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I Gave up Writing

Writing can be challenging, with some very deep downs. Today, Tamara M Bailey shares her experiences of the benefits of giving it up, and how that led to the publication of her new SF thriller, The Other Olivia.

A photo of author Tamara M Bailey, smiling. She is wearing a black square-cit dress and a black choker necklace, and is holding a very large embossed leather book or leddger. Behind her are a brick wall and fairy lights.
Photo of Tamara M Bailey by Jess Gately

Christmas Eve, 2013, I rolled over to my partner at the time and told him I was giving up writing. It broke my heart to say out loud.

I was giving up writing.

I’d been writing since the year 2000, all the way back in ninth grade when I was penning fantasy adventures in notebooks for my friends. I migrated to online fanfiction in 2001, and started submitting manuscripts to publishers in 2006, my final year of university.

They told me never to give up. They told me that if I just kept trying, and trying, and trying, I would definitely get there.

I didn’t get there. And honestly, my mental health was taking a hit. I was in a dark place, thinking dark thoughts.

I wasn’t good enough. I would never see my name on the cover of a book. Everyone on my Twitter feed was celebrating signing contracts with agents and publishers, and here I was, still archiving rejection letters.

It was the best decision I’d ever made. I replaced my notebooks with teaching textbooks and threw myself into my job as a primary school teacher. I filled that hole with creative lesson plans and classroom pedagogy. I gave teaching my everything.

That lasted for exactly four months. I realised my best friend’s birthday was coming up. This was one of the friends who used to read my fantasy adventures back in high school, and she still read every single word I wrote.

I thought, Hell, I suppose I could write her a story for her birthday.

I churned out an entire manuscript in three months. It was a rewritten version of those early fantasy stories, but without the pressure of publication behind it. This one was just for us. I ditched the writing rules I’d so diligently been following and wrote from the heart.

She read it. She loved it. In fact, she loved it so much, she told me I had to send it to a publisher. This was it. This was the one.

So I did. I arranged a meeting with an editor through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and I gave her the first few chapters. She asked for the rest. I thought, This is it. This is how all the stories go. It was my last crack at writing, and it will be the one that breaks through.

It wasn’t.

She said no.

But by then, I realised I loved writing too much to give it up for good. I learnt to write for the sheer joy of writing, for my best friend and I to swoon over love interests and laugh at private jokes.

I wrote another manuscript. This one was a high fantasy version of a fanfiction I’d written in 2009.

It got rejected.

I used the world-building from that high fantasy story and crafted a middle-grade novel about a young girl who travels the high seas with a pirate queen, fighting the mythical creatures that cross their path.

That editor from before? She’d asked me to send her other manuscripts. I sent her Lintang and the Pirate Queen.

It got accepted. So did the next in the series. And the next. It sold in the US. I went on a US book tour. I had done it.

And then I had to go through the whole thing again, because my new manuscripts were being rejected.

That’s the way it is sometimes.

The cover of The Other Olivia by Tamara M Bailey. THe cover is in shades of green, the top half showing a tree and the words "The Other"; the bottom has the word 'Olivia' in a design that partly reflects the words above, with an image of a foetus in the O of Olivia. The reflected tree is made up of binary code. The tag line 'Life will Find a Way' is at the top and the authror's name at the bottom.

So I mined my old stuff, wrote for the love of writing, and kept on keeping on, singing to myself quite regularly, Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Remember that high fantasy version of a fanfiction I’d written? I took out the fantasy elements and turned it into a sci-fi. A ‘techno-thriller.’ It got rejected a lot.

And then it didn’t.

And that’s how The Other Olivia was born. Because I gave up writing.

About Tamara M Bailey

Tamara M Bailey is the author of crime and thriller tales. As well as The Other Olivia, she has a fantasy crime coming out next year called Blood & Stone, and her short stories have appeared in several anthologies. Her children’s books are written under the name Tamara Moss, where the first in the series, Lintang and the Pirate Queen, was a Notable in the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards, shortlisted for the Readings Children’s Book Prize and received a starred review from the School Library Journal.

Tamara also writes about ‘what to do when the rejections get overwhelming‘ at Improbable Press.

Buy The Other Olivia

Find Tamara M. Bailey online:

Off with its head!

A headless statue with the title 'Off With Its Head - Starting a Story Too Soon'.

