This is an ode to all of my fellow novelists out there who get to answer this question almost daily, as well as to the people who ask this question.
“Writing a novel is difficult” is the understatement of the year. Each genre has a different word count range. Young Adult (YA) runs from 55,000 – 70,000 words. For adult novels, between 80,000 and 90,000 is a good range. For science fiction/fantasy, over 100,000 words is the norm. (Disclaimer: These are all typical ranges – there are always exceptions.)
OVER 100,000 WORDS?! That sounds like a lot and it is (though a few of J.K. Rowling’s novels passed 200,000 words). No one except novelists knows what word count actually means though, so the second question people will ask me after “How long is it?” is “How many pages is that?” 100,000 words translate (very roughly) into about 400 pages – double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font with default Word margins (Yes, I write in Word. Take that George R R Martin.)
So you’ve written the novel. Now it’s magically published right? Some agent fairy has come to your residence and swept your novel right off its metaphorical feet and sold it to the highest bidder, netting you a “major” deal (aka over $500,000) for a multi-book deal that will pay for your kid’s astronomical college tuition in thirty years? HAHAHA. I wish.
No, instead you give your novel to your most loyal writer friends –the people who will cross out every overwritten phrase, write “Huh?” in the margins, and cause you to seriously question at least one major plot point in every section of your book. They are the people who will tell you the good, the bad, and especially the ugly, because they write too and they know how soul crushing it can be to get terrible feedback – “terrible” as in completely useless and/or unnecessarily critical. It’s one thing to read something and another thing to write, so no, just because you’ve read every classic novel on Rory Gilmore’s literature list doesn’t mean that you will give good feedback. Sorry. (There are reasons for this, which I’ll explain in a future blog post).
I listed a few examples of what I do in the editing process, but there are many more. One of the most “doh” moments in my editing was realizing that in novels you are supposed to say “character said,” not “said character.” (You’ve never thought about that before, have you?) That took me a full day to fix, even with Word’s fancy “Find and Replace” tool. Being a first time novelist is definitely its own unique adventure, since there are many mistakes you’ll likely make just because you’ve never written a novel before.
The types of mistakes vary depending on the writer, but one of the most common one is overwriting. That is when you write extremely very strong adjectives all terribly close together because you really truly want to emphasize how incredibly awesome/horrible/whatever something is. Maybe you’ll write three sentences in a row that basically say the same thing. Readers know overwriting when they inevitably scream into the vast abyss “Alright, alright I GET IT already!”
Or maybe you’ll underwrite something. You’ll jump from point A to point F and leave your readers wondering, “Wait, what happened to B…?” Something that makes sense in your head at the time of writing it doesn’t necessarily make sense when the whole world reads it later.
Or how about inconsistent characterization? You’ll have one of your characters mention information in dialogue that makes the reader question who your character really is. Your critique buddy will ask, “How would they know that?” or worse, “When I read that I stopped in my tracks.” Along with using characters to provide your reader with important information comes the excruciating information dump. This is when you have a lot of info to give your readers, but you do it all at once instead of finding a way to spread it out. If you keep one of these black holes in your novel, you’ll be lucky if you have a single reader willing to read your second novel.
Writing a novel is a balancing act. To make good writing, you have to find a perfect balance between overwriting and underwriting, providing the right information at the right time in the right amount of chunk, balancing between dialogue and action, between quiet scenes and busy scenes. Good writing is like good music – it has a rhythm that pulls you in and leaves you wanting more long after the final note has faded.
A novel is not a song though. It’s a movement and a series is like a symphony. An estimated 350,000 books are published every year. This means that editors simply don’t have the time to take something with potential and make it into something incredible; your book already has to be at most one hair length away from perfection, and that includes not just whether you successfully balanced all of the aforementioned, but that all of the words are spelled correctly and all of the commas are in their rightful places. A first novel is like a first impression – write a bad novel and the reader will never pick up your writing again. But write a great novel and you’ll have a loyal fan who will tell all of their friends, “You gotta read this book!”
So no, I haven’t published my novel yet. But when I do, you’ll be the first to know
Comments are wonderful and always appreciated!