Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Are math whizzes faster writers?

I haven’t put in my negative two cents worth lately, not that I don’t think Five Scribes is an awesome blog, but because as we said when we started it… the writing comes first. I’ve learned something during the time I’ve taken to complete my sixth book. I’ve discovered that writing a mystery is an awful lot like solving a math problem.

I wonder if we did a comparison of you math-minded people out there if you would agree with me. I wonder what kind of writer Anthony P. would have turned out to be if he’d chosen to be one? Who’s Anthony you ask? He was the whiz kid in my class. Everyone with ordinary intelligence wanted to be this kid. Anthony P. stood on his head and recited the Gettysburg Address for extra credit. Trust me on this one; he didn't need extra credit.

Remember speed drills? The mathematical drills your teacher used to stimulate your gray matter? She (or he) lined you up at the chalk board and gave you a math problem and said go. You and another kid in the class did your best to complete the problem before the other one. I guarantee no one wanted to go up against Anthony. He was that bright…that quick-witted…and darn nice so you couldn't hate him ;)

For some reason, as I finish my romantic mystery, I’m constantly reminded of math class. For instance, in Algebra each equation is balanced by a variable, which is an unknown number represented by any letter in the alphabet (usually x). The value of each variable, of course, must remain the same in each problem.

Same with my mystery: Each clue and red herring must be presented so as not to point to the killer, but at the same time you don't want to confuse your reader. I have a synopsis which explains what happens from point A to point B, I have equal measures of suspense and romance, I have tension on every page. I slow the scenes on some pages, increase the pace in the rest. But the more complicated the storyline gets, I feel like I’m back in math class reaching for scratch paper.

Seriously. Check out my plotting board. I know what’s supposed to happen from beginning to end, from chapter to chapter. The colors? Each represents a summation of a chapter and every characters’ point of view.

As the owner of an analytical mind, my classmate could skip necessary steps to reach the correct answer, while I had to check and recheck my math.

So here’s my roundabout question: If you’re a writer, and you’re good at math, do you find it easier to breeze through a book? How about you who aren’t so good at the subject? I’m truly curious about my theory. Cuz if I’m correct I need to find my old classmate and sit him down at a keyboard. And I need to do a better job of balancing my checkbook. Happy writing!

P.S. to this post. Several have made a comment about the plotting board. Here's a link that will tell you more: http://pprw.org/plottingboards.html


Tiffany James said...


Math and I are not on the best of terms (pun intended)! And I have a heck of a time plotting/planning my novels. I don't write romantic suspense (which is probably a good thing, because just seeing your plot board made me break out in a cold sweat!). :0) I'm working on a contemporary right now.

Good luck with your theory testing. Keep me posted!


Donnell said...

Tiffany, I fought that plotting board, tooth and nail, but I'm finding it's a life preserver -- I admire people who can work math problems in their heads, I'm not one of them. LOL.

Cathy said...

I have been an aspiring writer, but have pretty much given up on it, because I can't plot worth a darn. I was a math major as an undergrad, and was one of those high achiever kids in elementary and high school. I've spent most of my working life as a programmer, which is very logic- and planning-oriented. But for me, the analytical skills haven't transferred to writing.


Donnell said...

Cathy, thanks for commenting. I have to ask. Do you love telling stories? I hope you don't lose your passion. Storytelling is a gift, whether you're left brained or right brained, math-oriented or not. My blog partner KL is a computer science engineer. I'm hoping if she's not on deadline, she'll share how she does it ;) Good luck to you!

KL Grady said...

I'm with Cathy. I have a CS degree and did all the work for a math minor (but I didn't apply for it, so it's not official beyond the classes on my transcript). However, plotting is one of my biggest weaknesses. I'm getting better at it, but I think there's something beyond the logic required of math types to break down a plot appropriately. I think it's the ability to see the big picture even while you're looking at a single scene. Like a puzzle - you have all these characters and all these plot points and all these GMCs, but how do they fit together in a cohesive plot?

