Writing Resources


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how there are a lot of different kinds of edits and how you can edit a novel more easily by fixing different parts of your story at different times. If that sounds interesting, go check it out! This post’ll be here when you get back.

I was intending on jumping right in with a post about structural editing. But after a couple of drafts, I realized that I needed to start a little farther back. On day #1 of Mission: Edit this Awful First Draft, you’re not going to start by rewriting chapters 6-9, right?

Of course not. Your first step is to figure out what your problems are. Let’s start there.

Step #1: Read your entire novel and take excessive amounts of notes.

First thing’s first: read your entire novel.

But here’s the key: you’re not reading it like a reader. Your job isn’t to passively sit there, letting the word-thoughts beam happy feelings into your brain. You have to read your novel like an English major charged with dissecting it to death. You’re going to challenge every assumption. Think deeply about everything that happens.

You’re going to look at every single scene and ask: why?

  • What just happened?
  • Why did it it happen?
  • Does that objectively make sense, based on the facts of this world and the characters involved?
  • Have you previously explained the character/plot/worldbuilidng elements that the reader would require to understand this scene?
  • What new information does the reader learn from this scene?

These are simple questions, but they can open a lot of doors: why would this character [do the dramatic thing that makes for a good story] if you haven’t given them a strong enough motivation to do that instead of an equally viable, less-crazy choice? It’s awfully exciting to open your story up with an explosion, but will the reader understand it if why it matters hinges on understanding a lot of details about this world and the characters?

Don’t let yourself get away with lame answers. “Because it’s dramatic!” is not a good answer. “Because I like it!” is even worse. Remember: there’s nothing sacred about the creative process. Just because your first instinct was to write a fight scene or six chapters of chatty banter doesn’t mean that’s the one-and-only way to convey the information you need.

So ask why. Why did this happen? Is this the only way to do this scene? The most interesting way? Why is this scene important?

While you do this, take notes. I keep a separate file, create a new section for every scene, and then write down every thought I have. If I encounter a problem, I bold it. If something feels really important, I highlight the text or flag it in a different color.

Other Techniques to Try: Story Mapping

If you’re new to editing, you might want to take this opportunity to dig very, very deep into the structure of your story. Thankfully, there are a million ways to map a story!

Usually, this process entails identifying all of your main story arcs, including your character arcs, main plot arc, and subplot arcs. This lets you look at specific story arcs, by themselves, and ensure they aren’t abandoned for long stretches of time and that they grow and build over time.

Some of the story mapping techniques I’ve seen include:

There are a million ways to do this. See what works for you!

Step #2: Identify your problems.

Now it’s time to organize your notes.

My notes are always long and wordy. I write sentences and sentences about how such-and-such sounds weird, and maybe I should try this, and maybe I should be doing something more like this other thing…

These are great, but they’re not actionable. You can’t do anything with a paragraph-long rant about how your motivations are garbage.

So first, take each problem and distill it to its core:

  • [Character’s] motivation doesn’t make sense for this scene.
  • This plot twist wasn’t foreshadowed.
  • This doesn’t make sense. This character doesn’t know [fact], so they can’t act on it.

You will probably find that some issues go on for chapters and chapters and chapters. That’s good! Identify what scenes are affected.

Step #3: Turn those problems into a to-do list.

Now turn those problems into assignments for yourself.

  • Fix [character’s] motivations. (Chapters 4-8)
  • [Plot Twist] occurs in chapter 8. Foreshadow it before then. (Chapters 1-7)
  • Have character learn [fact] before chapter 5. (Chapters 1-4).

These are things you can do. Some of them are specific–“this character needs their motivation fixed in every scene where they appear between chapters 4-8” is a specific fix in a specific set of chapters. “Foreshadow this thing sometime before it happens” is not.

But that’s OK. You don’t need to know all of the solutions right now. In fact, during the first major editing phase (what I’m calling the “structural edit”) you may end up deleting entire chapters and rewriting entire sections. So some of these issues may end up resolved by the time you’re done rewriting. And if they don’t? Well, you can figure out which specific chapters to insert your specific fixes into once you know you’re not going to delete or rewrite them.

