Self-Care while Writing

Self-care is important on a personal level. Everyone needs different types of self-care, including writers. But when you hear the word, do you think bubble baths, face masks, a glass of wine and a soppy movie? Sure, that can be it if that’s what you need. But self-care is so much more than pampering yourself, especially if you have a mental illness — anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. Self-care is learning coping mechanisms. Self-care not cancelling your next therapy appointment because you had an episode with hallucinations again and you’re ashamed of it. Self-care is forcing yourself to get up and shower when you’re too depressed to do anything.

Ultimately, self-care is so much more than what most people think. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s something I wanted to talk about, because mental health and self-care are for everyone. Everyone has mental health. And, as a writer living with severe mental illness, I find it’s important to take care of yourself during the writing process, especially if you’re writing a novel. They can take months, even years, to finish. And I find they can be quite consuming (especially when I’m manic and writing over 5,000 words in a day for several days in a row).

Even when I’m not manic, I find that when I slog over a manuscript for days on end without doing anything else other than sleep, I start to lose focus and clarity. But over the years, as I’ve learned to refine my writing process, I’ve also learned to care for myself and my mental health so I can continue to knock out word after word, sentence after sentence. Here are a few tips to help you do the same if you find you need to care for yourself:

  1. Learn to step away from your manuscript if you feel drained.
    Hyperfocusing on your manuscript will only burn you out and drain you of your creativity. You might end up getting stuck with writer’s block, feeling nothing but frustration. Step away for a few days to help you clear your head. Sometimes, when you narrow in on one thing (practically obsessing over it), frustration and depression can quickly take over.
  2. Make sure to take small breaks to eat, rest, take care of other chores, etc.
    Sometimes, we get so “in the groove” that we forget about what’s going on around us. Whether it’s to eat a meal or snack, to walk the dog, or to simply clean up your home a bit, be sure to get up and move around if you’ve been working on your manuscript for hours at a time.
  3. Don’t forget about other hobbies.
    Having other hobbies is another way to help you step away from your work, as well as help you destress when you’re frustrated with your own writing. Whether you’re into knitting, doodling in a planner, or any other pastime, enjoying a hobby for a few hours per week has actually been said to reduce the risk of depression.
  4. Take a walk.
    And not in a “Get outta my sight!” kind of way. Exercise is great for reducing stress and clearing your head, even if it’s a quick 10-minute walk. You can even do a short, 7-minute workout routine according to WebMD.
  5. Focus on the positive.
    Feeling down about your work, like you’re no good at it or your manuscript is a pile of garbage? Stop and find the good things. Find a passage that you feel is written well and read it a few times, or find other parts of your work that you enjoy. Recharge your outlook to a more positive view, and don’t be so hard on yourself.

Remember that everyone is different, and everyone has different needs for their mental well-being. These are simply things I’ve learned over the years as a writer. Do what you need in order to take care of yourself, and don’t forget: Mental health matters.

When Enough Is Enough for Your Novel

At what point is your novel is done? Completed? Finished? How many revisions and edits are enough? Basically, when is enough, enough?

I recently reread my own self-pubbed novel, The Days Without You, and damnit if I didn’t find another error—a missing word. Even though it was a teeny, tiny preposition that my eyes almost glossed right over, all I could think was, “Well, damn.” Fortunately, I didn’t find any others. But there are still things I consider changing. Long to change. It’s not that I didn’t pour over revisions and edits, round after round, to make my manuscript perfect. I put my heart and soul into revisions, trying to make every scene perfect and meaningful, adding something to the story, taking parts out. I never truly felt like my story was complete. Grueling, it was. But it does beg the question: How do you know when you’re done with revisions?

There are writers out there who will revise a novel for years. I, myself, spent years on The Days Without You. Let me just tell you this: You’ll probably never be fully satisfied with your manuscript, especially if you’re looking into self-publishing. At some point, you have to put it down for good and tell yourself it’s finished, even if you’re concerned about one thing or another. And let me tell you something else: That it’s perfectly fine. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Let me tell you something else: You thought that at some point you’d reach that ultimate dream that is a manuscript without needing a single change? You were wrong. A comma here, a semicolon there. You might think, “Maybe I should have changed this or that.”

