Get PJ Media on your Apple

PJM Lifestyle

3 Questions To Ask Before You Write Your Novel In 13 Weeks

Is your book big enough to choke a goat?

Sarah Hoyt


March 12, 2013 - 2:00 pm

The Run Up

Or, In Which Things Have Already Gone Wrong

What happens very often when one decides to write a novel is: everything goes wrong.

It is a well-known fact to those who participate in National Novel Writing Month in November* every year that it seems to attract bad luck. One year, I had a pet die, a relative die, the roof over my office leak, and the printer develop a fatal short. I haven’t participated since because I’m afraid my livestock will die — I don’t have livestock.

The last two weeks haven’t been quite so bad, but I’ve got a lot of unexpected work, ranging from short stories to blogs to promoting my new book A Few Good Men, at the same time as one of my sons brought home something “interesting” from school that made 15 hours of sleep per day irresistible.

So — and this is part of successfully writing a novel or completing any project — we’re adapting to changed circumstances and carrying on.

Let’s start with frequently asked questions which, hopefully, will lay out what you need to know before tomorrow, when I will explain my method and schedule. And then we’ll have a post on ideas and how to work an idea.

1. What is a novel?

A novel is a work longer than a short story and normally involving weightier subjects or more involved action. The length has varied throughout the last century, mostly in response to technology. The people of NANOWRIMO* set their length for a completed novel at fifty thousand words. When they did this, you could not get a fifty thousand word novel published anywhere. The minimum in the last decade has hovered around eighty thousand. (Some category romances are thinner, but they also tend to be work for hire.)

However, if you read books from the first half of the twentieth century, you’ll find what is sold as a novel is often around fifty thousand words, and could be as low as twenty thousand.

On the other hand, it appeared to be cheaper to print longer works — hence things like the Ace doubles — thus leading to a slow growth in the size of the books.

In the late seventies and early eighties, a fatal intersection of word processing technology, marketing trends, and printing tech created the dreaded goat gagger — a novel so long that the only way to attain it was to combine several novels into one.  This ran around two hundred and fifty thousand words, and could be near-deadly to write. Often it was a group adventure with multiple story lines.

The advent of ebooks is pushing things the other way. People perceive books differently on the Kindle, and I’ve bought things called “novels” that were around thirty thousand words and not regretted the purchase.

So if you have anything between thirty thousand and two hundred and fifty thousand words, it can be “a novel.”

The only limitation on the size is if you want to send it to a traditional press. They still prefer works of around a hundred thousand words or more, though the goat gagger has gone out of style.

2. Do you plot?

The question is normally asked in the field as “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” (Pantser is shorthand for flying by the seat of your pants, with no plot.) My answer is normally “yes.”

I started out writing detailed plots and some books still require me to — for instance, Noah’s Boy, the last one I delivered to my publisher — yet some books  refuse to be plotted. Sometimes I can only see a chapter ahead.

However, for beginning writers — i.e., anyone who’s written fewer than five novels — I advise plotting the book in advance.  You see, I think the reason I no longer plot that much in advance is that I’ve internalized a lot of the rules and sense of what a novel is. I should have, after 23 novels.

This said, writing a novel is an intensely personal endeavor. I’m going to give several methods which will work, from full outline to “high points” outline, to a couple of paragraphs pinning down your idea. You can pick whichever you want to use, or none — we’ll still be talking about how long it will take to write, etc., even if you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Be aware that pantsers who are inexperienced at writing usually end up having to do heavy revision at the end. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, just something you should know.

3. How do I know if what I’m writing is really bad?

Well … you don’t. Because the first thing you have to ask is “Bad according to whom?” I encourage you to pick up ten books from either the New York Times bestseller list or from the “ten best books” list of anyone you respect. Unless you respect that someone so much as to subordinate your taste to theirs, I guarantee you’ll disagree with at least five of the book choices, and in fact you’ll consider one of them fit only to line bird cages (which is hard to do with Kindle books).

So when I lay out the best methods for writing a novel, and tell you how we should be trying to get better at this or that, what do I mean, exactly?

It’s hard to explain, but part of it is doing it better to your taste. If your dialogue sucks on ice, according to yourself, I can tell you how to improve it. If you can’t pin down a historical time period, I can pinpoint the best research shortcuts (most of the time).

The other part of it is doing it more like the style/ideas of someone you admire. If there’s a writer you really like, you can be looking to make your material more like his or hers. (Isn’t that plagiarism? No. No human being alive writes that much like another human being. Not even Spider Robinson’s conscious imitation of Heinlein classifies as plagiarism.) This involves studying the author, and we’ll cover this too, as we go through the thirteen weeks. If there’s a critic whose opinions you respect, you can try to fit more closely with what they consider good.

