Writer Tech: “That which is measured, improves.”

Not sure we really need the comma in that quote, but that’s how Pearson’s Law is written in business and engineering circles. The saying was popularized by Peter Drucker, a business consultant who was particularly influential in Japan, where implementing Pearson’s Law was given credit for spectacularly improved productivity during the 1980s.

For a writer, there is an easy measure of productivity available. Just click Word Count, and you get a numerical indication of how much you’ve done so far. Quality is a different issue, of course.

Last night, I realized that I am once again obsessed with how many words I write each day. This is not the case for every book. Children of God, A Thread of Grace and Doc each unfolded at its own unforced pace. I did keep track of word count while writing The Sparrow and Dreamers of the Day, and now I’m paying attention to that again with The Cure For Anger.

There doesn’t seem to be a consistent reason why I sometimes care about the sheer number of words I’m producing in a day.

When I started The Sparrow in 1991, I was out of work for the first time in years. I seemed to need some yardstick of progress that I could report to my husband and son when they got home from work and school, although neither one of them much cared what I did during the day. They were happy enough live in a pleasant, orderly home where the  laundry done and the food was good, but I needed to show that I wasn’t wasting my time while they were off working and learning. Then as I started to realize that I wasn’t working on a short story anymore, I began to wonder how long an actual novel had to be.

When the first draft was finished, it weighed in at 300,000+ words, and that was five times longer than the average science fiction novel. When I realized that, I began the process I call “Texas Chainsaw Editing.” Every word had to justify its existence by revealing character or driving the plot or delighting the reader. By the time The Sparrow was published novel, half of those 300,000 words had failed to do so.

Children of God progressed in fits and starts. It was constantly interrupted by sudden and unfamiliar demands on my time as The Sparrow made its way through the publication process. Quick: write a biography for the publicity department. Quick: check this flap copy. Quick: do you like this cover? (Answer: No. The original cover for had a dead bird on it.) Quick: check the copy editing. Quick: go over these galleys, and by the way, do you have an airline you prefer for the book tour? The writing of A Thread of Grace was even more episodic and difficult.

I don’t recall ever looking at the word count for those books, probably because it was too depressing when weeks went by without any measurable progress.

There were all too many reasons for why it took me seven years to write A Thread of Grace. My mother was dying of ovarian cancer; my father-in-law was dying of congestive heart failure; a dear uncle was dying of brain cancer; my kid was learning to drive and starting to date and applying for college; my husband left a secure job to throw in with five other guys to found a new MRI scanner company; and my own health went to hell for a couple of years. During that time, the story  stalled out at April 1944. It took two doctors and a passport to Zoloft Nation for me to get moving again.

I didn’t pay much attention to word count while I was writing Doc, either, but for happier reasons. I was healthy again, as were all my surviving family members. My son was well married and well launched on his own career, and my husband’s company was out of the woods. Doc was just a pure pleasure to write, and though it took me quite a while to come to a resolution of the murder mystery (hell if I knew who killed Johnny Sanders!) I didn’t mind lingering over the book, enjoying my characters’ company.

With Dreamers of the Day and The Cure For Anger, the characters are nearly all rooted in history, as are the plots. I didn’t have to invent the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference or the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I just had to learn about them.

(Ironically, given their relative importance in world history, there are maybe half a dozen books about the Cairo conference but there are easily a couple hundred about the O.K. Corral.)

Once I got my mind around what seems to have happened, it took me a while to make the basic decisions about each novel. First person or third? Past tense or present? Style and scope of the story… But once those elements were nailed down, both of these books just took off beneath my fingers.

I think that’s why I do a word count every evening just before I back up the file and send it to my husband’s computer at the business (off-site storage). It’s just plain fun to see the numbers stack up — sort of like watching the stock market when the bulls are charging and forty years’ of savings and investments are looking good again.

There’s a new reason to be interested in word count, however. If HBO does make the series based on Doc, and if the producers decide to go forward with a second season, I want my version of what happened in Tombstone to shape that story. In December, I realized I was only averaging 250-300 words a day. At that rate, The Cure For Anger would be done too late to influence the HBO series. That gave me a benchmark and a motive to work harder and longer each day. Now I’m not satisfied with less than 500, and often push up toward 800 words a day.

As of yesterday, The Cure For Anger stands at 39,326 words. Doc‘s published length was 146,579. My sense of how much of the story I’ve told so far is just about right: 27%. And I have also used the numbers to reassure myself that I might be able to turn the manuscript in to Harper Collins on deadline. Judging by January’s production numbers, I’ll come pretty close!

If you’d like to follow my progress, go to Facebook, search for the “Mary Doria Russell — Author” page and click LIKE.  I’m going to start posting my word count at the end of every day, or tell you the reason why I didn’t!



3 thoughts on “Writer Tech: “That which is measured, improves.””

  1. Well, that was a pleasant little glimpse into the “making of…” However, I must admit that I love The Sparrow so much that it stings just a bit to think of so many words and moments in the story discarded. I’m sure it’s a stronger novel for it, but it would certainly be wonderful to enjoy the book twice as long when I read it.

  2. You can explain it all you want but I think it’s the scientist part of your brain trying to move in on the creative side….

Leave a Comment