This is the fourth excerpt from Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success by Evan Marshall
We are running several excerpts from this title from the A & C Black Writing Handbooks series, by kind permission of the publisher.
Getting off to the Right Start
OK, you have your target genre, a story idea and some characters. Why not just start writing? Because without some kind of plan, a map of the route your story will take, youíre practically guaranteed to start with a bang and, sooner or later, look up and say, ĎNow what?í To push the metaphor a little further, youíll have a full tank of petrol, but youíll be at a crossroads and have no idea which road to take. You wonít know where youíre going!
Anyone can write a great beginning. Show me an unpublished novelist, and Iíll show you a drawer full of false starts. The trick is to keep your story running without stalling or blocking. To achieve this end, you must have, at the very least, a basic notion of the course your lead will take to achieve her story goal. Thatís where plotting comes in.
The classic structure
Before you can begin plotting, you must understand the basic structure of the novel. Itís a classic form, defined first by Aristotle in Poetics, and for our purposes itís enough to know that it consists of three parts: the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning constitutes the first quarter of your novel. Here youíll set up your story situation, introduce all your characters, present all necessary background information and, most importantly, begin all of your story lines: your leadís main story line Ė in pursuit of the story goal Ė and any other subplots you decide to include.
The middle constitutes half your novelís length. It contains the principal action of the leadís story line and all the subplots, as well as twists and surprises and complications.
The end constitutes your novelís last quarter. Here all story lines resolve themselves, most notably your leadís main story line, which moves through distinct phases as it builds to the climactic moment and then, finally, wraps itself up.
Note that these divisions should not be visible to the reader. They exist solely to help you structure your story.
In this step, youíll start plotting your novelís beginning. Before you can do that, however, you must ascertain the correct length for your novel as a whole.
Determining your novelís ideal length
Any given type of novel has a customary length or length range. The flexibility of this length requirement depends on the kind of book. Traditionally, book lengths have been expressed in terms of the approximate number of words the book contains. For example, at this writing, a novel in Silhouette Booksí Romance line must run from 53,000 to 58,000 words. A novel in Silhouetteís Special Edition line must run from 75,000 to 80,000 words. These are relatively tight ranges, when you consider that 1,000 words equal only four manuscript pages. On the other hand, a historical romance for Avon Books may run from 100,000 to 125,000 words, a looser range.
Why should you even worry about manuscript length? Why canít you just write your book and let it end where it wants to? First and most important, because publishers require these lengths. They have several reasons for doing so. On a purely business level, manufacturing costs require that a book fall within a certain length range in order to be profitable. In the case of paperbacks, books must meet length requirements that allow a predetermined number of books to fit into a bookshop shelf space; even before that, a certain number of books must fit in a shipping carton. This mechanisation of art may sound crass, but itís how publishing works Ė a reality we have to work with if we want to sell novels.
A less hard-nosed reason is that readers have come to expect that certain kinds of books will run to certain lengths. Fans of Silhouette Romances donít want books stretched to a leisurely 100,000 words any more than devotees of Avon historical romances want books that weigh in at a puny 53,000 words.
How do you find the correct word length for the novel youíre writing? You can use several methods.
Check with the publishers of your kind of book to see if they offer tip sheets. These will state a length requirement.
Another way to find length requirement is to consult how-to writing books devoted to your genre; youíll find these books in your bookshop or library. For example, if youíre writing a romance, you can look at Writing Romantic Fiction, by Daphne Clair and Robyn Donald (A & C Black). Here, in chapter one, ĎWhat Itís All Aboutí, youíll find word lengths for different types of romance novels.
If youíre writing a category novel for a specific publisherís programme and canít find the word length by any of the above methods, call the publisherís editorial department and ask an editorial assistant what the preferred word length is for novels in the programme.
Failing all of this, you can come up with an approximate word count on your own by taking a book of the type youíre writing and applying the following formula:
Book pages x lines on a full page x 9 = number of words
Do this for half a dozen books like yours and then average their word counts.
Fourth excerpt from Novel Writing: 16 Steps for Success, Second Edition by Evan Marshall, published by A & C Black at £12.99.
© 2004, 2000 Evan Marshall