Like previously mentioned, you need to make the decision to stop making those minute edits and changes. Here are some questions to ask yourself when it comes to making edits or revisions to your story:

Is this edit/revision adding anything to my story’s characterization, plot, etc.?
If the changes you are making alter the manuscript’s plot, characters, character goals, or other major pieces of your story (especially in a major way), you’re probably not done yet with revisions. Work through your characterization, any plot holes or any parts that drag or don’t add anything to the overall story.

Am I looking at my manuscript with fresh eyes?
I believe it’s important to put a manuscript to the side, leaving it untouched, for some time. Whether that’s just a week or several months for you, it’s crucial to be fresh and new again when rereading a story. You’ll be better prepared to find the parts of your novel that need revising or—as much as we hate to admit it sometimes—major rewrites or removal, in some cases. Once you’ve written the first draft, take time to work on other things or hobbies and set your manuscript aside for some time.

Am I simply tinkering or fiddling with my manuscript?
If you’re at the point when you find that you’re only making tiny changes or alterations, it’s probably time to say, “I’m DONE, mother{insert callous, crude, derogatory word that I won’t put here}!” and start looking for professional editors or proofreaders if you’re going the self-pub route, or start researching agents if you’re going the traditional route.

The time comes when you’re not making your book better; you’re only making it different. Still doubting yourself? Find some beta readers and get feedback.

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Why Write?

This is a bit of a rambling post, so fair warning. When I was early in my writing career, back in my teenager days when I was writing bad Harry Potter fan fiction with my best friend at the time, I barely knew a thing about the craft of writing. (And no, I’m not knocking those who write fan fiction. There are some incredible fan fiction writers out there who even garner the attention of publishers. I was simply not-so-good when I was writing it.) But, I wrote because I loved to write and because it gave me joy. If you’re going to write, do it because you love the craft, because you love to learn and grow as a writer. I believe that as we grow, we become much more critical of our work as we realize the mistakes we’re making.

However, I had several years that I lost my love of writing. My college/late teen/early twenties era when I was quite sick due to my illness, and I even had to drop out of college after my junior year. I was so focused on recovery that I forgot about writing. Around my mid-twenties, I rediscovered my passion for the craft and really began to write my own original work. I wrote passionately and non-stop. I wrote about things I loved, topics that were dear to me. I managed to finish my first manuscript, but it sits in the archives now. That’s when I decided to read everything I could about the craft of writing. I learned quite a bit on structuring plot, creating characters, writing dialogue, and so much more. I wrote a second manuscript, which has grown to be what is now The Days Without You. After that was when I decided to go back to school for my degree.

I’ve learned a lot since those bad fan fiction days, but I look back on those days with fondness. Mind you, I’m about to turn 34 this month, so I’ve got some years under my belt. (I’m—partly—kidding. There are days I feel old when I make jokes about older movies and have to explain my jokes to those who are younger than I. Or, maybe I’m just bad at jokes.) I learned a lot while studying the craft of writing, earning my degree in English and Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction. I even discovered my favorite short story, thanks to one of my professor’s assignments, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you should write if you love it, no matter what skill level you’re at. I believe anyone can learn to write, especially those who are truly passionate about it. Those who find pleasure in the unique structure of a sentence. Those who enjoy a book for its world building or a movie for its rigid plot structure and strong character motivations. I recently read a cute little piece of advice on Instagram that if you don’t find joy in writing for others, write for yourself.

Write because you love to write. Because you love the way words fit together. The way different punctuation can give different meanings to a sentence. Just write.

Not Crazy: Writing Mental Illness

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when mental illness is written poorly in fiction. Bipolar is not just happy and sad. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities. Over the years, people with mental illness have also been portrayed as violent. The truth is that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. Only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those with mental illness. There is also the misconception that people with serious mental illnesses can’t hold down a job. While I had a period of time during which I wasn’t working due to my illness, I now am a full-time copywriter with a marketing agency and have been for over two years. So, yes, people with severe mental illness can hold down a job.

The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to write a character with a mental illness? Do your research. Understand the illness. Get to know the diagnosis. Talk to someone living with that illness (if you have the opportunity). Want to hear a first-hand account of living with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis? Email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com.

