The Journeyman Author

On writing for writers.

Category Archives: Writing Fiction

A story without an outline is a person without a spine.

Right now, I’m supposed to be revising my outline for Martyrs before I go out of town for the weekend. I’m thirteen chapters in, I’ve edited the manuscript down by at least three chapters already (the exact number escapes me–my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it), and I have probably another seven or so to go. It shouldn’t take me long. I know where I want to go and what edits or rewrites I want to make.

However, I’m not working on my outline. Primarily, it has something to do with that “my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it” bit. It’s also freezing outside of my office, and I have “The Iron Giant” playing in the background, so I’m pretty comfortable sitting where I’m at. Regardless, I wanted to be somewhat productive tonight as far as writing goes, so here you go! New blog post!

My procrastination from my outlining also gave me the idea for today’s topic: the importance of outlining your novel.

We’ll start with an anecdote. When I originally began writing Martyrs, I was fifteen years old. It was really a simple beginning. I had characters, I had a general idea of what the hell was going to happen, and I had a computer with a keyboard. So, I sat down, and I wrote.

It took me a long time to get even halfway done with the book. That was partially due to time constraints in high school and partially due to having no clear-cut path upon which to take the story. I was having a really hard time writing, and that drove me crazy. When I got to college a few years later, I finally had the time to really look at the manuscript.

(I know, I know–more spare time at the university than in high school?! It took me a few months to make friends, so I was a hermit.)

Anyway, I digress. When I looked at the manuscript and reread the first fifteen chapters, I realized something. There was absolutely no coherent flow. The ideas didn’t mesh well together. Events that happened in the first chapter had absolutely no influence on the rest of the book. I had whole scenes that were nothing more than “filler text,” used to boost my chapters to an appropriate length. Basically–everything I had written was absolute crap.

I realized my problem immediately: I had gone into writing my novel with absolutely no direction or plan. The lack of preparation reflected in my work.

The first thing I did was outline the entire book–then the entire book series–and then, I wrote.

Since then, writing my novels has been significantly easier and, more importantly, my work has been substantially better. The ideas are more concise, the writing is more fluid, and the books, overall, turn out cleaner and clearer.

Outlining is such a vital part to writing a story I’m surprised at how many writers still don’t do it. Without an outline, a book simply will not hold together the way it should. Without an outline, you have floundering chapters with massive disconnects and little flow. Without an outline, how can a writer even start developing a cohesive story where every single element is thought out and put together in precisely the right way to make the work truly profound? I would argue that they couldn’t.

The arguments these writers–the non-outlining writers–have made to me against outlining are weak. It stifles the creative process, they say. It puts their writing into too “tight a hold” and stops the story from developing for itself. The worst one yet is probably the claim that outlining traps them and their story.

I shouldn’t be quite so annoyed. Ultimately, these are the words of amateur writers, probably writers who believe the first draft of their novel will be even remotely similar to the final draft, or those who think a longer piece of work is a better piece of work. These are likely the writers who haven’t yet realized that they will most likely rewrite the entire book at least once before they can even think of submitting it to agents–hell, maybe they’re even the same writers who don’t believe in rewriting at all (yes, I’ve met some of those, too).

Regardless, I have yet to be corrected. In my novel writing course, the very first thing we were taught to do was to outline our novels. Even in creative writing courses focusing on shorter fiction, nonfiction, and even essay writing, outlining was an essential step to starting off. Though with smaller works it may be vastly less important, for novels it stands true: starting a book without an outline is like building a person without a spine. It simply can’t hold together.

These non-outlining writers have fallen into believing grave misconceptions. They believe an outline is a strict rule and cannot be broken, which is absolutely not true. They believe they cannot change it once they’ve written it. They believe it stops them from being able to come up with new ideas.

But it doesn’t. All an outline does is give you a very cohesive, collective plan for where you want your story to go. If, while writing, you discover something that isn’t working, or if you develop a brand new idea to incorporate into your story, there is absolutely nothing telling you not to edit your outline and your story. All an outline can ever possibly do for a writer’s work is make it better–why wouldn’t anyone want that?

