Choosing a book length

This one is still a bit of a mystery to me and, I suspect, a topic rooted in outdated tradition. I mean, I’ve read books of all sizes. My favourite authors regularly write 800 page books, yet the last book I read was a 100 page story by Neil Gaiman. Of course, most stories fall somewhere in between, usually in the seemingly hallowed 400-500 page range.

So how long should my first book be? That was an early question I faced. Knowing that books in my chosen genre come in all sizes, I then turned to Google. It returned only generic advice and really, I don’t know what I expected to find. The key point here is that I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know from my own market research.

To find out how long your book should be, read a few dozen books in the same genre.

Also, bear in mind I said should, and wherever you see that phrase there is a rule that was meant to be challenged. In my case, I wanted to write a long book. I love long books, you see. The worst part about reading, for me, is when a book finishes. I’ve become attached to the characters and the world in which they live. I don’t want to say goodbye! This is why waiting for sequels to be written is so painful. And I know this is a common sentiment, from friends and internet research.

So, I decided to write a long book for my first effort, despite reading some people’s opinions that I shouldn’t. I chose this because it’s important to me. With this in mind, I designed my book so that the plot came first, and size wasn’t a consideration. In other words, I just kept writing until the story was complete.

But book length is also a good preconception to challenge, for it turns out it just comes down to somebody’s opinion. Books shouldn’t be long? Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, Robin Hobb, Peter Brett, Lian Hearn. Long fiction books are just a phase? Tolkien, Dumas. Write a trilogy and no more? Robert Jordan, Katharine Kerr, Anne McCaffrey. Economic factors? People read digital books now.

My first book ended up being 217,000 words, which is roughly 870 pages. It makes sense given that my inspirations are authors who write long books, and my personal views on book length.

Interestingly, my first draft was smaller. I actually added 60,000 words to the book whilst editing, because that’s how I work. With my first drafts, I follow Brené Brown’s advice to just ‘get it down on paper’. After the story is complete, then I go back and edit it. I’m using the same approach for my second book.

With my first book, the result of this approach was that I wrote a fast-paced yet weaker story which, upon review, needed additional content in order to flesh it out and smooth some pacing issues. There was nothing to take out besides a typo or extraneous sentence here and there, perhaps as a result of simply ‘getting it done’ rather than dwelling too much on any one scene.

In closing, don’t fret about book size. So long as it’s similar to at least some published books in your chosen genre, you have a valid business case.

How I started writing

I started by wanting to write and for a while, I did, freely. But then I started to have doubts and found that so long as they went unchallenged, I couldn’t write! My own doubts included things like:

  • Who would want to read what I write?
  • I don’t deserve to write
  • What if my work is lousy?
  • I should be doing something ‘useful’ instead of writing
  • What if it doesn’t sell?

While I had these doubts, I couldn’t write. But I wanted to, and so I tackled each of them in turn. Some of my doubts were variations of the same topic, and I found my personal blocks boiled down to three key aspects:

  • The right to exist/express
  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of the unknown

I’d like to expand on each of these in their own entry but following is a summary, to begin with.

My right to exist/express

I approached my right to exist/express by looking at my existing social circles and ensuring they worked for me. I knew I needed support: At least one person who would be open to reviewing my work (and actually do it). There also had to be enough trust in the relationship for the person to give me honest feedback, and for me to take it on board. For me, this was my wife.

Equally important to solving this issue was the realisation that I’d also need to distance myself from people who I knew would be detrimental to my writing. You know the sort: ‘Friends’ who deride your creative efforts, or those you can’t trust to do what they say they’re going to do. I found it vital to be very careful about who I shared my initial work with. I figured I could relax that limitation as I became more confident in my new venture, which is exactly what happened.

A book that helped me decide that I had the right to exist/express was You Are a Writer, by Jeff Goins. While most of the book wasn’t terribly useful to me, personally, I did take heart from his own story of becoming a writer. The key message for me was: I am a writer if I’m writing. Simple! Is that everything? Of course not, but it was enough for me to make a start.

Perfectionism

So now that I had a good support network, it was time to face my excuses! My biggest one, by far, was that I didn’t know where to start. But really, I was afraid to start because of my constant worry: What if my writing isn’t good enough?

In tackling perfectionism, I found this book to be invaluable: How to be an Imperfectionist, by Stephen Guise. He advocates setting myself very small goals, with the end result being that I actually did something at all! For example, telling myself that I wanted to write 2000 words a day didn’t help, initially. But telling myself that I’d sit down and write a paragraph almost always worked, and I typically enjoyed the writing so much that I kept going, anyway. The irony of the technique, for me, is that by setting small goals I was able to achieve more than by setting large ones.

I also found The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown to be immensely helpful. I think it was in this book that she mentioned having a similar problem to myself, that it was hard for her to start the first draft of her books. She has a great way of explaining how she overcomes the issue, but what it boils down to is two things: 1) Start writing, 2) Stop judging. In other words, just write, write, and write. Whatever comes to mind, however it’s phrased, down it goes onto the page. Don’t judge it! Don’t tell yourself it’s stupid and shouldn’t be written down. You can edit it later. The most important thing is to get the initial content out, first. I often come back to this advice.

Fear of the unknown

Well, this one I couldn’t solve, so I treat it like barometer: Am I writing or am I afraid? Because I find I can’t be both at once. When this issue comes back to haunt me – and I imagine it always will – I fall back on the solutions I used for my other two barriers. But the biggest help is always to just sit down and write.

A blog for aspiring authors

I’m Brett Stubbs, an aspiring author currently living in Melbourne, Australia. I’m setting up this blog now while I’m in the process of becoming recognised because I think once that starts to happen, events might speed up until they seem to go by in a blur.

Why me? Because I’m a writer. Over six or seven months, I’ve poured roughly 700 hours of effort into crafting a 217,000 word epic fantasy book. I’m 22,000 words into its sequel. I’ve formatted the first book and sent it off to a publisher. The next steps will be covered in future journals.

Why another blog? I want to provide an inspiring document of my journey – how I felt, what I tried, what worked and didn’t work. This is because I really wish I could find an established author who is helpful, specific, and inspiring. All three, I mean, not just one or two.

Helpful blogs are common, although they tend to focus on writing advice and contain only snippets of publishing advice, if anything. I generally won’t cover writing advice here, given the sheer number of existing sources.

Specific blogs are lacking in my part of the world. Since writing is a worldwide profession, I’ll try not to focus on this element too much but if I come across any tips specific to Australia, I will include them because they may not exist anywhere else.

Inspiring blogs are welcome, where they exist. As an aspiring author, I deeply respect established authors who have spared a thought for the next generation. I wish there were more of these.

This blog is going to focus on the journey of going from writer to published author.

When I achieve that, the focus may change, but first things first. For now, welcome to the journey. I’ll post at least once a week.