Questions Writers Ask...

Writers ask a lot of questions. Some of them deep, some silly. And sometimes they ask the same questions over and over again that it's probably nice to have an FAQ somewhere to answer them all once and for all.

Q: How long should a chapter be? Can it be too short or too long?
A: You know, dear, how long is a string? The answer is very simple: As long as it needs to be. Same with chapters. There are chapters that are only one-word long, and there are books with only one chapter. It's probably a good idea to alternate chapter lengths for pace and variety, but there really is not right or wrong answer.

Q: Is 100,000 words too long? Is 50,000 words too short?
A: Too long or short for what? Technically speaking, anything above 40,000 words are considered novels, and Stephen King's The Stand was over 1000 pages long. Not to mention The Lord of the Rings, which was later split into three books. There are many questions you need to ask yourself:
  • Is every word necessary? Does every word count?
  • Have you told the story you wanted to tell?
  • Did you do a good job telling it?
  • What does the market expect?
I think the last question is practical, and the real question most writers really are asking. It's not about how long should a novel be -- it can be as long as you want -- but what would a publisher reject or accept. The normal range is between 80,000 to 120,000 words, with YA novels a bit on the low side. Anything outside of the bell curve will meet with more resistance and scrutiny, for many reasons: publishing a long book is expensive and risky; publishing a short book may not satisfy the readers. As author James D. Macdonald said (and I paraphrase), "The more you deviate from the norm, the more brilliant your book must be." Those are some words of wisdom.

Q. Is cursing bad?
A. Yes, my dear, if your mother or children are around. But in the world of fiction: No, not necessarily. It really depends on your story and your characters and your target market. Obviously, if you're writing a children's book, you probably shouldn't say shit or fuck. Not even damn. But if you're writing a story about Bostonian mobsters, please do not make them sound like kindergarten schoolteachers. If two people are having hot, steamy, adulterous sex, chances are they're going to curse up a storm. Harry Potter shouldn't swear -- but he may, if he's really pissed -- but my uncle Meng does. As writers, we need to treat each word, including curse words, equally and examine them with the same care. Choose the right word. And as writers, we can't be afraid of words and must always be true to our characters and our stories. If something bothers us, be it a word or an action or an emotion, to the point that we want to avoid it by manipulating our characters, then we have no right to write the story. So don't write the Bostonian mobster story. Write something a little goose rescued by a duck.

Q. How many characters are too many? How many POV characters can I have?
A. Again, it's like the question about chapter lengths. There is no right or wrong answer, only guidelines. The idea is that the more characters you have, to more you need to manage them. You may have a cast of millions in a SF&F epic, or you may have only one castaway on a remote island. It comes back to how well you can tell the story and how many characters you need to tell it. As for POV characters -- remember, your readers experience the story through the POV characters, and in my opinion, the fewer the better so they have a chance to really bond with the characters. The trade-off is that you may lose some ability to tell different sides of the story, but there are many ways to compensate for that. I'm the kind of writers who'd rather the readers feel a tremendous bond with my characters than to have them sit on a cloud watching everything from afar. To me, less is more.

Q. What are POVs and what are the different types and which one should I use?
A. These are the kind of basic skill questions with which I get a little annoyed. Honey, grab a book on fiction writing. Seriously, almost every book -- and there are many -- talks about point of view, the different kinds, and how to use them. With examples. And if you've read any fiction in the last, oh say, 50 years, you would have read all of these POVs. Now picking one may not be as simple as ABC -- again, you need to know your story and determine how best to tell it. My idea is to pick up your favorite book in your genre, something similar to the one you're about to write, and see how the author did it. Does it work? Do you like it? If so, follow suit.


ORION said…
This is a terrific post - i am going to link you in my blog - Is that OK with you?
Gay said…
Well done. Orion said your blog was worth checking out, and she was right. I'm linking, too.
Kanani said…
Hi Ray,
I noticed that you studied creative writing at UCLA. Well, I'm over there, too. In fact, I've been in and out of there ages, taking everything... and I'm having a blast. More importantly, I've made good friends. This is so much better than what college was.

But, this is my last class. The quasi-master racheting-advanced novel class in learning how to eat crow and write. I'm working on the final draft of this novel. Then really, baby, it's gotta fly.
Ray Wong said…
Good luck with the ms., Kanani. I'm glad you're having a blast. I really enjoyed UCLA, and I learned a lot, and that also convinced me to pursue this silly, crazy novel writing thing. I think it paid off -- not handsomely yet, but it's a start.

Keep up the good work! I hope to read your work real soon.

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