The Author's Corniche - 4

Counting pages is a dangerous thing.

I learned this the hard way, when I was much younger and the idea of writing was still new. I had broken through the terrible 20 page barrier, and it suddenly occurred to me that I might actually be able to write a whole book. A whole book! I had always been an avid book lover. In elementary school, we used to get those order forms for newly released paperbacks, and each quarter I was allowed to pick a couple, mostly based on title, which is how I was introduced to such wonderful things as "How to Eat Fried Worms" and "There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom" and many others which I don't remember. I gobbled them up.

But then I realized that I, a mere mortal, might actually be able to produce an entire book of my own, and suddenly the perilous doors of opportunity where thrown wide open! This was in high school, now, past Judy Blume and on to Victor Hugo and Ken Kesey, but as far as making words of my own, I was still but a youth. In my excitement, I spent less time doing the writing and more time checking to see how many pages I had, fiddling with the margins to match the size of a standard paperback and seeing how many pages that produced, calculating extra pages for chapter titles and indexes and the like. The page count was king. Many pages meant that I was a real writer.

Thankfully, that book attempt failed. Getting bogged down in the formatting should have been my first sign that I was not actually interested in the story I was telling, because if the author's attention wanders during the writing, where will the poor reader's attention end up? I suspect it is the folly of many beginning writers. I was young and easily distracted, and so I cast off my failed book with only a little disappointment. Thank goodness, for it was terrible. Even a thousand monkeys in a thousand years would not write such a mess. When I try to reread it nowadays, it is like bringing a smelly cow into the room. My comments go along the lines of, "Oh, well, that's not so bad," to, "Uh...hmm, yeah, that's pretty awful," to, "AAA! AAA! MAKE IT GO AWAY!!"

But older writers, people who are just seeing those open doors of opportunity, perhaps are tempted to press on despite all such warning signs - like counting pages before even the first draft is finished - and rush the final product off to the slush pile a publishing house, where its sole purpose is to torment the eyes of an underpaid intern. I see this quite a bit when I read comments from aspiring authors on writing sites, people who are searching for just the right font to write in. Warning signs!

I hope to say I know a little better now, and that if I am thinking of anything beyond the first draft, I'm into red flag territory. After watching the demise of one book, (a book for which I had already planned the cover design, ha-ha), I was so humbled that I immediately turned to the other extreme, writing with the mindset that nothing I wrote would ever be seen by anyone, ever, until long after my death, when it would be discovered in a dusty desk drawer ala Emily Dickinson, and then probably be returned to the drawer to complete its decomposition. I chose, as a font, the unassuming Arial, which has all the literary promise of a tax form, and refused to think of anything as formal as titles, plots, or - dare I say - endings.

My phobia of becoming a Johnny-Too-Quickly still lingers, but I've crept a bit out of my shell since those early days. Several years ago I switched to Times New Roman, which looks dangerously similar to "real book" type... (Yes, I realize I just mocked people who search for the right font. Go away.) And last year I broke another long-standing rule and began to read anecdotes from publishing houses, more for entertainment than research, because I still hold that the word "publishing" should not enter one's vocabulary until the last change is made on the very last draft. Gone, too, is the mentality that no one will ever read what I write, and this has brought both good and bad. Bad, in that I don't write quite as freely or honestly, and good, in that I make things tighter, disciplined with the constant looming question, "What will others think?" Yes, the critical invisible audience, forever a paranoid writer's companion!

But counting pages? No. I do not count pages. And I pay no attention to the fact that this is the hundredth post on Fifteen Feet. Nope. I hardly notice at all.

2 comments:

-W- said...

Hey, don't knock Arial! It is so easy on the eyes that I love it. I don't know why, but Times New Roman gives me a headache on the screen.

Also, I think it's okay to daydream sometimes about having a career as a writer, which goes into that whole page counting thing. I just think you have to realize you're doing it and tell your brain that you have moved out of the writing process and into the daydreaming-about-being-a-writer process. It's like the difference between applying for a great job and dreaming about having it!

For me, right now, I feel good knowing that someday I will have a published book and that right now, I am a writer-in-training. It's a good feeling. I feel like a real writer, but there's not the pressure to produce something for the industry. Very freeing!

Reading this post makes me want to talk writing with you!

Kt said...

Well, I've been hard on myself about pages lately simply due to the fact that I was crowing to myself, "I've written 28 pages this month!" and then promptly threw 5 of them in the scrapper. I am not immune to the page count; I don't think anyone is, since it's fun and relatively harmless. Relatively *meaningless*, too, which is what I keep forgetting to tell myself.

I got thinking fonts lately because of a post over at Editorial Anonymous title "Best Face Forward." It's started a grand discussion on fonts and serifs and the horrors of Comic MS. But I think what it boils down to is that you can write in caligraphy or in ketchup on a napkin, so long as you are writing something good!

Let's talk writing!