Tuesday, May 29, 2012


“Get out a piece of paper and in the upper right/left/center of the page, write your name, date and the word….”

I could get my students to hang on my every syllable with those words. Among the possible responses were:

“…quiz.” (groans)
“…essay question.” (head clutching)
 “…word problem.” (cries for mercy)

Yes, I was a math teacher. I also taught life science, drama, English, world history and journalism. I used the same little script no matter what subject I taught. I used to trip up the script a little; at least three times a semester I’d say,

“…pizza party.” (cheers and applause)

My students would have to plan the pizza party themselves; how to order, where the money would come from; and so forth. One year the enterprising drama students made pizzas in the home ec (oops, “family science”) classroom and sold slices, banked the money and earned enough to buy decent wireless mics for our next production. They didn’t see that as an elaborate word problem, but it was and I seized the moment to show them how they were thinking algebraically. That brought one of my favorite student comments, “Ms Locke, do you have to get algebra into EVERYTHING?”

Well, yes… for instance, this is how math ties in to writing:

If I have two apples and you have three apples, how many apples do we have?

If I have ten apples and you take five apples, how many apples do we have?

 If I have 2.5 apples and you have 2.5 apples, how many apples do we have?

 You have an unknown number of apples. Solve for x.    2x+2=12

Four ways of saying that we have five apples. As a writer, which do you use? As an editor, which one do I think you wanted to use?

He had five apples. (OK, what’s he going to do with them?)

There were only five apples left. (Oooo, why only five apples, weren’t there supposed to be more?)

They each had two-and-a-half apples. (That’s odd, why do they each have half an apple?)

2x+2 =12
2x+2-2 = 12-2
(Why is our heroine doing simple algebra? Ah, I see, “x” represents the apples!)

One of the neat things about math is that (generally), the numbers don’t go off and do whatever they want to do.

Your characters shouldn’t go off and do whatever they want to do either. We, as writers and editors, try to keep the character’s actions consistent within the parameters we’ve created for them. And if you have a character that goes Walter Mitty, you have a darn good reason.

For instance, many of the sample chapters I read for “the Als” (see last week’s blog) would go something like the following.

“You know Sally, there were 23 apples in this dish and now there are just eighteen left, I can’t imagine where the other five apples went. I mean, there are just three of us here, so if two people ate two apples each – I only had one mind you…”

Sally shrugged. “Geez Tom, Dick made an apple pie. It’s sitting on the table.”

I would want to run screaming for my blue pencil to edit that to something like:

Tom looked perplexed. “Weren’t there more apples in this bowl?”

Sally glanced at the bowl and said, “Dick used five of them to make a pie.”

Al taught me that if Tom is a blithering ninny then maybe we want the first version.

Tom can evolve from a blithering ninny to… whatever the author wants him to evolve to; we just don’t want him a ninny in one paragraph and a ultra-confident super spy in the next. Unless of course, Tom is an ultra-confident super spy working undercover; and then I might discover that “apples” is a code word for “diamonds” and “pie” for “heist”.

The cool thing about math is that formulas have been developed to simplify basic tasks: finding the area of a room or the distance between point A and point C if the distance between point A and point B are known.

And there are formulas for writing. The point, just like in math, is to give us more tools to work with. For instance, tangent can be calculated using a knotted string*, a string and a ruler, using SOHCAHTOA**, punching the numbers into a graphing calculator and hitting the [tan] key, or using an online graphing calculator. You chose the one that works for you, given the materials you have available.

No matter what kind of writer you are -- writing from a neatly-organized outline on your laptop… to stream-of-consciousness, scrawling your words in the sand with a stick -- checking writing against a formula is a great tool.

The first two variables in writing formulas are--

There’s a protagonist and an antagonist. He author decides who the good guy and who the bad guy is. Perhaps we merely have the lesser of evils (or goodness). Maybe there’s one person all alone on an alien planet – the planet becomes the protagonist or the antagonist.

As mentioned before, these characters have a clear and compelling voice or there is no story.

Your story is either about everything being OK and going awry; or everything is awry and goes OK. You decide where you put your characters; they can go from burning fires of hell to unicorns and rainbows or anywhere in between.

The rest of the variables in the formula address pacing, flow, and arc of action.

If you’ve read novels written prior to say -- 1900 -- did the pacing, flow or arc of action seem odd to you? Did you expect the action to take one turn when it took another?

How stories flow is something that has evolved between writer and reader and has been deeply influenced by the pacing of movies and television. The reader now expects certain things to happen at certain points in the story. For instance, the reader expects action to build for say… 60 pages… and then they want some resolution to the tension. Maybe the author decides to stretch that out, or compress it or ignore it.

If you play with the formula, then you’re doing it for a reason. You want to jerk your reader’s head around; you do it by not doing what they expect.

Next week: more on the formula.

* A sextant, which assists in measuring the “unknown” leg of a triangle, giving you your position on the planet. For instance -- http://www.mat.uc.pt/~helios/Mestre/Novemb00/H61iflan.htm

**SOHCAHTOA = a way to remember the definition of the basic trigonometry for the sides of a right triangle - the side Opposite the angle, the side Adjacent to the angle, and the long side, the Hypotenuse.

S(ine) = O(pposite)/H(ypotenuse)



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