As a writer and as an editor, a common issue I see with stories, however long or short they are, is that they don’t always start in the right place.

On extremely rare occasions, they start too late in the piece, though that’s often remedied with a flashback (that old trope of a flashy opening followed by “…24 hours ago…”).

Far more often, the problem is that the writer has started the story too soon.

What the hell does that mean?

A story can be said to start ‘too soon’ when it begins before the actual subject matter of the story begins. While it’s true that the reader wants to get to know the characters before they are tested in the fires of fate in your tale, neither the reader (nor your editor) wants to wade through a chapter of prose dedicated to describing backstory, household routines, or a precis of their looks and habits. These are all things that can be revealed, as relevant, as the story unfolds.

Where should the story begin, then?

Generally speaking, your story should begin at a moment of, or just before, transition. It should be an active beginning where your character is doing something, interacting with someone, or responding to an external action.

One of the chapters Wording (subscribe to the newsletter to get a free copy of that!) talks about “action vs active” when starting a story – and notes that ‘active’ is more versatile concept.

An ‘active’ scene might contain some physical action, but more importantly it will be active in the sense that something is happening that provides contrast, tension, and questions that can only be answered by reading on.

An active scene might indeed involve a character making a cup of tea – but that scene will have to bring in thought processes, contrasts or questions that go far beyond the tea. Perhaps the character doesn’t usually make their own tea, which leads the narrative to explaining why. Perhaps something about the tea smells funny. Perhaps the character is thinking about how a beloved grandparent taught them to make tea and reminds them of loss. Perhaps by the end of the scene, the character has dropped dead from the poisoned tea that smelled funny.

It can often be more active to begin a story with dialogue rather than long descriptions, so you have the dynamics of two (or more) people interacting. Dialogue can reveal so much about personalities, and falls nicely into the ‘show, don’t tell’ ideas. Don’t simply tell us what they are like in the prose – launch into your story by demonstrating who these people are in the ways that they speak to each other.

First draft scene-setting

Having said all this, sometimes it’s inevitable that the first draft of your story will start too soon, with all this prose description of backstory and personality. That’s all right. In the first draft, we’re often telling the story to ourselves first, and getting a handle on who these characters are and where they’ve come from.

Just keep in mind that once you have a grip on those details, you need to revisit that start. If it’s reading like the FBI dossier, full of facts and figures and long paragraphs of story that isn’t telling this story, chances are it needs to be lopped off. Any truly vital information can be woven in at later stages (not even in the first few chapters – opportunities exist all through a manuscript to drop in important information well before it feeds into the denouement).

But what’s wrong with all that back story?

Backstory is great. It’s often necessary. Describing a person is good too, though they can often be revealed better through their actions and words.

The main reason is that front-loading your story with a core-dump of background information and a character sheet is… well… very dull.

People don’t want, or need, to read 30 pages of a dossier before getting to the meat of a story. Readers and editors both want to step into your world at the moment just before change begins. They want to be there for the inciting incident, but they don’t want to wait till chapter 4 to find it.

Help. I don’t know where my story really starts.

The true starting point of the story can be in many different places, depending on genre, theme, character and writer. As noted above, however, it’s good to look at an event that occurs just before the big changes come. That might be a quiet moment in which a small ripple is the harbinger of something more. It might be smack in the middle of an action sequence. It is often somewhere in between those things.

The key is to look for a scene which provides (here’s the mantra) contrast, tension and questions.

If you’re still stuck, take some time to read the first chapters of some of your favourite books/short stories and consider: how is the beginning ‘active’? How does it create contrast and tension, and what questions does it raise that will have to be answered before end of the story? (And what other questions might those answers raise in turn?)

Then consider how those different techniques might be used to create dynamic, active beginnings to your own works in progress.

What does the author *really* mean?

Recent radio silence occurred while I was travelling in the US. To get us going again, here’s a post which originally appeared on my Patreon in March 2020.

A few years ago, my nephew shared a language meme from The Language Nerds on Facebook: a Venn diagram of “What the Author Meant and What Your Teacher Thinks the Author Meant”.   

It’s funny on the face of it – we all wrestled with analysis of poems, plays and novels at school. Joss Whedon, in the musical commentary for Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, lamented the fannish tendency to forensically analyse Buffy the Vampire Slayer, singing that nobody asked the caveman why red ochre was used instead of white ochre to paint the moose. (I paraphrase).