Also, understand that not everyone is as open about their diagnosis as I am. It took me years to really be as comfortable with my illness as I am today. Here are some tips for writing about mental illness:

  1. Don’t make the entire life of the character about the illness, but understand that it can affect daily life. For example, I’m reminded three times a day that I have mental illness when it’s time for my meds.
  2. Words matter. Don’t use disorders as an insult or as an adjective. (“She’s so bipolar.” “Don’t be schizo.” “Ugh, she’s cleaning? She’s so OCD.”)
  3. Remember that there’s no cure for mental illness, so while your character may have a period of stability, they’re never suddenly “better.” It can take weeks for a new medication to take effect. And remember that medications have side effects!
  4. Again, do your research. Once you have a draft, have a beta reader with that illness or disability read it for feedback on your portrayal of their illness.
  5. The illness doesn’t necessarily have to be the central plot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing solely about mental illness.) It can be a barrier to your protagonist’s ultimate goal or desire or just simply a part of who they are.
  6. Treatment plans look different for everyone. Some folks find stability through therapy and medication, while others require more intensive treatments like multiple medications or even brain stimulation treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or even Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implants.
  7. Make your character with an illness relatable. Give them something that readers can relate to.
  8. Don’t make your character “crazy”—be sure to specify the illness in some way, even if it’s just in your head. Each of the diagnoses have a particular subset of symptoms.
  9. Lastly, be respectful when writing mental illness. Don’t use it as a mere plot device.

A brilliant book about life with mental illness is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it. I’ll say it one more time: Do your research on your character’s illness.

Little Word, Big Meaning: Prepositions

Little words can have big meaning. What exactly are prepositions? Well, they are words that begin prepositional phrases. You may be thinking, “Okay, what the heck is a prepositional phrase?” Simply put, it’s a modifying phrase that includes a preposition and the object of the preposition (in other words, a noun). It is any word that introduces a modifying phrase that indicates time, place, direction, or introduces a particular object. There are approximately 150 prepositions in the English language, including words such as in, with, for, and about (just to name a few).

To give an example of a prepositional phrase:

She’s going to the movies.

“To the movies” indicates where the subject is going, making it a prepositional phrase. It includes the preposition “to” and the object “the movies.”

You may also see prepositional phrases with adjectives.

He’s taking her on a fun, romantic date tonight.

It’s also possible to hear people talk about prepositions followed by verbs. These are gerunds, which are -ing forms of infinitives that function as a noun in a sentence.

She won by cheating in the race.

Let’s not forget about compound prepositions, which are made up of more than one preposition. For example:

as well as
aside from
in front of
out of

Here is a list of some common prepositions:

  • aboard
  • about
  • above
  • across
  • after
  • against
  • along
  • amid
  • among
  • anti
  • around
  • as
  • at
  • before
  • behind
  • below
  • beneath
  • beside
  • besides
  • between
  • beyond
  • but
  • by
  • concerning
  • considering
  • despite
  • down
  • during
  • except 
  • excepting
  • excluding
  • following
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • inside
  • into
  • like
  • minus
  • near
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • onto
  • opposite
  • outside
  • over
  • past
  • per
  • plus
  • round
  • save
  • since
  • than
  • through
  • to
  • toward
  • towards
  • under
  • underneath
  • unlike
  • until
  • up
  • upon
  • versus
  • via
  • with
  • within
  • without

I hope you found this post helpful. If you have any comments, questions, or anything to add, please leave a comment!

Time Tells All: Understanding Tense

Past. Present. Future. Many folks think there are just those three tenses. There are actually different subsets of each tense, such as continuous (also called progressive), perfect, and perfect continuous. Each tense and its subsets are all written a different way, and all have different meanings. Now, tense differs from grammatical mood, such as conditional, subjunctive or imperative. That’s something we’ll touch on another time.

Tense is essentially when the verb is happening. It relates to time. Did it already happen in the past? Is it happening now in the present? Will it happen in the future? I wrote. I write. I will write. The four subsets of tense are:

  • Simple
  • Continuous (or Progressive)
  • Perfect
  • Perfect Continuous (or Perfect Progressive)

I’ve created a chart to show examples for all the tenses and their subsets. Feel free to save it, download it, share it, etc.

There’s also the topic of infinitives with tense. As a refresher, the infinitive form of a verb is the most basic form—its “to” form: to write, to read, to walk. When a verb is followed by an infinitive and you’re changing tense, only the main verb should change. This happens with words like “want” or “need,” and they are frequently followed by an infinitive to show the desire for a particular action. For example, the verb want would look like this in the various tense:

Past Simple: I wanted to write.
Present Simple: I want to write.
Future Simple: I will want to write.
Past Continuous: I was wanting to write.
Present Continuous: I am wanting to write.
Future Continuous: I will be wanting to write.
Past Perfect: I had wanted to write.
Present Perfect: I have wanted to write.
Future Perfect: I will have wanted to write.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been wanting to write.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been wanting to write.
Future Perfect Continuous: I will have wanted to write.

