Developing a novel consists of hours spent with your imagination churning, connecting dots in a cloud of fiction. It’s an exciting time, working out our first book idea. We’re like the clichéd, obsessed character in movies with long strands of string connecting photos, maps, and notes all pinned to a corkboard. And that is how it has to be, at least in your mind, if you’re serious about completing the book.
I like a clean workspace and tend to write almost exclusively from my imagination and memory. I am not a note taker. To begin a novel, I start an outline in Notepad and hash out the first ten scenes or so. That is usually the extent of my notes. And with both of my novels, I have deviated from this short outline, preferring to work off-the-cuff.
Some writers outline their entire book, thinking things out in advance. I’ve tried that, but usually come up with a better idea in the midst of composition. It is difficult to really get to know my characters until I have put them through the paces. I think outlining a novel is a great way to keep it organized, and helps the writer retain a larger element of control. It simply isn’t for me.
Whether you are an outliner/note taker or not, the tricky part is knowing if your story idea can support an entire novel. We’re talking upwards of 50K-60K words, at minimum. If that sounds daunting, do not fret, it is easier than you think. I’ve written two novels (about to begin work on the third), and I assure you the length of your story hinges more on your idea and how many directions you can take the story.
For example, in my first novel, I wanted to write a ghost story about a teenage boy, with a troubled past, who was living in a haunted hotel. There were so many options between describing events happening at the hotel, the boy’s past, the history of the hotel, and building relationships between characters, that I felt the story could endure. The final version came out to around 70K words.
The same held true for my second novel. I filled it with so many characters, all of whom have an agenda, that the story couldn’t help but spill over the 60K mark.
By contrast, I’ve always wanted to write a novel with just two characters trapped somewhere. It would be heavy on dialogue (which I love to write) and be character-focused, instead of plot-focused. Unfortunately, at this time, I do not have the necessary skills to pull a story like off. Not if I want it to be novel-length. I could milk it for 10K words, if I’m lucky, but that is about it.
At this point in my writing career, I need to have a lot going on to sustain a novel.
The focus of the story is what determines whether the book is popular fiction or literary fiction. Popular fiction is plot focused and for me is the easier of the two types to write. Literary fiction is character focused and requires a little for finesse to move the story along.
It is a skill I work on every time I write.
Here are five questions to consider when evaluating your idea:
1. How many options does the main plotline create?
It is good to have the option of taking your story in four or five different directions. Once you know what the possibilities are, you can chase down each thread of the plot and see what will work best. Chances are, you will find a way to combine two or more of the plot lines.
Example: In The Dead Don’t Speak Daphne Carter’s daughter is struck by a car in a hit-and-run. Daphne is a high-level casino executive, this means she could: Let the police handle it, hire a PI to find the ones responsible, pay someone to kill the ones responsible, stay with her daughter in the hospital and forget about who is at fault, or sink into a deep depression. And those are just some of the options. For the sake of a good story, I chose to have Daphne go searching for the driver of the car on her own with the intent to punish them herself. That is the main thread of the story.
2. How well will your main plotline work with the subplots you’re tossing around?
You are tossing around subplot ideas, right?
It is necessary for a novel to have layers. A little complexity keeps the reader’s brain working and keeps them interested in what’s happening in the story.
Example: Again, in The Dead Don’t Speak there are multiple sub-plots. Zach Hepson, a twelve-year-old genius forced to perform a psychic act state fairs by his abusive father, travels to Las Vegas. While there he embarrasses a popular showman and ends up getting offered a show of his own. The performer he embarrasses begins to unravel almost immediately, spinning out of control. A mid-range casino manager named Dylan Tovak, an utterly ruthless and ambitious corporate shark, makes an effort to undermine his boss (Daphne Carter) in hopes of gaining her position. These are three of the sub-plots, all of which entwine with the main plotline and with each other.
3. Is your protagonist an average Joe (or Jane)?
Try not to let this happen.
Make something about your protagonist remarkable. This is especially true if you are going to try to find a literary agent or sell your novel directly to a traditional publisher. Those folks hate average characters. They are in the entertainment business, not the humdrum business.
But this holds true for indie authors, as well. It is always more fun to watch a character who is somehow special.
In addition to being more fun, a character with a special ability or trait leads to more options in your story.
Example: In The Dead Don’t Speak I could have made Zach Hepson an average twelve-year-old with a pushy drunk for a dad. I think that would have been boring. Also, it would have limited my options as the story unfolds. Making him a genius meant he would be capable of doing much more than they average kid. Also, it deepened his character because he is like an adult trapped in a child’s body and thus not always able to make his own decisions or control what is going on around him. He is forced to be largely reactionary instead of proactive. But as a genius, he is good at turning lemons into lemonade.
4. How strong is your supporting cast?
In novels, as in life, each character sees themselves as the center of their own story.
If you can work that into your characters’ psyches, it will help them jump off the page. The last thing any of us want is to create a character who is nothing more than a placeholder.
Example: I am guilty of this. In my first novel, The Bad, I wrote a character named Cheryl. Cheryl is the protagonist’s romantic interest but never really takes control of any situation. Looking back, I had taken a “damsel in distress” stock character, gave her a few good lines of dialogue, and plugged her into my story. I think my novel would have been better had Cheryl taken over a few scenes and undergone more character development. She is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, nothing changes within her, just her circumstances.
5. Where does your story begin?
This is a trickier question that it first appears. Chances are the story doesn’t begin with the birth of your protagonist, so, at what point in the protagonist’s life should the reader jump in? Find what makes sense.
Also, trace all of your plotlines backward in time, finding the inciting incident, or trigger, for your story. You don’t have to begin the novel with this incident, it all depends on your storytelling technique. I began my first novel with the very first incident that set everything in motion. To get a frame of reference, my novel is set in 2005 and the inciting incident occurred in the 1920’s.
All that being said, DO NOT sweat it if your story doesn’t reach 50K words. The Great Gatsby has a word count of just over 47K. These days it really isn’t important. With self-publishing running rampant, it is common to see a novel of 40K words. If the word count is much lower than that, you haven’t written a novel, you’ve written a novella. Still not a big deal. Personally, I prefer shorter fiction because I can read a complete story in fewer pages and move on to the next one.
Word count is only important if you are a brand new author seeking traditional publication. Otherwise, just write the best possible story.
For more information on the word counts of popular novels, please visit: http://commonplacebook.com/culture/literature/books/word-count-for-famous-novels/
Kendall Bailey is a fiction writer in Southwest Minnesota and author-administrator of “Uncommon Sense,” a blog in which he discusses the publishing industry- both traditional and independent- and all that it has to offer. He also owns and operates Venture Prose, a small independent media and publishing company.