Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Three Windows

The floorplans are probably similar on all levels of this Chicago 3-flat, but the occupants might use the rooms differently.

Like those windows in the building's narrow extension on the left -- what's in the rooms behind each of them?

[Click on image to see larger view.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Word Count

Although tending to length isn’t critical while drafting a novel, I decided I wanted some parameters … that I might as well try to keep my manuscript within the realm of acceptable length all along rather than over-write now and need to seriously prune later.

So I researched publishers and gathered their preferred word-count ranges. Then I opened some of my favorite novels and estimated their word counts: the general number of words per line, multiplied by the number of lines per page, multiplied by number of pages in the book. For novels I don’t own but which are similar to the one I’m drafting, I planned to go to, where I’d view a page of the book and proceed as above. In the process, I stumbled upon a cool feature.

For some (Amazon says all) of the books with the “Search Inside!” feature, Amazon now provides text statistics, including word count. Simply select a book and scroll down the page past the Editorial Reviews and past the Product Details to the Inside This Book space. In the New! section, click on Text Stats. I’d estimated 60,000 words for Harriet the Spy, my favorite middle-grade (ages 9-12) novel; Amazon says 57,959.

You can compare the word count (and the book’s readability statistics) to other books -- by default, the comparison is against all others; click the arrow to target it to related titles, e.g. other books for children aged 9-12. Harriet the Spy is a slightly easier read than other middle-grade books, but much longer. And though it still sells today, it was first published in 1964; it will be important to consider the lengths of recently published novels.

[As to the absurdity of Amazon’s Text Stats, read this and this.]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


It's not the common things we notice, but the exceptions -- the contrast tells us something. On an early morning walk, the overwhelming majority of lawns go unnoticed until I come upon one that bears a fresh-delivered newspaper.

A writer could generalize stories about those households, based first upon the presence of a newspaper and then the choice of which one: most around here are Chicago Tribunes, a few are the Sun-Times. And then there's the lone yard with Britain's pink-orange Financial Times. What related uncommonalities does it suggest? Which of them could be tweaked to make a unique household even more surprising?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ad Men

Maybe I was an ad man in a previous life.

As a small-town kid in this life, I loved the 1960s TV series, Bewitched, with its peek into a Manhattan advertising office and the spillover of work into home life. Two decades later, I liked thirtysomething’s ad-agency scenes, especially with the evil boss Miles Drentell (and despite their mocking of Bewitched). Today, my to-be-read bookshelves include Joshua Ferris’s Chicago-agency novel, Then We Came to the End and Peter Mayle’s nonfiction, Up the Agency.

And four weeks ago, I added a fifth: AMC-TV’s original series, Mad Men. I missed its premiere last summer; I missed its two Golden Globe awards at this year’s strike-abbreviated telecast. But I finally stumbled onto the series late in the replay of Season 1; I watched four episodes and I’m hooked. What’s not to be intrigued about: 1960 with its pervasive sexism, racism, alcohol and cigarettes. The behaviors are so, so wrong, yet they’re our history. Unfortunately, in some places they're still very much our present.

Season 2 begins in primetime in July, but another replay of Season 1 begins with Episode 1 tonight. Check it out and set your recorder for midnight (Eastern time) on Sunday nights on AMC-TV.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A View To A...

The image is a teaser for's article about view-blocking neighbors.

Read the article but for now, forget the non-fiction. Right now, sit your character in that chair and write the scene.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Trust Me

At age nine, my classmate Mark was small with dark eyes and dark hair -- even dark peach fuzz on cheeks still round as a baby’s. His terrible grades belied a quick mind and, sitting across the aisle from me, he’d pranked me countless times. Whenever Sister Mary Albertina reminded us to use our talents for good, I was torn -- between watching how long her eyes stayed on Mark, and looking at him myself.

So, after nearly a year of fourth grade, I was ready when his heyday came around. By the afternoon, he’d been able to squeal, “April Fool!” a dozen times to other kids. But not to me. Finally, he did lean across the aisle and poke me.

I ignored him.

“Hey,” he persisted, “there’s a dollar on the floor.”

Was he crazy? Did he think I was still that easy?

“Yeah, right.”

“No, really! It’s on the floor in front of your desk.”

I could feel others listening in. So I didn’t look at Mark and I didn’t look where his hand reached over and pointed.

Instead, I shrugged. “You can have it.”

“All right!”

He jumped up and as he took a step, I peered around my desk. And saw a dollar on the floor. He snatched it and waved it at me and I heard laughing as my face got hot.