A Few Confused Words about Word Count

There is, I’ve discovered, no math quite like word count math.

Everyone has their own ideas about how to figure out the number of words in a novel, most of which appear to be half guesstimation, half page-calculation, a quarter magical-thinking, and three-fourths chaos theory—and, yeah, I know that adds up to more than it should.

That’s sort of my point.

Some of the places I’ve checked (agent-sites among them) say that one is never supposed to use MSWord’s counting tool, because it doesn’t account for the length of the word— ‘a’ is the same as ‘acidophilus,’ which doesn’t help anyone figure out how many pages a the published book is likely to be.    Still others (agent-sites among them) say, go ahead and use Word, because the number is only supposed to give an agent a general idea of whether your novel is too long or too short for the genre.

Some guides advise to calculate by character count (with or without spaces) divided by X or Y; or by double-spaced page count (factoring in the half-pages and white spaces); or by rounding some unclear figure one way or another.   And some appear to go by the light of the gibbous moon, under which they consult the spirit of Einstein, who reassures them that it’s all relative (even the spaces).

Word says I have a 102,500-word Pigeon (give or take 35 words) on my hands—that seems like a pretty big bird, even if none of those words is ‘acidophilus.’*  According to the 250-word per page theory, though, it’s about 106,250.**  If I count the characters-plus-spaces and divide by six, it’s 94,317.

The moon is gibbous now, I think, but I’ve been too busy to gambol about, sorry—but if I calculate the characters without spaces and stipulate that each weighs as much as a single saffron thread, Pigeon weighs in at about six pounds, twelve and a half ounces.

I’m just saying.

As someone who was naively hoping that the math part of this writing business might be taken care of by agents, personal accountants, and possibly Swiss banking establishments—a woman can dream—I’ll admit I’m a bit . . . confused.

Of course, I’ll be checking submission guidelines very carefully when the time comes and I really shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, yet—if at all, supposing Einstein and the Pro-Word contingent are to be believed.  At this point, I haven’t truly started cutting any deadwood darlings, being more interested in untangling the timeline, making sure I nail down that one FBI agent who has a different name every time he’s mentioned, and jumping up and down on the structural integrity of the thing.

And it really isn’t necessary to know where the word-count stands before I pick up the axe, because what I’m supposed to do is take away all the things that aren’t part of the story and whatever length I have afterward is the right length for the book.***

It’s a theory, anyway.

There might be another theory that I’m trying to recalculate the word count in my favor so my beloved Chapter Four won’t fall victim to literary downsizing . . . but that’s just the gibbous moon talking.

What’s your favorite^ One True Way of calculating word count?  Does it involve goats and pixie dust?


*I did use ’a’  2473 times, though, in case you were wondering—I was, so I won’t judge you or anything.  However you feel about MSWord’s literal interpretation of word count, it also easily counts and highlights all the times I’ve used ‘just’, ‘which’, “—“ or any of my other charming, semantic tics—which is just darned useful at times.

**For those of you who just hissed through your teeth, I didn’t bother looking for white space—and y’all know by know how much I love long stretches of dialogue—so this is an inflated figure.   Again, sort of the point.

***At least until an agent or editor hands me a list of revisions.  I’m not that naive (just really, really hopeful)

^Not logical, just favorite.


Pigeons and Shipwrecks

I’m working on my WIP tonight—gonna turn off the WiFi, plug in the appropriate playlist and thrash out one small continuity problem,* if I have to rip the entire chapter to shreds and redo.

You know, I’ve shipwrecked manuscripts for less . . . But I refuse to let Pigeon go.

And vice versa, thank God.

So no real post today, but to fill the space and speaking of shipwrecks, I thought I’d toss up a weird character study I found in my file cabinet the other day, while I was looking for something else.

It’s dated around the time Sunny was born, so it’s probably also a study on what hormones can do to one’s subconscious.  I think I stopped after two chapters and partial outline with this because another story captured my attention—can’t remember what that other story was, but it obviously didn’t make it out of the harbor, either.

