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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Why 50,000 Is Not the Magic #NaNoWriMo Number


To paraphrase of Bullwinkle, “Watch me pull 50,000 words out of my hat.”

For those of us who don’t write a novel a month on a regular basis, that snarling lion is our lateral habenula growling at the over-optimistic Bullwinkle part of our brain, “I’m going to do what? Sounds like 50,000 ways to fail. Do not go there!”

Believing or hoping you can magically pull 50,000 words out of your hat is dangerous. Riling up your lateral habenula can destroy your motivation and create major writing resistance.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting NaNoWriMo change the number or that you don’t shoot for 50,000 words (or more).

I’m urging you change the significance you give to the number.

Thanks to your lateral habenula, the more importance you attach to reaching 50,000 words, the harder it is to get there.

Don’t Judge a Book or Yourself by Word Counts

Numbers are the primary focus during NaNoWriMo: 50,000 words in the 30 days of November, which breaks down to 1,667 words a day. So you SHOULD have 8,334 words by November 5, 16,670 words by November 10, and so on. Then there’s the obsession about how your total words and daily averages compare to other NaNo writers.

All of that can make you start to think that word count is what really matters.

That’s a dangerous perspective.

As I mentioned in the previous post, goals that are too big and too far in the future raise the spectre of failure. When your lateral habenula anticipates failure or danger (or gets a smaller-than-expected reward), it inhibits dopamine, which drops your energy, interferes with your ability to focus, and makes you less willing to try.

It’s fine to count words; just don’t mistake them for what really counts.

Don’t Invest in the Arbitrary Number

50,000 words might be a fine target to shoot for, but remember it is an arbitrary number.

The average length of a novel varies by genre, but most novels are considerably longer than 50,000 words.

Every novel has a word count, but the word count does not define a novel. If it did, the word count would be listed right there in the jacket copy:

74,317 words of unrelenting suspense. – New York Times

When asked what a novel is about, readers never say, “It’s about 74,000 words.”

There is no reason not to shoot for 50,000 words. There simply is no compelling reason to make the target 50,000 instead of say 60,000 or 73,581 or 99,999.

50,000 Words Does Not a Novel Make

Stringing together any number of (50,000, 70,000, 120,000) words does not necessarily constitute a coherent and compelling story.

The idea that cranking out 50,000 words will magically create a coherent and compelling story is backwards.

Focus on writing a coherent and compelling story and you’ll end up with as many words as it takes to tell that story (probably more than 50,000).

Targets Can Be Arbitrary

Set your target for any number you want AND make sure you remember it’s just a target. If you hit the target, fabulous. If you don’t hit the target, fabulous.

Some days you’ll overshoot your target. Some days you’ll miss it completely. Some days you’re in the creative flow and your fingers can barely keep up with the ideas and images flashing through your imagination. Some days you’re in the dark and it seems all you’re doing is aimlessly moving puzzle pieces.

But the days you show up and put in your time even though “nothing is happening” make it possible for you get to the creative flow the next time.

How many words you’ll write on any given day is not predictable or consistent. You are a human being, an artist, not a word-crunching machine. So it doesn’t matter how words you write. To keep your habenula from slamming the brakes on your motivation, it can’t matter how many words you write on any given day.

Play with your word count targets. Don’t take them too seriously. Targets are NOT what really counts. Targets do NOT determine success or failure.

Showing Up for Commitments Is NOT Arbitrary

Showing up and putting in your time is what really counts. You can’t control when you’ll be inspired and in the flow. What happens when you show up is only partially in your control. But barring emergencies, you do have complete control over whether or not you show up.

Show up even when you’re confused or frustrated. Writing a novel is a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, one with at least 10,000 pieces. You won’t see the solution immediately. Keep moving the pieces around. You’ll see partial solutions that will eventually show you the whole picture. But if you wait until you know how every piece fits together before you start, you’ll never get anywhere.

Honoring your commitments matters. A commitment is something you do No Matter What. Which is why you need to limit the number and size of your commitments. Keep them small.

Set the bar so low, you can’t help but walk over it. That way, your habenula won’t anticipate failure and shut down your writing.

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