How to Write a Book

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Manuscript Mentoring

July 2, 2020 · 9 Min Read

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If you like to read, then sooner or later you'll ask yourself the following question: How do I become a writer? It may be a fleeting thought, or it may be something more substantial. Whatever the case, the idea is worth more than cursory consideration. But where to start? A story's journey from conception to print is an arduous one. In this article, we will discuss how ideas are organized and books are written. Why is style less important for fantasy than it is for literary fiction? Why is research integral to the writing process? Why is word choice especially important for historical fiction? For the answers to all of these questions, read on!

 

How to Start Writing a Book

 

How to become a writer? It is one thing to have an idea for a story, but quite another to actually write and, crucially, finish the project. Depending on your novel's length and the time you have available for writing, a book's first draft can take anywhere from a few months to over a year. Emphasis on first draft—most manuscripts need extensive editing after they have been completed. In short, writing a book is a serious undertaking. That being said, there wouldn't be any authors if writers didn't write!

 

Outlining Your Book

Firstly, it is important to have a clear understanding of what you are going to write about before you actually start writing. Although there are writers who jump straight into a story without planning, it is usually a good idea to at least have a basic outline before you start. Running with an idea can work, but more often than not it leads to the writer writing himself or herself into a corner. Certain elements can be fixed afterward, of course, but completely rewriting earlier sections of a story is often detrimental to the book as a whole.

 

For example, if your story is about a submarine crew in the Atlantic, then you have to have a clear idea of where the submarine is going and why. In short, you need to know what makes the submarine a story. You don't necessarily need a chapter-by-chapter outline before you start, but knowing your characters and the most important events of your novel beforehand is important. Depending on the genre, a full-length book can be close to the 100,000-word range. If you have little to no planning, then it's easy to have too few words or too many. Apart from the disparate elements that make up plot, what else should you pay attention to before you start writing? Word count and research, of course!

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Average Novel Word Count

What should a novel's world count be? It depends on the genre of your book and the age group you are writing for. Naturally, a book aimed at middle grade readers will be shorter in length than one targeting adults. There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding novel length. However, a novel that fits the generally accepted standard length for its genre has a much better chance of success. Typically, most novels range between 80,000 and 100,000 words. According to Writers & Artists,  Debut writers should try to stick to the following:

 

Fiction for adults: A maximum of 100,00 words.

(This can be increased to about 125,000 if writing Science Fiction or Fantasy)

 

Young adult: Between 55,000 and 80,000 words.

 

Middle grade fiction: Between 30,000 and 55,000.

 

Knowing your word count range before you start writing is important. This is due to the fact that pacing as you go along is much less time intensive than having the cut or add large pieces of text afterward. If you're unsure about what your word count should be, look up the word count of similar books.

 

Novel Research

Another important part of preparation is research. Contrary to popular belief, nonfiction writers aren't the only wordsmiths who have to conduct research before they start writing. Fiction writers also have to know their subject matter inside out.

 

Let us use our Atlantic submarine as an example. If the writer has the tentative idea of the submarine circumnavigating Earth in order to stop all-out war, then the feasibility of this has to be double checked. What type of submarine is it? How far can it go without having to call at port? How deep can it go? Imagine the writer has written a 100,000-word novel about the submarine's non-stop, globe-spanning pursuit, only to find out at the end of his or her story that this specific type of submarine can't travel so far without having to refuel. After much angry pacing, the writer decides that there are only two ways to fix the problem. One, a refuel scene has to be written and inserted halfway through the story; but how will this impact the suspense and plot as a whole? Two, the type of submarine (model, class) is changed to something that could theoretically travel a greater distance. Yet the second option is as clumsy as the first, because the novel is peppered with descriptions of the submarine's hatches, control panel, and living quarters—all of which will have to change if the type of submarine is changed.

 

Long story short, a good story should be supported with thorough research. If the research is lacking, it makes it harder for the reader to suspend disbelief. This also applies to fantasy and sci-fi writing. If the writer is describing an undead knight in a castle, then he or she should still know the differences between a corbel, barbican, and bartizan.