Perhaps later I’ll write a post about how I outline. Maybe someone out there would read it and actually find it useful. All I know is this: I wish I had learned about the importance of outlining seven years ago when I first started writing Martyrs. Perhaps I’d actually have the whole thing finished by now. Instead, I’m sitting in my office, putting off rewriting a brand new outline!

(Admittedly, this new outline is awesome, and I can’t wait to start writing this novel–again!)

Cheers,
Mary

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One hundred thousand words of wisdom.

(Warning: this post has some not-very-nice opinions about The Twilight Saga and The Inheritance Cycle. If you are a sensitive soul, read on at your own risk.)

When I first started writing my novel, I fell into the common trap most new authors do. I admit it: I thought length was the proper measure of quality. In my poorly-structured defense, I started writing it when I was fifteen. At that time, the biggest books on the fantasy market for people my age were the fifth and sixth installments of the Harry Potter series, the Twilight Saga, and the Eregon series. Though I really liked Harry Potter (and to this day believe Twilight and Eregon are complete slop), I was dealing with an array of books well above the expected word count for most authors. I took those exceptions to be the rule for fantasy, and I stuck with it.

The first complete draft of my book Martyrs was over 140,000 words long. Naturally, as a first draft, it was in desperate need for some serious revision and sharp reduction, but I wasn’t really aware of just how much I would need to edit.

I had the general idea that I would need to cut it down significantly before I stood a chance at getting it published, but it wasn’t until my novel writing class that I got a better idea. My professor told us most full-length novels are between 70,000 and 100,000 words long. This limit was especially true for writers trying to publish for the first time. Ultimately, the more words your novel is, the more pages it will be. The more pages it will be, the more costly it will be for publishers to print.

I’m never convinced with clear-cut, black and white answers, though, so I did my research. I didn’t expect to find contrasting information (which is good for me, considering I found no contrasting information), but I wanted more details than my professor had given me. I stumbled upon The Swivet. They have a blog post specifically about novel word count, which seems to depend more upon genre than anything else. I’ve pulled the following information from that post.

Middle grade fiction = 25k to 40k
YA fiction = 45k to 80k
Paranormal romance = 85k to 100k
Romance = 85k to 100k
Category romance = 55k to 75k
Cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k
Horror = 80k to 100k
Western = 80k to 100k
Mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction = 75k to 100k
Mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = 65k to 100k
Science fiction & fantasy
—> Hard science fiction = 90k to 110k
—> Space opera = 90k to 120k
—> Epic/high/traditional/historical fantasy = 90k to 120k
—> Contemporary fantasy = 90k to 100k
—> Romantic SF = 85k to 100k
—> Urban fantasy = 90k to 100k
—> New weird = 85k to 110k
—> Slipstream = 80k to 100k
—> Comic fantasy = 80k to 100k
—> Everything else = 90k to 100k

The Swivet writer, Colleen Lindsay, goes far more in-depth about some of these genres and their respective word counts, so I highly suggest you check out the blog.

Anyway, this gave me a very clear idea on what I should be shooting for when working on my novels. Ultimately, it still holds very true to what my novel writing professor said: keep your work under 100,000 words. It looks like that may be the standard for even successfully published authors in many genres.

Though don’t forget: there are exceptions. Remember those series I discussed at the beginning of this post? The Harry Potter Series, The Twilight Saga, and The Inheritance Cycle? Ultimately, those can be explained away. The first book in The Harry Potter series was well below 100,000 words, and a subsequent sequal to a very successful first book is naturally able to maintain a high word-count and retain the kind of sales a publisher would want. As for Christopher Paolini, I’ve heard rumors that he got published because his parents owned or had some kind of connection in the publishing house. Believe what you will, this explanation makes sense to me considering Paolini’s horrendous writing. As for Twilight, I’m really not sure how that snuck through with the dreary story and bad writing, but it did.

My point is, there are exceptions. As a general safety net, though, it would be wise for writers to assume that their manuscript is not an exception, and these word count guidelines are a wonderful resource.

May they help you as much as they’ve helped me!

Cheers
–Mary

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