But while I’m not letting another story get in the way of Pigeon—hush, those others meant nothing to me—I do like Ms. Daisy Zelda Fitzgerald, possibly because her nemesis might have her pegged.

Anyway, it’s good for a laugh.


I’d only thought about committing murder once or twice before—who hasn’t—but it was looking more and more like a viable option.

I snapped my cell phone shut and reached into the icy wind for my deposit receipt.  “Thank you, Mrs. Fitzgerald!” said the cashier, smiling in her warm bank as I shoved the container back into its tube and hit the window toggle before I froze to death.

I lifted my hand in return, not wanting to brave the elements again just to correct her.  It was a common, logical mistake for tellers and salesclerks, who assumed from the joint household account and same last name that Nicholas and I were husband and wife, instead of brother and sister.

But this particular misunderstanding would soon be at an end, along with the convenient financial arrangement—all the arrangements we’d set up over the past few years.  Of course, the bank would probably think Nick had left me for another woman, which was technically the truth.

Nick was getting married.

I repeated that sentence a few times as I turned right onto Kimberley Road, trying to make it an everyday, normal statement instead of a major upheaval.  An upheaval made worse by the frequent calls and voice mail messages that were encouraging my recent daydreams of homicide.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want my brother to be happy—I wasn’t entirely selfish.  But Nick’s marriage was going to change everything.  And after mulling over the problem for a few weeks, I’d decided that it wasn’t so much what was going to happen as who was making it happen.

I could not believe that my brother was going to marry Annette Billingsley.  I knew from personal experience that love could be blind stupid, but this . . .

Annette was everything I was proud not to be, from her artificially enhanced figure—it is genetically improbable to be a size two and a double-D, Dolly Parton notwithstanding—to her manipulative, avaricious, and all too obvious ways of getting what she wanted from the opposite sex.  And she thought I was a homely, sour-grape-fueled, man-hating control freak.

We were each fully aware of the other’s opinion, too, which proves that effective communication isn’t necessarily the answer to world peace.

Nick, one of nature’s ostriches, apparently assumed, since nothing had been discussed, that Annette would simply move in, start adding a paycheck a month to the household account, and all would be well.  To be fair, we had been more or less civil to each other for his sake, so the poor man was probably unaware that a court order from God wouldn’t make us give each other access to money.

Living in the same house was unthinkable.

Thanksgiving dinner alone was going to be something of a trial, unless I snapped and poisoned her potatoes—except Annette would rather die than eat a starch after two p.m.  I grinned as the wind shoved me across the parking lot and into the grocery store. Maybe just offering her potatoes would do it . . .

I went up and down the aisles in my habitual pattern, produce to meat to dairy to frozen, selecting the staples on my list and the more perishable ingredients for tomorrow’s feast.  A Fitzgerald Family Thanksgiving owes much to the time-honored tradition of full fat dairy products, which I don’t keep on hand, as a rule.

Nick would’ve had the refrigerator stuffed full of them, if he could’ve, along with half the bakery department—and wouldn’t Annette have something to say about that—but the weekly shopping was my job, like the laundry was his.  Though I guessed I’d be making better friends with the washing machine in the near future.

My cell vibrated while I was pricing sour cream.  I checked the number, shoved the phone back into my coat pocket, and selected two pints of Swiss Valley.  A short while later, a single beep told me I had a message, which I also ignored.

I wondered whether arsenic or hemlock would make a better choice of seasonings.  But wasn’t hemlock a spring herb?  I had the new Penzie’s spice catalog at home—maybe I should see if they had a Socrates Blend.

Arranging my groceries on the conveyor belt in the order I wished them to be bagged, I switched gears from the amusing to the practical, and thought through the financial side of keeping up the house on one salary. I didn’t have to worry about a mortgage—thank you, Grandpa Frank—and the last quarterly property tax payment for the year was ready to go.  Only eight hundred and sixty-three dollars owed to the equity line of credit for last year’s roof replacement, and I had six years to—

“Don’t put the bread in with the cans, please,” I said, startling the teenager who was tossing my groceries into random bags.  “Put it with the eggs.  And please unload half of that one  into another bag, then double bag both.”  I kept an eye on him as he complied.  “Thank you.”

