Vivid Verbs – The Easy Way to Spice up Your Writing ׀ Jericho Writers


Vivid verbs

The ultimate guide to using verbs in your writing. Includes list of 333+ strong verbs.

Sometimes you write something and it just feels … dead.

So you go to work on it, juicing it up with adjectives and adverbs. Trying to put a sparkle into your writing. Only then you take a step back and look again.

And what you have is actually worse. It’s still flat, but somehow trying too hard at the same time. Like playing canned laughter at your own bad party.

So let’s pare back and go back to basics.

Here’s what authors Strunk and White advised in their little writers’ Bible, The Elements of Style:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

And there are lots of others who agree. Here’s Stephen King:

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.”

You can also read similar comments by Elmore Leonard and Mark Twain.

So what’s the problem that all these authors are getting riled up about? And what’s the fix?

(Oh yes, and I’ve got a list of 300+ strong verbs for you to get your teeth into. If that’s all you want, just scroll on down.)

Weak verb + adverb versus strong verb

Take a look at these sentences:

  • “No, Thomas,” she said very quietly.
  • He ran as quickly as he possibly could to the station.
  • She jumped as high as she knew how off the diving platform.

The words in italics are either adverbs or (same basic idea) adverbial phrases. And don’t you feel how cluttered they are? Don’t you feel like there are a lot of words being used there to communicate not so much?

Here’s how we could have done it:

  • “No, Thomas,” she whispered.
  • He raced to the station.
  • She leaped off the diving platform.

Fewer words. No adverbs. And a simple, effective communication. Doing more with less.

And that’s the basic idea about vivid verbs. If you use the right verb, you will communicate more swiftly and effectively than if you choose the wrong one to start with – then try to patch the damage with yet more verbiage.

OK. So that’s a win. But there’s more to explore here – because, yes, there’s another way to go wrong with verbs, and it’s this.

State of being verbs

Take a look at these sentences:

  • Jerry was a great believer in the virtues of cold water.
  • Jemima was never out of bed before midday.

Notice that both those sentences use a state-of-being verb (in this case, “was”) to link a person with something about that person.

And, OK, there are plenty of times when that’s a perfectly fine approach. None of the issues raised in this blog post are rules; they’re more guidelines, or at least useful things to think about.

But in this case, both sentences could be made better by using a more active verb – a vivid verb – in place of that state of being one. Here’s how those sentences could have gone:

  • Jerry believed passionately in the virtues of cold water.
  • Jemima lay in bed well beyond midday.

Better right? Jerry is now doing something, not just being something. And in Jemima’s case, we’ve removed that negative / state of being approach, and made a positive statement about her indolence. Both sentences seem somehow more active, more emphatic.

Oh yes: and you probably noticed that, in the sentence about Jerry, I slipped the word passionately in there. That’s optional, but if you want to strengthen the verb, you can. There’s no neat one-word way to say “believed passionately”, so using an adverb there is certainly a legitimate choice.

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There is / there are

Another perfectly valid construction in English is to start a sentence with “there is” or “there are”. For example:

  • There were countless trees in that forest and only one of them …
  • There are many opportunities at this company …

Those sentences are not grammatically wrong. You won’t get shot if you use them.

But …

Well, we could do better right? For example:

  • Countless trees peopled that forest and only one of them …
  • This company offers many opportunities …


In the first case, we’ve got rid of a horrible empty construction (“there were”), we’ve used a good strong verb (“peopled”), and the whole sentence has got better. It feels like that forest is more alive, more exciting. That’s a perfect demonstration of how a good vivid verb can help fix an underpowered sentence.

Same thing with the next sentence too. In the first version, the “company” features only as an afterthought. In the second version, it is actively offering something – it’s the subject of its own sentence and its generosity seems now like a positive act. And note the role of the verb here. The act of generosity is encapsulated in that verb, “offers”. We’ve killed a weak verb, added a vivid one – and our sentence has improved.

Better right? And so damn easy.

Passive verbs vs active verbs

Let’s take a look at two more sentences.

  • The cake was made by my grandma.
  • The fender was bent out of shape by a fallen branch.

And yes: you spotted the issue there. In both cases, the sentences use the passive voice, not the active voice. So the person who actually made the cake was grandma. The thing that actually bent that fender was that damn branch. (Need more help remembering the difference between active versus passive? Check out this easy guide.)

So in effect, both sentences shoved the real subject to the back of the sentence, almost as though shoving them out of sight. Here’s how to rewrite those sentences and make them better:

  • My grandma made the cake.
  • A fallen branch bent the fender. (Yes, you could say “out of shape” but doesn’t the word bent already convey exactly that? I think it does.)

But again, I want to remind you that we’re dealing with guidelines not rules here. Which of these is better:

  • Detective Jonas arrested and charged the suspect.
  • The suspect was arrested and charged.

