I recently switched to typing my first drafts on Scrivener instead of writing them by hand, and the beautiful seductiveness of word counts lured me in straight away. So much of the writing process is maddeningly vague, but word counts are solid and sure. They are measurable, dammit.
If you end up overshooting your target and write a whole heap of extra words, you get to walk around for the rest of the day feeling like a superhero. If you just managed to hit your target, you might not be a superhero, but you get to feel reassured. Sure the house is a mess and you can’t find a matching pair of socks, but hey, you wrote the right number of words! You’re doing okay! If you’re having kind of a tortoise day and you write less than your target, you get to walk around feeling like you are a miserable failure at the whole writing thing and wondering if you should take up stamp collecting or curling instead, and then you get to cook dinner or do homework or something and it inevitably goes wrong, because you are obviously a failure at life in general. And if you write a lot less than your target, you don’t have to walk around because you get to lie on the floor wailing instead. It’s tidy, right?
Not long ago I was having a conversation with my other half about what I had done that day. It may or may not have been a day which fell into the ‘wailing on the floor’ category. I had done virtually nothing, I told him. Probably while waving my hands in the air. I was nowhere remotely near my target! I only got to write about ten words before the toddler woke up, and it was all because I’d spent far too long staring out the window like an idiot and realising that the story would actually be a whole heap more interesting if my main character and her best friend were actually worst enemies rather than best friends, and thinking of various other ways I could change the plot. And then I came up with an idea for a different project, one that I might get to write in ten years’ time once I'd written all the other novels that I've come up with instead of working on the one that I’m currently meant to be writing. Except that I was probably never even going to finish this book because I would most likely die of old age first. Etc.
At that point my long suffering other half turned to me and said, “But isn't that other stuff writing too?”
And then I remembered a conversation I once had with the first writer I ever knew, an old family friend. When I was a kid she read a few of my stories and told me to keep writing. Then she moved away to another part of the country, and when I saw her again for the first time in ages as a teenager, one of the first things she asked me was whether I was still writing. I told her sadly about how school ate up almost every minute of my day and that I was always coming with story ideas and daydreaming about them, but I hardly ever got to do any actual writing because I didn't have time.
She looked back at me, astonished. “But Leila,” she said, “it is all writing!”
Now, don't get me wrong, I think word counts are wonderful. I can't imagine ever going back to not knowing exactly how many words I have written. But I also think that sometimes it can be easy to forget that the vague stuff is just as valuable as the concrete stuff, all the time spent thinking about writing as opposed to actually writing, the random epiphanies which hit you while you’re on the bus or in the shower, the weird scrawled note to yourself written at midnight in the dark because you suddenly had a thought that might just fix almost everything that's wrong with the second half of the plot. None of these things are measurable. None of them show up at the end of the day as part of your word count.
You're a superhero when you write thousands of words in a day, but you're also a superhero when you stare into space and daydream about all the scenes still waiting to be written. Because without the daydreaming, novels wouldn't exist in the first place.
It is all writing.