Stepping On the Banana Peel

Regular readers of this blog understand that, in my world, that phrase—stepping on a banana peel—has nothing to do with bananas or slick floors. It has everything to do with writing and, in case you haven’t noticed, writing is my life.

Before I gave myself permission to become a writer, I spent ten years in the life insurance business. In Phoenix, the agency manager, Gilbert F. Lawson, used to stand up in agency meetings and say: Know the score, keep the score, report the score. The score will improve.” And since that maxim worked in the insurance business, I carried it with me into the writing business as well.

In the world of publishing, the standard order for books is twenty four—two stacks of twelve books. And there’ a standard-sized shipping box for that. And how long should books be in order to fit into one of those standard boxes? The answer is 100,000 words, more or less.

So in keeping with the idea of keeping score, I start every book with a word-count goal of 95,000. That gives me some wiggle room. Anything between 95,000 words and 105,000 words will fit in a standard-sized box with a reasonable enough font size that people can actually read the print.

As I write, I count the words every single day. In the course of creating more than sixty books, I’ve learned something about the process. For instance, the first 20% is the most challenging part. That’s when I’m introducing characters—new ones and old ones—and laying the foundation for the story. The next 40% is a lot like slogging through mud or deep sand. I keep pushing forward, trying to tell the story and, at the same time, trying to figure out what’s going to happen. Usually, once I hit the 60% mark, I’ve found the answers I need, and it’s all downhill from there. That’s why I call the last part of writing a book the banana peel. For me, from that point on, the story seems to spill out on its own. As for my readers? That’s the part of the book that keeps them up late, burning the midnight oil.

For the better part of a week now, after a pause for copyediting the next Ali book, Missing and Endangered stayed stuck on 45%. So while I’ve been reediting earlier parts of the story, I’ve been trying to figure out how to end it. Some complex technical issues were involved, and I simply could not think my way around them or past them.

Years earlier, while working on an Ali book, the writing stalled out in a similar fashion. Finally, in despair, I sent Bill a copy of the manuscript and asked him if he could figure out how I could end the story. He read it, looked at me, and said, “Why don’t you do it the easy way?” That was all he said, nothing more and nothing less, but that’s exactly what happened. I took his advice and did it the easy way. I had laid it all out in advance. The solution was right there in front of me but I couldn’t see the forest for the trees—as my sainted mother, Evie, would have said.

Then last night, while doing the last 1800 of my 10,000 steps, (By the way, I count them, too. Back to scorekeeping again) it finally dawned on me. The answer is a Post It note. Should it be Post-It or Post it? A copyeditor somewhere far away will have the final word on that. Google can’t make up its mind.)

So this morning, once finished with this blog entry and with the current word-count score standing at 53.88%, I’ll be back to M&E and stepping on the banana peel somewhat earlier than usual.

Months from now when blog readers encounter that telltale Post It passage in the book, they’ll know exactly when I came to the beginning of the end of the story. But just so you know, even on the banana peel, I’m still not certain how the story will turn out.

That’s part of the fun of writing mysteries—they’re mysteries to me as well.

15 thoughts on “Stepping On the Banana Peel

  1. Your enjoyment of writing comes through clearly in your writings.
    I am so looking forward to your new books this year!

  2. This is why we all love J. A.!!! Now we will be reading for the Post-It comment in M&E! Love the banana peel thought! And keeping score is important in many areas of life; but not in holding grudges! We love Jance and all her stories! Her characters are now like old/new friends. Beau, Ali, the Walker family, and I loved the Bitcoin book! Also the A.I. (can’t think of title). Waiting for the next one to keep us up at night!

  3. Thanks again for sharing your process. I wish you well on the rest of it. Eagerly awaiting the next Ali.

    BTW, 3M uses the hyphen on their product!

  4. According to the pack of Post-it Notes I have in my hand, it is “Post-it Notes.” Love your books; eagerly awaiting the next. But what about Naomi?

  5. I love your books. The characters the stories everything about them. But what I really love if you as a writer. Every time you describe your writing process I jump up and down for joy because it fits so much into this way I write and I always wondered whether I was doing it right. Not that anyone’s looking or wondering. But it’s so refreshing when I hear someone describe their process and it really makes sense to me. Thank you for being not only a good writer but a generous one.

  6. What a wonderful insight into book construction. It has long seemed to me that once I get to about 100 pages from the end, it almost goes in one sitting. I admire your concentration when, it seems, life keeps intervening. Thanks again.

  7. Thank you for the insite. Lark and I both enjoy reading them.

    I am going through Joanna Brady again, – just finished Dead Wrong. I have been through Beau’s books – just trying to adventure through Joanna until she and Beau meet again.

    The scene where the line of police officers went up through the neighborhood, I just wept. Thanks for such realism and the hard work you put in. These friends I read about, to me it’s just discovering people I wish I could see on tv.

    • That Fallen Officer scene is based on what I learned during the services in Bisbee for my younger brother, Jim, who was a firefighter in Bisbee and who died of an undiagnosed heart ailment at age 50 while on vacation in California. Hearing that Last Call in the cemetery is something I’ll never forget. And Amazing Grace is forever changed fo me as well

      Thanks for being someone who feels my books are worthy of rereading. I take that as high praise.

  8. I have read many of your books and am currently reading “Damage Control.” I enjoy your style of writing, such a big area of topics, but what I enjoy most is your ability to keep me glued to the story, to keep me turning the pages.

    I don’t get much work done at home or in my office when I pick up one of your books.
    A happy fan,
    Kurt Clarke
    Delaware, Ohio

  9. Love your books – especially Joanna Brady – have read every one. About a week ago a J. P. Beaumont popped up on Amazon and I realized I had read several of them, in order, and then for some unknown reason stopped. I found the next one in the series – Without Due Process – and started reading it. Forgot how much I liked this character. This one is only #10 in series so I have some catching up to do. YIPPEE!

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