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Most-asked questions about freelance writing

A dozen of the most-often asked questions

How long is a novel — how short is 'too short' ... and how long can I go?

The shortest novels are around 40,000 words. The longest can be twelve times this length.

Pulp fiction tends to be short; pulp westerns and military action novels can be as short as 130pp, as long as 200pp, and the publisher will adjust the typesetting to achieve the desired page count. (Larger or smaller on the font size, more or less space between the lines, and the chapters can either begin on a new page or 'chase' each other, nose to tail.) If you're intending to submit to the short-fiction market, you need to know how to write to a definite plan. Plots must be structured with great detail to be just the right length.

How long you can let your material run depends on the publisher you're submitting to. Many publishers have an upper limit, which might be 150,000 words, or perhaps 400pp. Other publishers can accept any length book. The larger the book, the more it will cost to print, and highly-priced books can be harder to sell. Ideally, a first novel would be something like 80,000 - 150,000 words, unless you're writing in a genre which demands shorter pieces (such as pulp westerns), or you're tackling the literary fiction market. Genre fiction obeys its own rules.

Science fiction from a certain publisher, for example, might have to be between 125-155,000 words, because this is where their list concentrates. They know the size/price bracket in which they achieve their best sales. Before you start, you can be thinking about how to write your material to suit the publisher you've targeted as your best shot at getting a professional contract.

So, how do I get a word-count ... and why should I want one?

If you're working on the computer, your software will give you an exact word count. Search the menus till you find this function. (For instance, in Lotus Word Pro you find it under FILE > DOCUMENT PROPERTIES > DOCUMENT. In Microsoft Word 2003, it's under FILE > Properties > Statistics.)

If you're working on paper, before you started you'd have set your margins to 1" all around the page. This tells you the 'live area' of the page — the typed-over part. You'll be typing in fixed pitch, like Prestige Elite or Courier. 10 pitch is 10 characters per inch, or 65 characters across a 6.5" live area.' And 65 characters gives you about 10 words across the line, where a word is five characters + one space after it! Remember that many lines are shorter, so average down to 10. Then, simply count the number of lines down the page, and multiply. Get the page count and multiply by the number of pages in the document. Done.

You'll need an accurate word count to tell you if you're inside a publisher's 'budget' for text length, before you submit; and the publisher will certainly want to know the length. This should be printed on the cover sheet. If you need to know how to write to a particular constraint, thinking about word count is a good place to begin.

How do I write 'genre' fiction? (I've heard that it's easier to get published in a niche.)

This is an enormous question, which I'll tackle at length in another post. The brief answer, here, is to know your subject, inside and out, know the market, over-deliver with the very best material you can devise, pick your target publisher with great care, research exactly what they want and need at the moment you make your submission, and deliver the highest-quality work, with the best presentation you can.

You'll have read in your chosen genre 'till your cup runneth over.' You'll be able to write that stuff in your sleep! You'll have pondered how to write militaria, or westerns, or romance, till you've figured out the formula and have a file stuffed with plot ideas. You might have written two or three of these novels to get a feel for them. And you'll know your publisher's requirements to the letter. Are they accepting submissions? Do they accept electronic, or only paper? Will they look at work from someone previously unpublished? Will they look at submissions not coming in via an agency?

With these broad points covered and an extremely good novel, well written, on the table, you can look at making a submission with a good chance of opening negotiations with a publisher.

How much research is necessary ... and how much is too much?

You need to know the world you're writing in, simple as that. The challenge is in how to write about the past, or other countries, or other cultural groups, and have your writing be credible, compelling, moving. If your novel is set in the Napoleonic Wars, you've got some work to do, because that era is very well documented, and mistakes will be obvious. If you're writing in the tenth century, you'll still need to take care with the details, but documentation is thin on the ground and fewer people know a lot about the era. Mistakes won't be so visible.

How to write credibly about other cultures is an even more complex topic, and only research will help, here, if you want to set your story, say, in Armenia in 1952, or among the Cherokee and Creek peoples on the Road of Tears, or in a big Glasgow Irish community in 1966. A major part of your research will be from books, movies, documentaries, but if you're incredibly lucky, part of it can be drawn from personal contact with 'people who were there,' when some pivotal event took place, or whose grandparents were there, and the stories have been passed down as family folk lore.

