Novel: How long should a book be?

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

In his book on writing, horror novelist Stephen King advised that any serious writer should spend four to six hours a day doing some mixture of both reading and writing to hone their craft and become good at what they do. As you may imagine, this can be incredibly difficult for people who don’t have the luxury of just sitting around doing both hobbies for a large chunk of the day. I, for one, have two jobs, four kids, a wife, and other interests and activities. So should I just not write? Am I doomed to mediocrity?

I understand the spirit of what King is saying — mainly that it’s important to train in reading and writing to become better, and you can’t do this in tiny measures — but I don’t fully embrace it, either. You do what you can do. I don’t often get as much time to read every day as I might like, but I get a little in here and there — with devotions, audio books, and the occasional 10-minute bursts of Kindle while I’m waiting to pick the kids up, etc. I write a lot, but most of it is for my work, and that’s a much different style than fiction writing. So to make this novel work, I’ve had to restructure my day and carve out some time here and there to get a few more paragraphs done, maybe a page, maybe two. But six hours? No, it’s just not happening.

When I started this novel a month or so ago, it wasn’t with any sort of lofty ambitions. I had a story idea that I wanted to get out. I wasn’t even thinking of size or scope. But by the time I was deep into the fourth chapter and the structure of the book was coming along, I started to be concerned about the larger picture. Namely, how long should this book be?

That actually matters a lot, because it will influence how fast I progress through the plot and give me a target goal to shoot for. I know that some people might say, “Just write it and see where it ends,” but that has some problems. What if it’s way, way too short to be an actual novel? I would like this book to arrive in the 300-450 page range, and so I did a little bit of research on word counts.

What I found was general recommendations that gave me a better idea of general length:

  • 60,000 words or less is a very short novel or novella — not what I’m going for
  • 80,000-100,000 words is a nice, average length of a novel
  • 100,000-130,000 words is more expected for fantasy novels, as they typically have greater world building and more epic tales

My general concern is that I’m going to fall on the shorter side of the spectrum. What I’m discovering about my writing style is that I like things to happen. I’ll give some descriptions, sure, but I like to keep the plot moving and inject interesting explanations over spending the better part of a page setting the scene. I also keep my dialogue light, which I’m deliberately trying to address although it slows down my writing when my characters enter into a conversation.

So my goal is this: I’m shooting for 100,000 words for a first draft with a daily goal of at least 1,000 words. It’s pretty reasonable, and in fact most days I easily reach 2,000. I think NaNoWriMo had us pumping out 1,667 words a day to get to the 50,000 mark by a month’s end, so this feels about normal for that. With over 30,000 words already done, I should be crossing the finish line for a first draft sometime in June.

I’m not getting obsessed with word count, mind you. It’s just one way to measure progress, and I enjoy tracking it on a spreadsheet every day to see how it grows. Plus, it’s another good little motivational technique to encourage me. Another one of my “daily quests,” if you will.

To answer a question that I’ve been asked: Yes, I’ll make this novel available to the public if (a) it gets finished and (b) I put in a couple of rounds of serious edits and formatting. Even if it never sees the light of day in an official printing, I’ll still shell out some money to have a few copies made up for my wife and kids. So far, it’s a fun read and a fun ride, and I think you might enjoy it.

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Novel: Was writing always this hard?

So I’m writing a book.

I don’t usually discuss my personal life much on this blog because it’s not a therapy outlet and you don’t get paid to listen to me whine about my petty problems, but this past year has been a rather difficult and uncertain period especially when it comes to my work and future career. It has been stressing me out, and as much as I lean on God, some days it gets to me. I’ve grown weary of not knowing what to do and what the future holds, so while I’m having to be patient, I’ve decided to channel some of this frustrated energy into a productive project.

Hence, book.

I also don’t usually talk about writing fiction here, I guess because I used to think it was bad luck or something. Probably the truth is that I would be embarrassed to tell you that I was writing what would most definitely end up being a poor, half-finished book and then awkwardly avoid all future inquiries as to the progress of said poor, half-finished book.

