Shipping Cartons

Today, Tuesday, as requested, my email box filled up with shipping carton reminders. Thank you one and all. And it’s appropriate that I write about those today since the last cartons of autographed books went to Mostly Books this afternoon. If you wanted a personalized book, you’re a day late and a dollar short, but you can still get ones with autographs only from either Mostly Books in Tucson or Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale.

The cover of Unfinished Business is lovely, well except for the handcuffs. But the background color is a shade of turquoise known as Bisbee Blue, which would make it entirely appropriate for a Joanna Brady book. Turquoise is found inside veins of copper, and a lot of it was high-graded out of Bisbee’s underground mines over the years. (FYI, high-grading is the process by which chunks of loose lying turquoise ended up falling into miner’s lunch buckets and being carried to the surface.). Jerome, a few miles up the road from High Noon Enterprise’s headquarters in Cottonwood, was also once a copper mining town, one where operations ceased in 1953. At that point, many of Jerome’s miners migrated to Bisbee. So no doubt there’s some Jerome-specific turquoise out there in the world as well. In my mind’s eye, it’s probably much the same color. So let’s just say the cover color on Unfinished Business is Jerome Blue rather than Bisbee.

But I digress. Back to the shipping cartons. As I was signing and loading the remaining books today, they fit in the cartons perfectly, twenty books per box. It’s a snug fit, and there’s a reason for that. If there’s any extra space, the books rattle around inside the box during shipping, and rattling around is bad for book covers. It leads to battered corners and ugly tears.

So this morning, while I was signing the new book, I’m still working on the next Beaumont, Nothing to Lose. At this point, I can tell you that I’m exactly 73.49% done with writing the book. By the way, I don’t say to myself I’m almost 75% done, because I’m a hard grader and I don’t round up. I can also tell you that I just stepped onto the banana peel of the book, and that’s a really good feeling!)

But how do I know that exact percentage? I count the words every day. That’s the only way I can see if I’m making any forward progress. As Gilbert F. Lawson, the agency manager from my life insurance days used to say, “Know the score; keep the score; report the score. The score will improve.” In the solitary life of wilting books, counting the words each and every day is my only way of keeping score.

I know from the start that each book is supposed to be 100,000 words long, but the publishers will give me 5000 words of slop in either direction. That means, when I start out, I aim for 95,000 words. During final editing I sometimes find loose ends that need tying up and words tend to come and go at that point in the process. Even if I finish writing a book at 95,000 words, I may end up with 100,000 by the time everything is said and done. So far I’ve never gone over 105,000. What would happen if I wrote an 85,000 word book? It would look like it was double-spaced, and readers would feel cheated. What would happen if I wrote a book that weighed in at 110,000 words? Readers of a certain age who need larger font sizes would not be happy.

I told this story at a book signing once, and a lady in the audience wanted to know if I was offended that my creativity was being dictated by the size of the cartons. I told her at the time that I wasn’t the least bit offended, and I’m still not. Here’s why. In the year 1508 when Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist didn’t take a look at the job and say, “Hey, couldn’t the chapel be a little larger or a little smaller?” No, the Sistine Chapel was the size it is, and standard shipping cartons are the size they are, built to hold twenty 100,000 word books. If painting inside the lines was good enough for Michelangelo, it’s certainly good enough for me.

So the next time you purchase a new book—any book, not just one of mine—take a look at the outside of it. If the dust jacket hasn’t been ripped to shreds and if the corners of the cover aren’t bent and bruised, you’ll know that the author in question is also abiding by that 100,000 word guideline.

We’re all busy harnessing our creativity to keep it inside those standard shipping carton lines, and I trust readers are happy that we do.

Thus endeth the epistle on shipping cartons.