NaNoWriMo: Why I don’t count words,

and how Scrivener helps me with character names

Before the advent of personal computers, did writers calculate their word counts with any precision? Would a writer attend a literary gathering and announce, “I’m 34,000 words into my work-in-progress”?

I reckon if I’d been a writer fifty years ago, in an analog world of manual typewriters, I’d have looked at my stack of typed pages and made an estimate in relative terms. I imagine I’d have telephoned my publisher and said something like this: “This novel is…longish.” Or, “It’s longer than the last novel.” Or, “It’s on the short side.”

I’ve written two novels, and they’re both shortish.

The digital world seems to demand we make accurate measurements, partly because accurate measurements are now possible. But I try to resist. I’ve taken part in National Novel Writing Month again this year, and once more I’ve ignored the official challenge of writing 50,000 words. It’s the taking part that matters, isn’t it? I’ve no desire to be enslaved by a round number.

This morning, I dispatched my NaNoWriMo efforts to my desktop printer. I felt heartened that the printer took more time to print my document than I took to write a letter, by hand, to a friend living off-grid. It was a long letter, though I didn’t count the words.

When my printer fell silent, I picked up the printed pages, and carefully noted the tension in my arm muscles. The pages seemed to have significant weight. I was satisfied with that simple assessment. I didn’t rush to the kitchen for my digital scales.

However, the digital world offered me enlightenment today over a problem that’s specific to writing fiction, and has no doubt been a bugbear for writers over the decades and centuries. It’s the problem of inventing names for fictional characters. When I flick through my NaNoWriMo pages, my heart sinks when I see:

“says xxxx.” Or, “xxxx says to xxxxx.”

Maybe I’m the last to discover this, but if you’re writing your novel in Scrivener, there’s a ‘name generator.’ Playing around with this writing aid has soaked up two hours of my morning. I fiddled with the settings to select male/female names with different levels of obscurity. Here are a few female names with the option of ‘attempt alliteration’ turned on:

Vanija Vallory

Georgia Gilson

Chanah Challis

Panthea Purssell

Nicole Nicholls

I couldn’t resist looking for double-barreled British names, first with ‘low obscurity’:

Betty Edwards-Murray

Amelia Williams-Willis

Janet Graham-Bailey

Lynn Richards-Foster

April Hunter-Matthews

And then, double-barreled female names with a ‘high obscurity’ setting:

Miranda McCreery-McCole

Cressida Keogh-McBroom

Phoebe Smythe-Attrill

Apolline Prevost-Harmer

Carna Greenstock-Strauss

The name generator will churn out five hundred suggestions for any group of settings, if that’s your desire.

I’ll try to resist the temptation to go overboard with alliterative names and double-barreled exotica when I redraft my NaNoWriMo pages. I’ll remind myself that, as with word count, just because random name generation is within my reach, it’s not necessarily a good thing. It may be nothing more than another careless shift from the real, analog world.


Author of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and A Calculated Life.