Mistakes I Made So You Don’t Have To

Guest post
by Mark Hamner

I learned a lot from my first foray into novel writing, to say the least. Most of these various lessons were, I hate to say, learned the hard way. Let’s take a look at two of my…learning opportunities…in the hope they may help some new writer somewhere to avoid the mistakes I made the first time out.

The most glaring mistake I made during the creation of my first novel, Echo’s Remnant, was not taking the time to learn the standard word count range for my genre. My Echo Chronicles series is targeted toward a young adult audience, but I really had no idea what that meant when I started out, other than the fact that it was going to be a fast-paced, character-centric story, with a protagonist in his late teens. What I didn’t know is that each genre has a generally accepted word count range. Depending on what you read, the typical YA range is 60,000 – 85,000 words, give or take. Well, when I dove into writing my book I was still going by the remarkably inaccurate metric of page count. Of course, I was typing in 10-point Arial with really wide margins. When I was done, and after I converted my manuscript into standard print format margins, font-size, spacing, etc., I had a 750 page novel that clocked in at about 180,000 words. That’s right: I had a 180,000 word YA novel – from a first-time author. The good news is that I was able to find a good stopping point and spawn the second book in the series. I know there is some debate over book lengths, but I believe people come to a genre with certain expectations. Plus, as a new author, it’s important to give your audience something they can digest easily in order to build their trust before you ask them to read more. Once you become more well-known, you can bend or even break the rules a bit, because your audience trusts your work. There’s a ton of material out on the web about standard lengths, word counts, page calculation formulas, etc. I recommend checking into that before you start writing so you have a general idea of your target. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all saying sacrifice your story to stay within an arbitrary word count, but do know that it does matter.

Another area where I would have benefited from a quick review of the rules of the road, so to speak, was in the domain of the standard rules and conventions of writing. Now, having started writing in my mid-thirties, when I had been out of college for…ahem, quite some time…I thought I knew how to write. I had always done very well in writing in school. So I sat down and typed out my 180,000 word YA novel. Then, when I was editing, I went back and reviewed the rules of writing. I should have, as Willy Wonka taught us, scratched that and reversed it. There was so much I got wrong – nothing huge, but little things, like the proper way to indicate an action taken mid-dialogue, or the standards for writing numbers. It turned out I didn’t remember as much as I thought I did. Fortunately, I caught these errors before the book went out, but it added a lot of work on the back end that could have been avoided by a little up-front pre-reading. I urge new writers to take a moment to re-familiarize yourself with the basics; it can really save you time later! Will the average reader toss your book across the room because you used a hyphen when you should have used a semi-colon? Probably not. But, in my opinion, taking the time to make your work as professional as possible is a good way to show pride in what you do and show respect for your audience.

These are just two of the mistakes I made during my first draft of my first novel. I’d love to hear any tips you may have for first time authors! (For some fresh-squeezed advice for newbies from the IU Staff, please check out Laurie Boris’ article from last week here – The Editors.)

Mark Hamner is the author of The Echo Chronicles series, an independently published young-adult post-apocalyptic series. The first two books in the four-part series, Echo’s Remnant and Empire’s Rise, are available now. Mark lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and daughter. For more about Mark, you can visit his website and his Amazon.com Author’s page.

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18 thoughts on “Mistakes I Made So You Don’t Have To”

  1. Didn’t know there was a word-count expectation per genre. But it was suggested to me that i divide my second book into two, since it was getting so big. This I did–the first one is a prequel to my published book, and the second one is a sequel.

    And as a budding (paid) editor, I cannot emphasize enough how important proper sentence crafting is (oh, look–a dangling participle–shut up.). Those errors in books, great or small, make my eye twitch. I plan on doing a blog on sentence crafting in the near future. I’ll make it fun, I promise. Book reviews first, though.

    1. I learned about the word count thing when I was attempting to get an agent for my first book. I think a blog on sentence crafting would be VERY helpful. Thanks for your reply!

  2. Me too – published my first at 50 and made a shed load of mistakes. We are always learning Mark. At least we can help others by being honest about our mistakes.

    1. Thanks for your reply! It’s good to know I’m not alone in having to spend countless hours fixing bad sentences, trimming word counts, and all the other fun stuff that goes along with putting out a quality book! 🙂

  3. The first one is always a learning curve regardless of what age you are; I didn’t publish my first until I was 57. I don’t mind telling you that was nearly six years ago.

    1. Thanks for your reply! I remember thinking “oh yeah I’ll write a story,” which I did, but it turns out there’s a bit more to it than that 🙂

  4. I committed error 1 on my first novel- thankfully it was a military thriller along the Clancy lines, and 200,000 words was actually OK. Unfortunately it was vanity published (lesson learned) and not edited. So when I got my rights back, I did necessary re-writes and had my editor bleed all over it. Now it’s a book I’m proud of. Too bad I have 10 copies of the original version to get rid of!

    1. Kudos for being will to go through the pain necessary to get your novel up to the quality you wanted; I think that’s awesome! And thanks for the reply!

  5. Great post, Mark. Though I started writing in high school over 30 years ago and finished a complete manuscript over 20 years ago, I didn’t publish it until I was 51.

    The genre word count stems from the industry big six publishers who said what the word count had to be in their submission guidelines and seems they have been adopted as standard, but appears within the new world of self-publishing they are pretty much followed. Though I’m reading a lot lately how readers who commute to work or with a small amount of time on their hands to read, want shorter stories they can finish in that time.

    Good luck and much success to you, Mark.

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