But right now it’s one of the few things in my life that genuinely excites me, and I want to share that. Perhaps jotting these thoughts down will help to prompt me to write more and persevere to the end.

I always have a few ideas for novels bouncing around in my furry head — who doesn’t, really? — but as of late one particular idea kept nagging me and poking me, saying, “C’mon, write me already!” I won’t go into specifics, but the general catalyst for this story comes from the fact that about 90% of all fantasy fiction that I read tends to be about the same types of characters: coming-of-age wizards, assassins who are really, really good at killing, battle-scarred veterans with a heart of gold, and anyone who discovers that they’re secretly a werewolf/vampire/c’thulu and feels conflicted about that. Some of it is good, and occasionally a writer will impress me by giving me an unusual protagonist, but I see a lot of common threads of “hero killbot” running through these.

The thought I had was of a protagonist who lived in a fantasy world but wasn’t involved in killing whatsoever. He wasn’t a warrior, he didn’t have super-incredible magical powers, he just had one of the many other jobs that happened to exist in such a landscape. It’s an interesting job, at least to me, it’s just not one that will pit him against a dragon.

A few weeks ago, I decided that enough with just thinking about it, I would sit down and hash out a world building document. I knew enough about my previous writing ventures that I would lose myself in the weeds if I didn’t have a sense of how the world and characters were constructed prior to getting into the narrative. And over the span of a few hours, a rather lengthy document emerged. It kind of just exploded out of my head and I was pretty surprised to see it sitting there. It wasn’t completely unique — what is? — but it felt fresh and different.

Then I started to write. Probably one of my favorite parts of fiction writing is when the narrative and characters take me to unexpected places. I have some general ideas of what’s going on, but these chapters are starting to take a life of their own. That keeps me writing because I want to know what’s next.

So far, I’m four chapters in. I’m trying to rearrange my schedule a little to accommodate regular writing, but I’m still working on that. I need to do this every day, I think, so as not to stall out and so that I can keep momentum going. It’s good fun thus far, all first-person narrative with a strange guy that goes back and forth in a timeline, but it’s not going to be any instant best seller. I have a lot of difficulty with inserting natural-sounding dialogue — I tend to shy away from dialogue, period — and I keep wanting to move the story along to the point where I neglect proper descriptions. So I’m trying to force myself to work those in and not rush.

I did purchase myself a cheap Chromebook, because I want a writing device that’s a little more portable and that won’t tie me to my desk. I can see writing a bit before bed instead of watching TV, as long as I can do it on the couch.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with this weird little section of my life. I might periodically write down some updates on how it’s going, or I might awkwardly avoid your glances for a while. As long as I’m enjoying it and improving my writing abilities, I consider it time well spent. Plus, my kids found out that I’m doing this (my wife knows not) and they’ve been pestering me to read it.

6 best fiction books I read this year

Feeling like I should be getting to my end-of-2017 lists, and since I haven’t talked much about what fiction books I’ve read this year (because it’s been a pretty light year for me and reading, alas), here are the six standouts that I both enjoyed and would heartily recommend to anyone.

1. Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien De Castell

The epic conclusion to this Three Muskateers reenvisioning (is that a word?) was spot-on perfect. It brought us to a nail-biting conclusion as the ragged Greatcoats faced off against a mirror foe, with plenty of surprises, fist-pumping lines, memorable characters, and amazing moments abounding. With this book, the Greatcoats series has become one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, and the second I finished it I wanted to start reading it all over again.

2. and 3. Senlin Ascends / Arm of the Sphynx by Josiah Bancroft

Right now for $10 you can get two of the most incredibly imaginative and surprising works that I’ve encountered in quite some time. A blend of fantasy, steampunk, and sci-fi, The Books of Babel take us into the titular city where a seemingly milquetoast schoolteacher plumbs hidden depths of personality while ascending the tower to find his wife (who vanished for some reason on the first day of their honeymoon). I kept thinking that these books were going to be about one thing and then they would suddenly juke hard and be something completely different.

