I’ve been reading voraciously all my life, but when I sat down to finally write that novel– I had no idea what I was doing. Despite my Associate’s Degree in Print Journalism, I couldn’t possibly tell you the average number of words in a chapter. Or how many chapters were in an average book. Don’t even get me started on plotting, and how to write dialogue. Hyphens vs en dashes vs em dashes? Phfffft. No idea.
Let’s talk about three things you need to know about the mechanics of writing a novel before you ever write a single word. I’m saving you a month of internet research here…
Thing to know #1: Reading and writing are totally different.
The mechanics of writing are complicated.
Don’t worry if you don’t know which side of the quotes the comma goes on, or how to format dialogue. Start paying attention to the books you’re reading. Maybe pick up your favorite paperback and flip through it (Go ahead and re-read that favorite scene, but this time pay attention to the formatting of the words). Google some stuff.
Then start writing. Don’t worry if you learn something half-way through, you can still go back and correct the things you didn’t know. Find yourself a critique partner. I joined an online writer’s community called Scribophile where I learned a ton about writing and editing by swapping chapter by chapter critiques. One of my poor partners meticulously added commas to every conjunctive sentence I wrote.
There are also amazing editing tools such as ProWritingAid, which has a free online version and a subscription version, to help check for grammar errors, over-used words, sentence and paragraph length, repeat phrasing – basically all the things you want to avoid.
Lastly, the internet is your friend, and you need to spend some quality time together. This is a great website about writing powerful dialogue that I found by googling something like “How do I write good dialogue?”. Still need to know the difference between a hyphen, and em dash and an en dash? Google that ish.
Think to know #2: Find your Genre and audience.
Picture the amazing book you’re about to write on a shelf in the bookstore. Now look up. What section is that book featured under? That’s your genre. It’s fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror or women’s fiction…the list goes on.
If that doesn’t answer the question for you, or you kinda don’t want to put a label on it… well, it’s probably similar to what you usually read. Look up some of your favorite books on Amazon and check out what genre they are listed under.
Second, you’ll want to decide your audience (in terms of age). Generally, a good rule of thumb is that your main character is in the same age range as your target audience. So if you’re writing a young adult novel, your protagonist will be between the ages of 14-18. Middle Grade would be under 14.
Adults are anyone over the age of 18, but there’s this new sub-group called New Adult too. That’s anyone between the ages of 18-24 and there should probably be a ‘coming of age’ theme to your main character’s development.
Why do you want to know all this up front? Because it leads to…
Thing to know #3: Your ideal word count.
Why do you care about word count? How could you possibly limit your (yet to be written) work of unparalleled fiction? Because size does matter. Especially for a debut novel. Word count is one of the required things you’ll put in any query or submission, and agents and publishers look at it when they’re deciding if your unpublished manuscript is, in fact, publishable.
According to writers digest, adult novels never go wrong in the 80-90k word range. Fantasy usually runs a little longer because there’s more world building, so you’re looking at 90-100k words. Young Adult novels can run a little shorter at 55-80k words, but you’re starting to see longer books like the later Harry Potter novels that cross-over nicely into adult audiences. Romance novels are a little trickier depending on the sub-genre. Is it a contemporary romance (shortest), a historical or paranormal romance (middle), or a literary romance (longest)?
Here’s a rough rule of thumb in regards to total word count by category:
- Adult Fiction: 70-100k words
- Young Adult: 55 – 80k words
- Adult Romance: 50-100k words
Okay, now take that ideal word count, and break it into chapters. Chapter length is flexible – there’s no exact number of words required. And you don’t have the keep to the same word count for each chapter. But generally, you’ll try to keep your chapters about the same length so you don’t throw your readers off-balance as they start to expect a certain cadence from you. An average chapter is about 2500 words. (Yours may be a little longer or a little shorter, but let’s just assume you’re average for now. Yes, there’s another size joke in there, but I’ll refrain).
Time for maths. So if you’re writing an adult urban fantasy and you’re shooting for about 90k words, that means you’ll be writing approximately 36 chapters. (90,000 words /2500 words per chapter = 36 chapters).
Great, that’s a nice number divisible by three… which conveniently leads into the three-act structure. That’s a whole different post, but until then you can check out a great article on how to structure a plot at Writers Edit.
Hopefully you’re now a little more prepared to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)!