Step #4: Pull out the to-dos that require you to delete or completely rewrite content.

My to-do list is naturally organized by scene: it lists every scene in the book and what things I want to fix. But before I do those, I want to pull out two very special things:

  • Problems that require me to delete or completely rewrite scenes from scratch
  • Problems that need to be fixed, but I’m not sure where those fixes should happen

These are the two things we have to resolve in the structural editing phase. We can’t go on to step #2 (the scene-by-scene edit) until they’re done.

And now you’re done with this phase!

Hurray! You have now:

  • Read your entire story with a critical eye
  • Mapped out your story to track what happened when
  • Created a note file that lists the problems with each scene
  • Developed a to-do list to fix every problem
  • Pulled out the to-dos that require you to delete or completely rewrite scenes.

Now you’re ready to edit.

What comes next?

The first two editing phases are the biggest ones: the structural edit and the scene-by-scene edit. During them, you’re going to fix every single problem on your to-do list. Here’s what you can look forward to:

  1. First, we’re going to do the structural edit, which will include the big changes: deleting, rewriting, and other things that result in 100% new, never-seen-before text.
  2. Then we’ll see if we have any “floating” problems left–problems that we know we need to resolve, we just don’t know where. If they weren’t fixed in the structural edit, we’ll decide what specific chapter they should happen in.
  3. Then, using our to-do list, we’ll go through every scene in the story and fix all the issues we found.

Next week, we’re finally going to get to the first big lift: the structural editing phase. See you then!

 

Writing a novel feels great, doesn’t it? It’s so emotional! So engaging! (All right, well, it can be, when you don’t feel like you’re yanking ideas out of your brain with a pair of pliers.) But when you’re in the zone, everything you write feels powerful, important, and deep.

Then you edit it. And whoops! It’s… not. It’s clumsily worded, it doesn’t make much sense, and that scene you loved to absolute death feels shoehorned in. So you feel angry and maybe a little embarrassed, because it all felt so good at the time.

To nobody’s surprise, many writers hate editing.

But not me. I friggin’ LOVE editing. This is probably–just a guess here–why it’s also my day job.

So I thought I’d do a few posts about how I edit my novels and why, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t need to be a soul-crushing process.

First thing’s first: there are a lot of different types of edits.

I’m going to start with an observation about something a little different. Have you ever noticed that people who don’t write often think that writing is a single, monolithic skill? They figure that you are either “good at writing” or “bad at writing.” If you ask them what “writing” is, they’d probably think that it’s just the act of having an idea and writing it down. There are no other talents involved. Just have ideas. Be literate.

But when you write your first novels, you learn otherwise. “Writing a novel” involves dozens of completely separate skills. Writing dialogue, pacing logically, creating micro-tension, and developing realistic characters are all completely different talents. Some of them will come naturally. Some of them are really hard!

Editing is exactly the same.

There is no one, monolithic thing called “editing.” You cannot hand your piece to an editor, tell them to “edit it,” then walk off knowing you have explained everything about what you need them to do. There are many kinds of edits that do many different things. And some of these will be easier for you than others.

Editing will feel overwhelming if you think editing means “I’m going to sit down in front of a document and magically know whether every word, sentence, scene, and chapter is perfect.” Thankfully, you don’t have to.

It’s easiest to edit in phases, from the largest level of edit to the smallest.

In the editing world, there’s a thing called “levels of edit.” When you hand your work to an editor, they often want to know what level to edit it at, and that tells them what to look at and what to ignore. This isn’t standardized, so every organization has a different number of levels of edit, and those levels are called different things. So I’m not speaking out of authority here, OK? These are the levels of edits I think about when I’m doing my own novels. They’re not even the same ones I use at work.

