Let’s talk about some writing myths today. I’m knocking out a whole bunch of Facebook and list writing questions that have simpler answers in one go.
1. There are rules.
There is only one rule: if it works, do it.
2. You must never use passive voice.
He was dragged into the room, bound to a chair, and beaten. At first he screamed, then he begged; finally, after his fingernails were ripped out, he moved past the threshold of pain. Then he was left alone, in the dark.
An old but good example. Passive voice can be effectively used to communicate helplessness and focus the attention on the emotional state of the character being manipulated by larger forces out of his control. In nonfiction, specifically in textbooks, passive voice is routinely used to focus the reader’s attention. For example,
If you rephrase this sentence in the active voice – Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York published the early United States editions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s the Hobbit – the focus shifts from what we really care about (the Hobbit) to the less important information (the publisher.)
3. You must never summarize.
“We’ll meet you there,” the werewolf said.
Three days later they were staring at the Red Dragon’s skyscraper lair.
If it’s not essential, summarize it. Fast travel in video games exists for a reason.
4. My novel should have X number of words.
A typical length for an adult novel is between 90,000 – 120,000 words. YA runs shorter, sometimes as low as 60,000. Epic fantasy runs longer, sometimes 300,000. Your novel should have as many words as it takes to tell a story. If the story is good, an editor will help you achieve optimal length by suggesting what to cut or what to expand.
5. How many chapters should a book have?
As many as it takes to tell the story.
6. How many words should there be in each chapter?
A chapter should end on a cliff hanger or an emotionally significant point. There is no arbitrary number of words. Try not to impose artificial limits on yourself.
7. I want to write in the first person, because most of the books in my genre are written that way. But it’s difficult for me and third person is much easier.
Write in a way that is easier. Writing is enough work as is; don’t make it harder on yourself. There are no arbitrary rules that say that PI novels must be in the first person and Epic Fantasy must be in the third.
8. I really want to write this story, but I think there are stories like it or I’m using a plot element that is overused.
The short version is: it doesn’t matter what is out there as long as you do it better.
Longer answer. People tend to confuse their personal preferences with what readers overall enjoy. For example, I don’t like Twilight. I read it at the point of my life when both of our daughters were broody teenagers and the urge to deliver a Mom speech to Bella was just too strong. But because I personally don’t like Twilight doesn’t mean other people don’t. It is hugely successful commercially, which means a ton of people loved it enough or were interested enough to buy it. It spawned a vast number of imitators, served as a starting point for hundreds of fanfiction writers, and influenced an entire generation of teenagers.
This is kind of a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s not about people who don’t like something. They don’t matter as much. It’s about finding enough people who love it enough to read it and pay for it. It’s easy to confuse the two, because the online book community is vibrant and opinionated and they’re quick to condemn a book or a trope. Condemnation doesn’t automatically mean the book won’t find an audience. Last Hour of Gann features a romance of a human with an alien reptilian warrior. A very controversial book, with some harsh scenes. There are plenty of people who slammed it in their reviews, but enough people loved it and were willing to give it a chance.
Nobody can predict if a book finds an audience. If this could be predicted, every book the publishers put out would be a bestseller.
Focus on writing the story you want to tell. Don’t worry about how many words, what genre, and especially about people who tell you that you will never make it. They’re not important. Finish the thing and try to do your story justice.