So, you think you want to write a novel. In fact, you’re positive you have a novel inside you waiting to get out. And you have no idea where to begin.
Or maybe you’ve already started it and you’re somewhere in the middle and you have no clue where to go next.
Maybe you’ve finished it. And you still have no clue what your next step is.
What I’m going to say next will sound cruel and heartless. To be honest, it may not apply to you–and after I say it, you’ll be absolutely positive you’re one of the exceptions. I also think I’m pretty safe in saying that you probably aren’t.
Perhaps 90% or more of first novels are crap. Why can I say this? Because I’ve seen far more attempts at first novels than I care to, and experience has taught me that this is an accurate statement (and could even be a serious underestimate). Given what I know of the percentage of acceptance for novels by agents and publishers, I think I’m on very safe ground making this statement. Granted, they reject for reasons other than crappiness (and some bad ones get accepted and published anyway), but I’m confident that the biggest reason for rejection by far is a poorly wrought novel. By the way, I’ve read a fair number of self-published novels in the past year, ones I’d already read the samples on and decided that they weren’t obvious crap (and believe that I rejected dozens of novels based on bad opening or bad writing in the sample). At least half of the ones I chose to read needed more work–better editing at the very least–and should not have been released yet.
I’ll also add that just because you’ve written for a living (such as non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles) doesn’t mean you can write a good novel the first time out. You might well be able to craft grammatically perfect sentences, but this skill alone does not make a novelist. I’ve seen experienced journalists turn out perfectly awful novels. Why is this? It’s because we’re dealing with completely different forms. It’s no different with musicians. A rock musician might be able to write award-winning songs, but could he write a good symphony? Sure, there are some who can and have, usually because they had classical training in the beginning.
But enough of the doom and gloom. I’m not here to tell you what you can’t do, but what you can do and how to go about it. If you’re a writer of nonfiction, especially technical writing, then you’re likely going to have to unlearn some writing habits to write good fiction. Even if you’re a successful screenwriter, you’re going to need a different skill set for a novel. And do not believe that novels are simply expanded short stories, in case you’ve written those and had a lot published. Again–a different skill set, although a less drastically different one.
Let’s begin with the assumption that you’re starting a novel for the first time. What I’m going to share in this series of blog articles will apply no matter what stage you’re at. IF you’re somewhere along the path already, you might want to backtrack, particularly if you’re stuck.
STEP ONE: Make sure–really sure–that you have a GOOD story idea to begin with, one that readers will want to read about. Be certain it’s a strong story concept and not something you’ve heard of before and decided to copy. Be original.
STEP TWO: Write out a short synopsis of your idea, a couple hundred words at most, of what it’s going to be about. You’re not locked into any of the details, and you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) write the ending. Just write out the basic idea as you see it for now. This will be your initial guide, but it’s not set in stone.
STEP THREE: Is your idea a big enough story idea for the length of novel you’re planning? Novels come in a wide range of lengths. At the low end, we have novellas (20,000-40,000 words). At the high end, we have those thousand-page novels with word counts in the 200,000+ word region. Most novels run 80,000-100,000 words, and those will put you in the region of 300-400 pages in print form. I strongly advise you–as a beginner–NOT to try for anything over 100,000 words, not in one book anyway. And if you’re planning a three plus book series (like Harry Potter) to tell the story, be sure you DO have enough material and that it will be interesting.
“But, Rick, I’ve already finished my first novel, and it’s 200,000 words. There’s no possible way I can shorten it. Everything is important, and I want it to be my masterpiece!”
Leave the masterpiece for when you know what you’re doing. If you try for a magnum opus your first time out, you could be setting yourself up for a failure. Trust me that if you expect anyone to read your first novel, you’ll need to keep it to a manageable length. I can also pretty much guarantee that if it’s that long, it’s probably not very good. Or that only 50% of it is any good. Again, experience has taught me this. There are exceptions, but Scott will back me up. He’s repeatedly said on this blog that his first novel (600 pages, 150K words) was too long. It’s a good story, but it needed to go on a diet. Even so, I suggest you buy and read his first novel: The Killing Frost. Then buy and read the sequel: New Dawn Rising. They’re only $2.99, they not bad novels, and they’re not going to break you. It’s one way you can support our efforts here.
Compare the two books and challenge yourself to figure out what makes New Dawn Rising better than The Killing Frost. Then perhaps buy Scott’s Martyr’s Inferno (a police thriller), and study why it’s better yet.
In case you’re wondering why I haven’t recommended my own novels, it’s not that they don’t have flaws, but the flaws are unrelated to length. I’ll be discussing those in subsequent posts for what they can illustrate about what not to do. We use our own novels as examples because that way we’re not insulting other writers when we pick them apart. Scott and I are constantly on the journey toward becoming better writers. We’re passing our experiences, and mistakes, along to you.
Now, let’s go back to the question in STEP THREE. Have you ever read a novel and felt that it would have been better if it were shorter? Quite possibly the problem was that the vision wasn’t large enough and the author ended up padding the story for additional length. Traditional publishers generally want 80K-100K word novels. Fantasy is sometimes allowed to be a little longer, but anything else–unless you’re a bestseller–pretty much has to be kept within those limits. Let’s look at the length of the Harry Potter novels. I pulled these page number stats from Amazon.com for the paperback versions:
HP1=320, HP2=352, HP3=448, HP4=752, HP5=870, HP6=652, HP7=784.
Had HP1 been the length of 3 or 4, it almost certainly never would have been published. At the very least, the publisher would have wanted it cut. But the HP novels are a good example of having a story big enough for a novel. It was big enough for several.
Does your story have sufficient plot potential for a long work? Let’s consider Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Bantam classic edition is 112 pages. I’m guessing it’s around 30K-35K words. Could that novel have been expanded 80K-100K? Probably not. The story isn’t big enough to support any more and would have required serious retooling, possibly to its detriment, had it been stretched.
Have you determined that your idea is big enough for the kind of novel you want to write? Good. I’ll trust that you have.
STEP FOUR: Whose story is this going to be? I’m not asking who is telling the story (that comes later), but who is this story about? Who–which character or characters–is experiencing the events of the story?
This is a critical point in the planning of your novel. Not only must you determine your main characters, but you must make them INTERESTING characters. At this point, I want you to put your story idea aside and concentrate on that ONE main character the story is central to, the one to whom the story will matter most. Some story ideas begin with a character or characters (that’s how my how my first novel began), and others begin with an idea. Consider some novels you’ve read and try to determine whether they might have been idea-based, or character-based. Whichever type of story you have, you need great characters. Write out a bio or background story for your main character(s). Get to know who they are in detail BEFORE you begin your writing.
One of the major reasons novels fail is that, while they may have a great story premise, some or all of the characters are flat. The more personality you give each of your characters, the more interesting will be your story.
Don’t start your novel until you really know your main characters. I can promise you that your novel will be so much better if you do that before you begin. I’m not saying that you can’t flesh them out more as you go along, but the more detail you have before when you start, the easier will be the writing. You might even find that the characters will do some of the writing for you.
I’m not suggesting that all novels should be written according to these steps, but for most beginners (and non-beginners) these steps are good advice. They’ll help you avoid numerous pitfalls later.
Until next time.