I understand that the whole idea of analysis can get a bit much and it may feel like people are sometimes just making this all up as they go along.

But let me tell you a secret. Sometimes I put motifs in very deliberately, meant to symbolise an idea or a theme. And then nobody notices those and seizes upon other patterns that I didn’t think were there.

Does this make the analysis wrong?

Hell no.

The fuller answer is that writers, like readers, are influenced by their subconscious mind and some things might appear in a story (or in a series of stories) more by osmosis than design. Some things are deliberate and some are undercurrents swirling to the surface, being expressed without making any conscious decision to do so.

At the same time, the reader also brings their own baggage, their experience of ways of interpreting the world: and since that’s the filter they bring, that’s what they see. 

As a writer, I can’t say that the reader’s filters are not there or not valid – the very act of reading is a creative act in itself. It’s the combination of the writer’s intentions (both obvious and unconscious) and the reader’s filter, which makes reading a strangely individual as well as collective experience. It even makes it a different experience to the same reader at different stages of their lives. (Theatre is much the same, though with a bigger pool of interpreters with different directors and actors etc, even when it’s the same script.)

So I guess sometimes I mean the curtains are blue, and sometimes I mean the curtains are blue but my background feelings mean that I associate blue curtains with blue emotions and the cutting out of the light in a deep emotional way, and sometimes I meant the curtains are just blue damnit but the reader associates that with melancholy and that’s a tone they’re picking up in (or applying to) the story too.

And all of this means that, if you can substantiate your interpretation with examples from the text, well then, you just go for it.

Frankly, it’s what people do with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Those texts are open to multiple readings and, as I always say, every interpretation is a valid interpretation and the writer’s opinion (or even original conscious intent) is not the last word. 

Blogger Ann at Straw Into Gold has also written on this topic (at about the time this meme was doing the rounds in March 2019) and is much more annoyed about it than I am. It’s a good read.

Don’t go off half-baked

It’s a good thing to know that, however hard you’ve worked on your manuscript, more work will be required. Your editor may find dangling plot threads, sneaky plot holes or even plot contradictions. They may find unexplained or inexplicable issues, inconsistencies in motivation or characterisation, or mistimed tempo and story beats.

After you and your editor have collaborated on several more drafts of your original, and are happy with it, off it’ll go to a proofreader who will no doubt find slips that you both missed because you were so focused on the high-level stuff. It’s wonderful to have that back-up of fresh eyes when writer and editor are probably both heartily sick of the sight of the manuscript by then, and can see only what they meant to write, and not the bizarrely placed comma or the stray ‘the the’ that survived fifteen rewrites of the sentence.

BUT – whether or not someone else will be going over your manuscript – for structural or copyedits, or to proofread it – it remains important that you deliver the best version of your story for them to read.

And that means?

That means you need to check that:

  • your manuscript is correctly formatted (according to the guidelines)
  • you have at the very very very least spellchecked your manuscript
  • you have reviewed the chapter numbers to ensure no numbers have been skipped or duplicated
  • your use of dates and times are consistently formatted
  • you don’t have any odd blank pages as the result of random extra paragraph breaks

That’s not all, but it’s a start. A whole of easily fixed errors can appear in your manuscript that make it hard to read or cumbersome to edit. And you definitely don’t want that.

But why? Isn’t that what I’m paying them for?

Let’s break that down into two parts, relating to who ‘them’ might be.

One: Are you paying them to fix your errors?

If you’ve submitted your short story or novel to a publisher, and it’s been accepted, you are not (and certainly should not be) paying for this work to be done. Unless they are hybrid or vanity presses, the publisher pays for all that editing and proofreading.

Which sounds great and a load off your shoulders, except that a poorly presented manuscript has less chance of acceptance. Not no chance, sure, but editors are busy and may be receiving hundreds of submissions a day.

If your manuscript is messy, inconsistent, full of typos and looks like a lot of hard work just to get to flow of a good story that may or may not be buried under the hard-to-read presentation, the very tired editor may not persist.

