Welcome to the third installment of my 3 part series, “So You Want to Write a Novel”. I’m back to discuss more tips and tricks for cranking out that first draft quickly. Last week we covered Plotting, Time Management, and of course getting that WIP started up and keeping it moving forward. This week we’ll look at some common problems novice authors face, and what to do when you finish that wonderful manuscript.
Just for reference, these are the writing steps this series covers:
- Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm
- Hook: the main story arc
- Time management
- Write, write, write, write, write
- The little things
- 1st Draft! Throw a party!
Okay, let’s go. There’s no time to waste… After all, it’s Tipsy Thursday and we all have things to do 😉
Little issues that novelists like to struggle with:
This part will be a little Q+A. Common questions that show up on the forums, and my personal answers to them. If you have a different answer that works better for you please leave it in a comment. Also any questions that you’d like to see addressed in future Tipsy Thursdays!
How many pages should my book be? Writers focus on word count, for a reason. Font sizes and styles can make the same amount of words appear differently in a finished product, so don’t worry about page count, worry about word count. How long? It depends on the genre and target audience, as well as if you already have a couple books out by the publishing house you are applying to and which house it is. For each genre, you can Google word count ranges. Shoot for the top of the normal range for your story type if you are putting in all the details. If your style is skimming over a lot of scenes to get finished quicker, shoot for the lower end of the word count spectrum. Generally speaking, first novel from an unpublished author should be around 80,000, but this depends on so many things, it’s best to do a Google search so that you can see the latest trends for each genre, age-range, etc. Books seem to be getting longer.
What if my story is too long/short? Edit, first, this will give you a better idea of where you are. Then re-evaluate. Are you boring the reader with your overly long descriptions of every spec of dirt in the scene? Are you telling and giving no descriptions and feelings instead of showing? Does your story need another sub-plot, or is there a pretty useless one in there? Generally speaking, you don’t NEED exactly the mid range of your target, but you should aim for it, especially if this is your first work. If your last book sold 500,000 copies, then you can probably ignore this whole paragraph, because your agent and the publishing house aren’t going to care how long your story is if they know it’ll sell.
But if you are an unpublished author, most houses are going to try to fit your story into their stock book size, which means you need to fill those pages, and not so much that they have to print the book in font 8 to get your story to fit. Generally speaking, you can always tweak your story. Too long? Look for every unnecessary word or sentence and kill it. Too short? Add another twist or subplot and see where that goes, and make sure that all your scenes are properly fleshed out. A big reason for short word counts is telly writing. I’m a victim of this, but still tend to knock out 60-70k first drafts. Fleshing them out and showing makes the word count bloat quite a bit. Whatever you do, don’t pad your book with useless pages just to meet a word count. Ideally, there should be a good reason for every word.
And hey, if your story is as polished as you can make it and still long or short, then push it anyways. Chances are you’ve done a lot more polishing than someone who landed in the target zone on their first draft. If it needs the extra words or wouldn’t benefit from more, then it’s done. Not every book is going to fit nicely into a publishers normal block, just make sure you have a good reason for it being long or short.
I’ve been staring at an empty page for an hour? Writer’s block. That crazy muse is out drinking again instead of feeding you ideas. How dare she! There are few things scarier than a blank page. For me, pushing the laptop back on the desk and pulling out my TWSBI and a pad of paper is the answer. I put the pen down on the paper, and ink starts flowing whether I move it or not, so I start moving it to prevent a large blot that will ruin my pad. If nothing story related comes to mind, I start writing insane things, or contemplating how the story arc would change if the troublesome character suddenly got hit by a bus, or a falling piece of space station. For me, putting pen to paper gets the ideas flowing with the ink, and I have a special pen that comes out every time I need to do this. My magic pen. You could also try reading a couple short stories online, pick up your favorite book and skim a chapter or two. Write a list of every possible thing that could happen next, pick one and run with it, or better do something different. Kill a character, hell, kill two, that’ll teach them to start doing stuff. Look at your outline and instead of moving forward from your current spot, work backwards from the next plot point. This is what works for me. Post your favorite cure for writer’s block in a comment. Everyone could benefit from some new Muse Bait.
