The Five Big Questions All New Writers Keep Asking
As a writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time workshopping for other writers, haunting writers’ circles, stalking Facebook writers’ groups, and interacting with writing students. In each of these venues, the same questions come up over and over again. How long should a book be? What is a beta reader and how do you get one? Is this thing even on?
With the advent of electronic self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s KDP or Apple’s iBooks, the dream of becoming a writer is more accessible than ever. Every year, a new platoon of writers wants to join the fray of published, successful authors. But it can be difficult to learn how all the writing gears fit together without committing to a college degree program, so I’ve compiled the top five questions I see new writers ask. The answers are often simpler than you think.
1. How long should my book be?
This question bubbles up more than any other. I’ve seen writers claim with pride that their book is done at 20,000 words, which barely qualifies as a novella, and others wondering if 200 pages is a sufficient length for a book.
Let me give it to you straight: from a publishing standpoint, it doesn’t matter how many pages you’ve written. You could put five words on each page in a giant font and call it 200 pages, or cram 100,000 words onto 100 pages. What matters is word count. Any publisher or agent will want to know how many words you’ve written, not how many pages.
Below is a quick cheat-sheet on word count. Keep in mind these are generalizations. Some publishers may have different parameters.
Flash Fiction: Generally up to 1,000 words.
Short Story: 1,000 to 20,000 words, depending on the publisher.
Novella: 20,000 to 80,000 words. It may be more difficult to find a traditional publisher for these shorter works.
Novel: 80,000 to 100,000 words. This is the sweet spot. Any longer and the book becomes harder for an agent to sell. Any shorter and it’s not really a book.
Epic Sci-Fi or Fantasy: Can be over 100,000 words, but the content should be strong enough to warrant the size.
While you may come across different schools of thought on these word counts, consider these numbers an average of industry standards.
2. Should I create an outline for my book?
Authors come in two camps on this topic. The first, plotters, believe strongly in building a complete framework for the story, the character arcs, and a clear three-act structure. It helps them see the ending before they begin, helps them iron out wrinkles before they get too deep into the weeds of their story (or write themselves into a corner), and makes their characters’ journeys more visible.
The second camp, called “pantsers” (and I didn’t make that up, I swear), tend to write by the seat of their pants, meaning they let the story go where it wants. Many successful authors, such as Stephen King, have admitted to using this creative style in their work. They feel that their stories write themselves, and that outlining inhibits the creative process. They let their muse fly free, and they still end up with great work.
I would argue there’s a third camp of middle-pathers, authors who sketch a rough outline only a few chapters ahead while still allowing the story to surprise them (and they subsequently change the outline on the fly if needed).
It’s important to find your own groove. Not everyone will have the same creative process. Deciding whether to outline or not is personal preference. If you find it difficult to plan ahead, try being a pantser. If you can’t ever finish your work due to writer’s block or the throes of creative ennui, you may find outlining gets you to the finish line more consistently.
3. Should I hire an editor for my book?
Too many times I see authors churn out a book and pass it to beta readers when it’s oozing with the stink of grammatical and spelling errors. Many of these writers dismiss any need to fix these issues because they plan to hire an editor.
I say this with utmost respect, but for the love of all things literary, if you want to be a writer, you need to know how to write well. If you’re not comfortable with grammar, get a book on it. I recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, or Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (the latter is both witty and hilarious, if you like that sort of thing). If you don’t know how to spell something, remember you can find anything with a Google search. This goes for proper word usage, as well. It is your job to be good at your craft. Being a writer isn’t just about story. You need to know the mechanics, too.
That said, if you plan to self-publish, an editor can be a good idea. Because anyone can publish anything, the self-publishing world tends to be rife with unrefined work. If you want to be taken seriously as an author (and stand out from the crowd, for that matter), you want to make sure your work is polished and professional. But please, oh please, only do this after you’ve done your own merciless editing. Don’t use an editor as a crutch.
4. What is a beta reader and how do I get one?
Here’s a secret about writing: everyone’s first draft is pretty rough. A disappointing first draft doesn’t make you a bad writer, or incapable. It just means you still have work to do once you write THE END. The revising process is where the magic happens, where your ideas become more fully developed and refined. It’s a bit like carving. Consider your work a hunk of wood. You’ve taken an axe or a chainsaw to it and found the general shape of the waving grizzly bear beneath. The revising process is when you break out the whittling tools and start finding the details of the fur, the eyes, the dopey grin.
Some writers like to step back from their work before they get to the revising process, and they enlist the help of alpha readers to get some generalized feedback first. You certainly don’t have to do this. You may still feel very protective of your work in its raw state, and that’s fine. In fact, it’s usually better to set your manuscript aside and come back to it in a month. You’ll see it with fresh eyes, and it will make your revisions easier.
Once polished, it’s vital to you as an author to get feedback. You don’t want to send your finished work out into the world and have your audience point out glaring plot holes or embarrassing errors. A beta reader will come in handy here. Ideally, this person should be a writer, too, or at least an avid reader. They’ll know what sits right with them or what feels wrong, and they can provide you with detailed, constructive feedback for your work. This will go a long way to giving your piece its final shine.
In a nutshell, use an alpha reader for first impressions, use a beta reader for constructive feedback.
Finding beta readers isn’t always easy. A writing class may afford you the opportunity to workshop with other writers, or you may find local writing groups by using apps like Meetup. One great option is the website Scribophile, which is an online community of writers sharing their work and critiquing others. Just keep in mind that if you’re an amateur, and you’re receiving critiques from other amateurs, you may not always receive the best advice. While their feedback will be valuable, don’t feel you have to implement every suggestion. But do accept it with open arms and thick skin. Remember, any feedback from readers can help you grow tremendously as a writer.
For more tips, read How to Survive a Writing Workshop.
5. Should I self-publish or find a traditional publisher?
This largely depends on you and the shape of your starry-eyed dreams. If you want to see your book sitting on the shelf of your local bookstore, traditional publishing is the obvious path for you. If you don’t want a publisher to take a generous slice of your sales (and I mean the corner slice, with all the frosting), self-publishing might be your friend.
Self-publishing can give you the freedom and agency over your career that you want. However, it does require a large amount of legwork on your part. You’ll need to spend a significant amount of time marketing and networking to get your name to rise out of the heaps and heaps of self-published materials. You’ll need to design an eye-catching cover. You’ll need to hire an editor and maybe a publicist. You’ll need a website. Once you’re successful, you can also hire an assistant to help with these areas. But plan to do a lot of pulling up on your own boot straps in the beginning. That isn’t meant to be discouraging. Many authors have mastered these tactics and have made a fortune with self-publishing.
Traditional publishing, or “trad pub” as it’s often called, is a much different world. You’ll need to find a literary agent, in most cases, who can sell your work to a publishing house. This agent will stand in your corner and help you build a career as an author. Once published, the publishing house will help with cover design, marketing, and — maybe best of all — perfecting your book. Generally speaking, traditionally published authors are viewed as more professional and successful, and they open their careers to greater exposure. Most importantly, there’s something very romantic about holding a copy of your own book.
This information may feel overwhelming at first, but the important thing is to enjoy writing and flexing your creative muscles. Each of these pieces will fall into place as the process evolves for you. Focus on your work first, then worry about the rest.
For a great boost to your knowledge and expertise as a writer, try listening to writing podcasts, following authors you love on social media, or subscribing to writing magazines. It never hurts to saturate yourself with the world of writing. It can only make you more confident in your career.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson