There’s a rare breed of writers who can sit down and write a novel that’s both well written and applicable to its intended market in a single shot (plus a moderately painless round of revisions). I’ve heard about these mythical people and perhaps so have you. However, for many of us, there is much more strategy and forethought than that. Consider these five things as you begin your next (or first) novel.
1. What age group and genre will your book be in?
This is a bigger question that you might originally surmise. I’ve had friends reach out and tell me how they are planning on writing a novel. Once the initial excitement has died down, my first question is always this one.
Why is that? Genre and word count impacts everything.
Although this may sound far away just yet, when you complete your book, you have to be able to give it some vague label as to its intended readership. This is important not just for agents who will pitch your book to editors, but also once your book gets to the consumer level.
So, what do I mean? Within each age group and genre, there are expectations on word count.
One of the most popularly sited sources on word count is Writer’s Digest. In short, here is what they recommend for adult manuscripts (commercial and literary):
- Less than 70,000 words: Too short
- 70,000 – 79,999 words: Likely too short, but you’re probably fine
- 80,000 – 89,999 words: In the clear
- 90,000 – 99,999 words: Generally safe
- 100,000 – 109,999 words: This might be too long, but you’re probably fine
- 110,000 words or above: Too long
However, there are different expectations within each genre that impacts acceptable word counts. For example, fantasy and science fiction novels tend to run longer. The word count expectation for adult fantasy/science fiction manuscripts are as follows:
- 90,000 – 100,000 words: This might be too short, but you’re probably fine
- 100,000 – 115,000 words: Ideal range
- 115,000 – 124,000 words: This might be too long, but you’re probably fine
Depending on the subject matter and age range, 20,000 – 55,000 words is ideal for middle grade (MG) manuscripts, and 55,000 – 69,999 words is a great range for young adult (YA).
Therefore, if you’re writing a YA fiction novel and your completed manuscript is 100,000 words, you, my friend, have a lot of editing to do. Which stinks, because, let’s be honest, they’re our darlings.
In addition to word count, the material of your book, itself, will need to be considered. This is especially applicable for manuscripts intended for young eyes—i.e., YA, MG, and picture books. One example of this is that cursing and any explicit reference to sex is strongly frowned upon in YA literature.
2. Are you a gardener or an architect (Also called a pantser vs. Plotter)?
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners,” said George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire series. “The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”
Did you make it through that whole chunk of text or did your eyes just glaze over? Yeah, me too.
Here’s what he’s saying:
- The architects are the writers who plan out EVERYTHING—every chapter, every big plot point. They know where their characters are going to be and when at any given point in their story.
- The gardeners, on the other hand, are the writers who are big proponents for letting inspiration guide them. They create scenes and write chapters as they go along and see where it leads the story.
Knowing your tendencies as a writer is an incredible strength. However, as you’re just starting your novel, you may not know these just yet. But whether you are a gardener or an architect, I recommend laying out a vague series of events for what’s going to happen in your novel—which brings me to my next point.
3. Lay out your big plot points.
Janice Hardy introduces in Fiction University the idea of a three-act structure, which I think is a lovely concept. It may not work for every writer in its entirety, but it’s a great guiding structure—a rough map for where your story needs to go to keep you focused (and your characters in order).
In a three-act structure, there’s a beginning, middle, and an end, which has a setup, rising action and stakes, and a resolution. Act one is roughly 25 percent of the novel, introducing the protagonists in his or her world as well as the problems that need to be solved. There’s typically an opening scene, an inciting event, and what Hardy calls an “Act One Problem,” which gives the protagonist a goal and a decision that they must make.
Act two takes up approximately 50 percent of your novel and consists of three key plot elements:
- Choice: The character embraces the problem he/she has been confronted with and takes the opportunity to solve the problem.
- Midpoint Reversal: Something happens to turn the protagonist’s plan upside down. The original plans don’t work and the stakes are raised.
- Disaster: According to Hardy, this happens at around 75 percent of your novel. It’s that crappy moment when everything goes wrong for the protagonist—i.e., their plan fails and the stakes are raised yet again.
Act three, the final 25 percent of your novel, also has three key plot elements: plan (finding the strength to continue, self-realization, and the creation of a new plan), climax (the final confrontation with the antagonist), and the wrap up (the ending).
Keep in mind, this format isn’t an exact science, nor will it work precisely for all writers and their novels. However, consider the arc of your story as you lay out the big plot points:
- Who’s your protagonist?
- Who’s your antagonist?
- What do they want? How do their desires conflict?
- What is the big conflict and how will that go down?
- What are the events leading up to that big conflict?
4. Get to know your characters and your world—perhaps even before you start writing.
One of the best (and strangest) writing exercises I did in college was for a fiction writing class. My professor told us all to sit down and pull out our notebooks. She then proceeded to rattle off a series of questions at a startling pace. What’s our character’s favorite color? What are their favorite hobbies? Favorite food? If they went to a large gathering, what would they be doing? At the end of this exercise, she said: “If you weren’t able to answer these questions (quickly), then it’s likely you don’t know your characters well enough.” It was a lesson that has since stuck with me.
We have to get inside the brains of our characters and lay out their strengths and weaknesses with tangible authenticity. If we can’t answer these (seemingly straightforward) questions, how can we tackle bigger questions, such as what’s the character’s greatest desire or biggest fear?
Therefore, I recommend you take some time to get to know your characters even before you start writing. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, mind you. You could simply make a bulleted list of their likes and dislikes, tendencies, etc., which will help you get to know these characters and write them with consistency in your manuscript.
5. Check out industry trends.
Within each genre—fantasy, women’s fiction, science fiction, western, romance, etc.—there are tropes and scenarios that have been played out (an ungodly number of times) since time began. Although readers like a good classic, it’s also pretty boring to be reading different characters doing the same things over and over again.
The big question you want to ask upfront are: has this been done before? (And, if so, how many times?)
An example of tortured tropes is Strange Chemistry’s Top Ten Tropes in YA, which include:
- Love triangles
- Female protagonist
- The tortured hero
- Missing (or dead) parents
- The quirky best friend
Other examples of tropes could be things like a protagonist with a rough past (parents were alcoholics), starting the story with a dream or character waking up, fairy tale remakes, and so on.
Now, there are certain tropes that are pretty unavoidable—such as a female protagonist. However, be sure to ask yourself: why did I choose to do this in my story and why is it important? If your selection plays in integral part in your writing, keep it! But make sure you think about the why of your decisions as you make them, which will come in handy down the road.