Alex Leslie | Words Count
Alex Leslie: I started working with a daily word count, a quota, when it became clear that the process for short prose did not function for the novel I was writing.
On Writing and Word Counts
by Alex Leslie
I was never a believer in word counts. When writer friends told me how many words they’d written — I wrote three thousand words today, someone told me over elk burgers at Banff once — a door in my brain quietly closed.
It wasn’t a feeling of superiority on my part, just difference. I was devoted to the short form, until my writing was taken over by the process of writing a novel. I’m not ashamed to say I was a purist (I still am, in a way) about short form writing.
In my early twenties, I fell in love with compressed, crowded paragraphs that carried the weight of poetry — Amy Hempel, Edmond Jabes, Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets. So I measured my writing progress in scraps of dialogue I copied down on public transit, webs of details for short story structures, prose poems to turn into short story conclusions, and your average amount of daily random observational writing crap.
Operating on the basis of word counts felt almost sacrilegious to me because I needed to maintain a certain aleatory distance from my process, keep the pieces moving, before locking them into place. That isn’t how everyone writes short stories and prose poetry, but it was my time-consuming, frustrating, sustaining process.
I started working with a daily word count, a quota, when it became clear that the process for short prose did not function for the novel I was writing. For years I’d resented writers who said the short story is a training process for writing long form. It isn’t — it’s a form in its own right, with its own logic.
I finally figured out that in order to write long form, I needed to change my process, to switch out my tools. I did what alienated me for years: I started to count my words. Counting my words — writing blocks of one thousand words — freed me from the learned metabolism of short form writing.
It felt weird. Shapeless. Here I was, writing on and on…and on? Where was the rhythm? Where was that familiar jolt of structure, the sign that it was time to start to wind down? There were no cliffs and fences — in a sense, no form, only space.
For me, adopting a daily quota turned out to be the opposite of what I expected. I believed it would be an obligation, would dampen my process. Instead it turned out to be a container, all the more helpful in the context of the pandemic’s foggy boundlessness, a way to continue, one thousand words at a time.
Alex Leslie has published two collections of poetry and two collections of short stories, People Who Disappear, shortlisted for a Lambda award for debut LGBT fiction, and We All Need to Eat, shortlisted for the BC Book Prize and the Kobzar award. Alex's fiction has been published in the Journey Prize anthology, Granta, Best Canadian Stories 2020, Catapult, and many journals. web: alexlesliewriting.ca.
Issue #24 of Send My Love to Anyone
On Writing and Word Counts by Alex Leslie
Why I Start a New Writing Project Before I Finish My Current One by Kathryn Mockler
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