Word counts and number of pages heavily influence my approach in writing. From Grade 4 onwards, in multiple classes from Language (English) class and Filipino class, we were required to fill pages upon pages of lined paper with paragraphs on certain topics. Some of them were comically dull, such as “what I did last summer” since for me, 70% of the time I was watching the store. I can cover that in just one paragraph. Since these essay worksheets have a defined number of pages and we students have learned that being suspiciously short lowers your grade, we learned to stretch and beat around the bush. Adding flowery words, extra couple of sentences, and extending simple statements with independent and dependent clauses are skills I’ve mastered well.
The page limit means just that – that there will be a point when I won’t be able to write any further. In my earlier years before I had access to a computer on a regular basis, this can be an agonizing experience. When I feel that I’m gaining momentum with the middle paragraphs of backstory and supporting points and then all of a sudden, I have less than half a page left, needing to hastily switch and make a concluding paragraph. It feels like walking into a hallway and getting smacked in the face with a glass door. It’s painfully abrupt. So, I’ve learned to “budget” the paper space ahead of time. As a university student here in Canada over a decade ago, I’m immensely grateful for Google Docs and Microsoft Word for this very reason. If I went overboard, I could trim the excess before submitting the final version.
For this memoir project, dealing with word counts and spitting out words is a whole new challenge. These days I rarely have limits on how long my write-ups should be, unless I have to submit them externally. As a volunteer columnist for the Alberta Filipino Journal for the past six years my word limit is simple, 650 – 700 words. Pretty easy to follow. When I wrote the historical essays for Edmonton Heritage Council’s historical initiative called Edmonton City As Museum Project, they had a maximum word limit, but writers get paid by the word. I tried my best to ensure I don’t unnecessarily inflate the piece while giving myself the flexibility to expand if needed. In both articles I had about 50 – 100 words left. With the CBC articles, where is also a word limit but the payment is a flat rate. It helped the editor with expanding a little bit more because they want to keep a well-written statement. Only the second piece went over the 600 word count.
Now that I had 40+ chapters to write about. I did some research on the average word count of a chapter for full-length books such as novels. I agonized on how many words I need to pump out in a day. With personal blogs such as the ones over here, there were many moments when I finished a post in a single sitting – usually about 1000 words. For some time, I wondered whether that’s a fluke or normal. This process of writing a lot – a whole lot more than usual – is an experiment on how many sentences I can spit out that are somehow coherent.
One of my husband’s creative people is J. Michael Straczynski, a filmaker who released their memoir/how-to book, Becoming Superman. What a remarkable and heartbreaking story of hardship in his younger years! It was also amazing to see how his artistic career blossomed. His is the first book where I read practical tips on advancing one’s journey as a writer. “Writer all the crap out and write all the time, and make sure that you submit before the deadline, because it’s amazing how many assholes don’t” is the essence of his friendly and utilitarian advice. I like it. It resonated with me and boosted my confidence. I’ve always completed my written work on time, sometimes early, so that the editor can have the time and breathing room to look it over before getting bombarded by everyone else’s on-time or almost late submissions.
This time around, I am the rule-maker. And the rules, the constraints, are actually helpful in getting focused. So with each chapter I gave myself a semi-flexible limit: minimum 1000 words that clearly narrate at least three scenes, threads of thought, ideally both. This resulted into chapters that are between two to five pages. When I see a chapter going beyond that, I find a natural spot to split the narrative, which prevented me from feeling guilty that one area looked too long. Instead, by giving myself permission to split the chapters, I managed to add a couple more paragraphs to help make that mini story feel complete.
My author mentor lent me a stack of books to help me learn various techniques about writing. She enthusiastically said over and over that numerous principles used in writing fiction are just as useful in writing creative nonfiction. This was especially useful and motivational for me since I am narrating a story – the story of my childhood as my younger self experienced it. One of the books is On Writing, by novelist Stephen King. Similar to Becoming Superman, it’s a memoir/how-to combination which I liked. Him sharing his schedule with numbers is the most striking piece of advice for me. He said he would write a thousand words a day in the morning, stay consistent, and complete a first draft of a novel in three months as a result. Well, guess who completed a memoir draft in three months – this lady! I was overjoyed when I read this. Will my works be as brilliant as his, who knows? It also didn’t matter too much – he had a lot of freedom and flexibility since he wrote fiction. I know I shouldn’t trap myself into stringent formulas, but a roadmap helps prevent the feeling of spiraling out of control. I also don’t write a thousand words every single day. But if a thousand words in 50 days in under three months is a workable formula for me, I’ll take it!