Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 6, 2019

Limits—and No Limits—for Writers

Definite Limits, Approximate Limits, Infinite Limits, and No Limits for Writers

by Fae Rowen

I have to admit that I giggled when I decided to write about limits. I mean, how can a calculus teacher not be excited about getting to blog about limits?

No worries, you won't be getting a math lesson from me today. But I have to admit that I cannot think about limits without mathematical ideas. So here we go with limits—as they apply to writing.

Definite Limit: A definite limit is an exact number, a constant.

In life, we might call it a hard limit or hard line, something you cannot cross.

Like a deadline for taxes or a job application. Or delivering a book to an editor.

In writing, it's the requirements of genre writing, like the HEA in a romance or red herrings in a mystery. Your publisher expects a clean copy of your manuscript, with zero typos and zero grammatical errors. I have a friend who writes for a New York publisher who requires her to have exactly twenty-two chapters in every book. Not twenty-three, not twenty-one.

As writers, we all have our definite limits about certain words we will not put on the page or types of scenes we will not write. These are all non-negotiable.

Approximate Limit: An approximate limit is the limiting factor in a situation. Let's say you are at the fifty-yard line on a football field, pointed toward the goal. For your first play, you run half the distance to the goal line. Your second play you run half the remaining distance to the goal line. You continue running half the distance to the goal line for as long as you're willing to run. Soon, you're within an eyelash of the goal line, but when you take your next move, you will be half the most recent distance to the goal. You will never reach the goal line, although you will be painfully close to it. Your limit is the goal line.

An example of an approximate limit in writing is the page or word count a publishing house requires. Eighty-five thousand words is a target. A little above or a little below is fine. No one expects you to turn in a book with exactly eighty-five thousand words. If you're writing a thriller, your main character encounters danger and suspense close to the first page. Some set-up may be allowed, but your readers must be on the edge of their seats by the end of the first chapter, which becomes your approximate limit.

Infinite limit: A strict mathematical definition of infinite limit is something (a function) increasing, or decreasing, without bound. In other words, something gets bigger and bigger and never levels off or gets smaller. Wouldn't it be nice if your bank account had an infinite upper bound, and just kept getting bigger and bigger, even if by just a small amount? (Note: Technically, an infinite limit means the limits does not exist, however, that is the mathematical purist view.)

As a writer, I think of the emotion in my story as an infinite limit. It doesn't matter what the emotion is—fear, love, or something else—but everything my characters think, do, say or experience should ratchet up that emotion until the end of the book. Readers read fiction to feel emotion, to make a connection. It is my job to take them deeper and farther along that journey to a satisfying ending, so they can continue feeling and thinking about the story after the last word. They may not remember the plot in two years, but if they remember the way they felt during reading the novel and afterward, I've done my job.

When a reader encounters this infinite limit, they tell others about your books, they put your next book on pre-order.

No Limit or A Limit Does Not Exist: This one sounds scary, particularly if you've ever lived with a teen. It simply means that when you approach a problem from two opposite directions, you do not end up at the same place. Yes, it's like your best argument for your teen to do something turned around to come at the issue from the opposite direction and get an entirely different result.

This is frustrating, even dangerous in real life. It's dangerous as a writer, too, because this is the place that readers talk about throwing the book at the wall. Our logic, our genre promise, our characters, must follow rules—either society's, someone they love (or hate or work for) or their own.

Be very careful in no limit territory in your writing.

But in your writing life, remember that there are no limits. None at all. Whether you're just starting out, ready to begin the submitting process, starting publishing, or continuing an established writing career, you are the sculptor of that career. If you need to learn more about the craft, take classes, read articles and books. If you haven't finished a book yet, finish it this year. If you don't know how to market, attend a conference, talk to other authors and learn how to market your work and yourself. If you can't bear to write one more romance and want to ditch your successful career, decide how you can change things up by putting a twist on your romance idea and write that story in a different genre.

The only way you fail as a writer is to quit writing. That's a definite limit.

How can you remove some of the limits you've put on yourself? Do you have someone you can ask for support when necessary?


Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules. P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

8 comments on “Limits—and No Limits—for Writers”

  1. Having quit taking math classes after a bad run-in with trigonometry in high school, I admit to be worried when you reminded me you were a calculus teacher about to discuss limits. But you did it beautifully, and now I'm thinking about where I've unnecessarily limited myself. I think my wall has long been marketing, and it's what I'm working on this year—opening myself up to doing sales on my terms and getting help where needed.

    1. Ohmygod! Trigonometry was what defeated me too! I just knew instinctively that I would never ever ever in my life need to know the cosine of an angle. And I never have.

      All math stopped at trigonometry. Now, algebra...that was the kind of math I liked. And I still use it - every time I write an Excel formula. 🙂

      1. Aha! "Abstract" math is good for something. Don't worry, when I was getting my Masters' Degree in Mathematics I said something like, "When they cart me away in an ambulance, knowing this stuff is not going to help me." I get it...

    2. Limits are limits--in math, in life, in writing. But seeing different kinds of limits, like you see in calculus, can help us think about them differently. When you conquer marketing, I'll be right there to benefit from you triumphing over that limit!

  2. You know I'm shuddering. With you, Julie - Geometry and Trig...I hate math! In spite of being a career accountant. But accounting is arithmetic, which is waaaaay easier!

    Limits on myself? Only ones I set in my mind. Oh, and as I age, my body is setting a few. 😉

    1. Isn't that the sad truth, Laura? Sometimes I think I need my own personal wrangler. Oh, that would be you!

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