Challenges, Goals & Sandcastles
Updated: Feb 7
Tip of the Hat to
Honoré de Balzac.
The Father of the Modern Novel
who may or may not agree with my comments, but then he'd have a hard time refuting them.
The famous line or ‘catch phrase’ of political pundit James Carville, “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” was a call-to-action, a non-specific-specific point of attainment or achievement. To attain or achieve “a good economy,” as a goal would be more specific and definitely a challenge. But wouldn’t you need to define “a good economy” before you could actually set that as a goal.
Is the goal a challenge, or is the challenge the goal?
Could we paraphrase Carville’s line and say, for writers: It’s The Challenge, Stupid!” or “It’s the Goal, Stupid!” and use either as a motivational concept for increasing a writer’s writing production?
Again, those are good ‘catch phrases’, but without specifics it is hard to arrive at the ‘answer’.
Take for example the function of division, as goal, in math. To achieve the answer one needs two specific things: the dividend and the divisor. The answer/result or quotient is achieved when you divide the dividend by the divisor.
To create a challenge or a goal, it seems prima facie there needs to be some amount of specifics to act on. All those specifics, when boiled down, result in the stated challenge or goal.
I am no expert on or in challenge making or goal setting. But what seems basic to me, from a practical stand point, beyond the setting of specifics, is what I call, the “Buy-in”!
What is “Buy-in”? “It’s what your subconscious/creative will, will accept and act on in spite of counter-commands from your conscious or critical mind.”
How do you achieve or attain “Buy in”? To borrow from Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, “…ay, there’s the rub…”
No challenge or goal ever stands inviolate or irresolute. Life happens, there are bumps in the road. With that knowledge we often set our markers sufficiently beyond previous limit’s or boundaries, to stretch ourselves. Thus, even if we fail to reach the set goal or challenge we produce as a by product of such ‘failure’, a success beyond that which personally existed before.
Okay, you know all this, then why are challenges and goals often hard to obtain?
The answer: self-sabotage. The critical mind is the ‘can’t’-factory and the ‘don’t do it’-factory of the mind.
While the critical or conscious mind will strive to create a dichotomy of hard/soft, tough/easy challenges and goals, without the specific “Buy-in” of your subconscious or creative mind, your critical mind will supply you with an infinity of can’ts and don’ts.
To sum up. To achieve or attain a goal or challenge it must not only be specific, it must be one your subconscious will, will accept and act on in spite of counter-commands from your conscious or critical mind.
Before I wrote my first novel, Jamaica Moon, I had read a good number of novels. The ones I liked the most were long* and had characters that evolved over a series of books.
Among these were James Clavell’s (Asian Saga):
1962’s King Rat - 400 pages = approx. 100K - 140K words
1966’s Tai-Pan - 727 pages = approx. 181K - 254K words
1975’s Shōgun - 1152 pages = approx. 288K - 403K words
1981’s Noble House - 1171 pages = approx. 292K - 410K words
1986’s Whirlwind - 1147 pages = approx. 286K - 401K words
1993’s Gai-Jin - 1126 pages = approx. 281K - 394K words
(* The word count for the average novel, depending on font and page size, is approximately 250 to 350 words per page.)
Though I loved reading the ‘mega-length novels of Clavell and others—especially during a summer vacation—I was more comfortable writing in the 400 page range as you can see below:
Book #1 Feb 2009’s Jamaica Moon - 420 pages
Book #2 Nov 2009’s Judas Oracle - 419 pages
Book #3 Nov 2010’s And… Never Again - 342 pages
Book #4 Nov 2011’s Innocent And Guilty - 393 pages
Book #5 Nov 2012’s Cry… Walk, Run! - 448 pages
Book #6 Jul 2013’s The Murder Fever - 452 pages
Book #7 Jun 2014’s BOXMAN - 425 pages
Book #8 Apr 2016’s The Sun Never Sets - 458 pages
Book #9 Sep 2016’s Thirty Seconds From Midnight - 502 pages
Book #10 Mar 2017’s Buttermilk Skies - 485 pages
Book #11 Dec 2017’s We Were Once Knights - 420 pages
Book #12 Jun 2018’s The Bad Alibi - 432 pages
Book #13 Dec 2018’s The Good Alibi - 480 pages
Book #14 Oct 2019’s Baladine’s… Alive? - 474 pages
Book #15 May 2020’s Murder at Betty Sue’s Café - 495 pages
Book #16 Jan 2021’s Just before… - 356 pages
Book #17 Apr 2021’s No… it’s raining - 460 pages
Book #18 Aug 2021’s Ten Boxes - 479 pages
Book #19 Nov 2021’s Almost Evening - 314 pages
Book #20 Dec 2021’s Penguins & Black Swans - 379 pages
Book #21 Feb 2022’s The Pritzker Problem - 375 pages
Book #22 Apr 2022’s No Expectation of Privacy - 399 pages
Book #23 Jul 2022's Milk & Cookies - 424 pages
Book #24 Sep 2022's Cat With One White Stocking - 407 pages
Book #25 Dec 2022's Red Sky - 404 pages
Writing a 400 page length novel takes approximately 100K to140K words or less, depending on the page, font size and line spacing.