When it comes to writing a novel, consistency is important. You don’t want the current action to jump back and forth between present and past, but things that happened previously (as described by the narrator, whether that’s first person or third person) can be written in past tense. Most fiction novels are written in past tense, although I have seen some in present tense. Some great novels, actually. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich (based on the Tony award-winning stage musical by Steven Levenson), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are all great examples of stories written in present. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Hunger Games to show you a novel in this particular tense:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

Notice that not every sentence is in simple present. The narrator, Katniss, tells some things in perfect continuous present: “She must have had bad dreams. . .” She also describes her mother’s former beauty in simple past: “My mother was very beautiful once, too.” Much of the text, however, is in present tense. So, no, not every sentence has to be in simple present if you’re writing in that tense. Just bear in mind when the action is happening in your sentence.

I hope you found this post informative and useful in explaining tense. Questions? Comments? Leave a comment for me! They are much appreciated.

Is Said Dead? Writing Dialogue Tags

If you’re a writer, you probably have heard the phrase “Said is dead” given as writing advice. When I search that saying, I come up with hundreds of blogs that offer alternatives to the word said. (I also come up with some song on the first page of results. Interesting.) People say that this particular dialogue tag is overused and overdone, and that writers should use more descriptive tags that show the speaking character’s emotions and that describe how the character is speaking.

The thing is? I don’t think said is necessarily dead.

Dialogue tags are a funny thing. “Said” is an invisible word. Your eyes gloss right over it while reading, and it’s like your brain barely registers that it’s there. That’s the beauty of this funny little four-letter dialogue tag. You can lose yourself in a book when your brain can forget that you’re actually reading.

Some writers think bigger, fancier verbs are better as dialogue tags. Sure, I think they can be used occasionally, even sparingly. The problem with constantly using bigger verbs as tags? It reminds the reader that they are reading. If you’ve set up the scene right, set up the characters’ emotions, readers don’t always need big words to tell them what the character is doing or how they are speaking.

The real purpose of dialogue tags? To simply tell the reader who is speaking. Sometimes, you don’t even need a dialogue tag if it’s clear who is speaking. You could surround, precede, or follow the dialogue with action. If two people are alternating speaking and it’s still clear who is doing the talking, you could drop some tags here and there. Here is an example from my book, The Days Without You, in which the characters Adam and Samantha are talking:

Samantha cleared her throat while her hands quickly mixed the drink order. It was almost an art, Adam thought, how fast she did it.
“Thanks for ditching me at the concert on Friday, by the way,” she said, her lips pressed into a thin line.
He held back a snort. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m serious. I couldn’t find you after the show. I tried calling you.”
“Had my phone on mute.”
Her lips puckered into an even thinner line, her eyes narrowing. “Seriously, I had to call my friend to pick me up.”
“Sorry, sorry. Had an incident during the show, had to help someone. I’ll make it up to you one of these days.”
Her puckering lips loosened into a smile. “Fine, you can take me to lunch one day.”

The Days Without You, pg. 18, Skylar Wilson

Again, as long as it’s clear who is speaking, you could technically drop some dialogue tags. But, bear in mind that said is invisible. Unless it’s absolutely necessary for the reader to know exactly how something is being said (i.e. the need for a more descriptive dialogue tag), use said or no tag at all. Use your best judgment to decide when to use said, no tag, or a stronger verb.

No, said is not dead.

Common Punctuation Mistakes

With so many rules and different style guides, it’s hard to know what punctuation to use where in your writing. From comma splices to overuse of ellipses, there are a lot of mistakes you can make that cause you to look less than your best. I know—we all make mistakes. The mistakes I’m going to list below are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, as that is the most commonly cited style guide for writing, editing, and publishing fiction. There are different rules based on the various guides, so be wary of what type of writing you’re working on.

Photo by Brett Jordan from Pexels
  1. Comma Splices
    Comma splices happen when two independent clauses are joined by a comma. For example:

John ate dinner with us last night, we had a good time.

You could write this idea differently in a couple different ways.

John ate dinner with us last night. We had a good time.
OR
John ate dinner with us last night; we had a good time.

