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Friday, January 4, 2013

How Writers Cannot Escape Math

Welcome back, dear readers. I hope everyone had a good and safe holiday break.

The other day, on Twitter, Candice Gilmer and I discussed how, despite our mutual aversion to math, even as writers, we cannot escape it. So I thought I would give an idea of exactly how much math is involved in this very artistic subject. It’s more than you might think.

There’s math at every stage of writing. Even if you toss out the obvious and overly simple concept of chapter or page numbers, there’s a whole range of numbers, calculations, and graphs. Here are some examples:

1) Lists like this one, but since that’s a bit of a cheat, I’ll give you a better one. Dates and time. This is especially crucial to maintain continuity. It’s all too easy to lose track of the hour or day and have two Saturdays in a novel before the characters enjoy half the rest of the week. On top of that, a writer must calculate how long events take and keep track of them. Does a conversation take five minutes or five hours? How long does it take for the hero to get through traffic when he has an essential meeting in fifteen minutes? These sorts of numbers are exceptionally useful for creating tension and can be disastrous to an author’s credibility if not watched carefully.

2) Distance. This is especially important for a plot that relies on distance and/or speed. Basically, everything we use math for in our daily lives, characters need. An author doesn’t necessarily have to highlight all the day to day calculations, but I dare anyone to find a story that did not rely on at least one.

3) Word count. This isn’t necessarily as essential in the beginning, but if an author has a story they are marketing to a particular publisher or line, it can be crucial. However, word count becomes crucial in editing and when a work begins the querying process. Each genre has an idea word count range. Most genres prefer not to go much over the 100,000 word limit, about 400 pages. But if a story comes way under or over that, an author has to do some serious slashing and juggling or, in some cases, plot growing. Countless times in this process, there is the checking and recalculating word count, carefully balancing crafting a solid story and crunching the numbers.

4) Then there are all the little things for organizational and assessment purposes. Charts to determine POV frequency or how often each setting is used. This sort of information can be essential for determining if a person or a place is used too frequently or not often enough.

5) And, of course, sales. Once a book finally hits shelves, there’s all sorts of sales figures. How much is each retailer selling? What rank does a book occupy on Amazon? Are sales going up, going down, and on and on. And, then, there’s royalties, which is not quite as simple as it might sound. For example, the typical 10% royalty isn’t just a flat calculation. That isn’t 10% off the Barnes and Noble price tag. Before the money ever reaches an author, every level from the retailer to the publisher gets a cut, and that 10% generally comes out of the cut the publisher gets, not the cover price.

This is by no means a complete list of mathematical situations a writer might find himself mired in, but it gives an broad idea. Writing, for all its creative glamor, has far more practicality, logic, calculation, and, yes, math than it might first appear.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a hybrid. I love writing, but I also adore Excel spreadsheets. The number-crunching side of writing excites me.