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Math For Authors

[When I first started this blog, I promised to reprise some posts from my earlier blog, just for fun. There’s not much that has changed from when this post was originally written, except that the seven-year-old in question is now seventeen. (And he’s really good at math.)

It’s fun to look back at writing from the front lines of parenting. Those of you with younger children might appreciate this excerpt from the trenches. It comes with the promise that it does get easier, but also with the apology that yes, you will miss this.]

I failed a class once. Just once. A math class. It was while I was in CEGEP, which is a concept that exists only in Quebec, Canada. Basically, it’s a junior college that acts as a sorter for students. University? Over here. Trades? Over there.

And for those of us lumped into the university pile, the sorting continued: health sciences, applied sciences, social sciences, liberal arts and fine arts. That math class was not just a math class. It was the last thread between me and one of the more “serious” social science disciplines like economics or geography that might have resulted in, you know, a proper job.

I had to go to summer school to make up the lost credits. I took an art history course.

How to count to 100

The photo above is of my son’s recent math project. He’s in grade two, and this is how he learned to count to one hundred.

When I was seven, if I could have felt the smooth hardness of kidney beans under my fingers as I counted them out and ever so carefully glued them to ultra-big Popsicle sticks – well, I think I would have been better at math.

Don’t you?

Last week I was at a parent meeting and one of the school administrators said something interesting. He said: in order to be good at something, it has to be meaningful in your life. If there is a way to make math have meaning in your life, you’ll be good at math.

How to count to 100,000

Back in 2004 when that seven-year old was born, I made the decision that I needed to write the mystery novel I promised myself I would write when I was seven years old. The first thing I did was take a class. I can’t remember the instructor’s name, but the workshop was called something like “How to Write a Novel in 20 Minutes a Day.” It was my first introduction to what I now call “Math for Authors”.

Here’s how it works:

The average mystery novel is made up of about 70,000 words. So, basically, if you write 191 words a day, you can write a novel in a year.

My books are a bit longer. I think Confined Space comes in at 110,000 words, so I would need to write 301 words a day to pound that novel out in a year.

Simple. The instructor shared his method for outlining, so that you don’t lose track of where you are in the story. And off we went: parents, doctors, veterinarians, realtors, armed with the math we needed to fit novel-writing into our busy lives. Painlessly.

Writing is not typing

According to Wikipedia, the average computer user has a typing speed of about 33 words per minute. Using this math, it would take me about nine minutes and five seconds a day to write a novel in a year.

I tried this for several years. It was an approach that allowed me to think that, while I had two preschool children and a full time job, I could still fulfill my dream of writing mystery novels. And at the time, that was a very important idea to cling to.

Here’s the thing: writing is not typing. Counting is not writing. 100,000 words, typed into a document, do not a novel make. At least not one I would want to read. And that was my goal: to write a novel I would want to read.
However, as much as the 20-minutes-a-day formula has its failings, it did teach me something important. Write for twenty minutes (or even nine minutes and five seconds) every day and before long, you will find ways to write more, and longer, and better.

Math for authors 201

I started seriously drafting my second novel at the end of June last year. (Truth be told, this is my fourth novel, if you count the two that I wrote using the 20-minute method. Those are locked away forever and that’s a very good thing.) In any case, last June I had an outline, a bunch of research and about 15,000 words written. You could say I had something of a head start, but that is when the serious work began.

Everyday, I write my word count on a legal pad that I keep on my desk. Looking back on seven months of data, I can learn some very interesting things about my current writing habits.

My lowest output was on September 4th when I wrote 7 words. My highest output was on July 6th when some miracle of astrological alignment allowed me to write 3812 words. There were lots of days when I wrote about 1300 words, or 1000, or 500. There were two months when, because of moving and intensive editing of Book 1, I did not write at all.

I beat the words out at times and other times it felt like they jumped out of me all on their own. I held myself to a daily count and then negotiated up or down, like an alcoholic, or a dieter. I went with the flow and wrote when I had the chance, between writing press releases and e-newsletters and annual reports, between soccer practice and snow school, sick kids and dinner and laundry.

There were many days when there were no words added. I spent my writing time walking or thinking or reading a book. Writing notes and yes, stressing out that I was not adding words.

And in the end? Each and every month, no matter how I did it, if I was writing, I wrote 15,000 words.

The new math

Could it be that I have an internal writing rhythm, and that I have now discovered what it is? Could it be that, if I give myself time and space to write everyday, I will write 15,000 words in a month?  No pressure. No stress. No crack of the whip needed. I average 500 words a day.


Of course, now you’ve done the math and you’ve realized that I must be close to the 100,000 word point on this novel. You are right. I’m just a week or two away. That is, assuming the story cooperates and actually ends at the 100,000 word point, which is not looking promising at the moment.

But here’s the other thing that was left out of the 20-minutes-a-day formula: editing. That’s the part that comes next.

As soon as I get to the end of the story, word count becomes meaningless. On a good editing day I will take out more words than I put in. It will likely be June or July before I start this whole process over and start counting words again.

And next time? I’m thinking of getting tactile with my counting. I’m thinking 100,000 kidney beans and 10,000 big popsicle sticks. And lots and lots of glue.

[Thanks for the fun trip down memory lane. I can tell you that the lessons around word count I was learning here have really stuck with me. Indeed, I believe this post planted the seed for the title of this blog, Beyond Word Count.

If you’re curious about what I’m working on these days, I invite you to join my monthly letters, where I share stories from the journey of creating and sharing my next novel, a mystery set in Montreal in 1947. If you are interested, you can sign up here. ]

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