But here is a caveat: don't get so caught up in the research that your enthusiasm for the project dwindles. I can tell you a horror story of how a great novel concept of mine came along -- set in Ancient Greece. Six months of research later, I'd gone stale on the book. It was never written. Fast Forward 20 years, though, and I have a new novel idea set in the same time frame ... and the research was done a long time ago!

(Will you take a tip? If you're wondering how to write material set in the distant past, do it in two or three stages. Stage One: watch a couple of reputable movies, where you can trust the details (TROY, or ALEXANDER, or GLADIATOR, and so forth), and then, Stage Two: fudge it. Use what you saw in the movies to get the novel moving, get it two-thirds done, while you get into your background reading. Stage Three: when you're finished, make your first editing 'pass' over the book into a 'proofreading for factual errors' check. Fix the details after the fact. So long as everything is 100% kosher by the time you're done, who's going to know what order the work was done in? And, in fact, what does it matter?"

Do I have to type the darned thing? Must I use a computer? I hate to type!

You'll have to type eventually, but nothing prevents you from writing in longhand. Jackie Collins is famous for writing those massive tomes of hers in 50c exercise books, which are leather-bound when she's done! However, she can afford to pay a typist ... inquire locally as to how much this will cost before you make the decision to outsource your typing. You might be appalled. Some writers have no idea how to write passionate fiction at the keyboard, and yes, they write by hand. But the bottom line is, it has to be typed eventually.

If you're going to use a typing service, consider your handwriting. Do you write well ... or, like most of us, do you scrawl? Most adults evolve their own handwriting, and some of us are the only ones who can even begin to read what we're written! If a typing service can't understand what you scrawled, it can't be keyed in.

If you really hate to type, by all means get the book finished in longhand. Then bribe your friends and family to type for you. Do the dishes, wash the car, mow the lawn, walk the dog, babysit the kids. Have people key in a few pages here and there, and pretty soon, you're done.

Another caveat: have them key it in on a computer. That way, their typographical errors, misreadings of your scrawl (!), and misspelled words, will be easy to correct when you start your proofing and editing work.

Bottom line: yes, eventually the work has to be typed ... but maybe not by you ... and ten people, all of them bad typists, can collaborate on a computer-based project, and achieve a perfect, seamless result in the end!
Here's much more about typing: Lean to write ... learn to type a bit!

Is it necessary to rewrite, do drafts? What's the difference between a first and third draft?

Most writers do drafts; some don't need to. If you're wondering how to write something long and complex, a project which is defying your writer's logic, then the draft system is a good answer, to kickstart your book. A first draft can be daggy, dog-rough, shoddily mashed together, and short, with whole scenes missing, represented by a line in capitals that says, [THIS IS WHERE JIM GETS SHOT]. The key element is, every plot twist, character and pivotal event is in place,
even if each scene is little more than a sketch.

A first draft can also (from a master writer) be practically finished, with just a few 'flags' left in the body with 'notes to self' such as [IDENTIFY THIS RAIL SERVICE IF POSS.], or [CONFIRM WHEN DYNAMITE FIRST USED], or [CHECK SPELLING OF CHEEKTOWAGA]. The second draft will be completed with these details, at the same time as the manuscript is polished and proofread — in other words, in the editing process. A master writer's third draft will usually entail nips and tucks, amplifications and amputations, and the last polishing of grammar and dialog.

The third draft should be finished, or almost so. A book which is still 'not right' in its third draft is a book with problems. Is there something wrong with the plot line, at a fundamental level? Is the problem with the characters? If you're struggling with how to write your way out of fourth- and fifth-draft problems, the solution could easily be in a complete rewrite. (You'd go through the existing manuscript and highlight all the 'must use' bits. Be ruthless about this. Then, replot, restructure, go again from scratch, and copy-paste the passages which were solid gold.) As painful as it is to do this, and as time consuming — it can get you to the finishing post faster than
waffling on with fifth drafts, trying to save something which is fundamentally flawed.

So ... first draft: quick and rough. Might not even have dialog in place ... or, might be all dialog, with flags to indicate where narrative and action need to be written in. (Every writer has a different way of working, and none is wrong, so long as the book is excellent upon completion.) Second draft: all major material in place, few flags remaining to indicate where research will be checked, dialog polished, extra scene added. Third draft: all research in, nips and tucks, rewrites to abbreviate or amplify, spit and polish. Fourth draft: more polish, more nips and tucks ... trying to work out why this book is starting to give so much trouble!