Sometimes a gem will be passed over but generally, a sloppy submission might indicate a writer who didn’t put in the effort from the very start to present their best work. It suggests a writer who may not put in the effort for the rest of the process either. It’s not an attitude that fills an editor with confidence, and it reduces your chances of success.

You wouldn’t show up to a job interview half-dressed and expecting the interview panel to fix your tie, lace your shoes or read between the lines to see your innate brilliance. Don’t do it with your submissions either.

Two: You are paying them to fix your errors

Storytellers aren’t always spelling or grammar wizards. Sometimes writers can see their manuscript needs a bit of technical help to get into its shiniest shape before either self-publication or submission to a publisher. (Even wizards, though, can use a fresh eye on their work before self-publication.)

The writer may then engage a professional editor before the next step.

In this case, you are paying the editor/proofreader to go over your manuscript; to work with you to fix structural issues and to give your prose greater flow and power.

That process takes time – and time costs money. A lot, sometimes.

I’ve sometimes worked with manuscripts full of typos that a spellcheck would have caught. Word’s grammar check would also have flagged problems with sentence structure.

*adopts Roy Batty tone of voice*

I’ve found sudden changes of format and margin indentation that serve no purpose. I’ve seen manuscripts with wildly out-of-place chapter numbers (some missing, some duplicated repeatedly) and crazily inconsistent chapter subheadings, with dates and times presented in three different ways. I’ve seen apostrophes that had no right to live among the plurals and whole paragraphs duplicated four chapters apart. All these typos and more, lost in the text, like tears in the rain.

(With apologies to Blade Runner.)

In some ways, that’s fine. I’m charging for my time, after all.

But those basic errors, in a 250+ page document, may take me 2-3 hours to locate and streamline. And that’s 2-3 hours at $85 an hour that the author didn’t have to pay for if they’d had more time reviewing the basics before sending their story to me.

Going a step further, my experience is that if such basic mistakes are still in the manuscript I receive, chances are very good that dozens and dozens of other mistakes – that a careful reading and a few more drafts would have eliminated – are also there. Slips of formatting, incorrect punctuation, misspellings, plot holes, inconsistent character names, and so much more – all of which will cost the author hundreds of dollars more than they needed to spend. If only they’d been a little more patient and taken a bit more time to spellcheck, re-read, review.

So: Work harder, save money, increase your chances of publication

That’s exactly right. You’ve already worked hard and written a whole story/novel. Don’t lose the shoe for the want of a nail. Don’t half-bake your cake. Don’t go off half-cocked, and don’t half-ass your creativity.

Do, absolutely do, respect your own work and time and money, and whole-ass that manuscript!

He said; She said – the case for ‘said’

A recent post on Tumblr very helpfully gave a great selection of verbs that could be used in place of ‘said’ when writing dialogue. It’s a useful list – and it’s always nice to expand your vocabulary – but I think its premise is flawed.

There is nothing wrong with using ‘said’ in your stories.

Like any word or phrase, ‘said’ can be overused, but there are several approaches to streamlining your text and reducing overuse without peppering the page with multiple variations.

The invisible ‘said’

I don’t know if formal studies have been done, but anecdotally, the professional consensus is that ‘said’ is effectively invisible to the reader. The eye slides right on over it, because it is neutral and serves mainly to indicate who is speaking.

‘Asked’ instead of ‘said’

The first alternative to ‘said’ is ‘asked’, if the dialogue is a question. In fact, the question mark means that ‘asked’ can be superfluous if you don’t need to use a dialogue verb at all.

Skipping dialogue verbs

In a well-flowing section of dialogue, sometimes you can skip ‘said’ (or ‘asked’) altogether, for at least some of the conversation. If only two people are speaking, and once you’ve established the order of speech, you can go on for a bit without using a related verb. Here’s an example from my upcoming novel, The She Wolf of Baker Street:

Audrey Hudson remained stubbornly human.

‘What are you doing?’ Adelbert demanded.

‘Nothing.’

‘Stop it.’

‘No.’

‘How can you even do this? We have a full moon. You are a werewolf. You have to change.’

‘Make me.’

Narrelle M Harris, The She Wolf of Baker Street (coming 2022)

Having established who speaks first and second, speech verbs can be left off entirely. Even with more people in the conversation, when it’s obvious who is speaking next, the verb can often safely be left out.

