How many words a day should you try for?

The question is imperative for me because I am 91 years old. I’m worried that time will run out before I write all the books that are in my head. I have no interest whatsoever in a calm, leisurely fade. I want to die with my hands either on a computer’s keyboard, or a tennis racquet.

So I was intrigued when I came across a post online by one of the multitude of people who make their living by pumping out advice to writers, urging her readers to write a minimum of 2K words a day. “You can finish a complete draft in less than a month!”

Wow! If I write two more drafts of the novel I am writing now, each taking one month, I can finish in three months. Thus, I could write four novels in a year – the first three in the same time it takes to make a baby! Maybe I better look into this.

Her advice to writers: to write 2k words a day or more, first outline the entire novel and write the biographies of each character before you write the first word of the actual novel.

That’s good advice for some writers, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure I could outline a business letter or the message on a birthday card, let alone a novel. In the second place, it would take me a year to outline the entire arc of a novel in sufficient detail to enable the production of the first draft in a month. Better to just start writing.

I’m not sure whether I start with a character I want to get to know or the situation she finds herself in.

Finding the way without an outline

All I knew when I started writing The Encampment, the third novel in the Miss Oliver’s School for Girls Series, is that Sylvia Bickham, the daughter of the head of school, was a senior there who was less motivated than her friends to compete for admission to one of the “best” colleges. She didn’t want to wait four more years to enter “real” life. I also knew that she was a person of color, like her mother, and that she would leave campus on a Saturday afternoon early in the academic year to get an ice cream cone in the nearby village. I didn’t know she had a roommate to walk with until I gave her one, Elizabeth Cochrane, from a little impoverished town in Oklahoma.

By then I realized that the two girls were going to come across a homeless Iraq war vet with PTSD. I understand now, looking back, that the homeless veteran was in my subconscious because I was, and still am, outraged that our American culture is so cruel that some of its less fortunate have to sleep on sidewalks and under bridges. I doubt that the homeless vet would have come to my mind in an outline.

I had to send the girls out of the safety of their campus to be confronted with the fact of that cruelty. As soon as they did. I knew they were going to put some money in his hat and get more and more involved with him in an effort to help him survive. And then I knew that their experience would teach both girls what they wanted to do with their lives.

Once I had that beginning established, I had a fair idea of how the novel would end, but only the next step on the path to that destination was clear, and then the next, and the next – an incremental journey during which I was frequently surprised by what the characters did. This is a much slower process, at least for me, than writing to an outline. And, for me, a whole lot more intriguing. Instead of planning, I discover.

Since reading that post, I have started to keep a record of how many words I write each day. The average is 1015.

I am very interested in how writers write. I’d like to learn from writers how many words you write each session, how fast you write your books, whether you outline before you write, and if so, in how much detail and how often what you actually write is different from what you posited in the outline. If you are so inclined, put your answers in the comment section below. I promise to get back to you.