Thursday, September 28, 2006

Just When You Think You Know What You're Doing....


The historical mystery I’m currently writing, Why Mermaids Sing, will be my tenth published novel. I’ve also written several other novels you won’t find at your corner bookstore: the thriller proposal currently making the rounds of New York publishers, a crazy book about an undead trophy wife which, after languishing for 3 ½ years, has just attracted the interest of an editor (yes, I’m cautiously excited), and my two first romances I decided to shelve rather than devote the time required to revise them for publication. I mention this because after so long, you’d think I know what I’m doing when I sit down to write a book, right? Wrong.

I always aim to produce a book of around 100,000 words (except for the trophy wife book, which is shorter). Usually I run long, and have to seriously tighten the manuscript to keep it from sprawling to 115,000+ words and giving my publishers fits (they worry about things like paper costs). A 100,000 word manuscript runs to about 400 manuscript pages. I’ve learned to judge a book idea’s length by a simple format: figuring an average scene length of at least five pages, I plot out about 70-75 scenes, and know I’m good to go. You’re thinking, Um, shouldn’t that be 80 scenes? Yes, you’re right, it should; except that I’ve also learned from experience that my outlining process always misses 5-10 scenes that I’ll later realize I need, so 80-85 scenes x a five page average per scene =at least 400 manuscript pages or 100,000+ words.

Of course, some scenes are only a page, while other scenes run ten pages (although in this post Da Vinci Code world I try to avoid that). But five pages is a good average. So what’s wrong this time?

My book is going to end up short.

I doubt my editors will care (see paper costs, above). But I’m troubled. I thought I knew what I was doing, I thought I could very accurately estimate my manuscripts’ length before I ever sat down to write the first page. It’s not that I was for some reason wiser at this book’s plotting stage—I’ve still had to add in my standard “unforeseen” scenes. But the book’s scenes are obviously not averaging out to five pages.

As you may have gathered, I’m a bit of a control freak. People who sit down to write a book with only the vaguest idea of what it will be about and where it will go (“fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants” writers) make me want to grope for the St. John’s Wort. So what’s going on with this book? I’m actually very happy (this is unusual at this point) with it—it’s a ripping good story. So what gives? Is it something about the story idea itself? Is post-Katrina stress somehow causing me to write tighter? I don’t know. And I don’t like not knowing that sort of thing.