Still, there is no absolute good when it comes to art, and therefore no absolute direction. Each of us has one, and the best I can do is help you pinpoint it.

What about NANOWRIMO? How come they write novels in a month?

It’s obviously sheer madness to write novels in a month. All the best people write them in 13 weeks.

On the other hand, if you think you can be that fast, then feel free to write three novels.


* Comments about it being madness to write a novel in four weeks are obviously tongue-in-cheek, and not intended to be taken seriously. That said, I do borrow a lot of their hints on “how to get unstuck” — notably, “take a lot of showers.” More on that later.

images courtesy shutterstock / Dudarev Mikhail / kubais /  auremar / Lana K

Sarah Hoyt lives in Colorado with her husband, two sons and too many cats. She has published Darkship Thieves and 16 other novels, and over 100 short stories. Writing non-fiction is a new, daunting endeavor. For more on Sarah and samples of her writing, look around at Sarah A. or check out her writing and life blog at According to

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (18)
All Comments   (18)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
For years, I've been very good at scenes and small vignettes with characters in them, but when trying to actually create anything longer than that I rapidly got lost. I finally stumbled across the idea of outlinging, specifically writing a short description of each scene as you go along. Finally! I had the little epiphany I'd been lacking and no one, not any of my profs in college, had bothered to mention - my vignettes are the scenes, and all I had to do was ifgure out how to link them into a coherent whole, one to another with consistent characters and logical progression until I had an A and a Z, start to finish, and I had an outline to write my manuscript from. I even got over my plot quibble that had my stuck for so long. Now, I just need to go, go, go with the rough draft.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Advice from the Grand Master, Robert A. Heinlein, from a lecture he gave back in 1973:

Five Rules for Success in Writing:
First: You must write.
Second: You must finish what you write.
Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
Fourth: You must place it on the market.
Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.

The only caveat I would add is that back in those days the only path to successful authorship was through traditional publishing houses. The concept of e-books and indie publishing did not yet exist save for the highly disregarded practice of self publishing by vanity press.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I remember reading John Ringo's comments on writing "The Last Centurion". He pretty much violated all his own rules when he wrote. He wrote it in the first person, he wrote it like he was writing a blog, I don't think he did an outline. However he is an experienced writer, and he new a lot about what he was writing.
He said it was a very spooky experience for him especially since it was published at a time when the interest in the subject matter would be high.
My semi-informed opinion is if that if you are a beginner and can't do even a minimal outline and if you can't get the dialog sounding right, you need to put the idea away and go work on something else......Like your day job.
Also if you can get something written but not stay calm when you present it to friends or a writers group and they tear the heck out of it and go back and re-write it till you at least get 50% should really concentrate on your day job or some other hobby.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I've had 15 books traditionally published and about 20 self-published and never did an outline.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You keep sparking me and i might put all of these thoughts together.All I've learned so far though is to get up early, and that 50 good ideas equal 5 or 6 misplaced notebooks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you for the advice, Sarah. You and Steph have convinced me to write. We shall see...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
An outline can be an extremely useful thing:
1. It gets your idea down in a visible form before it can fly away;
2. It gives you a pathway forward that can be used to guide your prose...though that's not guaranteed;
3. It serves as a reminder of what an idiot you can be.

The first of these is beyond serious dispute. Many a fine idea flies away because the person who has it says to himself "I’ll get that down later"...and never does. Of course, a nitwit idea can be recorded this way also, but one must take the bad with the good.

The second is more arguable, as a fertile mind continues to produce ideas as one writes, and often steers the writer off his original course to his eventual benefit. So while he might succeed in writing the story he outlined, he might not, having diverted himself with a new idea (or an important twist on the original one). Neither case is inherently better than the other.

The third has been a constant source of instruction to me. I have a large folder stuffed with the outlines of stories that proved impossible to write. That's right. Not hard; impossible. They seemed promising when I first wrote them, of course, but in the process of development I realized, to my chagrin, that "real people don't act like that, and never will." That recognition is the most important one a writer can have, as it tells him he spends too much time "in his head" and not nearly enough among other people.

Also, many an outline never grapples with why people read fiction: They want to enter into the emotional landscape of an appealing fictional character. But a story is a journey through that landscape, not a static perch around which the scenery never changes. The character must experience change. Change that challenges his desires, fears, and beliefs. Change to his values, how they relate to one another, and what he's willing to do to advance or defend them. Change, in short, to his motivational structure. If your protagonist isn't experiencing that sort of change, you don't have a story worth reading...or writing.

John Brunner has promulgated two laws that should be mounted on every writer's office wall:
1. The raw material of fiction is PEOPLE.
2. The essence of story is CHANGE.