4. Blackwing by Ed McDonald

I deeply respect fantasy authors that use their God-given imaginations and come up with something much different than the standard tropes. McDonald drafts up a “weird fiction” world that’s straddling the apocalypse with Deep Kings fighting against Unnamed, all with squishy humans in the middle. There’s a grizzled mercenary who is compelled to seek out and protect his old fianceé, but the actual plot turns out to be much more than expected. It’s gritty and grim, but not gruesome and grimdark, if that makes sense, and I had a blast going through this tale. Packs six books’ worth of plot into one, and well worth it.

5. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Another thing I respect? A sense of humor and a willingness to tweak mythology. Despite a somewhat-childish name, Kings of the Wyld brings us into a world where fame-seeking bands of adventurers have grown soft in gladiator pits, but one of the most famous bands of yesteryear has reassembled for a last-ditch rescue mission against a horde of monsters. Loads of great characters, classic fantasy monsters, an ogre with two heads and the most heartbreaking tale ever, and a geeky charm that pervades the whole ordeal. It never took itself too seriously but simply focused on the pleasure of a pulp fiction tale, and that made for a great read.

6. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

There were a few titles vying for the sixth spot here, but I like having a straight-up scifi tale on this list and the tale went down very smoothly. It’s all about a wormhole-creating starship that gets a contract to head out to a planet populated by very alien xenophobics. I wasn’t completely sold on the plot; there isn’t a strong narrative or conclusion so much as a series of somewhat connected accounts as the ship makes the journey. But I did find the look at humanity in a sea of alien cultures very gripping, especially with the well-thought-out races that populate the ship. I haven’t jumped on board with the sequel yet, since it doesn’t seem to involve the original cast, but I suppose I’d be amiable with it sooner or later.

Getting on top of my summer reading

One of my goals this summer is to enjoy one of my lifelong favorite pastimes more, which is simply reading. I’ve taken to toting around my Kindle more (I read more on the actual Kindle Paperwhite than I do my phone) and have greatly enjoyed a string of terrific books recently, including Tyrant’s Throne and Red Sister. I’m trying to spend my last hour before sleep doing more reading than TV watching, as it’s the quietest time of the day.

But lately I’ve also realized that I’ve become haphazard in my accumulation of books and approach to reading. Thanks to Bookbub, I’ve been adding free and discounted novels several times a week (seriously, check it out, it’s great) and been tossing them into my “To Read” Kindle collection. Then there are books that I started but never finished. And an ever-growing wish list of titles on Amazon. And a bookshelf at work full of church books that I’ve bought or been gifted over the years that I’ve never touched.

And so I decided that something needed to get done. I had to organize.

Church books was the easier one: I’ve pulled out about a good dozen titles that I would really benefit from (such as Parenting by Tripp, Doctrines of Grace by Boice, and Desiring God by Piper), stacked them in a reading order, and started to go through them a chapter a day as part of my devotions. I’ve also created a document to take notes, since it helps me with overall comprehension (something I learned in seminary).

Yesterday, I got serious about my Kindle and Amazon collection, although that was a much larger task. I created a document that was divided into five sections:

  • Wish list books to buy (high, medium, and low priority)
  • Books I already own and need to read
  • Books I started but did not finish yet

This took me a long time, since I had to first comb through my entire Kindle collection dating all of the way back to 2011, looking up book ratings, bookmarking favorite authors (and seeing if I missed any books from them), and ranking them all on my to-read list. Then came my wish list, which really was an enormous, unwieldy monster. I probably deleted about 2/3rds of it, books that might have had passing interest but I know I’ll never have time to read, and then ranked the rest. Since I have some 70 books owned on my to read list, I’m not in a tearing hurry to buy more, but there are a few toward the top of my wish list that I’d like to get sooner rather than later.

Many of these books are part of long series, which is both a blessing and a curse. Just looking over the list, I think that if I did little else but read for the next year, I probably couldn’t get through it all. It’s an unclimbable mountain, getting higher every week with new releases, but at least I’m getting organized about it. Plus, if I have books on my wish list, I can easily sort to see if any of them are on sale. Unless it’s a “must have right now” novel, I don’t like spending more than about $3 on a book. Just my frugal nature, I guess.