I could handle the taxes by myself, I thought, as I signed the card reader in exchange for a receipt that was almost a foot longer than normal.  Holiday or not, I winced at the total.  Everyday household accounts might pinch a little once Nick was gone. But I could always cancel the cable and wear more sweaters.

I shivered as I steered my cart through the frozen parking lot.  More sweaters might not be possible—I was already wearing half a drawerful and it hadn’t snowed, yet.  I’m too skinny to deal well with Iowa winters, though my friend Chloe says that someone meeting me for the first time in December would assume I needed Weight Watchers.  One more layer of clothing would make it difficult to bend at the joints.

The bags safely loaded into the trunk of my silver Civic, I headed for home.

I wound my way through the mish-mash of residential streets, the leaves swirling in panic as I drove through.  Early Autumn made Winfield County a gorgeous riot of color, but now only a few trees still clung tight to their ragged glory, despite the weather’s efforts to beat them bald.   It would have been quicker, maybe, to use River Drive, but the scenery, which included the businesses that had sprung up along the Mississippi over the past fifty years to block the view, wouldn’t have been half as pretty.

To hear Aunt Bernice tell it, our area, high on Bridge Hill,  had been the premier location in the city when the current desirable neighborhoods were still dismantling their Civil War training barracks.   But  she admits we’ve  had some setbacks since then, though in the last decade we’d become popular with people who could see lovely architectural bones underneath the ruinous vinyl siding and were willing to dedicate themselves to repairing the damages done by time and tenants.

But Fitzgerald House, the largest pile west of Union Street, had been tended, pampered, and catered to from the moment Ezra Fitzgerald, the lumber king, carried his bride, the former Clara Cruikshank, over the threshold.  It held court on Bridge Avenue with other homes of pedigree, now owned by families my aunt considered usurpers of history.

I peered up at the gutters of Fitzgerald House as I followed the driveway around to the garage.  The new guards seemed to be working, which was good.  If Nick actually went through with the wedding, I wasn’t going to be the one hanging off the roof to scoop out any accumulated muck, and I didn’t know if my budget would stretch enough to hire a service.

I slotted my car into the attached garage, which had been added to the house years before the city Historical Preservation Commission—or Aunt Bernice— might have made an issue of it. Thank heavens for Great-Uncle Randolf, without whom I would have frozen solid before I could bring in all the groceries.

My phone rang just as I finished easing the last celery heart into the overfull crisper, and I answered it without checking, assuming it was Chloe, who always rang after work.

It wasn’t.

“Oh,” I said.  “Hello, Annette.  Yes, I received all your messages, but I was driving.  I know you do—I don’t.  Were you?  He did, did he . . . ?  No, I think the Pfaltzgraff  is perfectly fine for Thanksgiving.  . .  Yes.  I do.  It even has a cornucopia pattern . . .  Yes, it is a family tradition—plus it can be put in the dishwasher, too, unless you’re volunteering to wash eighteen settings of Spode by hand?  Uh-huh.”  I clenched the phone in my fist.  “Well, thank you very much for your approval.  Goodbye.”  I shut the phone very carefully, opened it, and punched up my second emergency contact.

As expected, it went directly to voice mail.  “This is Zee,” I said.  “I am going to kill her dead and mount her head in the den next to Moriarty.**  Come on over as soon as you can to help me plan—I’ll be home.”

I turned the ringer to vibrate and left it on the counter.  There was a CSI marathon starting at noon.  Maybe I could pick up some tips.


*You know that riddle about getting a rat, a cat, and a dog over a river in a canoe, and you can take two animals at at time, but you can’t leave the rat and the cat or the cat and the dog alone together?  I went and wrote me one o’ them . . .

**Stuffed moose head.  I was on a roll.

Random Thursday: Bagels, Brainstorming, and Belgian Jazz

Random Thursday (ˈrandəm ˈTHərzdā):  the day on which Sarah plunks down all the odd bits and pieces she’s gathered during the week in an effort to avoid writing a real post, the assembly of which usually ends up taking twice as much time as actually sitting down and creating real content.