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How to Write Different Types of Fiction

But how to write fiction once you've laid the groundwork? That depends on what you are writing and who you are writing for. Is your story a mystery or fantasy novel? Is it a mystery for adults or for young adults? There are too many genres and age groups for there to be a one-size-fits-all approach to writing fiction. However, there are still stylistic traits associated with different target markets. To illustrate this, we'll look at some of the characteristics often found in romance (genre), fantasy (genre), historical fiction (genre), mystery (genre), and children's fiction (age group).

How to Write Romance

Romance is an extremely popular genre. Annual sales in the United States alone total a whopping $1.5 billion.  Naturally, there are many thousands of writers who write and sell romance books, which implies that there are a multitude of different ways to write believable romance. However, the following traits are often associated with the genre:   

  • A focus on characterization. At their core, romance books are usually more character driven than other genres. Oftentimes, if the setting is switched out and the tone changed the bones of a story should still be there.

  • Love. Yes, this a bit of a spoiler, but romance books hinge on a central relationship!

  • Optimism. Broadly speaking, readers of romance like a satisfying, uplifting story. This is especially important when it comes to the ending—think twice before attempting a Romeo and Juliet­-type tragedy.

  • A total word count of between 80,000 and 100,000 words. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but debut writers should stick to the industry standard.

 

So, a romance book should have strong characters, a central relationship, optimism, and a word count of no more than 100,000.

How to Write Fantasy

According to Forbes, fantasy and science fiction book sales have doubled since 2010.  Needless to say, a 100% growth rate in less than a decade is phenomenal. However, speculative fiction is not generally known for its character development or tight prose. Instead, fantasy books usually have the following traits:

  • Ideas. Fantasy focuses less on style and characterization and more on ideas. Think of your favorite fantasy books. What do you remember about them the most? Character development, or the magic system and/or setting? For the most part, the systems and ideas of fantasy books are what determine their success.

  • A looser style. The need to describe physical objects and concepts that don't appear in the real world usually means that fantasy writers use more adjectives and adverbs when writing. That doesn't mean that there aren't fantasy books with tight prose, of course.

  • Some iteration of the hero's journey concept. The hero's journey idea holds that, since ancient times, stories with a hero share a similar pattern. Although the concept is often loosely applied, certain aspects of the idea do crop up in most contemporary fantasy novels. There's usually a hero; an existential threat to the hero's existence; an adventure; and an eventual return to the norm.

  • A total word count of between 90,000 and 125,000 words. Established writers can get away with much longer novels, of course, but debut writers should stick to the industry standard to increase their chances of publication.

 

So, it is important for a fantasy book should have a strong central idea, magic system, or concept. It can also have a looser style that uses more adjectives and adverbs. Oftentimes, it also draws on elements of the hero's journey. Lastly, it should have a word count of no more than 125,000.

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How to Write Historical Fiction

Books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel have been very well received in recent years. The allure of good historical fiction is often defined by its ability to transport the reader to a world that is foreign yet relatable. The setting of countries and kingdoms centuries ago is naturally interesting to many—yet presenting these places successfully usually hinges on the characters. To this end, good historical fiction usually contains the following:

 

  • A memorable setting that is integral to the story. In historical fiction, a setting must not only be factually accurate, it also has to make sense as an extension of plot. Why does a story set in the 16th century take place in Salisbury, England, and not in Albi, France, or Rotterdam, Holland? Is there a specific landmark, edict, or historical figure that plays a role in your book? If your setting can be switched out for a dozen other locales of the same period, then you should probably rework your plot.

  • Good research. As mentioned earlier in this article, research is important for any novel. However, this is even more important for historical fiction. A successful historical fiction novel knows the ins and outs of its world—from cutlery to social customs. This leads us to our following point.

  • A factually accurate historical setting. There is obviously a make-believe element to historical fiction (hence the fiction part), but readers of this genre expect history to remain mostly unchanged. When monarchs, countries, and societal structures are overhauled it turns into alternate history—which is entirely different subset of fiction.