One thing I did realize is that I’ve been starving for good space opera/scifi in my reading. I’ve been overdoing it on fantasy lately (I have a smattering of imaginative horror in the list too, but I don’t read as much of that as I once did) and could use some starships and aliens. So in organizing my lists, I bumped up some of those types of books in my queue.

With a lot of these books that I got for free, I’m not going to feel bad about giving each about one or two chapters to really hook me in before tossing them back on the pile. Life is too short to force myself to read books that aren’t that engrossing to me (or ones that are poorly written, which you bump into a lot, unfortunately).

It was very encouraging to go through all of these books for a different reason, which is that by reading the descriptions and reader reviews, I got excited about eventually diving into titles that I had totally forgotten about. There are some really interesting books out there that don’t easily fit in genre descriptions, and those I anticipate the most.

Back into books!

I haven’t done a books post (aka “What is Syp reading?”) for a while, mostly because my reading had become stagnant over the past half-year. I blame tablets, really. When I settle down for my last hour of the day in bed, my tablet offers too many tempting diversions: TV shows, email, twitter, and games. That all cut into my main reading time, and thus, my progress through novels slowed to a crawl while my “To Read” list grew and grew thanks to new releases and all of the sales and freebies through Bookbub.

I also didn’t feel like I was missing out on reading because I have been doing more audiobooks, mostly in short gaps of time (driving, cooking, doing menial tasks). But the problem there is that the cost of audiobooks means that I only grab my favorite (and well-read) series instead of new titles. So I’ve been going through the Kingkiller Chronicles, the Dark Tower series, and now all of the Harry Potter novels. Good stuff, but not new territory for me by far.

Gradually, I’ve come to realizing that I truly do miss straight-up reading and have made an effort to work it back into my routine. The key for this, I’ve found, is to pull out my Kindle at bedtime instead of a tablet. Only one thing you can do on a Kindle, after all, and it’s so much easier on the eyes for me to do reading with it compared to my phone or a tablet screen. I’ve even been reading more while exercise biking, although that’s still a little tough because reading is not as distracting from the labor of exercise as playing a game.

I’m happy to report that I’m picking up speed and starting to plow through books, now that my To Read list is at an intimidating 100 (and that’s not even including any sequels if I happen to like a particular book in a series). I stalled out on Patrick Weeks’ Rogues of the Republic series — the first book was great but the second was weirdly a chore, and I found myself very unmotivated to pick through the third.

Instead, I turned to the Invisible Library, an interesting fantasy tale of a woman who hops alternate Earths to track down rare copies of books for a central Library. Even though it was a little simple, I liked it well enough (but not quite enough to order the second book of that series).

Now I’m onto an impulse 99-cent purchase, Senlin Ascends and finding it totally engrossing. It’s about this somewhat standoffish teacher who visits the giant Tower of Babel on his honeymoon, only to lose his wife right away and force him to go on a quest to find her. It’s a bizarre vertical city full of “ringdoms,” and just 70 pages into it, I’ve already bought the sequel because it’s that good.

I’ve taken to toting my Kindle around again, too. Little bits of time, like waiting in the car for my kids to get out of school, can be better served by some reading rather than restless twitter reloading. I just kick myself that I had a whole week of vacation and did precious little reading during most of it.

Book recommendation: The Palace Job

First of all, if you love reading ebooks and you’re not already hooked into Bookbub, please rectify that as soon as possible. Basically, Bookbub asks you to create a profile in which you select your favorite book genres, and then every day it combs through Amazon’s Kindle library looking for good deals on (usually) popular or high-rated novels.

I really love this service, because every day I get that email and scan through the three or four books it has found. I’d say at least once a week I end up picking up a cheap (or free!) book through this service, and I’ve discovered several new series through it. Great stuff.

I mention this because a few weeks ago I was informed that there was this fantasy trilogy, Rogues of the Republic, that had gone on sale. I think I got all three novels for $12 or so, although the first was just two bucks. They looked like lighthearted fantasy fare, which I welcome after too many of the recent wave of ultra-gritty, grim epics.

