story. The color of the drapes doesn’t mean a thing.
And yes, novels are different animals, where sometimes the color of the drapes matters. But never in a first draft, Captain Sillypants.
The acid test: books to movies
Think about this: Have screenwriters sat by their swimming pools with sunglasses, pitchers of margaritas and plotwheels to take perfectly good novels and turn them into perfectly great screenplays that grow up big and strong to become great movies that are somehow not five hours long?
Yes. Yes, they do.
PRESUMED INNOCENT is a wonderful novel, one of my favorites, an amazing mystery. The screenplay and movie don’t dumb it down. They don’t cut out massive chunks of the story and turn Scott Turow’s masterpiece into a Cliff’s Notes version. I’ve read the book dozens of times and seen Harrison Ford rock that Caesar haircut more times than I can remember, and both the movie and the book are equally awesome.
So yes, you can, and often should, tell the story in 15,000 words (or a lot fewer) before you expand that all the way out to 90,000 words.
How to properly steal from Hollywood and do rough drafts at Autobahn speeds
Am I suggesting you write a screenplay instead? No.
Here’s what I’m saying: steal from Hollywood, starting now. Today. It’s your first draft of probably your first novel, and big parts of are guaranteed to stink like six-day old cod.
Which is totally fine. The first draft of anything is terrible.
It’s far, far easier to spot what stinks, and fix it, when your text is a manageable 15,000 words instead of a mountain of 90,000 words.
Also: the ending of a novel, or a screenplay, is the toughest part. That’s why you shouldn’t worry about not being on track to finish #NaNoWriMo, or not meeting whatever personal deadline you’re setting. Because remember our chant? It’s a first draft. Word count doesn’t mean a thing.
First drafts are sketches, not finished products
Getting a great story is all you should care about for a first draft, and you can do that much faster if you stop worrying about pretty sentences and the color the velvet drapes in Chapter 27, where the villain tortures the sidekick in an abandoned Berlin disco club by blasting Celine Dion for 16 straight hours.
What’s the heart of screenplays? Dialogue and conflict. Secrets and lies. How the events of the story test characters and change them forever. Here’s how screenwriters shortcut all the description novelists spend zillions of words doing: INTERIOR. NIGHT. That’s it. Then boom, we’re moving right to Iron Man blowing things up.
Is there a gun fight coming up in Chapter 29, when the hero busts out of Berlin wearing roller skates? That’s all you write in the first draft: GUN FIGHT, BERLIN, ON ROLLER SKATES. Screenwriters can cheat like that because they can’t eat a precious 20 pages describing that sort of thing, and they don’t need to. The director can figure it out.
Rough out the rest of your novel, using the beat sheet from Blake Snyder or, if you want another trick from screenwriters, check out treatments. What’s a treatment? It isn’t formatted like a script. Rough and raw, the guts of a story. It can be 25 pages or a single page.
Think about that: your first draft could be 10 pages, or a single page, and possess the same vital story magic as when it hatches into a 90,000-word winged beast that breathes literary fire.
This is not cheating
If you do this, you’re not injecting writer steroids. You’re being smart and saving hours, days and weeks of labor.
Because it’s your second draft that’ll start to matter. Characters from the first draft will deserve killing, off-screen. You’ll combine some characters with others. Does somebody show up in Act 3 and turn out to be the killer, or otherwise important? You have to go back and make sure they show up in Act 1.
In a second draft, you may kill 20,000 words and add 20,000 elsewhere before your editor (and snagging an editor is quite smart) wields her magical red pen and lays waste to at least 10,000 of those suckers. Sidenote: editors never really add words, and this is a good thing.
When you think a novel is truly finished, and the text is locked, some author buddy finally getting around to an old draft you sent him six months ago will send a five-page email that utterly destroys Act 2, then rebuilds it better, faster and stronger. And you do it, because it’s brilliant. Or you might snag literary agent who has suggestions. These things happen.
Editing is not scary. It’s the heart of writing, and that’s why a first draft is no big deal.
Falling in love with the first draft of anything is like meeting a girl at a 7th-grade dance and bending down on one knee, before you even know her name, to ask her to marry you.
Look at your first draft with suspicion and push hard to get through it. Don’t worry about dangling modifiers and split infinitives and whether Chapter 16 goes on too long about the hero’s collection of antique French firearms and how he dreams of using that fifty caliber flintlock on the neighbor’s rooster who keeps waking him up at 4 a.m., and if it happens one more time, maybe the neighbor’s bedroom window.
Don’t worry about pretty sentences and polishing each page until it’s a shiny diamond made of words. Get the story nailed down, like an architect drawing blueprints. Doesn’t have to be pretty yet.
In fact, I’d consider you a literary muffin of stud if you spent all 30 days of #NaNoWriMo perfecting a single page, whether it’s (a) some kind of beat sheet a la Blake Snyder or (b) a treatment, as long as (c) that single page of ink on dead trees contains all the story beats, reversals, revelations and magic you need to tell a killer story.
To get all writing zen on you: Less is more, and more is less.
Because in the end, do you want a badge for a book-like substance–or do you want an actual book?
TL;DR: Word counts don’t actually matter for #NaNoWriMo–or the first draft of anything. Steal evil secrets from screenwriters to write faster than you can possibly imagine.