But when I’m editing my novels, I come at them from several different angles:

  • Structural Edits: Structural edits look at concepts and how they are organized. A structural edit asks big questions: Do the events that occur happen in a logical sequence? Do characters act in a consistent way? Do details and concepts remain believable and consistent?
  • Scene-level Edits: Scene-level edits look at scenes. Does every scene have a purpose? Does every scene add information, build on the stakes, and do so in the most interesting way possible? Does each scene include some sort of micro-tension? Does each chapter end on an interesting, engaging note?
  • Line-level Edits: Line-level editing is the first level of edit that acutally deals with the words you used. Does every sentence communicate the meaning you want it to? Did you use the words you wanted to? Are you using words that literally convey the meaning you want them to (as opposed to words that sound lovely but don’t convey your intention as well?) This is when you remove fluff and look for opportunities to use stronger words and more active voice.
  • Proofreading: Proofreading is literally just looking for errors in grammar. You look for typos, punctuation, and spelling errors.

And–here’s the clincher–you can do these one at a time.

These steps go from big to small. They’re also in order. It doesn’t make sense to obsess about your word choice and fix all the typos in a scene you’re going to delete. You don’t want to agonizingly polish your dialogue before you come back and cut out a character.

That said: Do some people edit everything at once? Of course! And if that works for you, that’s totally fine.

But if editing seems complicated and intimidating, it can be very helpful to think of these as completely separate processes that you do one at a time.

And remember: you’ll probably need to practice these.

These are all completely different skills.

Structural editing is kind of like a college English class. You’ll be good at it if you’re good at critically reading content, challenging every assumption, and playing Devil’s advocate. (Since they know [this important thing], wouldn’t it make more sense for the characters to do [this]? Why wouldn’t this character do [that] when they’ve previously shown to believe [whatever]?) Line editing requires the ability to look at words critically, and to think about how they communicate meaning. Proofreading requires a strong knowledge of grammar.

And I’ve known authors with pristine grammar who struggle with pacing and authors who have aced scene-level tension and should have their semicolon button pried off their keyboards. We all have things that come more naturally to us and things we have to practice.

And that’s probably enough for one post!

This post is long enough, isn’t it? I’ll probably do a series on this.

But just remember: editing isn’t just the act of taking a first draft and just editing the whole thing, magically. There are many different kinds of edits that look at totally different things. And editing a novel–which is a huge and monumental task–can be broken up into different phases that look at different things.

And next time, maybe I’ll talk about how I do structural edits!

So, uh, I’ve never attended a full-fledged writing conference before. I’ve gone to one-day workshops (I even wrote a post on the last one I went to, the 2015 Writer’s Digest Workshop!) But the real deal? Multiple days, in a hotel? I’ve… never done that.

And after many years of dragging my heels, I finally went to one. I attended the annual New England Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators conference (which I am now going to just call “NE SCBWI,” even though that’s only slightly easier to type.) I only went for one day and I didn’t do any critiques or queries, so I really just did the bare minimum one can possibly do. But I still learned a ton!

The absolute best part of the conference was the networking.

My favorite experiences happened during:

  • An after-hours regional meetup, where people could meet other authors who lived in their area
  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • The periods when were were waiting for the keynote speeches to begin.

Every time we were herded into the ballroom, I would hunt down a half-populated table, sit myself down, and introduce myself to everyone there. I usually found at least one person who I had something in common with–a similar genre, a similar location, or a similar place in my publishing career–and we’d have a nice chat.

The panels were neat and the speeches were cool, but my absolute favorite moments–the “Oh, I met someone who wrote steampunk!” or “I had an awesome talk with a career author!”–happened completely by chance.

