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A Novel Equation, or, The Mathematics of Writing

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A Novel Equation, or, The Mathematics of Writing

Any teacher who claims she doesn’t have favorites is lying. Obviously we have favorites. I’m not a math teacher anymore, but I still tutor part-time. One of my favorite students right now is this tiny sixth grader with a bowl cut who I’ll call Kay. She is so spunky and will often spontaneously sing her answers instead of saying them. “It equals fiiiiive!” she’ll sing, with a flourish of her hands and sometimes spirit fingers.

When I’m tutoring Kay, I often find myself singing, too: “Find a common denominator, please! A little comm denom is allllll we need!”  Pretty dorky, I know.  That’s what happens when you teach middle school.

Anyway, the other day I was working with Kay, and she was getting stressed out about her math test the following day. I told her she should be proud of herself no matter what happened on the test. Back in the fall, she hadn’t even been sure what a fraction was, and now she could add, subtract, multiply, and divide them.


Kay’s concern was with the last few problems on the review sheet. As if fractions weren’t hard enough, her teacher had decided to throw in some algebra. The first problem was:

3/10 + N = 2 2/5

Normally I would go through my whole spiel about how fractions are numbers, too, and we shouldn’t discriminate against them. How would we solve this equation if they were whole numbers? By using inverse operations, of course!

Unfortunately, Kay is in sixth grade and hasn’t taken Algebra yet. She doesn’t know about inverse operations.

“I don’t know what to do!” she wailed. “I’ve never seen a problem like this before!” In her overall agitation she kicked off her boots and threw them across the classroom.

“Deep breath,” I told her. (I also do a lot of yogic breathing with my middle schoolers.) “OK, let’s play it cool.   Let’s find common denominators first and see if that helps us.”

“I don’t know how!” she moaned. She threw herself into a chair and then promptly slunk out of it into a puddle on the floor.

“Sure you know how,” I said. “How can we rewrite those two fractions with a common denominator?”

“I don’t know how to do it for this problem!” She was writhing on the floor, one step away from a total meltdown, so I told her we were going to take a two minute break from math. I asked her about her dog and about what she was going to do for Spring Break. I also pointed to her boots. “Put those back on, please.”

“Oh,” she said, blinking with confusion. “When did I take them off?”


Teacher face!


I don’t normally have meltdowns about math, but I do have meltdowns sometimes about writing. This week I’ve been working on revising a novel. It took me two months to write, and I’ve been revising it off and on for the past two and a half years. (That’s the mathematics of writing for you – not always very logical.)

The thing that has continued to frustrate me about this novel is that I know how it begins, and I know how it ends, but I’m unclear about what exactly should come in the middle.

Now, that I think about it, it’s an awful lot like this problem:

3/10 + N = 2 2/5

What do I need to add?  I just can’t seem to figure out the right N to make the novel work out in the end. The other day, before my tutoring session with Kay, I was sitting at home, staring out the window and muttering to myself like a crazy person. “What if… No, that won’t work. Well, maybe…. No, that won’t work.”

“I don’t know!” I moaned. Then I did some deep breathing.


Cross Country Trip 027

Writing a novel can sometimes feel like a trip to the torture museum.  


I bet you’re all dying to know whether Kay solved her fraction problem, aren’t you?  Well, after our two-minute break, she begrudgingly rewrote the problem with common denominators:

3/10 + N = 2  4/10


“Oh,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s kind of obvious now what N has to be, right?”

“The answer is two and one-tennnnnth!” Kay sang.


*     *    *


It makes me wonder if there’s a similarly obvious answer to my novel problem. Do I need to find a common denominator somehow? Maybe I need to do some rewriting — look at things a different way — and then the solution will suddenly present itself.

So that’s what I’m trying now. I’m rewriting sections in omniscient voice to see if that makes a difference. I’m also adding scenes and deleting scenes and keeping an open mind. Writing is not quite as straight-forward as fractions, but I think eventually I’ll find the right answer.


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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