2. Incorrect Use of Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes
Yes, there is a difference between the three.

Hyphens are used to join two or more words together, such as when two or more words are connected and are modifying another word (to avoid confusion). A good example is up-to-date. Another good example, as given in the CMS, is to compare small animal hospital with small-animal hospital. The first indicates a regular animal hospital that is small in size. The second means a hospital that is only for small animals. It’s important to note that Chicago drops the hyphen when the modifying phrase comes after the noun. For example:

That well-known book is big right now.
OR
That book is well known and big right now.

The hyphen can also be used as separators, such as when you have a character spelling out something:

“My name is Skylar. That’s s-k-y-l-a-r.”

En Dashes typically connect (or deal with) numbers. (Words? Not nearly as often.) It means up to and including (or through) with continuing numbers. It can also indicate an unfinished range of numbers. Note that there should be no spaces around the dash. (Not in Chicago Style, anyway.)

John lived 1920–2005.
Barry Wolfe (1965–) or Barry Wolfe (b. 1965)

According to the CMS, the en dash can sometimes replace a hyphen in the use of compound words, as long as it makes sense or there isn’t already a hyphen in one of the words.

Em Dashes are probably the most well known of all the dashes. They separate an explanatory element in a sentence—instead of commas, parentheses, or colons.

I bought three antique books—all Nancy Drew Mystery Stories that are first or early editions—at the bookshop down the road.

You can also use em dashes around dialogue to indicate sudden breaks. If the break belongs outside the dialogue, then the em dashes go outside the quotation marks. For example:

“I didn’t know, and”—her voice grew hoarse with desperation—”there was no way I could’ve known.”

Bear in mind that you should never use a comma, colon, or semicolon directly in front of an em dash. A question mark or an exclamation point, however, can be used in such a manner. You can also use em dashes in place of commas for a more stylistic type of writing:

“How could you—” began Catalina, but Rob cut her off.

3. Overuse of Commas
This mistake seems to be a commonly cited one, but it’s one I personally tend to make when writing first drafts. I apparently have an affinity for commas, which means I have to carefully edit my writing during revisions for excess punctuation. To give an example:

The girl, however, started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt, but, her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

The above is a huge mess of a sentence that needs to be broken up. While it’s (technically) grammatically correct, it makes for quite awkward reading with so many pauses. You could fix it up several different ways, but one definite edit is to split this up into more than one sentence:

The girl started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt. Her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

4. Not Using Enough Punctuation
Similar to comma splices, I mean run-on sentences. Independent clauses that aren’t joined by a conjunction need to be separated by proper punctuation, whether that’s a semicolon or a period. Don’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses unless a conjunction divides them. By this, I mean the two independent clauses should have separate subjects and verbs, and the clauses should be separated by a word such as and, but, if.

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition it’s dated 1948 and the dust jacket is still on!

This example definitely needs to be split up, such as:

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition; it’s dated 1948, and the dust jacket is still on!

5. Not Using the Oxford Comma
The Chicago Manual of Style adheres to the use of the Oxford comma. It’s the last comma in a series that comes before a conjunction. For example:

Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin, and French.
Without Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin and French.

There’s a ton of debate over this one little comma, depending on which style guide you’re following. Following the CMS? Use the Oxford comma.

The beautiful—and frustrating—thing about English is that there are so many variations of the rules. Writing is such a subjective and stylistic art, meaning we all write in our own way. What punctuation faux pas have you made in your own writing? (We all make mistakes.) I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Crafting Characters: Tips for Creating People

No, I don’t mean procreation when I say “creating” people—that’s a whole separate topic we’re not going to get into. Here, we’re talking about making up characters for fictional stories. What’s great about creating characters for a story is that humans are so diverse. We, as people, are so utterly interesting as a species. From our personalities to our tastes and interests, we vary so much as people. My husband and I are total opposites. He loves sports. I hate sports, mostly because I can’t understand all the rules, for the most part. (Except for swimming—I was a competitive swimmer back in my younger days. Woo, breaststroke!) I’m a violinist and a music geek; he doesn’t understand my obsession with “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns or with Yo-Yo Ma. (Actually, the reason why I’m such a big fan of the cellist and of violinist Joshua Bell is that my dad used to take me to see them perform with the Philadelphia orchestra.) You get my point. People vary greatly.

