Write-by-numbers fiction?

I’ve never gone for how-to books about writing.

I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but that’s because it’s a wonderful book by Anne Lamott, not because it’s a book about writing. I got a lot out of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, perhaps because it has chapters titled “Fighting Tofu” and “Don’t Marry the Fly.” Fellow blogger Kourtney Heintz has put together an excellent resource list of books on writing, which includes Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Paste Magazine has a nice little top 10 list, too.

paint by numbers
Paint by numbers (Photo credit: Eleanor Ryan)

Part of me has always been suspicious of guides to good writing. Despite the fact that I took classes as an undergraduate and graduate student in creative writing and journalism, I harbor a fear that revealing—and instructing others in—the mechanics of writing will suck the life right out of it.

Following a guide feels kind of like creating a paint-by-numbers work of art: put the cerulean here, the azure here, and your masterpiece will emerge. Where’s the intuition? The creativity? If everyone can brush on color #17, how can you tell the real writers from the posers?

So what possessed me to pick up from the library a tiny tome called The Writer’s Little Helper: Everything You Need to Know to Write Better and Get Published by James V. Smith, Jr.?

Maybe it was that the title riffed on the Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper.” Or maybe it was that I am right now struggling through a second revision of my manuscript.

Whatever the impetus, I immediately thumbed through the book and found myself drawn to the chapter titled “Pacing.”

Now, pacing is not something I think about consciously every day when I’m writing, but it is one of the most significant factors in good writing. Poor pacing can hamstring even the most exciting story. When I edit fiction, I often make changes because something about the rhythm of the story feels off. That feeling indicates something is not right about the pacing.

Rather than relying on intuition, Smith’s approach gives you a way of actually measuring pace. I won’t divulge the details since, as he says in the intro to the chapter, “…nobody has told you how to measure pace. Until now.” I’m sure he would rather you bought his book than have me reveal his method here. It involves a formula that uses the reading ease statistics from your word processing program to measure the pacing within a scene or chapter—writing, you might say, by the numbers.

I’m a sucker for numbers, so I ran one of my scenes through the formula.

The “data” matched my intuitive feel about the passage’s pacing. In addition to the formula, Smith gives advice about how to adjust pacing. Like much good counsel, his advice seems obvious once you know it (use shorter sentences and active voice to speed the pace, longer sentences or leisurely scenes to slow it).

Despite my initial resistance to the idea, I’ve decided to use Smith’s method as a check on some of my chapters. I’m not sure if a writer without an intuitive feel for pacing could simply apply the formula to create page turner, but as a check and balance on an existing piece of writing, it’s a useful tool in the editing tool kit.

What tools (or books) have you found helpful for improving your writing? Have you ever completed a paint-by-numbers picture?

19 thoughts on “Write-by-numbers fiction?

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  1. You hit my favorites, Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird. To your list, I might add Ursula Leguin’s Steering the Craft. And then .. one write by numbers book on my shelf that is well thumbed: James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. Thinking about novel writing in a screenplay-like structure has helped make the process less intimidating. I reach for this one when I’m stuck.

    Thanks for the recommendation of Smith’s Mother’s Little Helper. Pacing, huh? So many things to think about. I’ll check it out.


    1. Oh, I had to laugh! That was just the response I had when reading this chapter of the book. You are not silly at all. I think experienced writers, by dint of having read and written so much, develop an instinctual feel for pacing (which is, indeed, how fast the story moves). But this “method” fascinates me because I do enjoy numerical analysis.


  2. So many good books on writing out there, Audrey, right? Best 2 I’ve read most recently are How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James Frey (I & II, but I thought II was best) and Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose.
    Pace is so important. I’m gonna check out The Writer’s Helper – thanks for writing about it.


  3. This sounds very interesting. I’ll have to check it out. One of my favorites is “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks. Probably not a favorite of pantsers, but I find it very helpful as an outliner.


    1. “Story Engineering” — what a great title! Could almost be considered an oxymoron. Maybe it’s the editor in me, but I find I don’t mind “outlining” (or “engineering”) AFTER the fact.


  4. Found this very intuitive and informative. I guess over time even creative and un-structured outputs have a way of falling into certain boundaries. When this happens, even creativity becomes amenable to formula and structure.

    Great post…



    1. Thanks! I love the idea of creativity being “amenable” to formula and structure. Of course, a complete lack of structure leads to an unholy mess. The genius lies in keeping the creative spark while shaping a coherent structure.


  5. Thanks for this really interesting post, Audrey. I think as a writer you have an instictive sense of when something is ‘off’ but might not necessarily attribute it to pacing. I’m going to get a copy and check it out. Fascinating.


  6. Thanks for the lovely shout out, Audrey! I’ve read every book on that list. 😉 I think of books on writing as helping me fine tune things. Giving me the tools to write better and self edit properly. Instincts are important, but having measurable benchmarks/indicators and fixes has taken my writing from good to better.


    1. I like to go to my trusted sources on these things :-). I’m going to start on some of your listed titles, if for no other reason than I should be better informed about what’s out there in terms of writing advice. And who knows, I might even learn something!


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