I'm blocked. How do you get through writer's block?

There are complex theories regarding how to write your way out of writer' block! You can buy CDs and DVDs on the subject, but the most useful tactic is to figure out where the block is coming from. It all starts in your mind, not your fingers. Once you know where the blockage is ... go around it. Under it. Over it. Never try to go through: this is probably why you're still blocked!
You can be blocked for many reasons. The first is burnout. When you're writing a long novel, you can simply get tired of it before you're done. With a quarter-million words on paper, academically you know you have to get on and finish: a job half done is as good as not begun. What a waste of time and effort to get 80% of the way through and stop. But the urge to write isn't there any longer. You're burned out.

How to write yourself out of burnout is a whole topic of its own, but here's a quick fix. If you're burned out because the job is difficult, look at ways to make it easier. If the burnout is do to the 'same old, same old' syndrome, introduce a challenge either to yourself of your characters. Throw in a plot twist which stretches your imagination; bounce ideas off a friend and get their reaction. Do the job of writing in a different order: write all the dialog first, as if you were writing
a screenplay ... get through the rough part, fill in the narrative later. Or, if the characters have been talking for so long, you're tired of the 'sound' of their voices in your head (it happens!) write all the narrative first, come back and plug in key dialog later.

If you're blocked because you're bored with the subject matter, put it aside. Write something completely different and then come back to the existing project with fresh eyes, next month or even next year. Have you grown bored with your characters? Here's a trick: 'recast the parts.' Seriously.

Many (most? Or is it all, though they won't admit it?!) writers have a performer in mind when they write a particular character. Your hero is played (at least in your mind's eye!) by, say, Tom Hanks. The problem is, you're bored with the performance. So ... try auditioning George Clooney in the part. Or Nicholas Cage. You're the casting director here, it's your production. Nothing's about to stop you pink-slipping Clooney and hiring Hugh Jackman, if the difference in nuance will get you through. Consider this: motion picture directors can audition dozens of actors before they decide on Russell Crowe and Orlando Bloom for the key parts. Brad Pitt and Johnny
Depp could have played the same parts — but the performances would have been worlds apart. The difference in performance is where the sparkle comes from. The same 'casting tricks' are available to a writer, even though only you ever get to see the movie that's playing before your mind's eye!

What are archetypes and stereotypes ... and where should my own characters fall?

Aim in the middle. The line between archetype and stereotype can become perilously close. Archetypes can turn into stereotypes by being overused. First, be sure you understand what an archetype is. Here are some, which will help to grasp the concept. (How to write unforgettable characters is a massive subject. We're going to tickle it on this page, but when you're ready to grasp this particular bull by the horns, take Creating Characters 101!)

Father figure/male authority figure. Odin. Zeus. Merlin. Richard the Lionheart. Gandalf. Obiwan Kenobi. Commander Adama. Jean Luc Picard. Master Po. Jor-El.
Wise old(er) man who has, or seems to have, all the answers. The archetype slithers into the stereotype if your wise elder is TOO good, TOO wise, TOO all-seeing, and you use this device too often.

Mother figure/female authority figure. Mary. Galadriel. Gwenevere. Hera, Hestia, Demeter. Queen Elizabeth I. Spiderman's Aunt May. Captain Janeway. The good witch of the north. The crone, or wise woman, with all the answers as well as the comfort and compassion. Again, the archetype slithers into the stereotype if you let it.

The young warrior (male or female active: light). Thor. Baldur. Hector. Robin Hood. Launcelot. Frodo. Aragorn. Luke Skywalker. Hercules. Bruce Lee. Jim Kirk (in the first show!). Richard Sharpe. Kal-el. Xena. Princess Leia. Ripley. Eowen. S/he's smarter, better, stronger, faster than everyone else; the trick is in how to write him/her without him/her turning into a comic book hero(ine)!

The rogue warrior (almost always male male active: dark ... the antihero). Ares. Achilles. Wolverine. Magneto. Han Solo. Mad Max. Boromir. Anakin Skywalker. Captain Nemo. They have a streak of the dark as well as the light; their allegiance could fall either way. Work out how to write the character without him becoming the cliche.

The villain (should transcend gender: dark ... resident evil). Set. Loki. Saruman. Emperor Palpatine. Green Goblin. Darth Vader. Lex Luthor. Sheriff of Nottingham. Klingons. Cylons. Goa'ould. Nazgul. Smeagol. Dracula. The bad witch. It's critical to work out how to write this archetype, because the stereotype is lurking right behind you, dying to join the party.

