In a bit of a change of pace for Gobblefunked, this week’s ‘Insight’ comes from thriller author, Stephen Leather, who stops by as part of a blog tour for his most recently published book, New York Night, to muse on the ideal word count … if there even is such a thing.
Over the last few years my productivity has increased several fold. Ten years ago I published one book a year – usually about 120,000 words.These days, in the wake of the eBook boom, I publish at least three –sometimes four – each year, plus several short stories. My published output is closer to 400,000 words.
Before eBooks and self-publishing came along, publishers generally wanted one book a year. When it came out in hardback the book from the previous year would be reissued as a paperback. Most writers earned their living from one book year, and that’s how traditional publishing worked – they simply didn’t want more than one book a year.
EBooks changed all that, of course. Some of the most successful self-publishers now produce a new book every couple of months, and make a lot of money doing it. With eBooks there are no supermarkets to negotiate with, no bookshop shelf space to be bargained for. You just upload your book and it’s available for sale. The more books you write, the more you sell. In theory, at least!
The most published novelist in history – Agatha Christie – is estimated to have sold more than four billion books to date. But as productive as she was, she wrote fewer then 70 novels in her lifetime. And taken over the period of her writing career she averaged about a book and a half each year. Probably not more than 120,000 words, because her books don’t tend to be long reads. Barbara Cartland spent 80 years writing and produced 722 books, releasing one every 40 days, pretty much; though her books tended to be on the short side.
So how many words a day should a writer be aiming at? Horror writer Stephen King hits 2,000 words a day. Hemingway used to write fewer than 1,000. Right up there at the top is probably Belgian novelist Georges Simenon who published almost 500 novels and many short stories during his lifetime. He is credited with writing between 60 to 80 pages a day, sometimes more than 20,000 words.
Wow. That takes my breath away.
My most recently-published book is New York Night, the seventh in the Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series. It’s just over 73,000 words – which is quite short for a thriller – but it only took two months to write. I’m midway through my 13th Spider Shepherd novel – Black Ops. At the moment I’m writing about 2,000 words a day, on average. With my deadline some 40 days away, that’s a comfortable rate to finish on time.
My most prolific period was a few years ago when I travelled from Malaysia to the UK on a cargo ship, It meant being at sea for 16 days with no phone and no internet access. Each day was pretty much the same, because when you’re at sea there isn’t much to see, except sea. So I’d get up and have breakfast with the crew, then write, then lunch, then write, then dinner, a game of table tennis with the first officer, then more writing. Even with a schedule like that I rarely managed more 3,000 words a day. That seems to be my maximum.
Each day was pretty much the same, because when you’re at sea there isn’t much to see, except sea. So I’d get up and have breakfast with the crew, then write, then lunch, then write, then dinner, a game of table tennis with the first officer, then more writing. Even with a schedule like that I rarely managed more 3,000 words a day. That seems to be my maximum.
Mind you, 3,000 words a day is pretty good going. Even with weekends off, that’s close to three quarters of a million words a year – eight or nine novels. But I seriously doubt that I could write nine novels a year – not good ones, anyway.
The thing is, at the end of the day it’s quality that matters, not quantity. There’s no point in bashing out 10,000 words if most of them are no good. All that matters is how many of those words feel right, which is why chasing a word count can sometimes be counter-productive.
But I can give you one writing tip that should help increase your word count, and keep the quality up: When you are writing, and you’re getting close to finishing for the day, try not to finish on a scene. Leave It unfinished. Definitely don’t end at a chapter, and ideally stop writing mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence.That way when you go to sleep, your subconscious will be working out what it has to do next. When you wake up, because you stopped mid-flow, you’ll find that when you sit down next day, you’ll be all fired up to start writing! It’s the best way of doing away with writer’s block that I know!
That way when you go to sleep, your subconscious will be working out what it has to do next. When you wake up, because you stopped mid-flow, you’ll find that when you sit down next day, you’ll be all fired up to start writing! It’s the best way of doing away with writer’s block that I know!
About Stephen Leather
Stephen Leather is a popular UK-based author of thriller fiction. He was a journalist for more than 10 years on newspapers such as The Times, the Daily Mail and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
Before that, he was employed as a biochemist for ICI, shovelled limestone in a quarry, worked as a baker, a petrol pump attendant, a barman, and worked for the Inland Revenue. He began writing full time in 1992.
His bestsellers have been translated into more than 10 languages and he has also written for television shows such as London’s Burning, The Knock and the BBC’s Murder in Mind series.