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.