In part one of this series, I went over what I discovered during the pre-planning stages of writing. In this part, I intend to tell you what I learned during the hike.
I was very naive to word count. I knew I wanted to write a novel that was what I considered “novel length“, so I picked up a few of my favorite books and learned they were about 350 pages. I learned after writing 350 pages in Microsoft Word, that Word’s page count, and reality’s page count, are very different things. I had written 170k words, which is about as much as two—early series—Harry Potter books combined.
In reality, a book has roughly 250 words per page. My 170k novel would be about 680 pages—double what I intended to make.
The Good and Bad of the high word count:
Good: I can trim! I had plenty of story there, so I just needed to figure out what I could leave on the cutting room floor. Although I had written it all as necessary and plot driven (not just filler), there is always stuff you can cut. Perks of this also include having some ideas for a sequel, or just knowing what characters are doing in the background of a scene. I have plenty of scenes that I went back and changed perspective on, but enjoyed knowing what the original character was doing during the new version too. I’ll come back to that later.
The Bad: I was intending to query this novel at first, and I gave it a solid effort. But agents are very reluctant to pick up a novel that long from a new writer. They want to know they can represent it, and a new author with a high word count is a risky bet. I don’t blame any of the agents I queried for turning me down, and honestly, I’m very happy they did. After querying for a few months, I went back to the drawing board, and had one more beta reader look at the queried edit. He gave me solid advice, and I trimmed roughly 20k words out of my novel (and it flows so nicely now!)
What I learned—well for one, aiming for a page count isn’t the right approach. Aim for a word count. I know that probably sounds like a no brainer, but I figured it out the hard way. Also, look up what typical word counts are for your genre. I learned that scifi and fantasy sit around 90k to 150k, mainly due to the world building aspect of it, where a thriller might be more like 70k to 90k tops because it’s hard to keep someone in suspense longer than that.
I also learned a lot during the editing phase that I can carry forward with me into a first draft for a sequel.
For instance, I really like to rotate my perspectives. I write in third-person limited omniscient (or close third), which is where we stick close to a character, but remain outside their body. So a chapter about Eliana still will describe her feelings and thoughts, but won’t tell you what Denton is thinking. By rotating perspectives based on chapter, I feel like the reader becomes aware of what the other characters might be thinking even though we never enter their minds directly during a chapter that isn’t their turn. You can also surprise the audience still by keeping secrets. I feel like it keeps the pace of the story moving nicely, as we get to switch it up enough to keep it from getting stale. But don’t switch it up too much! I typically go back and forth between 2-3 mains, and maybe sprinkle in the off-main character from time to time if it helps the story build.
If this is how you want to write, then make sure you are sticking close to whoever is going to be effected by the chapter most. I mentioned before that I had a few chapters that I switched perspectives on, and that was because I wrote a chapter that moved the plot forward—sure—but told from the wrong character. So a chapter where Denton is fixing a ship and meets Eliana might be fine, but we already knew Denton could fix ships, and Eliana had just been through some trauma, so seeing this same event from her troubled mind is far more interesting and moves the plot forward better.
Make sure your main characters are involved. Which might also sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many times this gets forgotten. You ever read a book where a main character is hearing about a really cool and interesting event, but they weren’t part of it? It’s fine to have lore, but attempt to find a way to get your main characters involved with that interesting world building thing you’ve done. This slides into the “show don’t tell” storytelling adage, and it’s true! But you can still accidentally have the wrong character doing the “showing”, the reader wants to see your main characters “do the thing” not “cool side dude.”
Give everyone a unique quirk. They don’t all have to be obnoxiously weird or anything, but something that makes them at least sound different from each other is the ticket. In my first draft, pretty much everyone sounded like me, I was just trying to get the story out and the character’s suffered for it. After some editing, I leaned into their unique traits. Denton is from a backwater colony on Ganymede, so I gave him a slight southern-style accent and he is a little more rowdy and spontaneous than—say—Eliana, who is an academy educated doctor who grew up with some of the smartest people ever born. Then you get into things like ‘how much do they know?” and “what do they believe” and “what do they feel strongly against” and suddenly your characters that may have once all sounded like you sound like their own person!
And my last discovery involves prologues. I wrote and rewrote mine over and over again. At first it was an info dump, then it was an overly dramatic info dump from a character’s perspective, then it was a character based thing from two side characters—but told you things you’ll learn soon anyway. So after about 6 attempts at a prologue, and a few edits, I removed my prologue entirely. Turns out you don’t need one! You can just start at chapter one and fill people in along the way. Consider axing your prologue if it’s just not working for you.
You’ll discover your own little tricks as you take your hike through the writing process, and even if mine don’t work for you, I hope the thought process behind them helped in some way.
I hope this helped any new writers out there like myself. I know I was frantically looking for information that had been through the trenches. On the next WHAT I’VE LEARNED, I’ll go over the post-writing process, such as beta readers, editors, and collaborators.
I hope you find these useful, and I’m happy to answer any questions. If you have any friends who need advice like this, follow along and share! If you have been through the writing process and have input feel free to comment below.