by Jill Amadio
How do writers count the milestone ways?
A tweak here. A tweak there. Four more adjectives. Seven additional adverbs. No, no adverbs. Fiddle. Okay, two more red herrings to weave into the plot, a couple of metaphors, one more flashback and the manuscript is finally ready for the editor. Perfect. Except you’re lacking the 70,000 words your publisher demands. You need 4,000 more words.
While mystery writers have plenty of elements – characters, settings, plot, point of view, and dialogue – to play with, it’s too easy to come up short if you fail to keep an eye on your word count. (I might add that my ghostwriting clients believe that the number of pages written is the criterion, or milestone, until I tell them otherwise).
How do writers count the milestone ways? Many diligent authors set up charts to schedule how their work-in-progress will achieve its goal of around 60,000-70,000 words over the course of months. Some authors give themselves goals of, say, 1,000 words a day. Like most I constantly check the number that sits pitilessly at bottom left of my Word document page, keeping me happy or grumpy by counting every keystroke except for punctuation marks. But many writers set themselves milestones instead.
Three American mystery writers & an ex-pat Brit
I had lunch with these recently in Burbank, California agree that they prefer to measure their output with milestones. This means forgetting about word count as they progress. Instead, they set up markers. When they have their plots worked out, given birth to their characters, created fictional cities and villages, and decided who kills whom, these authors check off each accomplishment from their list.
Linda O. Johnston, a former lawyer, has written over 50 mysteries and romantic suspense books split among four publishers: Harlequin Nocturne, Midnight Ink, Berkeley Prime Crime, and Harlequin Romantic Suspense.
“Simply beginning to plot your book, even if you are a pantser with no outline and it’s still in your head, you should be pleased that you have reached your first milestone,” she said. “Reaching your proposed writing goal each day is another. One of my big milestones, of course, is always finishing a first draft. And don’t stop at having polished your novel. Create milestones for querying agents, or self-publishing, and thinking up marketing ideas. Just making such a list can be a milestone.”
Taking a different tack but still using milestones is former private detective G.B Pool. As prolific as Johnston, Pool writes three mystery series, fantasy fiction, and teaches short story writing, as well as giving workshops on dialogue and opening lines. She also writes a Christmas trilogy and a mystery short story collection. With all these threads, how does she keep them untangled?
“With milestones without deadlines”, she said. “I never give myself exact dates by which to complete a chapter, or a character biography. As I am self-published I don’t have house editors breathing down my neck and I can extend book completion for as long as I like.
My strictest milestones, though, are after the book is ready for publication. Formatting, graphics, obtaining ISBN numbers, and cover design are crucially important milestones. It took me two years to learn all of these issues and now I do my own instead of hiring a designer or formatter. I am still learning because self-publishing rules continue to change and be updated.” With so many different covers to design depending on the genre, does she ever get confused? “No, I thrive on the variety. Keeps me on my toes!”
World-traveled photojournalist, editor, and book reviewer Jackie Houchin writes children’s mysteries. She sets them in Malawi, where she travels frequently with her church group to provide summer camps for the local missionary kids. The stories are based on life in Africa, and achieving her milestones is haphazard depending on when she visits, where she travels, to whom she talks for plot ideas, and how much writing hours she has left after teaching a short story class and collecting photos for an anthology.
Earlier children’s stories are serialized, and two MG books are privately published, the first, “Molly Duncan and the Case of the Missing Kitten” and Princess Ebony and The Silver Wolf.”
Rosemary Lord came to Hollywood as a reporter and actress from Devon. She’s worked as a publicist for Columbia Pictures, and lectures on Hollywood history. Her best-selling non-fiction books are award-winning histories of Hollywood and Los Angeles, and her first suspense novel making the rounds of agents is set in 1920s jazz age Hollywood.
Rosemary’s milestones are specific: Idea, Organization, Era, Plot, Research, Characters, Setting, Writing, Editing, Publication, and Marketing. “I count the first sentence as my initial milestone achieved,” she said. “It has to grab. My research milestones include famous streets like Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards that I need to walk along for descriptions in my books. Sunset, for instance, goes for miles, straight down to the beach, and I cheat by counting it as several milestones.
“To me, markers are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to be fitted in as you write and create your work. I don’t follow my list of milestones in order. I often cross one or two items off without even doing them because they put too much pressure on me, admittedly self-imposed. I like to think I am making progress with the check-offs but in actuality, like most writers, I go back and add or delete something, so that particular milestone isn’t truly completed until I write The End.”
How do YOU measure milestones in your writing…or do you?
All authors agreed that the most significant milestone they reach is one of emotion and the last on their agenda. It is the feeling of satisfaction when every item has been checked off, and pure pleasure, relief, and reward awaits.
Jill Amadio hails from Cornwall, U.K., like the character in her crime series. Amadio was a reporter in Spain, Colombia, Thailand, and the U.S. She is a true crime author, ghosted a thriller, writes a column for MysteryPeople ezine, and freelances for My Cornwall magazine. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Crime Writers Association UK. She lives in Southern California.
*This article was re-posted by permission of the author from MysteryPeople. an online magazine in the United Kingdom.