I bet pro puzzle folks are whizzes at plotting. :)

Donnell said...

Oh my gosh! A new blog topic! Are Pro Puzzle Folks faster writers ;) KL, thanks for stopping in. I know some very analytical, disciplined people, and you're one of them. This made me curious about this topic. Thank you!

Kathy said...

I am so not a plotter I could never do like you did Donnell. I'm good at Math but prefer to just sit down and write. I took a class on storyboarding but it made no sense to me. I would think plotting it all out owuld take the fun out of it. So while I can do math in my head and enjoy the challenge I will stick to wiritingont he fly an dhope fo rthe best. I'm writing a historical romance.

Cathy said...

KL, I think you may have nailed it. The big picture + the scene at the same time. I've read the books on plotting and taken the workshops, but it's an art that still eludes me.

Donnell, I can tell stories IRL (I write very funny letters sometimes, or so I've been told), but maybe I'm better at short pieces than at the sustained length of a novel. Unfortunately, I'm not much interested in writing or reading short stories.

Right now I've shifted my creative urges to yarn rather than words, but I will probably pick up writing again when I get the urge.


Donnell said...

Kathy, trust me, on my former books I was a panster, but this book has had an in-depth mystery with more twists and turns and red herrings. It literally stopped me so my CP made me sit down with that plotting board (e.g. my scratch paper). It helped me unfreeze, which made me wonder if someone with a more analytical mind would have had no problem. I'm seeing hints here that my theory isn't correct.

As Sherlock Holmes, might say... Interesting Watson.

Cathy, I hope you will return to your love of storytelling, particularly if you love to do it. I'm finding, and this is just me, that with every book I write, I get better. My first book is in my drawer, my second book under my bed, my third it's elevated to a nightstand... you get the picture. I truly hope you keep going, and I'd love to hear about your progress!

KL Grady said...

Cathy - I've gotten much better at plotting since I started writing short stories. If you can hone your craft short, you can translate it to a longer format. When you get the itch to write again, try a short story first and see where it leads you. I think they're great for experimenting and honing.

Helen Hardt said...

Donnell, I'm afraid I don't have a comment on your math theory, but I have to say I'm completely envious of your plotting board! I wish I could plot like that. You say you were a pantser before. I'd love to hear how you made the transition. Was it smooth or bumpy? And is there a particular method you recommend?


Phyllis M said...


I am in total agreement with TIffany. Math and I are NOT friends! I am a pantzer most of the time and plot only when I need to make sure I've tied up loose ends and people....lol....okay, I know that was bad.

Anyway, I am not a fast writer unless I'm on a roll, and then only until the scene plays out in my head. I am a procrastinator MOST of the time.

I don't know if that helps or not, but that's how it is with me. PS your plot board is impressive.


Nancy said...

Donnell, I bombed the math portion of the SATs so thoroughly, I feared I wouldn't get into college. And I think I made it through college because I didn't have to take math - I avoided all but the absolute required courses.

I still suck at algebra, but math in general is no longer my enemy, though I still freeze if I so much as glance at anything more than a simple equation. :)

So, for me, no parallel between math and writing.

Nancy Haddock

Donnell said...

Helen, I'm more of a panster too, which I think was my problem when the plot took on a more complicated twist; rather than have mistake after mistake, that's when Robin brought over the plotting board. I fought her, boy, boy did those little color strips scare me. But after we went through my entire book, I could see how much longer I had to write and it was like I was in a dark room exposed to daylight.

Some people can plot out their WIP from start to finish. I wouldn't dare! I would hate that. I did have a rough synopsis that I was veering from.

