Writing Fiction

How Long?

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Many of my clients ask how long their books should be and how many words to include in a chapter. There really are no hard-and-fast rules. It depends on your audience and how much of their life they are willing to give to your story.

Are you writing a novella or a novel?
A novella is a shorter version of a novel and usually has less than 40,000 words. A full-fledged novel can go upwards of 100,000 words. However, if you plan to publish traditionally, you may research various publishing houses for their preferred guidelines. Many readers are intimidated by large books and rarely have the time to complete them, so unless you have a solid following and a compelling multidimensional plot, your best bet is to cap your novel around 65,000 words.

Have you ever read a book and the chapter carried on seemingly endlessly?
Let's talk about chapter length. True readers never want to stop in the middle of a chapter (I know I don’t!). So I’ll keep reading until the end of the chapter. (Hopefully the author ends with a suspenseful cliffhanger that will draw me back in). Look for a natural break in the plot where a scene is completed before you end. Therefore, for an average reader, my guess would be that each chapter should be approximately 4,000 words. The worst thing to do is to make a chapter so long that the reader stops half way through and then has to reread it the next time they pick up your book. In addition, if possible, try to keep each chapter about the same length. The best way to determine if you are working with the correct length is to have a writing consultant, English professor, or avid reader, share their thoughts on the length and chapter breaks. Sometimes it’s just a feeling.

You Are Not Alone

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Writing is one of the few activities where you’re alone… but not really. If you’re a creative writer like me, then you will understand that we live in a world with hundreds of characters racing through our minds. For each new project, we get to decide who our characters will be, what they will look like, and how they will make it through the whirlwind of drama that awaits them. I’m here to tell you that my characters are real (to me), but it’s my job to make them real to you. So let’s look at three ways you can create well-rounded, believable characters that your readers will love.

1. Stop Trying The nature and development of your characters should seem effortless. Getting to know them should be a gradual process, much like when you first meet someone. Reveal who they are through their actions. Let their dialogue reveal past hurt, fears, and aspirations. Each time a minor character comes into their life, we should learn a different side of them. Show all sides of your character. Every interaction between your characters should propel your story forward, but make sure you incorporate backstory and those little nuances that we as humans can relate to. For instance: nervous habits, self-conscious behaviors, a struggle to do what’s right, fears, their true heart’s desire. You have the whole book to reveal these things. Stop trying to rush this glorious meeting between the reader and the characters. Let them flow naturally.

2. Perfectly Imperfect Readers love to see how imperfectly perfect your characters are. They should miss the mark, stumble, struggle, and hopefully eventually triumph. Take them on this roller coaster ride of failures and success. Show us how they respond to each. Each conflict should get increasingly difficult to resolve until they are forced to take the very action they’ve been trying to avoid.

3. What’s in a Name? Unfortunately, I’ve come across several manuscripts where I loved the characters, but absolutely hated their names. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get to know a character and tripping over or being distracted by their name. I’ll put it like this: Have you ever been introduced to someone and his or her name was so complicated that you dared not repeat it for fear of butchering it? If you’re like me, the next time you saw them you steered clear of them because you couldn’t remember or pronounce their name. The same goes for our characters. When readers struggle with names, it creates apprehension and distance. Give each character very different but pronounceable names. If you have an international character, don’t let your reader try to figure it out. Clue us in on how to pronounce it. Here’s a sample dialogue. “Hi I’m Faranna. It sounds like piranha. But don’t worry. I won’t bite,” the Indian dancer teased.

Say What?

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Do you struggle with dialogue? There's an easy fix. It is so very important that your characters speak to your readers. Some say there should be dialogue within the first two pages of a book, but it’s really up to the author and the nature of the book. I’ll say this: When I read a MS and there is a long period without any dialogue, I feel it. Yes, I feel it in my soul that something is missing. Your reader craves real interaction and sometimes narration doesn’t do the trick. So, let’s go back to the basics. Dialogue is back and forth communication between two or more speakers. Here are some rules on how to make your dialogue more believable.

1. No words
So much can be said through body language and silence. We are humans and sometimes we don’t always have the exact words at the tip of our tongue. We internalize. We react with facial expressions, we grunt. All of these are forms of communication. Use them organically.

2. iRobot
We aren’t robots. Therefore, your writing shouldn’t read stiff. If you’re gifted in writing and eloquently speak the Queen’s English, bravo to you. However, this is not how most people talk. We use contractions and slang. We quip and unleash snide remarks. We talk through our tears and slur our words. Release this type of truth in your dialogue.

3. Move Your Body
The other challenge I’ve noticed with some client manuscripts is that they don’t incorporate action with their dialogue. As humans, especially men, we engage in some type of activity while dialogue is occurring: riding in the car, cooking dinner, preparing for some event, on our way to and from, at the dinner table while scarfing down a burger. Include action. Other more subtle actions include: nervous twitching, scratching head, rubbing chin, wringing hands. Loving gestures made while speaking may include: swiping hair from face, pinching chin, rubbing arm, biting lip, licking lips. Include actions that tell us more about your characters’ personalities and readers will immediately relate.

I Can't Wait

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One of the secrets to writing a great suspense novel is to never let your reader go. What do I mean by that? Don’t give them an opportunity to put your book down. This takes skill and what I like to call plot sensitivity. When I critique a manuscript, one of the things I look for is filler words. Filler words bore your reader and take them out of the plot. These words may or may not be pivotal to the plot, but the reader is so unengaged that whatever is revealed falls through the cracks. Why? Because there is nothing exciting occurring. I’m not saying that every part of the plot has to be climactic, but your suspenseful plot should keep your readers on the edge of their seats. There are a few ways to do this.

1. End every chapter with a mini cliff hanger

2. Increase your interaction between the protagonist and antagonist

3. Don’t introduce irrelevant characters

4. Foreshadow without letting your readers know that you’re foreshadowing

5. Delay gratitude and success as long as possible

Want to learn more about these techniques? Email us for your free evaluation sample.