Write-by-Numbers: The Literary Masterpiece

Does anyone remember the paint-by-numbers kits? I’m not sure they even make them anymore but how cool was that? A person with little to no artistic talent could suddenly recreate the Mona Lisa; all you had to do was pay attention to the numbers and stay in the lines. I admit I preferred to smear the lines. Things that look too crisp and neat always bugged me. 

Numbers are my personal nemesis. Clean columns of numbers in a checkbook, figures in an employment contract, commission percentages … enough to make this brain explode. Now that my entire life is focused on writing and doing promotional projects, damn if it isn’t numbers again at the crux of everything. 

Admittedly, it all started in the 70’s and 80’s when I was in the PR and advertising biz. Numbers reared their ugly heads but I told myself not to be afraid, after all, they weren’t big numbers. For example, a 30 second radio or television commercial is 75 words. A 60 second spot, 150 words. No smearing across the lines allowed. Within those tight parameters, the copy has to mention the advertiser’s name no less than three times and the location or phone number at least twice. Oh, and if you’re partial to alliteration, you’re sure to make enemies among the local talent producing the ads. 

Press releases are also very restricted. They not only MUST be news, but they too require word limits. If you’re lucky, a sound bite could be created from your press release; so it behooves the publicist to obey the same rules that format radio and television ads in the word count department. News print also likes clean, concise, newsworthy press releases and often will publish a release verbatim. What a coup! And if you really wrote the thing well, you get a call for a full interview. You’re off to the races and giving good PR. 

One day in the early 90’s I burned out and headed into the culinary world. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Weights, measures and metric conversions gave me nightmares. But like everything else, I let my soul override the terror and did just dandy, although this chef would never survive in a pastry shop. Baking is chemistry and you really can’t smear across any lines there or your bread won’t rise, your cookies won’t hold together and your crème brule will break. (It’s okay; there are enough pastry chefs in my family that I’ll never have to bake as long as I live.) After culinary school came the practical requirements of the industry; food cost evaluation has less to do with food than you think, planning and purchasing for large parties and effective menu design … yup, it’s all hinged on numbers. 

Thankfully, blessedly, now I’m a writer and only a writer. Yes I write press releases and articles but mostly I write my own work. So what do you think comes back to haunt me? Numbers. 

Lucky for us all, technology comes into play. If I had to multiply 250 words per double-spaced page I’d be a mess. Just click on “tools” and let Microsoft Word do the work. But there is more. Correct word count is defined by your product and your genre. Short story – up to 7,500 words. Novella – 17,000 to 40,000 words. Novel – 40,000 words and up. But oh no, it doesn’t stop there. Is your novel a romance or a historical fiction? A non-fiction or a memoir? Is your audience adult, young adult or children? A fiction query must be no more than one page and be sent out after the book is written … a non-fiction proposal must be 90 pages and presented before the book is written. 

Everything requires deeper research and attention to detail on our part as writers. Getting things right is super important. You researched your subject, researched your location and researched your character motivation. Be sure to research the appropriate word count for your manuscript. Being rejected because your romance comes in at a 198,000 words can really hurt, especially since the rejector seldom tells the rejectee that’s the reason. 

Writers and numbers will always face off. Some writers join crazy clubs and groups to challenge the number of words they’ll write within a given time period, others fall into the twitter universe and make profound statements with 140 characters. Whatever we do, word count is part and parcel of our final product. 

It’s all about paying our dues … learning the lay of the land … being aware. Writers are the last bastion of pure creativity thriving within the limitations of math. How well we do ultimately determines our success. After all, there’s a big difference between the real Mona Lisa and that one I did with my handy-dandy paint-by-number kit so long ago.

About Deborah Riley-Magnus

Deborah Riley-Magnus is an author and an Author Success Coach. She has a twenty-seven year professional background in marketing, advertising, and public relations as a writer for print, television, and radio. She writes fiction and non-fiction. Since 2010, she had two novels released. In 2013 her nonfiction, Finding Author Success (Second Edition), and Cross Marketing Magic for Authors were released. Her newest book, Write Brain/Left Brain, focuses on bridging the gap between the creative writer and the marketing author. Deborah produces several pieces monthly for various websites and online publications. She writes an author industry blog and teaches online and live workshops as The Author Success Coach. She belongs to several writing and professional organizations. Deborah has lived on both the east and west coast of the United States and has traveled the country widely. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and recently returned after living in Los Angeles, California for several years. View all posts by Deborah Riley-Magnus

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