In the beginning, with Jamaica Moon, I never supposed I was challenging myself or setting a goal ‘to write a novel’ or one of a specific length. Which is, in itself, a pretty open-ended, non-specific goal.
The specifics came from a poem I had written “Love Letters from the Sky” whose characters kept telling me there was much more to their story than I had captured in a 500 word poem.
Their story and that of the ancillary characters was running in my head like a movie. I was simply running, typing as fast as I could, to catch up to all they were saying and doing.
As a poet I had been Writing Into The Dark, for several decades. And having written thousands* of poems in that manner, it only made sense that I would keep listening to my characters as they and I transitioned from poetry, a shorter form of story-telling, to the longer form called the novel.
(* By the way, I didn’t give up on writing poetry into the dark. I have penned over 4300 poems.)
I just did it, because I wanted to… not that I knew I could write a novel. I just wanted to tell the story the characters, in my creative brain, put in front of me.
The length of that first novel, Jamaica Moon, was dictated by the characters and informed by my subconscious love of what… longer novels. Thus as I continued these characters' ‘story from the poem’ in novels and they averaged in the 110K+ word range.
When I became consciously aware of this subconscious word length manifesting itself, I began to suggest a conscious marker of 95K words. This was done with the subconscious understanding that the characters were in charge, and though I (my critical mind) suggested the 95K word range, the characters were free to tell their stories as fully as they desired.
The result was that subsequent novels were sometimes a little more… sometimes a little less than the nominal goal of 95,000 words.
I surmised this allowed my critical mind to feel satisfactorily in charge and thus out of my way while my subconscious mind’s characters marched through 5% of the ‘word goal’, 10%, 34%, 60% and on to 100% and beyond, if necessary. Or a little less if the story was complete.
Though I had never had a specific goal to write a certain number of novels per year, over the past couple of years it had become par for the course, to write two or three 95K word-length novels a year.
My first novel, Jamaica Moon, was published in 2009 and my twentieth at the end of 2021. That averages a little more than one and a half published novels a year for twelve years.
Obviously, at that rate, I was not burning up the keyboard publishing that average number of books. That’s said, the longer the book, the longer the process from first word to published book. I realized if I could write three 95K word books in a year (3 x 95K = 285K words), I could likely write five 65K word books in year (5 x 65K = 325K words) only a ‘stretch’ of 40K ‘extra’ words (or 8K more per book).
Both my critical and creative minds agreed—that’s doable. Particularly when you realize 325K words in a year is only writing an average of 890 words a day, or 6.25K words per week, or 27K words per month. (What a slowpoke! And, Shazam, if I only averaged 2200 words per day, I could write a book a month!)
Based on my previous output, I got no objection from my critical mind and my creative mind was saying: easy-peasy, let’s go. Amazingly the characters started telling and finishing their stories at or near 65K words per book.
Here it is July 4th, half the year is gone, and I’m 25% into book number 24. So reaching book 25 by New Year’s Eve, absent any unforeseen events, seems entirely likely.
As metaphors go, I liken my arbitrary, but not mandatory, word count per book to ‘a sandbox’. It’s as if I give the characters a box of sand (words) filled with X amount from which to build their sandcastles (their stories). If they use up all the sand and they are not finished with their castle, or it is not complete to their satisfaction, the characters are allowed, in fact encouraged, to ‘bring in more sand’.
“As I mentioned above, I have been amazed, not only by the creativity of the creative mind, but also by the facileness with which the characters create and usually finish their sandcastles with what sand is in the box.
To me each ‘sandcastle’ equates to the attainment of an appropriately created challenge or achievement of a worthy goal, activated by my subconscious ‘Buy-in’.