Lesson Learned:

  • Bring loads of business cards. Lots and lots of business cards. Mine are old (I made them before I published Justice Unending, so they have very little meaningful branding on them) and I forgot to replenish my stash before I left… But holy moly, I threw those out like candy. YA writer? Lives within 20 minutes of me? We had a fun conversation? CARDS, CARDS, CARDS FOR EVERYONE
  • Speaking of business cards, it can be helpful to make notes on them. “Guy at lunch who wrote MG fantasy” or “lady at breakfast who wrote a steampunk” can help you with the next step, which is…
  • … Email every single one of those people when you get home to say how nice it was to meet them. It’s very hard to make a lasting friendship in the ~10 minutes you talk during breakfast. But if you connect with them afterwards, you may be able to meet up afterwards!
  • Be prepared to talk about your stories–not in a pitchy sort of way, but a one sentence, “It’s about a girl who gets possessed by an immortal…” kind of summary. You’ve probably prepared a 2-sentence elevator pitch for agents/critiques/pitch events, but your peers just want to know what kind of book you’re writing.

The panels were interesting, but not exactly life-changing.

I only attended one day of the conference, so I definitely missed out on some panels that would have been really cool. Still, the panels weren’t the best part of the conference.

They were interesting, yes. I met some cool people. I heard some inspiring tips. But I didn’t come away from the panels thinking, “Holy moly, I never thought of that before!” But when an experienced author or a well-established agent says, “This is what really gets me excited” and you think, “Hey, maybe I can do that!!” that’s pretty inspiring. And that’s the whole point of these things, right?

Lessons Learned:

  • Panels are hit or miss.
  • If you have time before the class, introduce yourself to the people sitting nearby. At least those people are likely to be interested in a similar genre and topic as you are, since they’re at the same panel as you are.
  • Consider using a notebook. I tried to take mine on a laptop, and I spent the entire day worrying about my battery life. It’s far easier to just take notes on paper, even if that means you might need to transcribe it to computer later.

You probably should have something ready(ish) to pitch.

I didn’t, and… I kind of regret that. Kind of. There were two (maybe three?) kinds of pitch-related opportunities at this event.

The first one–and the one I was aware of– was the good ol’ “pay money for an opportunity to pitch to an agent” thing.

But I was surprised about the other kind: the incidental, accidental kind of pitching. I was in a panel where an agent took volunteers to read their first few lines. There were casual pitch events where your peers gave you suggestions on how to improve it. There was a panel event where you put your name in a hat and got to pitch to a panel of agents if you were chosen. There were tons of free events where you could get suggestions, even if you weren’t directly sharing with an agent.

Finally,  some of the agents who attended the event said they’d accept pitches from attendees, even if they weren’t otherwise open for queries, which meant that attendees now have a limited, 3-to-6 month opportunity to query certain agents.

I figured, “Hey, I don’t have something that’s ready for an agent, so I won’t spring the $50 for a meeting!” And then I didn’t prepare a pitch at all. That was a mistake, because there were a lot of other ways to get feedback.

Lessons Learned:

  • There may be other opportunities to pitch your story, even if you don’t pay for one.
  • Even if you don’t pay for agent queries/critiques, it’s helpful to have a brief pitch ready.
  • If you do intend to query, it can be helpful to have a manuscript more or less ready to go around the time you go to your event–just in case, like with NE SCBWI, the agents say their inboxes are open for your pitches!

Overall, it was a super fun experience!

I got halfway through breakfast before I realized that I… should have signed up for more than one day.

It was a fun experience, and in all the most unexpected ways. It was very different than the one-day workshops I’ve attended in the past, and in a much cooler, richer way.

They’re definitely expensive, but if you can manage to attend one? It can be a great way to meet other authors.

I’ve been quiet the last couple of weeks. It’s been busy! I’ve been absolutely neck-deep in edits on my YA fantasy, which has kept me from writing yet another post about how you shouldn’t get your book-hating best friend to proofread your novel.

But I have been making use of Susan Dennard’s Resources for Writers. And it. Is. Amazing.

Susan Dennard is the author of the Something Strange and Deadly and Witchlands series. And while it’s always fascinating to see how people write, I love that there’s a whole section on fear. Want to read about tossing out hundreds of pages and rewriting a book that sucks? Or being afraid that what you’re writing is garbage? Well, here’s a NYT bestselling author who has an agent, and she has tips for dealing with this, too!

