Ask About the Numbers

While discussing goals with several writer friends, I found myself becoming depressed. We were analyzing how 2012 had gone. Each person shared their goals for the past year and how they had succeeded or failed.

Until I heard the other reports, I had been happy with most of my year. While I hadn’t yet completed a couple of novels I’d started, I had written a couple of proposals, and one of them got the “nod” from an editor. (Proposals take me a while, with their sample chapters and market plans.) A revision for a book I sold in 2011, which I expected to take about two weeks, took the last three months of 2012 to complete instead.

Check the Numbers

Here’s where the depression part came in. Several friends said something like this: “In 2012 I wrote a six-book series for X Publisher, plus three books in another ongoing series for Publisher Y.”

After hearing that, I didn’t want to share that my completed projects were so meager. And yet, I had put in more writing hours this year than in many years (and I’m not counting the blogging or critique letters for private critiques.) Was I getting slower? Was I burning out? I didn’t feel like it, but I sure wasn’t producing books at the speed these other writers had.

For me—and for many of you—it’s all in the numbers.

Then I remembered something. Several years ago I had what looked like my most productive year. I wrote three books in a series for an educational publisher, then two mysteries for a different educational publisher. A five-book year!

But the whole truth was that the three books were all written in a week and totaled only about 750 words each. The mysteries were early chapter books that were less than 2,000 words each. That’s only about 6,000 words altogether! And it was less than two months’ writing time. Still, I could truthfully say I wrote and sold five books that year.

In Comparison…

In 2012, though, I wrote two proposals. One got nixed fairly early, and one got the go-ahead. I’ve been working on that novel, and each revision has changed it substantially. It will still take months to finish it. And the revision I did this fall and just turned in (for the book sold in 2011) grew into a longer book when I added the additional material my editor wanted. (It’s a much better book now.) But the numbers? The “revision” included major changes to the 36,000 words I had written, plus an additional 21,000 words of original material. This 57,000-word revision took me much longer—and was more challenging—than the five books I wrote several years ago.

Am I knocking educational writing or short books? NO! Not in the slightest. The value of the writing is NOT in the length. I’m just suggesting that you ask about the numbers. Before your writer’s ego shrinks any further when someone talks about their multiple book successes, ask them how long the books were. (While there are a few full-time writers who produce long books several times per year, they are few and far between.)

Part of the Writing Life

And if you like to write long books, get used to this. It will happen throughout your career. I generally sell one or two books per year, depending on length. But except for that one year, I don’t write short material other than this blog.

Writers aren’t telling you they wrote and sold six books last year to put you down or make you feel small. They are telling the truth. (It wasn’t until someone commented to me that I must not have seen my family that whole year that I realized the misperception on their part.)  But if it makes your writer’s self-esteem take a plunge, ask (nicely) how long the books were. Add up the numbers. (Some middle-grade novels are 50,000 words, but many middle-grade series books are 15,000 words or less.) You may realize that despite appearances, you’ve written much more than that last year. So don’t compare apples and oranges.

Better Yet, Don’t Compare At All

We were each given stories and material to write, either fiction or nonfiction. We each have a unique voice and a unique “take” on the world. No one else can write your stories—or my stories. And if the stories you are given to write are longer or take more thought, your “production” quotas will look lower to others. Find a way to be okay with this, or it will plague you throughout your career.

I hope your 2012 was a successful writing year, but be careful how you measure success.

Just curious: how will you measure success in 2013? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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