It turns out that this was a good buy. An extremely good buy, as evidenced by the fact that I’m excited enough to write a blog post about it. The first novel, The Palace Job, had me hooked from the first chapter on. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before — it’s basically Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy realm, with a ragtag assembly of thieves trying to pull off a master heist. Yet as it often is with novels, it’s in the presentation.

And The Palace Job’s presentation is superb. The worldbuilding is fascinating, kind of a high fantasy meets magicpunk, with ogres and spells and the like. The characters are individually interesting, with definable characteristics and funny quips. The best thing is that this book meets my standard of having every chapter be interesting and important. It moves along at a fair clip, with the thieves outwitting the bad guys while doing and saying lots of pretty hilarious things. There’s a shape-shifting unicorn (can’t say I’ve read a lot of fantasy with a unicorn as a main character), a death priestess with a talking warhammer, an expelled magician, a couple of escaped prisoners, a nerdy lockpicker, a Spock-like contortionist, and Dairy, a 16-year-old virgin doof who is as sincere as he is prone to messing up the plan.

Anyway, I’m really glad that there are three books, and after being so impressed with the first one, I read up on the author, Patrick Weekes. Turns out that he’s a writer for BioWare, having done a lot of stuff for the Mass Effect series. The guy wrote Tali, my favorite character from that series. Now the quality of the writing makes sense, eh?

What I think of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

cursed

By now I think that most people know and recognize what an oddity Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is. It’s the eighth official story in the series… that’s actually written by Jack Thorne and not Rowling (who limited herself to coming up with the story). It’s a published book… that’s actually a rehearsal script for a two-part play instead of being a novel. And it’s much less about Harry Potter than it is about his son.

It’s weird and has proven to be pretty divisive among Potter fans. I’m not exactly sure where I stand on it.

I blitzed through the book in about two nights. Since it’s a play, other than some stage directions and descriptions, pretty much all you’re reading is dialogue. That makes for a fast read right there — and not necessarily a bad one. I found it pretty easy to lose myself in the story and come up with the descriptive details from my prior experience with the franchise.

The tale concerns Albus Potter, a not-so-great wizard who is struggling with the legacy of his father, and his Hogwarts best friend Scorpio, a pretty-awesome-guy who is struggling with the rumors that he’s the spawn of Voldemort. Both are outcasts and find themselves at odds with their respective fathers (father-child relationships is at the core of the play’s theme).

Instead of being a story of what happens at Hogwarts in the vein of a standard HP story, Cursed Child goes a different route by establishing how crappy Albus and Scorpio’s lives are and then giving them a purpose: To, somehow, save Cedric Diggory from being killed back in the ’90s by Voldemort in Goblet of Fire. Enter a whole mess of time travel, paradoxes, alternate worlds, and a desperate search by parents across the world and eras to find their kids again.

I’ve read that Cursed Child is more or less fanfiction — and not a great at even that. I don’t know if I agree with that. It’s definitely more of an extended coda to the series than its own fully fleshed-out tale (and oh do I wish it was just one of Rowling’s monster novels instead of a play). Most of the play keeps pointing to past events and figures, from time-turners to Cedric to Harry’s parents to Dumbledore, instead of giving us a new dimension of Hogwarts or the Wizarding World to explore. I think the limitations of a play’s running time meant for more leaning on an established world than coming up with a lot of new ideas, but I’ve certainly read fanfic that was far, far worse than this.

At least it’s entertaining and a new Potter story — and one that doesn’t really mess up the series that came before it or end on a dumb cliffhanger. I can see why they felt pressured to release the script (other than money), since fans would’ve felt cheated that they wouldn’t be able to experience the next official story other than a fixed location play that will probably be sold out from here to 2050. I thought that some of the descriptions of the magic and effects going on would be intensely difficult to replicate on a stage, and so this might well make for a better movie (and one that is hopefully more fleshed out).

It could have been a great novel. Instead it’s an OK play that doesn’t quite hit the spot that Potter fans, starved for another book, have been hoping for.