It’s glorious. Go read it.

Otherwise, I’ll be up at the SCBWI New England writing conference this weekend! It should be a ton of fun!

Let’s talk about Standard Manuscript Format!

(Wait, no! Come baaaaaack…)

OK, so it’s not the most exciting topic. But I was on Reddit’s r/Writing when I read a post where more than one person said it took them hours to format their manuscripts. And oh good golly, no! This might not take you five minutes, if you don’t know Word very well, but it’s fast. Super fast.

So let’s use Microsoft Word 2010 to put a story into Standard Manuscript Format. You can do this for novels and short stories.

Let’s get started!

What are we aiming for?

When we’re done, it’s going to look like this. If you’re confused at any step of this process, just try to duplicate this (or the first page of the Standard Manuscript Format link.)

SMF - Template.PNG

You’re going to:

  • Format the text of the story.
  • Create a title page that includes:
    • Your word count.
    • Your personal information.
    • Your title and byline.
  • Add a header to the top of every page.

Step #1: Double space your lines

  1. Select all of the text in your document (shortcut: Control+A).
  2. Go to the “Page Layout” tab.
  3. Hit the little box-with-an-arrow icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the “Paragraph” section.Screenshot of the Page Layout tab, showing the Paragraph section.
  4. Find the “Line Spacing” drop-down menu. Change it to “Double.”
  5. A screenshot of Word's Paragraph: Indents and Spacing tab.Hit “OK.”

Your text is now double-spaced. That’s 95% of the work right there. And while you’ve got all that text selected…

Step #2: Change the font

  1. Select all of the text in your document (shortcut: Control+A).
  2. Go to the “Home” tab.
  3. Change the font to Times New Roman. (Or Courier New, I guess. But Courier is gross.)
  4. Change the font size to 12pt.

SMF - Font

Now your font is standardized. That’s most of the work right there.

The next step is optional!

(Optional) Step #3: Change the italics to underlines

You only need to do this if you’re using Courier New font. And, as you can guess, I hate Courier, and very few places require it.

In novels, emphasis is usually shown with italics. But  Standard Manuscript Format suggests two different ways to handle emphasis: either with Times New Roman and italic font or Courier New and underlines.

The vast majority of places are perfectly fine with Times New Roman and italics. Check the submission guidelines of the place you’re submitting to. If they explicitly ask you to use underlines, follow the instructions in my previous post.

If they don’t mention it, skip this step.

Step #5: Check your margins

If you’ve never changed your margins, they’re probably fine. But let’s check.

  1. Click on the “Page Layout” tab.
  2. Hit the little box-with-an-arrow icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the “Page Setup” section.Screenshot of the Page Layout tab, showing the Page Setup section.
  3. Ensure that your Top, Bottom, Left, and Right margins are all set to 1″.
  4. Screenshot of the Page Setup section, showing all margins at 1".

    If they aren’t, set them to 1″. Then hit “OK.”

Step #6: Set up your title page

Now that your story is formatted, it’s time for the title page!

Step #6-A: Add your title and byline

  1. Put your cursor at the start of your file and hit return until you’re about 1/3 or 1/2 of the way down the page. It doesn’t have to be exact.
  2. Enter the title of this piece.
  3. On a new line, type: by YOUR NAME
  4. Select both of these lines.
  5. Center them (shortcut: Control+E).

Step #6-B: Add the word count

  1. Figure out how many words your story has. You can find this in two places:
    • Under the “Review” tab, in the far left (next to the Spelling button) is a small button with “ABC123” on it. That’s your word count button.SMF - Word Count 2
    • Word 2010 also keeps a running word count at the bottom of the file. You don’t have to open anything! Just look at the bottom of Word.SMF - Word Count
  2. At the top of the manuscript, add “#### words.”

Step #6-C: Add your name, address, phone number, and email address

One important note: Your personal information (and, by extension, your word count) are all SINGLE-SPACED. But you double-spaced this file back in step #1, right? Yeah. That’s why the last step in this section changes that.