How long should my chapters be? As long as they need to be. I tend to write longish 3000-4000 word chapters. I’ve seen chapters as short as 500 words. Part of this depends on your story. For readers, I think shorter chapters tend to be better, because they provide more stopping points, and increase the likelihood that the reader will say “one more chapter before bed.” Unfortunately for me, shorter chapters just don’t suit my writing style. I like to complete some kind of plot objective with each chapter. My advice, keep them below 6000 words, but other than that, don’t worry about it. Nobody is going to knock you for improper chapter length.
Long or short sentences/words? Try to avoid long sentences or the overuse of long words. If they are needed for your story, fine, but if they aren’t needed, you might be writing well beyond your voice, and it will show. As I new writer I tried to fill each sentence with tonnes of adjectives and frilly edges. This is frustrating to readers. Make them short. Make them readable. The average sentence length, if I recall correctly, is around six words. Pick the right words, don’t overcompensate by writing run-on sentences or pulling every long word in your dictionary and forcing it into your novel somewhere. Also, if you have pet words, try to use them only once or not at all. One of my favorite words is trepidation, and I use it once in each novel. EXACTLY once, because otherwise it’ll show up everything my characters get nervous.
Any other questions, or answers to the above questions, please leave a comment. The more the merrier.
By now, hopefully you are well on your way to knocking out that first draft. When you are done, you should do something nice for yourself. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to dive right in with the editing. A couple days or even a week makes a nice break to reflect on your accomplishment, and it’s a big accomplishment. Most aspiring authors will never finish their first draft. That’s just a fact. I blame a lack of inspiration and not getting the right help, but I’m sure there are some who just quit, and that makes kittens sad everywhere. So if you are still plugging away, for the kittens’ sakes, don’t quit. We don’t need anymore unhappy kittens.
Now that you’re done and you are on break time, it’s a good time to start researching query letters, and of course brainstorming for that next book. You are writing another one, yes? Don’t wait, start now. Let the ideas flow through the editing process. Start looking for beta readers. Ideally, some people who don’t know you personally and won’t try to spare your feelings. It can be hard listening to criticism after pouring so many hours into writing, editing, and finishing a novel, but listen to them. You don’t need to follow every single piece of advice, but you should be prepared for the truth to hit you pretty hard.
I prepare by taking a deep breath, reading any comments, and then pushing it all aside for a day or so to let everything sink in. Then read the comments again, and go back through your story to fix any unresolved issues. The beta readers and editors are not there to make you feel good and hold your hand, they are there to help you make your story the best that it can be before you release it on unsuspecting audiences. Try not to let it get to you. You’re skin will thicken with experience, and your story will be even better for it.
I also recommend finding a writing group, like writingchallenge on twitter, or the AbsoluteWrite forums. Find friends on facebook who are writing. Follow authors on twitter. Join the group. Writers are exceptional at encouraging other writers, of any stripe or experience level. You also might consider tinkering with a couple short stories or pieces of flash fiction to hone your writing skills. Submit them to magazines to earn those writing credits that agents love so much.
Another thing to do, whether planning to self-publish or go the traditional route, is start looking into advertizing your book. You might think you get an agent and then start receiving checks, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way. You need to start learning to promote yourself and your book, even if a publishing house is doing the printing. Talk to local bookstore owners, find book clubs and other reviewers online, talk to bloggers (heck, send me a copy if you’re having trouble, but please warn me first. I stay pretty busy), figure out good ways to print bookmarks that can be “forgotten” at coffee shops or gas station counters, do a video add on YouTube, tell your friends (the ones who liked the Beta and want a free copy) to tell their friends. Advertising your book is the only way to stick it in front of readers eyes, so learn everything you can and start an author site on WordPress. Build an audience and as you get closer to publication, get that hype train rolling.
Obviously, despite these long posts, there’s so much more to dive into with each of these topics, but hopefully I’ve provided some insight for you. If there’s anything on here you’d like to see more information on, leave a comment. Heck leave a comment anyways. I love comments (if you couldn’t tell by now) 🙂
I hope to see you next Tipsy Thursday with more writing tips!