Writing By Numbers

Remember "Paint by Numbers?" You know. They were kits that had little containers of paints and cheap brushes, and they came with a canvas marked with numbers so that when you matched the numbers and painted them where they belonged, you, too could paint like this:

My mother hated "Paint by Numbers." With a passion. She was a fine artist. She was also an abstract expressionist. (She was a student of Hans Hofmann in the 1950's in Provincetown, MA.) I used to tell my friends that the only way you could figure out how to hang one of my mother's paintings was by the way the paint dripped. Mom didn't understand my literal nature, and always told me to "color outside of the lines." I told her that if she painted something recognizable, maybe like dogs - then she might sell some of her paintings.

We bantered back and forth like, well, mother and daughter. Mom wanted me to be a fine artist. I wanted to make a living.

Mom never lived to see my books get published. She had a very sad and difficult life, and she died of cancer, multiple myeloma, six days after I turned twenty-four. She always knew I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator, and she had no problem with that. She actually had an epiphany before she left this world and became my "Avant-Guardian Angel"- that's what I call her... When I chose to major in illustration at Syracuse University, she told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to "become a commercial art prostitute." Those were fighting words! So I sent her to The Society of Illustrators in New York City to see a show.

That show changed mom's opinion of illustration. "It's art," she told me, shocked. "It has composition and good design." "And someone was paid for it," I added.

Many, many years later, though, I began to understand my mother's conceptual idea of commercial art prostitution, as I grew weary of being paid to illustrate for advertising agencies and corporations. Yes, there was money, but there was no soul. I didn't want to be a "wrist for hire" anymore, and that was part of the reason I plunged headfirst into my childhood dream of writing and illustrating my own books.

Writing, unlike painting doesn't have a "kit" you can buy. There is no "Writing by Numbers." I guess the closest you can get, especially for kids, would be "Mad Libs." I loved Mad Libs. When we took road trips- usually driving from Queens, New York to Martha's Vineyard in dad's 1962 VW Microbus- which I had named "Chug-a Boom" because of the way it ran... I was in charge of asking for the adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs. Mom and dad supplied them, and I would try to teach brother David just what adjectives and verbs and nouns were. "No David, orange is not a verb." David loved oranges. I cracked myself up when I read that nonsense back to the family. The nonsense stuck with me. The family didn't. The family cracked in pieces.

But really, the point of this post is that numbers and writing seem to be at odds, yet they become awkward dance partners. You can't write by numbers, yet word count seems to be on everyone's lips.

Meet Word Count:

He's worse than the vampire who sucks the blood out of you and keeps you up all night. Word Count sucks the life out of your story - that is if all you care is how many words it is. Word Count tells you if it is a Middle Grade or Young Adult novel. Word Count tells you that you need to edit down to the essentials if it is a picture book. I keep hearing that picture book word counts are getting lower and lower. I have some picture books that have 1200 to 1500 words. Now they like them in the 300-500 range. Go figure.

When I teach children's book writing people always worry about Word Count. I always try to tell them not to worry and just write the story. It will find the right level and will become the genre it should. I know. That sounds so Zen, and in practice, it is not that simple.

But... once you step out of your picture book shoes, and you put on some adult boots that were made for walking... Word Count welcomes you to his world. His cousin, Word Document will even count those words for you. You can watch as you type each one.

Now I've never thought of writing as a numbers game. But that was before I did this:

This little piece of insanity is National Novel Writing Month, also known as Nanowrimo. It is brought to you by some enthusiastic folks in the San Francisco area who seem to love numbers and Word Counts.

The concept is that you sign up (it is free, but you can donate to keep their programs going- you get a halo if you do that) and you challenge yourself to write (at least) 50,000 words from November 1-30th. That is 1,666.66 words per day, every day, for thirty days. That's a lot of words. My husband said, "can it be the same word?"

Some people may cheat. Maybe they copy the dictionary. Maybe they have serious logorrhoea. (My father has had this during manic episodes- he could have written 50,000 words a day then.)

However, honestly, I think most folks see this as a learning opportunity and a chance to stretch their writing wings- in full view of a large audience of eager participants. This is the first writing event that I know of that makes writing a "sport." All you have to do to claim victory is to have at least 50,000 words when you get to the November 30th finish line.  Some don't. Some have 300,000 words. Personally I think they must be on something to do that- like Lance Armstrong. I suspect doping.

Last year I wrote through a week of school visits and speaking in Beaverton, Oregon, and of course we all have to get through Thanksgiving. I had a week of David, who still thinks orange is a verb. (Ironically I went to Syracuse U, where we are "The Orangemen.") I did "win" Nanowrimo and wrote over 55,000 words of a novel. I completed the first draft in mid-January and wound up with 62,500 words total.

Of course I realized that it was not about the numbers. It was about the deadline. Most writers, when given the opportunity, would rather procrastinate. We all love to give excuses, and I know that yes, I can actually be working out a story problem while I'm washing the counter top or looking for the one millionth agate on our beach... but if someone says it's "due tomorrow." I'm ready to go. Final polishing be damned.  And like that agate on the beach, what you write during Nanowrimo will not be polished.

The beauty of this thing is that it makes you turn off your inner editor and just write the damn thing.

So. I'll be at it again this November. I'm a little less anxious this year. I think. I hope. I'm pretty sure I have a strong thread of a plot that I want to follow, and I know that my narrator is way out there... but I'm going to take the challenge and get it all on paper/screen and watch everyone's numbers as they grow. Word by word. Ann Lamott has that wonderful writing book, "Bird by Bird,"which got its' title when her son had to do a book report on birds and was overwhelmed. "You just take it bird by bird," she told him. And he did.

I know so many of you have a novel in you somewhere. I did a cartoon about that a few years back- it showed a doctor pulling a book out of a patient's gut. "yeah, he said he had a novel in him," was the caption. Nanowrimo may pull it out of you. Join me this year... let me know if you're going to do it. We can support each other and joke about our friend Word Count.
My username on Nanowrimo is Ann Denial. (an angram of my name, and possibly my pen name?)


1 comment:

  1. Wow. I just found your blog, Nina, and if all the other posts are as heartfelt, naked and honest as this, I'm gonna enjoy reading it. I am currently working on the second book in an as yet unpublished series, probably Young Adult by the numbers, teen cyberpunk in my mind. So far, I've been able to avoid meeting the Word Count, and I hope it continues. I've flirted with Nanowrimo in the past, but never committed. Another thing you've got me thinking about.


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