So over the past couple of years I have ended up with two completed manuscripts, three half finished stories and hundreds of pages of random thoughts and ideas that one day may or may not make it into the realm of fabled “manuscript”. Around the time I finished my second full length manuscript I decided to call myself an author, and shortly after I started making money from my trade (February of 2012) I began to get comfortable with the title.
Like with any title I suppose, many see you as an authority on the craft and I get asked a HELL of a lot of questions about what I do, how long it takes me to do it and why I started doing it to begin with. I get asked technical questions about how long manuscripts should be, what they should look like and how they should be formatted as well as what fonts to use and what margins are best. I get asked questions about how to find an agent and a publisher and whether or not you can have one without the other, as well as questions about self publishing (which I am a fan of) and self promotion. I get asked what to write about, how to start writing about it and how to keep track of it once you have started writing. I get asked about plans, time lines, names, places and fictional fabrication almost daily… In short I get asked a HELL of a lot of questions, like I said.
In an attempt to answer questions before they are asked and to indeed answer the ones that have already been asked I decided to post this FAQ blog to try and help those who seek it from me. A major disclaimer here has to be mentioned before I begin however – although many of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues may see my advice as advice worth taking, I do not hold the first and last word in novel writing. My advice is a guide into the world of fiction writing and is in no way absolute. If anything here contradicts what you have already been told about the craft I make no apologies. I make a living selling contradictions.
So let’s begin… at the beginning I guess? *book joke book joke*
No but seriously the first question I usually get asked and the one that gets asked the most is the most logical beginning so let’s start with –
- How long does it take you to write a book?
- I have never understood the wording of this one and it usually results in a rather puzzled look on my part. Firstly, I don’t write “books” I write “manuscripts”. Now that may seem like I am being pedantic but I’m not. It is important to remember that books are born of manuscripts and the stories are separate from both the book and the manuscript. So with that in mind let’s reword this first question.
- How long does it take you to write a manuscript?
- That’s better. Sadly, although the question is much clearer the answer still remains as vague. A manuscript can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to write, with my personal shortest taking six weeks to write and my longest manuscript taking a whopping two and half years! (And that was only a FIRST draft! :O). So in short, it depends. Pretty useless answer right? How long a manuscript takes to write depends on the following –
- How much time can you spend writing? I got most of my writing done after I had my daughter and left my job. I had a lot of free time and with a new born not demanding much more than feeding and changing before going back to sleep again, I had a lot of time to fill and I filled it writing. The more time you have to write, the quicker the manuscript will get written. It’s that simple. Which brings us neatly to the question of –
- How much time should I spend writing? As much as you can. I would say that four hours a day is the minimum amount of time required to consistently update a manuscript. I personally try for this minimum but have been known to write for up to twelve hours a day, because I’m hardcore like that.
- How long should my manuscript be?
- There is a lot of debate about this but generally a manuscript should be between 60,000 and 90,000 words. Word counts are given as a guide as page length will vary depending on what font you are using as well as what size that font is and how narrow your margins are.
- Okay, but for arguments sake how many pages is that? Okay, so for arguments sake between 60,000 and 90,000 words will give you between 180 and 250A4 pages in most word processors. This page count is based on the standard presentation of size 12 Times New Roman (anything smaller is generally considered too small) framed with a narrow (1cm) margin.
- Is my manuscript too long or too short? The 60,000-90,000 word count is more of a guide than a criteria, but it is the standard of a fiction novel. At the bottom end of the short scale a manuscript 25,000 words or less is considered a short story or novella. A manuscript between 25,000 and 60,000 words manages to scrimp into the word count of a novel, but much lower than 60,000 would be considered more of a novella. Likewise on the longer scale anything between 90,000 and 125,000 would fall into the category of a long novel. Anything more than 125,000 words maybe you should considered either heavily editing or cutting up into more than one installment.
So now that we have defined the independence of a manuscript from a book, now comes the time to shine a light on the most important and ambiguous part of writing a book – the story. I suppose this is the middle of the blog and at the beginning of the middle, once you have formatted your processor to the specifics above you should start to think about how you’re going to structure your story. This usually starts with the following question –
- What should I write about?
- Anything. Some would argue that you should write about what you know, so for example if you are a teenage girl you should write from the perspective of one. Although I agree with the premise of this advice I would have say that it’s not always the best to take. I mean, J.K.Rowling isn’t (and to my knowledge never has been) a boy wizard, but she did a pretty good job of writing about one and likewise Stephen King has never actually found a demonic clown with razors for teeth in the sewer outside his house (or has he?…) but he chooses to write about such things. The importance of the subject matter comes down to writing about something that you feel passionate about, something that is going to hold your attention and continue to inspire you as you write.
- What if it’s already been done before? Around the time I began seeking publication for my first manuscript, on many publishing websites I found the following phrase – “No vampires, no werewolves.” And I think we all know why. Originality is key if publication and commercial success is what you seek, but you can be original with ideas that already exist and finding inspiration in others work is nothing to ignore, but maybe if vampires and werewolves are your bag try putting a different spin on a story line that is getting tired. Who knows, you may even save a genre that is getting as tired as the people reading it.
- What if my story line is a little, you know… embarrassing? Oh so you want to write something taboo, huh? Well that’s what pseudonyms are for. If you have an idea for a story that is a little bit out there or will reveal too much about yourself to the people who know you, make up a name and write under that. It worked for E.L.James, it will work for you to.