Indicating change of tone

Ideally, the tone in which each line is spoken is implied by the setting and the dialogue itself, so you don’t need to add verbs to indicate the emotional pitch of the speakers. However, if you need to indicate a shift in mood, lob in a phrase or verb that shows the change.

‘And of course, Mr Holmes, if you’re still up for me as a flatmate?’

‘Sherlock, please.’ Sherlock waved his hand airily, as though it were neither here nor there to him, despite the fact he’d scampered around in Dr Watson’s shadow for the last half hour. ‘And as the landlady says, you’ll do.’

Audrey wanted to cuff him, but Dr Watson only seemed to find the attitude charming. ‘Yeah. You might do as well.’ He turned to Audrey, missing the startled look Sherlock gave him. ‘How soon might I move in?

‘As soon as you like,’ she replied.

‘Is tonight all right? Only, the friend I’m staying with is a bit keen to turf me out. She’s…ah…’ He faded out, flustered to have admitted his precarious situation.

‘Not coping well with civilian life?’ Sherlock offered in a surprisingly tact rescue.

‘Not that well, no.’

‘Tonight, then, by all means,’ Sherlock said grandly. ‘Isn’t that so, Mrs Hudson?’

‘It is. Come downstairs to sign things, Dr Watson, and I’ll get the other key.’

‘I’ll need the study as a laboratory,’ blurted Sherlock suddenly, then stood haughty and defiant. ‘Sometimes things explode.’

Honestly. It was like he was trying to make the doctor turn tail and run.

Narrelle M Harris, The She Wolf of Baker Street (coming 2022)

As in the previous example, you can either be minimalist – eschewing ‘said’ any time it’s not actually required to indicate who is speaking – or you can use other verbs and phrases to add emotional texture in places where that texture isn’t immediately obvious by the dialogue.

No such thing as ‘never’

In the end, I stick with my personal guideline that no word should be banned from your writing. Even the most maligned words and phrases have the right time and place for use. Be guided by the needs of the scene and the effect you’re trying to create – and remember that some words, used correctly, are effectively invisible.

Lessons in Language: Reign vs Rein

Here’s another set of homophones that I frequently see mixed up in print. The number of times I’ve seen ‘reign in’/’free reign’ instead of ‘rein in/free rein’ in newspapers is… okay, not hundreds of times. But given ‘reign in’ is not an actual term, it’s more often than it should be.

To start with, both ‘reign’ and ‘rein’ are nouns as well as verbs.

  • Reign means ‘period of rule as a monarch’ (n) but also ‘to rule as a monarch’ (v).
  • Rein means ‘one of usually two narrow straps attached to the bit in a horse’s mouth, used to guide or check the horse while riding’ (n) or ‘to guide a horse using reins/to keep under control’ (v).

The two words sound exactly alike, though, so perhaps if you’ve read less than you’ve listened, it’s not clear that they’re separate words. Especially since a lot fewer of us ride horses these days.

In any case, if you’re talking about exerting control you rein something in, and if you’re talking about not exerting control at all, you’re giving something free rein.

Reigning might be about exerting monarchical control, but it’s the monarch doing all the controlling. So a monarch may rein something in while reigning, or have their reign remembered for the free rein they gave to the upper classes, and they may commit regicide in order to take the reins (as well as the reign).

I’m not helping, am I?

I’ve never needed a mnemonic for these, but perhaps you can consider the ‘g’ is missing from ‘rein’ because it’s being used to describe the gee-gee.

(This opens up another can of worms as to why ‘gee-gee’ is a nickname for horses, used by children or by punters on the racetrack. I searched for the etymology but the theories are varied and often far-fetched, though the least implausible seems related to the ‘gee-up!’ call to urge a horse on. From ‘giddyup’ perhaps, but then, where the hell does that come from? Language and etymology are an endless rabbit hole of delight and confusion and fewer absolute conclusions than we’d like.)

By the way, the muddle between ‘reign’ and ‘rein’ so widespread that when was creating the above image in Canva, I found more pictures of horses and their headstraps under ‘reign’ than under the correct, ‘rein’.

You gotta laugh.

At least neither reign nor rein are commonly confused with rain, so that’s something.

So what is “Young Adult” Literature?

Last post, I made a passing, bemused, reference to the use of Young Adult/YA as a description of genre rather than as an audience. I haven’t written specifically for YA audiences, so I remain stubbornly ignorant of its correct definition.