There are many, many more archetypes, and just as many stereotypes, but you get the picture. The hustler with the heart of gold; the beautiful but dumb young person of whatever gender; the naughty child who does stupid things as a catalyst to the plot; the teen who won't listen to reason and gets into trouble; the town drunk; the lecherous priest; the nasty teacher who's abusing kids; the kindly old lady who rescues stray cats; the ugly woman who's easy prey to any young guy intending to fleece her; the brainless barbarian warrior; the snivelling, cowardly thief; the virgin bride kidnapped before the wedding...

I'll sink my teeth into how to write great characters in Character Creation 101, but this post gives you got a good grasp on what the archetypes and stereotypes are — and in fact, they're
fairly easy to avoid. Just get a lasso around them, and keep them under control!

When should the editing process start, and can I do it myself?

You can start editing literally as soon as you have the first paragraph down! Many writers rattle out a page, or half a page, and they sit back with a cup of tea and look over what they've written. Errors jump out at you, when you know what you're looking for. These can be errors in grammar, punctuation, style, or fact. You can take a break as often as you like, and edit 'on the fly.'

Your major editing will happen after the work is complete, but professional writers are editing in their heads while the words are still on their way to the fingers, for typing. In short, it's never too early to begin. If you're wondering how to write the most competent prose, as the old saying goes, it's about 10% inspiration ... the rest is perspiration. But don't sweat it: the process can also be a lot of fun.

Can you edit for yourself? Yes. And you should edit your work during the entire process. Polishing your material and straightening out errors is an important part of the work, and you can do by far the majority of it yourself. Naturally, there are tips and tricks to know. Need to start right now? Good editing begins here, especially when you're working on your own material.
But when you're working on your own material, a special set of skills come into play. The first ability you need to master is to divorce yourself from the work, so that you can clearly see the errors, and have impartial judgment when it comes to deleting lines or whole scenes, and replacing or revamping them.

Yes, it can be painful. You wonder about how to write your heart out and then promptly rewrite most of your work, and not go thoroughly bonkers? This ability is the hallmark of the professional wordsmith. Of course you're in love with your work! You're romancing (and being romanced by) your characters; and your themes, the issues you're writing about, are close to your heart. If they weren't, you wouldn't be spending your free hours writing this thing. But —

It's precisely because you believe your material is so important that you need to do the very best editing job you can. Writing which has not been edited can be fraught with incongruities, nonsequiteurs, factual errors, grammatical slips, wrong words used by accident (their / there / they're, for instance, and to / too / two ... everyone makes these errors when they're typing at high speed, with their mind throw on 'down the track' ahead of the hands, which struggle to catch up).

If you're asking how to write perfect prose first time out, prose which never needs editing, I'd have to tell you, you have an improbable ambition. It can be done, but the skill is developed over decades of practice, and most writers would not choose to work this way: you don't type a single character until the entire sentence (and possibly the whole paragraph) is complete, and perfect, inside your head. Then you type it in. However, the fact is, the editing was done in the brain before the text filtered down to the fingers!

In other words, somebody, somewhere is going to edit the prose, at some stage, even if it happens before it's typed! And think about this: if the characters with whom you're in love are going to 'go under the surgeon's knife,' wouldn't you like to control at least part of the process?

Distance yourself from the work. Develop clear, impartial vision. See the prose through the eyes of a reader, an editor, a critic. And then make the changes, apply the polish, according to the rules of grammar and style which you understand so well, you can do it in your sleep. Need to make a start? Click through to Editing Central for the overview, and choose a place to jump in: The Global Edit is the best place to begin, if you're new to all this. Or, Take Copy Editing 101!

Do I need to have beta readers? What are beta readers, anyway?

You don't have to have beta readers, but it helps. Beta readers are friends, family or associates who will do you a favor. They'll read your work (a chapter or two while you're writing; the whole book, once you've finished editing to your own satisfaction). If the question, 'how to write' has even flittered through your mind, a beta reader will be able to help you with feedback, a fresh opinion, a reaction to what you've written. Without this feedback, you're writing in a vacuum, like the actor who can't see the audience and has no idea how people are responding to his performance. Everything s/he does will be inspired guesswork.

