icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


The Mathematics of Fiction

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:

First, the math of the art:

  • You will have 10 ideas for every story you complete.
  • It will take up to 20 published stories to discover the thematic thread that runs through your work.
  • The relation of front story to back story should be 10:1 according to the brilliant editor and instructor Tom Jenks.
  • All main characters should be on stage by page 10-25 in a novel and by paragraph 5 in a short story.
  • Word counts are: Novel > 40,000 words; novella 17,500-40,000 words; short story < 7,500 words
  • The number of drafts it takes to complete a novel, and why:
  1. First draft is all action through to resolution with no more than 20% represented by the shorthand of “now X character does X action.”
  2. Second draft smooths the plot/action so that all action is essential and each action inevitably follows the other. No more “wait, I thought they were in Istanbul, why are they now in Paris;” or “why didn’t she just crawl out the window?”
  3. Third and fourth drafts further deepen the emotional conflict, growth and change of heart of each of the characters
  4. Fifth draft is where you get to play with the language and the thematic visibility
  5. Sixth draft is time to give the manuscript to someone else to check that the characters are believable and all their motivations and emotional arcs make sense
  6. Seventh draft is the correction of the above, plus a line edit for typos and grammatical errors. This one is perhaps ready to shop to agents or publishers.
  7. Drafts 8 through 12 are done at the behest of an agent, publisher, editors, and include the final galley proof
  8. 13 is the draft you compose late at night, in conversation with the ceiling goddess, certain that the new revelations and phrasing would have made all the difference and if only you had thought of them sooner the mathematical probability of success would be much higher.

Secondly, the math of commerce:

  • Surprisingly, a report by the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey revealed that 54% of “traditionally published” authors and nearly 80% of self-published authors earn less than $1,000 year from their work.
  • A typical professional writer, says the report from the UK’s Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, earned less than the minimum wage, a figure that was down 8% since 2005.
  • A report entitled "The Business of Being an Author" showed that just 11.5% of professional authors were able to earn a living from writing alone, a drop from 40% just a decade ago.
  • 17% of authors were paid nothing in 2015 despite the fact that 98% of them had work published during the period
  • The publishing industry is particularly top-heavy, with just 5% of authors earning 42.3% of all income from professional writers
  • Women earned 80% of the income of their male counterparts and while that is unjust it is a significantly higher percentage than true for women at large.

Fortunately, the report also suggests that “only a minority of respondents listed making money as extremely important – around 20% of self-published writers, and about 25% of traditionally published authors. But authors’ top priority was not divorced from commercial concerns, with around 56% of self-publishers and almost 60% of traditional authors judging it extremely important to publish a book that people will buy.”

Be the first to comment