It turns out that a lot of people have blogged about this, so I guess I’m not the only bemused person out there.

I should point out that I love YA fiction – I read very widely, across fiction and non-fiction and many genres. Many readers of YA are not necessarily members of the apparent audience, and I for one generally find YA books lively, innovative, exciting and a deliciously quick read. Given that the word length for YA is 60-85,000 words, the latter isn’t surprising, but word length isn’t the only arbiter of how fast or easy something is to read.

This thinking often reminds me of one of my favourite authors (YA or otherwise) the late and beloved Diana Wynne Jones, who said in a BookBrowse interview:

Writing for adults, you have to keep reminding them of what is going on. The poor things have given up using their brains when they read. Children you only need to tell things to once.

Diana Wynne Jones, 2004

Still, I’m curious to know how YA is really defined, since it can cover a huge range of themes, genres and tones. Naturally, I began to poke around to see what the experts had to say.

In 2014, YA author Scott Westerfeld (who wrote the terrific Peeps vampire novels) noted that YA was a booming category and defined it as, rather than being ‘books for teenagers’, YA was:

They are novels about teenagers, from a teenage perspective.

Scott Westerfeld, What is YA?

It’s a very clear and fairly simple definition, but since it’s such contains such a multitude of styles and stories, I felt something more details was surely out there.

The Atlantic explored the same question, after publishing a series of articles about adults reading books for kids. Readers spotted a number of titles that they felt were something other than YA, and asked for a better way to define what books the essays would examine. Writer Jen Doll asked a lot of different people in the world of books, and found the answer… muddy. One consensus is that YA is a category, not a genre, but that’s not really helpful.

The other thing that folks agree on is that YA, as a category, is broad and evolving. One contributor, author Michael Cart, did have this to say about contemporary YA:

“Though once dismissed as a genre consisting of little more than problem novels and romances, young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking.”

Michael Cart, What Does YA Mean?

In March 2022, however, the School Library Journal‘s Karen Jenson made up a handy little infographic which I think explains the basics nicely, covering the aspects of the protagonists’ age, a voice which sounds authentic to the teen audience; an in-the-moment style, themes around the protagonists learning who they are and who they want to be, and both internal and external conflict driven by emotions and relationships.

These five elements create a complex definition that seems to fit the complex world of YA. It’s accompanied by a thoughtful and in-depth essay which is worth reading for the fine detail (including why some adults have so much trouble coping with some of the complex themes of YA books).

In the end, perhaps I have to accept that I may not know exactly how to define YA, but I know I love it. So I’ll leave you with recent YA reads that I loved:

Feel free to share your recent YA loves in the comments.

How long is a book supposed to be, anyway?

(or: word counts and what they mean)

Most of us have a general idea of what constitutes a the correct word count for a short story, a novella and a novel. But some stories are on the cusp, leaving the waters muddy.

I see some different notions, but the following is a general guideline as to story types and their typical word length, as suggested in the rules for the Hugo Awards. There can be variations on that, but I’ll get to those in a moment.

Story TypeWord CountComment
Novel40,000+Expected word counts may depend on genre. Romance and SF and some crime fiction may tend to the shorter end, but most novels will be at least 50,000 words.
Novella17,500 to 39,999E-books make the distinction between novels and novellas fuzzier, because we can’t see the size of the book we’re buying.
Novellette7,500 to 17,499 wordsAnother name for novellette might just be ‘longish short story’. Some anthology publishers may accept closer to 10,000 words for a “short” story.
Short Story1000 to 7,499Some publishers have strict words limits shorter than the maximum. Clan Destine Press usually has a limit of 5,000 words for budgeting reasons.
Flash Fiction25 to 999 wordsThe various types of flash fiction have different rules, but they generally fall somewhere in here.
6 Word Story6 wordsJust what it says on the tin. These stories are usually found on Twitter.
A table of story types and their typical word counts.

Word counts for novels

Although a novel is considered anything above 40,000 words according to the Hugos, in reality, 50,000 is generally the shortest a novel can be. I was asked to rewrite Grounded to bring it from 35,000 words to at least 50,000 words to make it a full romance novel for Escape Publishing.