An extremely good beta reader can also be asked to check your grammar and spelling during the reading, but if you doubt that the person's skills are any better than yours ... check what they've marked as errors. They might be dead wrong. Then again, they can also be dead right, so never turn down the offer of another pair of eyes to go over the work.

The beta reader will, at the very least, tell you if the book was boring, interesting, exciting, moving, funny, hard to read, easy to read, clumsily written, smoothly written, done with a professional 'sound,' done with an 'amateurish 'sound' ... or so uninteresting they were simply unable to get into it far enough to know.

Listen to your beta readers. Don't fight with them. Never try to defend what you wrote, because beta readers can get defensive: "You asked for my opinion, I gave it to you, you don't like it, that's your problem." Friendships can be strained to the limit. The other side to this problem is that beta readers who have to live or work with you (very close friends or family members) can feed you platitudes and sugar-coated white lies because they can't afford to tell you the truth (that the story was boring to them, they didn't appreciate its brand of humor, your writing style was like itching powder to them).

A critical point to remember is that all readers, all people, are different. What thrills one person will bore another. What amuses one person will 'go over like a lead balloon' to another audience. It's been said that if you can please 51% of the people 51% of the time, you're winning. Most writers want to please a lot more than that, but ... how to write material that pleases 90% of readers, 90% of the time? It's virtually impossible.

So choose your beta readers with care. Ask for honesty, and accept what you're given at face value. Make notes, try to see the work from another perspective. People will astonish you by reading into a story whole dimensions you had never imagined there. It's even possible that a beta reader will say something which will make you go back and rewrite sections — not because they were 'tacky' or 'cheesy' or poorly done, but because the reader perceived layers of meaning which had escaped you previously.

In this way, a good book can become a great book by benefiting from the perspective of fresh eyes.

How can I be sure when I'm finished, and have written what publishers really want?

It's an instinct. You know, the way you know when the carrot cake's ready to come out, or when the ignition timing is dead right, or the tension on the yarn is absolutely perfect, or the amount of brewer's sugar left in the bag is spot-on for this batch of home brew.

There are things we don't measure, things that can't actually be measured. You just know when something is right. Having said that, you can also listen to your beta readers, who will give you the feedback you've been waiting for. There's no answer to how to write the last line and call it done! You can tinker with a book for years, but sooner or later it's time to submit it and see if publishers agree that you're as good as you think you are.

How can you be sure you've written what publishers want? This is a tough one, because every genre demands something different and unique. But all of them reach a 'lowest common denominator' when it comes to the ground rules. Your work must meet these ground rules, or won't even be read! The rules are about manuscript formatting; word count; grammar; spelling; and the integrity of the work itself. You might be asking yourself how to write for a specific
publisher, to meet their needs...

Query them, and ask what they want and need right now. Most publishers carry this information on their websites; they'll also tell you if they're 'not reading at this time,' and if your submission must come in via an agency. You can also reverse-engineer it to a degree, figure out how to write for this or that publisher by buying a stack of their books and reading them. You'll soon know what they want, and how they want it.

Do I send a manuscript to a publisher, or does an agent have to do this?

All publishers are different. Some will read manuscripts submitted by the public, others rely on agencies to 'screen' incoming manuscripts, sort the wheat from the chaff, first. Query your target publisher, or check on their webpage for information. Try 'flying solo' for a while before you get into the hunt for an agency. This quest in itself can take months (and longer), and you'll never know if you could have connected with a publisher without going through that.

One point on which all publishers and agents agree, however, is that nobody (but, nobody!) these days will read an unsolicited submission. You can't just package up the manuscript, send it off, and have it read. Some publishers trash such submissions; some will send them back unopened. Suffice to say, with postage costing a small fortune, you don't want to waste your time and money this way.

Always contact the publisher first (visiting their webpage is fine), get their submission guidelines ... meet those guidelines perfectly, and then write a query letter. In this letter, you can introduce yourself, ask if they're reading, and if they have any interest in the work for
which you're enclosing a one- or two-page synopsis. Send return postage! They will either answer, or they won't. If they don't, it's a safe assumption the answer was 'No, we're not reading,' or 'No, we have no interest in the book you're offering us.' Accept this as a point of business, and go on to the next one.

For the whole spectrum of how to go about finding publishers and agents ... and how to do it yourself instead ... stay with me, and I'll cover a massive field in many different posts. Good hunting!

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