Everyone who talks about writing a book talks about their writing.
Swing through any grouping of writers-in-progress, and you’re sure to hear some conversation about word count.
Whether it’s how many words total, how many words have been written in a day, what the average is, or what they hope to achieve.
Talk to an author about their work-in-progress before they share it with you, they apologize for the spelling. Give you a caveat about their grammar.
Now, I’m not going to say we should never talk about writing or word count or grammar. These kinds of structures exist for a reason, and grammar in particular helps us understand each other. Word count is a good way to quantify progress if that sort of thing helps you keep moving forward.
But the writing of the sentences themselves, the grammar, the word count—the language of the book—is only one part of book writing, and in my opinion, the lesser half.
After all, how many books have you absolutely loved…and found a typo in? Or a missing word? Or a strange sentence construction, one that you had to go back and read two or three times to understand?
Probably at least one, I’d wager. That kind of stuff happens all the time in all publication venues. I found a typo in the cover copy of a featured book on the front table at Powell’s last week. A big typo. Book’s still on the New York Times Bestseller list.
But how many books have you read and loved that have a storytelling error?
Have you loved a book where the main character starts out with one background story and references another one halfway through? Where the name of the character’s mom changes, without explanation? Where a character is inexplicably and frustratingly capricious in a way that’s not addressed by the prose?
Have you loved a story where the main character doesn't change, where nothing is overcome?
Have you loved a story that doesn’t touch your feelings?
My point here is this: superficial writing issues like spelling, grammar, and book length really have nothing to do with whether or not your reader enjoys your book. Your book can tolerate these kinds of superficial writing errors. Best if they’re eliminated, sure, but a book with even half a sentence missing or a handful of mistakes will still hit home if the storytelling is on point.
Yet, our conversations about book writing, process, and drafting often focus exclusively on these superficial elements. And I want to change that.
I want to create space for us to have a conversation about how we want our work to make readers feel, how we want to engage their hearts and minds. I want to talk about how we use our life and our experiences to create books—nonfiction and fiction—that touch the readers who encounter them.
I want to talk about how we structure our stories—not in some sort of plug and chug kind of way, but in essence, in grand gesture—so that we can convey the emotional journey of the reader. So that we lay bare our flaws, and the character’s.
So we can learn and grow and feel and live through our writing, through others’ writing, and in so doing more potently live our own lives.
There is certainly room for a talk about word count here too. But a conversation about the simple logistics of language creation is leaving out a big part of the book-creation process.
What we pay our attention to flourishes. If we focus primarily on the volume of words we’re creating or our execution of language, we’re missing the point.
Very few of us start a book to see how many words we can write.
We start books because of an itch, because of a dream.
So. Let’s start talking about that.