  1. Put your cursor before your word count.
  2. Type in your name.
  3. After your name (but before the word count) hit tab until your word count is at the right edge of the page.
  4. On the next two (or so) lines, put your address in.
  5. On the next line, add your email address.
  6. On the next line, add your phone number.
  7. Select all of this new text.
  8. Go to the “Page Layout” tab.
  9. Hit the little box-with-an-arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the “Paragraph” section.
  10. Find the “Line Spacing” drop-down menu. Change it to “Single.”

Step #7: Add a header

  1. Double click in the empty header area of your document. Word will open your header editor.
  2. Go to the “Insert” tab.
  3. Select “Page Number.”
  4. Choose Top of Page > Plain Number 3. This will add the page number to the top of your document, aligned right.Screenshot of the Insert tab and the Page Number section, showing Plain Number 3.
  5. Put your cursor in front of that page number.
  6. Type in your information: LAST NAME / NAME OF PIECE /

Now you’ll have a pretty header. It’ll appear on the top of all of your pages, complete with an accurate page number.

At this point, your story should look like the screenshot at the top of this page. You’re pretty much done! There’s just one last thing to do…

Step #8: Add the Ending

  1. Go to the last line of your story.
  2. On a new line, type: END
  3. Center it. (shortcut: Control:E)

Tada!

And, when in  doubt…

This probably looks like a lot of steps. And if you’re not super used to Microsoft Word, it might feel like a lot of work! But this is really, really easy.

If any of this IS confusing, just mimic the example at the top of this post or look at the Standard Manuscript Format guidelines.

Once you get the hang of it, this is fast! This is so easy, in fact, that I never write in Standard Manuscript Format. I find 10pt single-spaced Arial font to be soothing to look at, so that’s how I write my stories. I only format them when I’m done with them.

There are definitely a few other things you can standardize–this definitely isn’t everything. But most of the other stuff you can do is small, and it won’t get you into hot water. A manuscript that follows all of the above steps will be perfectly acceptable for submitting at most places.

Of course, that’s not a promise. This’ll work for most places. Most! Always check a place’s submission requirements before you submit! But for everything else? You’re done, and it only took you 5 minutes.

Recommended word counts cause so much angst.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, check out this Writer’s Digest post, or this post on children’s fiction. (Unfortunately, they’re both pretty old. Still, you get the point.)

Agents and publishers look for novels with word counts within a certain range. This length varies by genre and the rules aren’t set in stone, but they’re pretty good guidelines for what an “average” book looks like. And that makes sense, right? A cozy romance the size of War and Peace would probably struggle to find a niche, wouldn’t it?

(None of this matters if you self-publish, of course. You may have a hard time finding a lot of readers for a 300,000-word MG epic, but you know what? No one’s going to stop you.)

But when folks go the agent and/or publisher route, this whole “word count” thing causes them no ends of angst. And while too-short novels can be an issue, the real heartache happens at the other end of the spectrum, when someone wants to pitch a much longer-than-average novel.

So let’s talk about it!

Why are word counts important?

If there was a mandatory law that debut authors could never go over 100,000 words, authors might agonize less. But instead, it’s a messy, messy world.

Let’s take YA fantasy as an example. A totally informal, but often-quoted rule of thumb is that a debut novel should be under 100,000 words. That’s fuzzy enough as it is, of course, because sub-genres differ, and contemporary stuff tends to be shorter than high fantasy and SF. But let’s give a huge range: YA fantasy debut novels can be 60,000 to 100,000 words long, with a sweet spot somewhere around 70-80K.

But there are people who have sold much longer books. And you will find lots of novels that are well over this range. So word counts don’t matter, right? Write whatever you want! But that can bite you in the butt.

Here’s why: if you’re querying a YA fantasy and it’s in the normal range, the agent probably won’t bat an eye. That’s a “normal” book. That’s fine.