  • Vernacular that isn't foreign. Words and phrases of the period can be used, but you should avoid overloading prose with Middle English if your story takes place in the fourteenth century, for example. Characters need to be relatable, which is difficult to achieve when a character's speech is difficult to understand.

 

To conclude, a good historical novel contains a memorable, relevant setting and good research that establishes authenticity. Like any other novel, the characters should be relatable, which means that the narrative and dialogue should not be bogged down by dated vernacular that is difficult to understand. 

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How to Write a Mystery Novel

Mystery is an extremely popular genre.  From Arthur Conan Doyle, born in 1859, to modern-day writers such as John Grisham and James Patterson, mystery novels have always had a strong following. But what defines a mystery novel? And, more importantly, what makes one unique? Books in this genre usually have the following characteristics:

 

  • A detective/sleuth protagonist. This is pretty self-explanatory, but a mystery novel usually follows a detective trying to solve a crime.

  • Reasonable motive. A mystery novel's success hinges heavily on the believability of motive. The reader has to be convinced that the culprit would commit the crime.

  • Clues. The whodunnit nature of mystery novels usually necessitates clues as a plot element.

  • Red herrings. Not all clues should lead to something concrete. Red herrings help to place doubt in the reader and decrease predictability.

  • Suspense. Mystery novels usually have a good dose of suspense. Red herrings are crucial in this regard—the reader should be kept in the dark as much as reasonably possible.

  • A word count of between 75,000 and 1000,000 words.

 

To summarize, a mystery novel usually has a detective, clues, red herrings, and suspense. The most important aspect of suspending disbelief is the culprit's motive—mystery novels usually fall flat if this isn't achieved.

 

How to Write a Children's Book

Unlike our above analyses, this section looks more closely at a particular age group and what should be taken into account when you write for a specific demographic. Firstly, there is more than one type of age demographic in the broad "children's book" definition, so we'll focus on middle grade fiction. This demographic has to following characteristics:

 

  • Shorter sentence length than adult books. It goes without saying that young children usually don't have the patience or reading ability of teenagers or adults. Although there is no hard-or-fast rule as to sentence length in children's writing, successful middle grade books tend to have slightly shorter sentences. Although the context is different, a journal article by Jessica L. Montag does a good job of describing the varying degrees of complexity in sentences meant for child readers.

  • Gender. What gender are you targeting? Girls read more, and boys are traditionally more averse to reading books that have a female protagonist. Knowing the gender of your target audience is important for the success of your novel.

  • Don't write in a didactic tone—imagine yourself in your hero's shoes. Children generally don't like being preached to, so fill your books with relatable characters and conflict.

  • A word count of between 25,000 and 55,000.

 

So, a children's fiction writer should pay extra attention to the relatability of the story's protagonist. In literature meant for adults, the gender and age of a hero has less of an impact. The children's writer should also avoid writing in an instructive tone—like everyone else, children read as a form of escapism. Lastly, middle grade books should not exceed 55,000.

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Manuscript Mentoring

At manuscriptmentoring.com, we help writers to organize their ideas into cohesive prose. If you're in need of sound writing advice, either stylistically or structurally, then have a look at our Services page.

References

 

    Zigner, D. (n.d.). How long should my novel be? Writers & Artists. https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/33/preparing-for-submission/how-to-find-a-literary-agent/how-long-should-my-ms-be

    Dalke, R. (n.d.). The business of romance novels in the U.S. and the world [PDF]. https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/6/17036/files/2016/04/The-Business-of-Romance-Novels-Presentation-1t534ld.pdf

 

    Rowe, A. (2018, June 19). Science fiction and fantasy book sales have doubled since 2010. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2018/06/19/science-fiction-and-fantasy-book-sales-have-doubled-since-2010

 

    Watson, A. (2019, Dec. 11). Unit sales of adult fiction books in the United States in the first half of 2018, by genre. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/730316/adult-fiction-unit-sales

 

    Montag, L. (2019). Differences in sentence complexity in the text of children’s picture books and child-directed speech. First Language, 39(5), 527-546. https://doi.org/10.1177/0142723719849996

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