*“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

2x=10

2x/2=10/2

x=5

*(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”.

FORMULAS

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--

(1)

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.

(2)

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*

**O**pposite the angle, the side**A**djacent to the angle, and the long side, the**H**ypotenuse.*S(ine) = O(pposite)/H(ypotenuse)*

*C(osine)=A(djacent)/H(ypotenuse)*

*T(angent)=O(pposite)/A(djacent)*

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