But if it’s 200,000 words long, that’s going to raise some eyebrows. Like… was that intentional? Is this really the right length for this story? Does the author know much about the market, or read many books in this genre? And did they still submit a story this length, even knowing that most other books aren’t? It’s not the end of the world, but it’s… not a red flag, certainly, but an orange one? A small sign that this might be a difficult, weird, or unedited book?

And in the end, agents look for any reason to say no. If they’re on the fence and they see a potentially weird word count–something that you’d have to justify–they might just pass.

So that’s it. You’re making a difficult job harder. Now that agent won’t just ask themselves “Is this premise killer?” Instead, they’re thinking, “I like the premise, but it’s really long. Do I love it enough to request it anyway…?”

And word counts are exceptionally agonizing to fantasy authors.

Do you like fantasy? I like fantasy. I’ve read tons of high fantasy novels, and man–they are long. That’s the sign of a great one, right? Sprawling epics! Massive scales! Immense detail! ZILLIONS OF WORDS!

And there are lots of novels out there–some of them even debut novels!–that are well over 100K. Heck, you’ll find ones in the 200,000 range. So authors often put two and two together: Fantasy is long. Some people have written very long books and been published. So I shouldn’t worry when I submit my 175,000-word fantasy, right? It’s perfect! The length probably makes it better!

Sadly, every fantasy author thinks they’re the exception.

I know the pain. You want to write an epic. And if you have four POV characters, two countries, a war, and a plague, 100,000 words might seem a little restrictive. And if some people have gotten away with more, then surely you’ll be OK, right?

Except, see above. It bites people in the butt. And an agent isn’t going to waive the word count because you’re a fantasy author. They’ll see a very high word count, raise an eyebrow, and wonder: Is this 175,000 words after it’s been edited into lean, clean, streamlined perfection? Or did the author not know about the market? Or maybe they just didn’t edit themselves, because they thought it’d be fine because it’s fantasy?

It’s a pitfall. It’s tricky. But remember: There are a lot of new and hopeful fantasy authors writing mega-epics, all hoping that theirs will be the one that is so good that an agent picks it up anyway. And you could make your life a little easier by being at least somewhere near the 100,000 limit.

Besides, why does this have to be a bad thing?

Writing within word counts can actually be helpful!

Word counts don’t have to be an arbitrary cap on your creativity. They can be very useful things:

  • An average-length book will be easier to sell and market.
  • Writing with a word count limit can help you with pacing and plotting. If you want your book to be around 80,000 words long, for example, you’ll know that you’re in trouble if nothing has happened by word 50,000, or if your climax hasn’t ramped up by the 70,000 mark.
  • It makes the querying process easier, as it removes one reason to say “no.”
  • It makes it easier to find publishers, because your book will most likely fall within their requested range.
  • If you do happen to have a huge book, intentionally capping it at a certain point gives you a good idea how much you can “fit” in one book–and gives you content for sequels.
  • If you can get yourself established with an agent or publisher with a “normal” book, you can always use your early success to justify taking risks on much longer-than-normal books later.

Does every book have to be exactly the same? Of course not. Are there books that need to be long to tell their stories? Absolutely!

But if you’re a debut author, you don’t have a lot of clout. These people don’t know you. No one knows how popular your works will be. So it’ll be extra-difficult to convince someone that you shouldn’t just be the one rare soul they choose to work with–but that they should do so, even if your story is longer than what they’re looking for.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to take that gamble, of course! Lots of people win out. But it’s always good to know the potential pitfalls before you start.

Way back in 2015, I wrote an article called “Fun Ways to Use Excel to Track Your Writing Process.” It’s been getting a lot of visits lately, so I thought it was time to do a new, improved, and updated version of it.

Let’s talk numbers! Writing numbers.

Tracking your daily word count is awesome.

I love knowing how much and how often I write.