I do recommend that if your freezing on your WIP and you have enough that you can see where you're going, if you are a panster, you try the plotting board. Pikes Peak Romance Writers has them for sale at a very reasonable amount and they'll ship them to you Check out PPRW.org

It just might help ;)

Phyllis, if you are getting stuck, read what I mentioned above. Again, I didn't want to do the plotting board at the start -- don't know if I would recommend it to pansters. But half way through three quarters of the book, it's worth considering... sorry about the math :)

Nancy, you and me, girlfriend. And I'm married to a guy and have kids who were in advanced calculus classes and my husband get this... brought home "The History of Math" for his reading enjoyment.

Thanks everyone for stepping by. To me, this is a very interesting conversation. Appreciate the feedback!

Audra Harders said...

Hi Donnell,
Interesting theory. My husband and I both really suck at math, but our son is a brain at it.

Go figure.

Anyway, along with the puzzle whiz blog, could you break down the elements of plotting with the board? I have one, it works well for the beginning and the end, but I haven't a clue about the middle.

You hit on a great point about alegebra, too. Do you suppose there is a mathimatical equation where you are given componets to insert, and re-sert in order to find your answer, then amend it to help plotting?

C'mon, using all those a,b,c's and x,y,z's has GOT to come in handy somewhere : )

Great post, Donnell!


Robin said...

I agree with Donnell - the plotting board is wonderful for pansters too! I use it once I'm a good way through the book so I can make sure I've got things pretty balanced as far as pov's. I also find it extremely helpful to have a bird's eye view of my book so when my agent comes back after the first read and says she'd like (for example) an earlier attempt on the heroine's life, I can look at the plotting board, see where I can do that, and move things around as needed. So, you definitely don't have to be a hard core plotter to use it! And yes, Donnell nearly locked me out of her house when I showed up to make her put her story down on the board! LOL.


Donnell said...

LOL, Audra, I wish I could help. I loved Algebra as long as it stayed simplistic, then when it got complicated my eyes rolled back in my head. In a way, and this is only my opinion, would templates be considered a mathematical format. I know some people swear by writing around a template format. Kudos to everyone, fast, slow or medium pacing, who finish the novel. That's what counts, right?;)

Donnell said...

Robin, you make me sound unfriendly LOL. But you and that plotting board were s-o-o-o scary. Now admit it, what did I say when you left. I said thank you, now, didn't I ;)?

Robin said...


No one could ever call you unfriendly! LOL. I'm glad you're finding the plotting board helpful. Now, when is this book going to be done? :)


Donnell said...

Soon, Robin Joy, soon. Thanks everyone for stopping by, back to writing!!!

Theresa said...

Interesting theory. Hmmm, math did NOT come easily to me, but with a lot of hard work I made it through 4yrs of high school math and one year of Calculus. I thought it was interesting, but I needed a lot of tutoring to get Bs. Good thing my husband was/is a math genius and a patient guy.

I am a plotter--but as with math, the plotting is just the usual "work" I do to make it understandable to me. Plotting helps build the skeleton of the story. it's ALWAY flexible and open to change at any point in the writing if a better idea comes along, but it's a jumping off point to me.

But I guess I always attributed my tendency towards plotting to my control freak and efficient nature. Being dyslexic, academics --ALL academics --was really hard and a lot of work, so I guess I just never expected writing to be any different.

Donnell said...

T, interesting viewpoint. You look at it kind of like I do a math problem and you're working through it. That doesn't surprise me knowing how hard you worked through school and then through nurses' training. I wonder, do you think John could write if he wanted to? I don't think my husband could. That book would be one paragraph long ;)Thanks for sharing!

Theresa said...

John writes technical manual type of documents--some 30 pages long or applications for patents, but to write something he'd have to make up and devise interesting characters anybody would care about? I SERIOUSLY doubt it!
Then again John can do anything he sets his mind to, but I'd LOVE to read those rejection letters --grin

Tina M. Russo said...

You are scaring me, Donnell. You are way too organized.

I have a plotting board. Every day I get closer to the possibility of actually using it.

Donnell said...

hi, Tina, don't be too impressed. I was forced into plotting the rest of my book, but I'm so glad I did. Thanks for saying I'm organized. I try ;)