Writing Routines: Word Counting and Other Habits

When I started out I didn’t have any writing routine, I had a job. Writing was a hobby I indulged in over the weekends or in the evening when I wasn’t too knackered, watching TV, reading a book, or up the pub. I only ever started counting words upon discovering, in John Braine’s Writing a Novel, that this might be a professional approach. This was probably when I was in my early twenties, and then I used the old technique of working out a line average and from that a page average. It wasn’t until I had been writing on and off for maybe ten years that I started to establish any kind of routine, thought I couldn’t put a finger on an exact date, and this routine relates simply to the aphorism “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

When you start word-counting you realize that the pages you have written ain’t adding up to a book (and here I’m talking about the time when the average SF novel was a mere 70,000 words). The prospect can be daunting, and my approach was to ensure that I wrote something every day. That’s all.

The next routine I established was when I went self-employed. Getting tired of working in factories on milling machines and lathes, I looked elsewhere. This was perhaps because of a boredom factor creeping in when I was either on production work (Neal, we want a thousand square aluminium blocks this size with a hole drilled in them) or pressing the start button on some computerized machine. I tried building and then, as a result of some work I did clearing up the mess left by the storm of 1987, ended up doing tree-work, hedging, contract grass cutting and just about anything else I could turn my hand to. The bulk of this work was during the summer, so I had plenty of spare time in the winter. I spent most of my free days during those winters writing, almost as if this was a real job.

Neal Asher Writing Routines

I started writing down my daily word-count, then I got the stunning idea that maybe I should set targets for myself. Well, I think it was my idea, though it’s just as likely I picked it up out of some “How to” book. I can’t remember the target I set, but suspect it might have been about 1,000 words. It was during this time I discovered the small presses, had my first short story published in Back Brain Recluse, then a series of stories elsewhere, then Mindgames: Fool’s Mate, The Parasite and The Engineer. Then came the big hit when Gridlinked, The Skinner and a third book as yet not written were picked up by Macmillan. Sensible word-counts briefly went out the window when Peter Lavery wanted Gridlinked expanded from about 65,000 words, (I took it up to 135,000 in a few weeks—and added Mr Crane) and The Skinner expanded from 80,000 words (I was a little bit more leisurely over that as I took it up to 150,000 words).

I gave up the day job a year or so after this—after Gridlinked and The Skinner had been published and while The Line of Polity was growing nicely—and began to establish a proper routine. Here I was at an advantage over many writers in that I’d been self-employed for fifteen years, therefore knew what it was to motivate myself. I knew how to get up and get to work without the driving fear of a clocking-in clock, angry foreman or written warnings. The cuts to the pay packet were there, of course, in that the moment I stopped working, even for a cup of coffee, I would cease to earn.

Writing Routines Neal AsherI started the new job by being up at 8.00am and writing until 5.00pm. I aimed to write 1,000 words a day for five days a week (the words were of course now much easier to count with a word processor program), but after a year found myself way ahead and knew the target was just too easy. I upped this to 2,000 and still found it too easy, but then this was all my words, so next I discounted journal entries, blog posts, and stuff I put on message boards (yes, I even counted the words in them) and reset my target to 2,000 words of fiction. This is what I’ve stuck to ever since. When I get started each day I read through and correct the previous day’s 2,000 words, then start on the next. As I reach that figure I try to simply stop, and not go on until reaching a natural break. If you just stop while you know what you’re going to write next, it’s easier to get going again the next day.

Now, those of you with a mathematical turn of mind will be thinking, where’s the 365,000 word novel every year? Unfortunately, turning professional brings home to you the importance of other aspects of writing that can take up many weeks. And now, I no longer feel guilty when I simply write the word “editing,” in my journal, where I usually note down my word-count.

That’s it really: the glamorous life of a writer.

This article was originally published on the Tor UK blog.

Neal Asher was born in Billericay, Essex, and divides his time between here and Crete. His previous full-length novels are Gridlinked, The Skinner, The Line of Polity, Cowl, Brass Man, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, Polity Agent, Hilldiggers, Prador Moon, The Line War, Shadow of the Scorpion, Orbus, The Technician and The Departure. Zero Point is his most recent novel and is now out in paperback in the UK. Please click here to see more on Neal Asher and his books on Torbooks.co.uk.


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