Writing is so very, very slow. Sometimes the amount of work you’re doing is obvious–it’s pretty hard to not feel proud when you’re staring at 10 new chapters or 30,000 new words. But what about when you’re brainstorming, outlining, or editing? Or when you’re rewriting chapters? They can take tons of time, and most of it’s invisible. You could spend a whole season editing and come out feeling like you did absolutely nothing at all.

So I track my work. I keep track of every time I sit down at the computer, how many words I write, what kind of work I did, and how many hours I spent on it.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It takes me less than a minute. (Literally.) In exchange, I know:

  • How many words I wrote in a day, week, month, or year
  • How much time I spent doing writing-related tasks (and how much time was specifically spent writing, editing, or whatever.)
  • My average words per hour
  • The average amount of time it takes me to finish a novel or short story.

It’s fun. No, really! I promise!

So here’s what my current Excel tracker looks like.

If you checked out my 2015 post, you’ll notice that my current tracker’s a little different. let’s go through it!

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet with a month's worth of work recorded.

Click to see the full image. Yes, January was a lousy month for me.

It’s simple, but it works. Here’s what it tracks:

  1. Date: When I wrote.
  2. Title: The name of the piece.
  3. Chapter: I only use this field for novels. (It makes it easier to keep track of new and old word counts for the “Words Written” section.)
  4. Story Type: Short or Novel.
  5. Work Type: Can be anything. Usually this is writing, editing, or outlining. But I’ll talk more about that in a second.
  6. The “Words Written” Section: I enter the word count this piece or chapter had when I started (and “0” if it’s a new chapter or short story) and the number of words it had when I finished. Excel automatically calculates the number of new words.
  7. The “Time Spent” Section: This includes the time I started, the time I finished, and the number of minutes I spent writing. Excel automatically calculates my words per hour.

And I track everything. Absolutely everything.

I track everything I do that’s related to writing. Everything. I track:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Outlining
  4. Worldbuilding (i.e., writing character profiles or theme files)
  5. Anything else I feel like tracking. For example, in January of this year, I logged a bunch of stuff under the super-unclear term “Analysis.” I was reading the first draft of my novel and taking notes about what to change. I wrote several thousand words of notes, so I recorded them.

If I’m working on my story, I track it. If I stop to outline a story for a couple of weeks, I’m not “doing nothing,” so I don’t record it as such. Everything counts. It’s all work, and it’s all helping me prepare to write a novel.

That’s great, but why do I do all this?

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not doing this so I can stick to some arbitrary words-a-day habit. (Heck, I don’t even think “write 1,000 words a day” literally means “you must write 1,000 new story-related words a day.”) My goal is to know how often I work on my projects and to measure how much work I’m doing.

I know exactly how I’m using my writing time, when I’m being productive, and when I’m slacking off.

This is especially fun after you’ve done it for a year. I’ve been tracking my writing for nearly two years now, and I now know all sorts of stuff–how long I usually take to write a novel, for example, or when my biggest lulls in activity are.

I don’t know if I’ve ever made major decisions or changes based on this data, but it’s been invaluable in learning and refining my writing process.

Now that you’re (hopefully) convinced, I’d like to tell you about pivot tables!

COME BACK. I PROMISE IT’S INTERESTING.

Once you have all this cool data in Excel, its easy-peasy to make some cool tables that help you see your data. Here are some of the pivot tables I’ve used:

Number of Words by Month

Screenshot of my word tracker, showing the number of words written per month.

This fun one takes the number of new words I wrote, the type of content, and the type of story, and organizes them by month. This lets me see how much work I did each month and what kind of work it was.

Number of Words by Month and Title

Screenshot showing the number of words I wrote, by month and title.

This is similar to the above graph, but it organizes them by title. This way, I can see what projects I worked on each month and how much work I did for each.

Number of Words by Week

Screenshot of my word tracker showing the number of words produced by week.

And, of course, you don’t have to track anything by month. This is the same as the “number of words by month” graph, above, except it breaks it down by week.

There’s no limit to the type of data you can track and the ways you can display it. If you’re interested in learning more about how you write, give it a shot! You might learn something interesting about yourself.

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