With Friends Like These, Who Needs Pigeons?

This morning, a friend sent me an e-mail with Pigeon Impossible in the subject line.

For the record, this is a terrible thing to do to someone who just sent you a synopsis draft for a novel with Pigeon in the title.

When I finally opened the e-mail, I found a video link and a brief note saying, “Relax, I haven’t read it yet.  Paranoid much?”

With friends like this, do you blame me?

It’s almost as bad as having this guy in charge of the nuclear suitcase:

Thanks for the vid, Kev.  You stinker.


 Save Sarah’s Sanity

Okay, seriously people—despite your dubious taste in blogs*, I know you’re all brilliant in ways I am not and it’s brainstorming time:

How can I catch the new Sherlock episodes on BBC One online without paying for an exorbitantly expensive service for a year—good God, what’s happened to the exchange rate—or without buying a plane ticket from Illinois to England  and throwing my obsessed self on poor Sarah P.’s mercy (I can cover a plane seat or a hotel, not both), since the Canadian Duchess has gone temporarily AWOL?

Sherlock isn’t arriving in the States until May.  May.  I can’t wait five months.  I’ll go insane** and take every single one of you with me.   By mid-March, I’ll be stationed below the virtual bedroom window of the whole Internet screaming “SherrrrLLLLOOOOCK!!!” in my second*** best Marlon Brando Streetcar impression.

“Scandal in Belgravia” starts at 8:10 pm on New Year’s Day, so we’ve got until 2 am EST on Monday (think Chicago), or a reasonable amount of time afterward (think hours, not months, pretty please) to make this work.

Comment below or e-mail me your ideas—I’d prefer not to risk being arrested or fined (the exchange rate again) or cash in my meager retirement fund to finance it.  And if it involves a procedure more complicated than plug-and-play, you’re going to have to dumb the instructions waaaaay down.

One of you must have an in with Stephen Moffat or Mark Thompson’s personal marker or something like that, right?  Anyone a friend of a school friend of a friend of the key grip?

Anyone?  Anything?

Don’t make me do the pouty Brando puppy eyes.  No one wants that.


Docteur Qui?

One of the miracles of Boxing Day was the addition of BBCAmerica to our local cable provider’s offerings.

So even though BBCAmerica didn’t buy the rights to Sherlock, ^ at least I have Doctor Who, though a day too late for the Christmas Special—but a day’s delay for the rerun beats waiting for the DVD set (insert pause for pointed silence here).

And speaking of the good Doctor, and the length of time it takes to import BBC shows^^ I was watching Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra^^^ the other day, and fell in love with his version of the Doctor Who theme, which also has Lyra’s stamp of approval:

Grace, you lived in Belgium for a while, right?  What’s the verdict?


*Hi, there.

**Hush.  Y’all ain’t seen nothing, yet.

***Because I will be keeping my shirt on, thanks very much.  Even insanity has its limits.

^What were they thinking?  Is their marketshare so high that they can dismiss all the non-British fans of the show?  You can’t tell me it’s too expensive—PBS bought it, for heaven’s sake.  At a delay discount, sure, but c’mon.

^^ And clumsy segues, while we’re at it . . .

^^^Bill Bailey is nine kinds of cool and this program displays at least eight of those.  You can view it on YouTube here.  If you don’t have an hour to spare, you can’t miss to the explanation of the bassoon, which is two kinds all by itself.

Poetry Wednesday: For the Birds

Poets love birds, and no wonder.

The power and freedom of flight mirrors the imagination and evokes wonder or jealousy or both; the songs are joyous or lonely or spooky as all heck*; they’re infinitely metaphorical; the sheer diversity of the Aves class guarantees something for every sentiment . . . and, you know, most of ‘em are pretty.

Birds, in a word, are versatile.  And they rhyme a treat, too.

I have many bird poems in my overstuffed clipping file, but pigeons** have been on my mind lately–don’t know why—and for some reason, people tend not to write odes to what Sir Terry Pratchett once called “effluvia with wings.”