So by all means outline...and then test your outline against Brunner's Laws. Does it conform to them, or have you proposed a story that real people would never act out, or in which no one absorbs any important changes to his motivational structure?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The thing to keep in mind is that what we are (hoping) to engaging in is storytelling. Most of the $1.99 books I’ve read from Amazon read like first drafts, and they engage in a “Tell Me” style rather than a true storyteller “Show Me” style.

I have a four book series outlined and 8,000 words in; I realized my world is too small. What J.K. Rowling and Tolkien did is create worlds that others could enter into and make their own, through film, songs, and arts and crafts.

It is the art of the story and the world creation that we need to work on, at least the me part of we.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I feel that living a varied life,one of many disconnected situations, helps me somehow.I avoid boring like it's dangerous,look for sad ,helpless soles to spend quality time with,live in desperate neighborhoods that would be of interest to others.Then i wait for something to happen,a spark,a gift from somewhere.I somehow want to build complicated characters living a confused life that would be fresh to a reader.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I recommend every new writer read the first paragraph of "Palace," a science fiction novel by Katherine Kerr and Mark Krieghbaum. Then the second, then the third, etc. There is information in each that is presented in an off-hand manner. I'm not saying it's a bible or almanac, just something I've looked at recently. It is anything but boring.

In fact to me, "Palace" is a stunning work of writerly craft that is densely packed with drama, ideas and tension and never stops and which has a word count most writers would've doubled. The fact it is an almost completely ignored novel points up problems in the SF community where promotion and politics trumps art.

I would say the same thing about Christopher Rowley's "The War For Eternity" and "The Black Ship." But then his Bazil Broketail fantasies seem as devoid of brightness as the former two are awash in it. Art comes and goes. When we can figure out that mysterious being, we'll figure out an awful lot. C.S Friedman did the same thing. A fantastic debut novel called "In Conquest Born" and her work has been one long nap since, including failed attempts to revisit that debut.

Like you, I feel I'm reading way too many inner thoughts and descriptions that are not only boring, but unnecessary. While no one wants to see every novel become a stripped down fast racer, neither do I need endless baroque flourishes that take me exactly nowhere or stick me in a single room during which 3 minutes of time covers 10 pages full of thought. I've seen entire passages that might have been better off simply alluded to.

If a paragraph doesn't do something, and I don't care what, but something you feel is necessary or have some feeling about, cut it out. One can't help but get the feeling that the best work has some passion about something in every paragraph, rather than filling a page with words.

Reading Wharton's "The House of Mirth" and then "The Age of Innocence" 15 years later, I was struck how every paragraph in the latter mattered, and the former, not.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Glad to hear you talk about writing,in my life i have never heard conversations like that.Very refreshing and something i need.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Pantser"? Cute. My name for anyone who won't write an outline first is "idiot." Or the nicer name is "Person who will never finish that damned book."

When people ask me for advice on writing, I start with "write an outline." When they scrunch their faces up because that sounds so un-fun, I just say, "I'm done. Good luck to ya."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Perhaps you should tell that to Stephen King. He says in 'On Writing' this: developing the plot is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”

Man seems to be doing pretty well.

Each to his own.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oddly enough I tend to have many plot outlines. I just don't ever get around to writing the story.

I'm beginning to think that the real trick is to keep pounding words out until you've got a story written, whether it works quite right the first time or not.

Which probably means its time to take my own advice, for once, and start pounding out words.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Having something to say as an artist is probably a good thing. It is suggestive of a thorough knowledge of your chosen genre and clever and novel ways to bounce off it. That assumes your reader has a similar knowledge of the genre. Many don't or are simply young or maybe just haven't read that much yet. We all bring a different level of understanding to reading and writing. Having said that, writers like Bradbury and Heinlein seem to click with a wide variety of people.

A.E. Van Vogt supposedly employed an 800 word rule to move the story along. Having said that, fundamentally sound writers like Van Vogt and even academic pedants like Heinlein also possessed an eccentric bright creativity that I think is underrated in explaining their success.

Heinlein, in other words, had something of such an eccentric nature that perfectly complimented his desire for organization, that it cannot be duplicated, or even really explained. Heinlein's range of work outside a comfort zone is rather astounding.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oddly, a large number of successful best-selling writers don't agree with you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
best seller doesn't mean quality. Most what's on the best seller lists isn't fit to line a bird cage with (as our hostess so politically pointed out :) ).
It makes the best seller lists because of marketing, based either on pure invention "the new best selling author of 2013, greatest find of the decade" blah blah blah or on past successes (which may or may not have been caused by pure invention).

An outline is a good idea of course, but I think no 2 people would agree on the level of detail it should contain.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Better hurry. People's attention spans are dropping like rocks So put a sucker bait title on it that will fit on a coffee table.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
View All