Writing website Literative once published a list of suggested word lengths for different genres of fiction too. As it’s on their site in image format, I’ll replicate it here in text, but here’s a summary of their ‘best practice’ guidelines.

GenreIdeal LengthComment
Romance40,000 to 100,000 Many romance novels are deliciously fast reads, while others are epic sagas. There are genres within romance too, so consider which one you’re writing and investigate the common lengths of those as well. Contemporary romance and comedic romance are often shorter, while family sagas and historical romance tend to the longer end.
Western50,000 to 80,000 Westerns, like romance, seems to be designed for a quick and exciting read.
Young Adult50,000 to 80,000 Let’s put aside my annoyance that ‘YA’ is an audience, not a genre, but yes, most YA is at the shorter end.
New Adult60,000 to 85,000 Also an audience and not a genre, but what do I know?
Thriller70,000 to 90,000 It’s like a crime book, only faster-paced, and maybe with more explosions?
Paranormal75,000 to 95,000 Paranormal fiction is often blended with other genres, which might be why it sits here in the word count centre, averaging out the numbers.
Memoir80,000 to 90,000 Another sweet spot near the middle, guidance for how much you should talk about yourself.
Horror80,000 to 100,000 Fairly standard, and Stephen King even managed to write a few books within this bracket. And then there’s It, at 445,000 words.
Fantasy90,000 to 100,000 World-building takes a while. Especially if you’re George RR Martin, whose The Game of Thrones series can be anything from 300,000 to 424,000 words, twice anything JRR Tolkein managed.
Crime90,000 to 100,000 Plenty of room for red herrings in a longer story. Having said that, Agatha Christie’s works usually come in at around 200 pages – that is, 50,000 to 60,000 words.
Science Fiction90,000 to 125,000 World-building takes pages and pages and pages, y’all. And then there’s Fahrenheit 451, a slice of perfection clocking in at 46,000 words. The Time Machine is only 32,000.
History100,000 to 120,000I imagine this length is to allow the author (and reader) to soak up all that historical detail.
Word counts per genre

Children’s Fiction

Naturally, word length guidelines apply to children’s fiction as well. I found this guide once upon a time, and alas cannot find the source now, but here is their table of suggestions.

Book typeAge rangeWord Count
Board Book0-3 years0 to 200 words
Early Picture Book2-5 years200 to 500 words
Picture Book3-7 years500 to 800 words
Older Picture Book4-8 years600 to 1,000 words
Chapter Book5-10 years3,000 to 10,000 words
Middle Grade7-12 years10,000 to 30,000 words
Word counts for kids books

Guidelines aren’t laws of physics

These tables offer some good general guidelines on what’s currently standard in story lengths per type and per genre.

If you’re well under or well over those counts for a particular genre, your story might need filling out or pruning to make sure it is both deep enough and tight enough as a tale.

But as I always say, guidelines aren’t rules carved in stone. They can be a spotlight on your work and a prompt to consider when revising, but you need to do what works for your story.

The publisher’s last word is what counts

On the whole, we should always look to the publisher for guidelines on what they prefer, since they can vary. This is especially true of short stories for anthologies – some publishers will accept stories even over 10,000 words while others (as I mentioned in the table) have a strict and lower word limit as a way of managing the costs of an anthology.

So I’ll end on yet another cry to, for the love of all you hold dear, always, always, ALWAYS check a publisher’s submission guidelines. It will save everyone a lot of time and the writer, especially, the grief of having work rejected unread since it didn’t even meet the most basic criteria of length and format.

But maybe that’s a blog post for next time.

Using ‘5 senses’ to reveal character

A lot of writers (including me) have written about using the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, sound and sight) to create believable and textured worlds in storytelling.

And here I am again, to reiterate how important it is to bring a world to life in multiple ways! Not only does it help to give the physical location of your story atmosphere, but you can use sense to enhance plot development (especially in the ‘leaving clues’ department) and to reveal things about your characters’ histories and connections.

Human beings don’t all experience sensations in the same way. This is most obvious when you have characters who may not have the ability to experience at least one sense either fully or at all. For example, if a character has difficulty hearing or seeing – how much impairment do they experience? What assumptions do others make about the person with more limited ability in one area, and how far does the character engage with other people’s assumptions in how they interact with the world?

Using the five senses to reveal character can be applied much more broadly (and less literally) too.

