One of my motivations for studying journalism and film and media at university was to avoid maths. The irony, though, is that there are heaps of numbers involved in writing a novel.
Obviously, there is the word count itself, having a goal and then breaking it down into scenes and words per scene or per chapter, and knowing at what point in the word count I need to be ‘changing gears’ at particular marking points. My books always run long so I’m clearly not great at sticking to word counts.
Then there are all the characters. As I tend to write big books with lots of characters, I have to do lots of maths. When I first start a story, I fill a spreadsheet with all my characters and make notes about them in each column. This is most important for their ages. Knowing a character’s age is not just about when they last had their birthday, it’s working out when they were born, when they were at university or when they started working, when they got married, when they had their first child, or second or third, when they got divorced, when they were seriously ill, perhaps knowing when they died.
Then, I have to work it out all over again in relationship to other significant characters. How old were their parents when they had them, and therefore what year was it, and therefore what was going on in the world at large or their small community that might have influenced how they were brought up and therefore what their relationship is like now? And to understand why the character’s parents acted as they did, you need to look back at their parents to see what year they were growing up in and what external factors might have affected them to affect their relationship with their kids, which affected their relationship with your character. Phew! That’s a lot of numbers.
Then, if you have a contemporary story, say, and there are kids in the story, you’ll need to be mindful of the calendar and the school holidays so you aren’t messing that up. When I was writing The Gift of Life, I was so determined to finally have a novel with no timeline issues in it, that I very carefully used a calendar to work out exactly what was happening on what day for the year 2019. (I had begun writing it in 2017 but I will always use the calendar for the year the book is published.) I was so proud of getting all my numbers right, until the first editor who looked at it said, ‘Oh, it looks like you’ve used the dates for the Qld school holidays instead of the Victorian dates.’ As the book is set in Melbourne, this was a huge problem! I couldn’t believe it. Such a silly error to make that caused a flow-on effect throughout the whole manuscript. I had to shift the timeline by a few weeks, which is a tedious thing to do because it has ripples to catch through every scene in the story.
It gets more complicated than that, too, because I tend to do a lot of stripping and rewriting in subsequent drafts and the threads of timelines can get messed up or lost along the way. No matter how hard I try, I seem to be battling timeline issues in my editing phase.
Apparently, it’s true what they say. You can’t run away from your problems. Maths will follow me wherever I go.