Monday, 25 February 2013

How many?

How many books have you written?

This is another question I often get asked at writer talks. Like How long does it take to write a book?, it's a deceptively straightforward one, which I struggle to answer coherently.

For one thing, there's the matter of size. War and peace counts as one book, but so does a 32-page picture book. (The much beloved picture book Rosie's walk only has about 32 words, let alone pages - but it's a classic, too.)

Some people churn out books at the rate of dozens a year; others only ever produce one masterpiece. What would be the point of asking Harper Lee How many books have you written? What would be the point of asking James Patterson?

I find myself gabbling information about different formats of books and School Journal pieces, but I can sense that the person asking the question just wants a number. Five? Ten? A hundred?.

Sometimes my reply includes the fact that I've written over 80 pieces for the School Journal as well as other educational publications. It's a number, so it feels like it's anchored to reality. But what is a "piece"? A story in the School Journal could potentially resurface elsewhere as a picture book - as happened to Margaret Mahy's wonderful The lion in the meadow (sadly, none of my Journal stories are anywhere near as good.)

Is asking How many books have you written? different from asking How many books have you had published? That's another aspect of the question that I've only just identified. Many writers have a drawerful of manuscripts that have never seen the light of day, but that they needed to write to be able to produce a manuscript that was of publishable standard.

Like that previous question (How long does it take...) , I wonder if there are other things going on in the mind of the person asking it. Maybe it's an attempt to quantify the business of writing: tick off how long, tick off how many.  Maybe we're just used to counting and measuring things.

I think it's good to know that some things can't be counted and can't be measured.


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