In fact, I found only one pigeon poem in the pile—you can always count on Carl Sandburg to find the nobility in a citified sky rat:

(Carl Sandburg)

The flutter of blue pigeon’s wings
Under a river bridge
Hunting a clean dry arch,
A corner for a sleep—
This flutters here in a woman’s hand.

A singing sleep cry,
A drunken poignant two lines of song,
Somebody looking clean into yesterday
And remembering, or looking clean into
To-morrow, and reading—
This sings here as a woman’s sleep cry sings.

Pigeon friend of mine,
Fly on, sing on.

This is a good poem—Carl Sandburg needs his own post—but it looked lonely on its own.  So I went hunting and found the coolest poetry promotion ever.

In 2008, The Red Room Company—a Sydney-based, non-profit organization that promotes Australian poets and poetry***—asked eight poets to create original bird- or flight-related poems.  Each poem was attached to a racing pigeon, and the company invited the public to guess which poem—or pigeon, I suppose—would make it back to the loft in the least amount of time. Hundreds of people joined in the fun and the race was considered a great success.^

And the poems were fantastic.  They’re listed here,^ with their respective pigeons.

Poetically enough, “Velocity” by Ivy Ireland (carried by Jimbala) won, but I think I’d have bet on “A word from the feral pigeon” by Andy Quan, (carried by This Is Not Art Smokey).  It’s as defiant and unapologetic and funky as the title suggests.

So that’s pigeons taken care of, but there were three other bird related poems that I set aside, just in case my hunt was unsuccessful.  I’m still waiting for permission for one of them, but I’m going to assume the other two poets won’t mind.

 Birds of Passage
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1858)

Black shadows fall
From the lindens tall,
That lift aloft their massive wall
Against the southern sky;
And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms
The fields that round us lie.
But the night is fair,
And everywhere
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,
.And distant sounds seem near,
And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
Through the dewy atmosphere.
I hear the beat
Of their pinions fleet,
As from the land of snow and sleet
They seek a southern lea.
I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.
O, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.
They are the throngs
Of the poet’s songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.
This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,
From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.

I don’t know if this poem is the reason a flock of starlings is a murmuration^^^ or if Longfellow even had starlings in mind when he wrote it—but I like to think so.  And if someone can find a more beautiful description of what writing poetry must be like, drop me a line, because I want to hear it.

Anyone who’s gone through the US public school system has read this one at least once in their lives, even if they don’t remember it—and those who do usually remember the raw worm bit best.  But I like it very much—I can see the bird hopping around—and that’s the single most important thing in poetry.  Right?

 A Bird came down the Walk

(Emily Dickinson)

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought –
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam –
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

You have until Midnight EST tonight to send me your entry for the Poetry Wednesday Limerick Contest!
*Or inexplicable.  Seriously, “Nevermore” what?

**The wingless, gullible kind, but still . . .

***The existence of which is excellent all by itself.  Why don’t we have more of these all over the world?

^Though the camera pigeon disappeared during the race and is presumed dead.  Personally, I like to think Cam was waylaid by an enterprising tabloid editor and has built a nice career for himself as an aerial paparazzi.  Notice how some of the footage of the recent(ish) Royal Wedding looks like it was shot from the tops of those trees lining the Cathedral aisles?

^^ http://pigeonpoetry.com, if you prefer to cut and paste.

^^^ We interrupt this poetry discussion to give you a performance poem by experts in the field, pun intended:

Random Thursday: Glass Engines of the Ninja Challenge . . . and some other stuff

Engineering can be beautiful

Janie and I kept wincing, sure this was going to break— but it didn’t.


Janie’s current favorite joke

What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?

A carrot.


This. Doesn’t. Suck.


Sunny’s current favorite joke

What’s brown and sticky?

A stick.


Even knowing what I know . . . I’d accept.



funny pictures history - Naughty Limericks

Don’t forget to write your limerick for this month’s Super Amazing Poetry Wednesday Contest!

Rules (and a story about my misspent youth) are here. Potential choices of prize are here.