Characters might all hear/see/smell/taste/touch the very same thing yet have very different emotional reactions.

A chiming clocktower might remind one character of a person or place they have loved, while reminding another of trauma – and that might even relate to the exact same shared experience, if they perceived it differently. Two or more characters responding to the same stimuli might uncover a lot about each other – how they differ and what they have in common – by their reactions.

Consider which sensations might help to reveal your character’s back story, in both positive and negative ways. What history may be hidden behind how they respond to a touch on the neck, or to taste of pears? How do these things reveal, hinder or develop their relationship with another character? Might the perfume one person wears set off a positive or negative response in another? (And if so – was the use of that scent deliberate or chance?)

Different perceptions of the same sensation might suggest someone is lying about their background; alternatively, a person with a different viewpoint might be able to spot a problem or an inconsistency that others have missed.

These elements don’t need to be in every chapter. Paint details with a light brush. The watchword, as always, is ‘moderation’ – unless being immoderate is the point!

Explore sensation both immediate and remembered, and it may not only reveal something about your world and your characters, but offer a point of connection with your readers as well.

Debunking the ‘write every day’ myth

We’ve all heard the advice, the stern word from the Serious Writer that to be considered a Serious Writer also, to Get Things Done, you have to Write Every Day.

Not only that, but you have to write a clear and high number of words each and every day. Figures like 2000 daily words are bandied about as though anything less is a failure of purpose or even of moral fibre.

What, and I mean this most sincerely, a load of tosh.

I do encourage people to write, write and write some more – it’s by doing that we improve, that we get words on a page that can then be edited, reshaped and made better. But while writing whenever you can is an essential part of being a writer, that tricky ‘whenever you can’ is very much in the category of ‘how long is a piece of string?’.

That writer slamming out 2000 words, rain or shine, illness or health, clean house or slovenly? That’s fantastic. Good work! It’s marvellous that they have the resources, support, mental and physical health, and limited external responsibilities to do so. They may be making sacrifices – even significant ones – to achieve this goal, so there’s no shaming here about the work that this entails.

But to then tell *other* writers that this is the One True Way of Writing is, at best, thoughtless.

That writer’s life isn’t necessarily my life, or your life, or the life of any other writer.

I don’t write every day. I write and edit for a living in other fields, and so sometimes my fiction has to wait until I’ve delivered for my other clients. Sometimes I’m physically unwell; sometimes my head is not in a good space for creativity because of stress, anxiety or depression.

Some writers who achieve high daily word counts have someone else running their household for them. Their spouse earns money, cleans the house, feeds the kids, walks the dog. Or they have sufficient resources to pay someone to clean and cook and pay the bills without requiring external income from a day job.

Some writers writing up that storm are not dealing with trauma or poor health or any one of a hundred other things that fill up lives in different ways.

So yes. If you want to be a writer, you do have to find some way to write. But that necessity can look different to different people.

Some writers raising young families get up two hours early and write before the rest of the family gets out of bed at 7am. Some jot down 200 words a time over their lunch break. Some only get to write for a few hours every week or so because of chronic fatigue or debilitating mental health episodes. Sometimes it’s five months off, one month on.

Whatever your circumstances, don’t look to those writing large numbers of words every single day as the standard you set for yourself. Your life is not that writer’s life. Your resources, responsibilities, health and ability to find time, space, mental bandwidth and energy are entirely your own.

Look and ask for how other people do it, of course. Perhaps you’ll find someone whose experiences map closely to yours, or who, at least, have some suggestions that might work for you.

And whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up when you don’t reach some imagined ideal of writing-schedule-perfection, because self-hating self-flagellation never gave a writer more time, energy or motivation.

Breathe. Write when you can, whatever that means for you. Explore options. Find a rhythm that works for you and adjust as required for the circumstances of your daily life. Be kind to yourself.

Acknowledging and accommodating the life you actually have – as opposed to some mystical Platonic Ideal of a writing life – is not cheating, it’s not insufficient, and it’s not failure.

Whatever you do, whenever you can do it, is real writing, and it’s enough.


Know of any other judgemental writing myths that you’d like me to debunk? I’m ready to give it a go – just let me know in the comments. And if you have kind suggestions for people trying to make time to write in a complex life, let us know your tips!