What does that mean for your storytelling? Your characters should be just as diverse, especially if you’re writing human characters. I’m not a Sci-Fi or Fantasy writer, so I can’t speak on creating characters in those genres (characters such as aliens, elves, hobbits, et cetera). However, I do write women’s fiction, romance (kind of a blend), and am currently working on a mystery novel. I love to read mysteries and suspense, so it was only natural to move my writing into that genre. Writing romance/women’s fiction, however, did help me study how people interact with each other.

Anyway, back to creating characters. Here are some tips for crafting your characters.

  1. Characters should have flaws.
    Humans aren’t perfect, which means your characters shouldn’t be perfect, either. Your main character’s flaws should help fuel the conflict. Examples of flaws could include greed, jealousy, prejudice, dishonesty, or arrogance.
  2. Characters should have strong motivations.
    There should be a reason why your characters act the way they do, whether it’s your antagonist looking to conquer the world because his life is being threatened or a protagonist simply seeking companionship. For a fantastic example of strong character motivation, check out one of my recent posts, A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde. A great source for motivation ideas is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  3. Make your characters memorable.
    Don’t just write mundane descriptions such as hair color and eye color. Do they have vivid scars? A certain gait? (Think Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot in the show Gotham, based on the Batman series.) Funny preoccupation? (Like Ed Nygma and his fascination with riddles, as he ends up becoming The Riddler. I’m on a Gotham kick, if you can’t tell.) Ask yourself, “What makes my character stand out?”
  4. Each character should be well-developed.
    Every human has their own unique background. In my debut novel, The Days Without You, Kylie is losing her mother to cancer and already has a history of tragic loss. She has her own interests and aspirations (such as a surfing and her desire to be a crime journalist), as well as a reluctance toward her budding relationship with Adam due to her history with past relationships. What type of childhood did your characters have? Was it happy or sad? What are their personal goals? Their likes or dislikes? Make your characters as uniquely human as real people are.
  5. Characters should be diverse.
    This, of course, will depend somewhat on your setting (such as a monastery or a convent, for example, in which case your characters would all be monks or nuns, although there still would be some diversity amongst them). What I’m trying to say is that the world isn’t made up of all straight, white, neurotypical men. People have disabilities, illnesses (mental and physical), ailments, different sexual preferences, different physical appearances. Don’t make all your characters the same, and don’t only go into detail on the characters who aren’t straight, white dudes.

I suppose the ultimate idea I’m trying to convey here is that you should make your characters as real as possible. Stop and think about what it’s like to be human. Humans vary. We are diversely different as a species, and there’s no right or wrong way to be human. (And, if you’ve never listened to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, I highly recommend it, especially the movements titled “The Elephant” and “The Swan”. Seriously, double bass never gets any love.) Happy writing!

How Long Should My Novel Be?

If you’re just starting out, or maybe you need a refresher, you might be wondering about the proper length of a novel. The short answer? Somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000. This is the standard, expected length for a first novel, especially if you’re looking to traditionally publish via an agent. Although anything over 40,000 words is typically considered a novel, the expected minimum length is 50,000.

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Again, that’s the short answer. Your word count will vary based on the genre you’re writing. For example, genres that involve a lot of world-building (read: Science Fiction and Fantasy (and we’ll include Historical Fiction in that, too)) will require a higher word count. Why? Because the world the characters live in needs to be believable, or what’s known as suspension of disbelief.

I want to note that these figures are based on standards established by the publishing industry authorities. While it’s true you should, at least, aim for a standard word count for your particular genre, keep in mind that every novel will vary; don’t be discouraged or frustrated or upset if your final product doesn’t meet or exceeds industry expectations. The following numbers are approximations or “comfortable” ranges.

General Fiction: 50,000 to 100,000

Sci-Fi & Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000

Romance (Mainstream): 50,000 to 90,000

Sub-genre Romance: 40,000 to 100,000

Historical Fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 (but more so on the 100,000 side)

Suspense & Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000

Young Adult: 40,000 to 80,000

Middle Grade: 25,000 to 40,000

You’ll find varying numbers on different websites, as different publishers and experts (I don’t claim to be a publishing expert, just a thirty-something girl with a degree in English and writing fiction.) have different ideas on the “proper” word count for a novel based on its genre. Your novel may differ from , but if you’re looking to traditionally published, be prepared to explain or justify your reasons for going outside the expected word count. But again, every story has its own word count, so write your story naturally—the way you write.