- But where do I start?
- Where everything starts – at the beginning. There are two ways you can write a story – stream of consciousness writing (SOC) or planned and precise prose (PPP).
- Stream of Consciousness Writing (SOC) – SOC is basically the practice of sitting in front of your computer screen and writing without following a plan of any kind. This method uses your own stream of consciousness to tell you when the next character is going to be introduced, what is going to happen next in the plot and how the chapters are going to tie themselves up. It requires an immense amount of concentration but with a decent set of headphones and an infinite supply of coffee, SOC is an amazing way to write. This method of writing works best if you have the basics (character names, setting, loose plot line) already jotted down in an informal medium. I like post it notes. The green ones are my favourite. SOC is liberating and surprising but gets difficult as the story progresses and becomes more intricate, but it is an awesome way of finding your groove when starting something new.
- Planned and Practised Prose (PPP) – PPP is almost the opposite of SOC and involves hours of planning before you get to anything creative. It can become tedious and tiresome but most writers find that working from a plan, however detailed or abstract, helps immensely as their story progresses in their mind. PPP is the literary equivalent of a crystal ball and allows you to look round corners and know what is going to happen. It makes the story line easier to work with and reduces the risk of plot holes and character inconsistencies. The only real danger with PPP is that a story line gets over-thought suffocates before it has really had a chance to breathe, so be wary of over planning.
- Yeah, but which style should I use? Either, neither or both. The choice is entirely up to you. Personally, it depends on what I am writing. If I am constructing a completely fictional world then I tend to use the PPP method as there are more details to keep track of, but in my general writing I am an SOC girl all the way. In short I plan a little, write a lot, then double back on myself and write an overview so I know what I have already written. Either, neither or both, see what I mean?6. How do I get my manuscript published?
- First thing you have to do is make sure you are finished. It is terribly tempting to scamper off to the publishers as soon as you have finished your manuscript but if you haven’t drafted your manuscript properly you will make life a hundred times harder for yourself.
- How many drafts until my manuscript is done? This depends on your ability and satisfaction with the story line. I have never submitted anything less than a third draft but that is because my grammar is terrible. Proof reading is imperative and little mistakes such as “won’t” and “weren’t” may not necessarily show up on your built in spelling and grammar check. Either hire a proof reader (literally Google Proof Reader, then your area) or sit there and do it yourself. In short, don’t sell yourself just so. Make sure it’s perfect, even if it takes fifty drafts to get there. Patience is key here grasshopper.
- How do I get my manuscript printed? When each draft is finished save the document as a PDF file by clicking on the File tab at the top of your processor and then Save As. There will be a drop down menu below the title of your document. Select PDF and away you go. Most PDF files use Adobe to read them so make sure you also have that on your computer. You can find it by again Googling – Adobe Acrobat Reader. When your file is saved as a PDF copy it onto a memory stick and take it down to your nearest printers. Places that print signs, canvasses and business cards usually offer this service but if you’re not sure call ahead.
- How much does it cost? A 200 page single sided A4 manuscript, bound and covered will cost in the region of £20-£35. Seems steep but its worth it. Having a hard copy to proof and flick through makes you read the manuscript like a book and awakens your brain to mistakes you wouldn’t notice on a computer screen.
- What happens when I have a printed and proofed copy ready for publication? Then you go and find yourself a publisher. There are three ways you can do this – find a publishing agent to do all the hard work for you, approach publishers yourself, or self publish. Again the choice is up to you.
- Publishing Agents – can be found on the internet and through writing networks. They will handle your work for you and approach the right people who will most likely be interested in what you have written.
- Approaching publishers yourself – can be time consuming but is worth it if you want to cut out the middle man. It is important not to send manuscripts to publishers without first emailing them telling them about yourself, your manuscript and your goals. Many publishing houses will tell you what they require if they are accepting unsolicited (agent-less) manuscripts. Read websites carefully and remember – you may be sitting in front of your computer in your pyjamas and eating cereal at four o’clock in the afternoon but they don’t know that. Act professional.
- Self publication – again there are many routes to stagger down the road of self publication. You can upload to Amazon Kindle for free and even pay someone to format your manuscript (there can be no hyphens or manual tabs) into an eReader friendly standard and set the price of your book as high or low as you like. Alternatively you can go for something more concrete like LuLu that offers a paperback publication service that will print hard copy paperbacks for a fee. Self publication is a wonderful world but research your chosen avenue heavily before jumping in head first. The good thing about self publication is that if it goes right, you know it was all down to you. Well done you. Having said that, if it goes wrong… yeah, you get what I mean. Self publication is just that – by yourself.
And with that stunning piece of motivational believe in yourself advice I will leave you with the last piece of advice that I have, and possibly the most important thing I can tell you. There will be rejections, by the hundred, but they will not matter in the grand scheme of things if you manage to find that one acceptance. Keep at it and believe in yourself as much as you believe in your story. Anyone can be an author regardless of talent or ability, and if you don’t believe me ask Stephanie Meyer…just kidding. Kind of.
So with all my advice all but dried up I will leave you with the advice of some of the greats –
“What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
“Here’s how you do it; you sit at the keyboard and put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.”
“Never give up, and most importantly be true to yourself. Write from you heart, in your own voice and about what you believe in.”
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
“I have written a book. This might come as a shock to some. They didn’t think I could read, much less write.”
George W. Bush… o_O?
Good luck! 🙂