The first sentence is all about the admirable Detective Jonas. But what if we don’t care about him? What if this story is all about the suspect, and what happens to him? In that case, the second sentence is better. In fact, the use of the passive voice here almost emphasises the suspect’s powerlessness.

As always in writing, you need to use your judgement. And if in doubt, you can find extra help here, here and here!

Sometimes weak verbs are OK

And while we’re on the issue of judgement, let’s just remember that sometimes weak verbs are really OK.

For example, you can’t get a much blander verb than say / said. So you might think that your dialogue should be littered with words like trumpeted, shouted, asserted, called, whispered, muttered, declaimed, hollered, and so on.

But can you imagine how ridiculous that would get how quickly? And what do you want people to pay attention to? The dialogue itself, or your comments about it?

There’s no contest.

In other words: weak / dull / lifeless verbs are fine when you don’t especially want to call attention to that part of your writing. Let the dialogue shine. The rest of it can just go quietly about its job.

The ultimate list of 333+ strong verbs

OK. That’s a lot of preamble. But you want some vivid verbs? You got em.

Here goes, grouped by the kind of word they might replace:

Instead of say:

Ask, enquire, reply, answer, state, hiss, whisper, mumble, mutter, comment, bark, assert, shout, yell, holler, roar, rage, argue, implore, plead, exclaim, gasp, drawl, giggle, whimper, snort, growl, scream, sing, stammer

Instead of run:

Sprint, dart, bolt, canter, gallop, trot, zoom, hurry, speed, jog, saunter, scamper, hurtle, rush, scramble, spring, swing, swoop, dive, careen

Instead of walk:

Stroll, hike, promenade, saunter, march, amble, stride, tread, pace, toddle, totter, stagger, perambulate

Instead of look:

Observe, glance, stare, examine, peek, study, notice, see, glare

Instead of go:

Leave, depart, shift, take off, move on, quit, exit, take a hike, travel, drive, proceed, progress, run, walk away

Instead of eat:

Pick at, nibble, munch, chew, gobble, devour, consume, demolish, gulp, swallow, scarf, wolf

Instead of hold:

Grip, clench, grasp, seize, reach, embrace, clamp, clench, clasp, grab

Instead of give:

Provide, offer, present, hand over, deliver, contribute, furnish, donate, bequeath, pass over, pass to, extend, assign, allow, lend, bestow, grant, award, confer

Instead of let:

Allow, permit, authorise, agree to, consent to, accede to, give permission for

Instead of put:

Place, set, lay, position, settle, leave, situate, locate, plant, deposit, plonk, plunk

Instead of pull:

Yank, heave, haul, draw, cart, lug, hump, drag, tow, jerk, attract, pluck, wrench

Instead of move:

Progress, transfer, shift, topple, change, redeploy, refocus, relocate, prod, nudge, induce, cause, budge, stir, lead, encourage, propose, induce, slink, scamper, careen, zip, ram, drift, droop, heave, edge, stalk, tiptoe, creep, crawl, plod, waddle, drag, stagger

Sensory verbs / quiet:

Sigh, murmur, rustle, hum, patter, clink, tinkle, chime, whir, swish, snap, twitter, hiss, crackle, peep, bleat, buzz

Sensory verbs / noisy:

Crash, thunder, clap, stomp, beat, squawk, shout, yell, explode, smash, detonate, boom, echo, bark, bawl, clash, smash, jangle, thump, grate, screech, bang, thud, blare

Instead of tell:

Order, command, instruct, dictate, require, insist, warn, caution, decree, mandate, charge, direct, dominate, lead, rule

Instead of like:

Love, adore, yearn, treasure, worship, prefer, idolise, cherish, admire, enjoy, be fond of, be keen on, be partial to, fancy, care for, appreciate, hold dear

Instead of want:

Desire, crave, covet, yearn for, aspire to, envy, fancy, require, wish for, hanker after, need, lack, miss, aim for, choose

Instead of cover:

Bury, wrap, conceal, mask, veil, hide, cloak, shroud envelope, obscure, blanket, curtain

Instead of throw:

Toss, lob, chuck, heave, fling, pitch, shy, hurl, propel, bowl, cast, drop, project

Instead of surprise:

Confuse, puzzle, bewilder, baffle, bamboozle, disconcert, flummox, perplex

Have fun, my friends, and happy writing!

About the author 

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 

(You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here). 

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How long should a chapter be?



How to figure out the right length for your book.

You’ve started your book. You’re brimming with ideas. You start hammering away at your text. And then – you hit a pause. 

So now what? 

Do you create a page break and start a new chapter? Or do you just do the three little asterisk thing? Or just crash straight on? 

And what if your chapters are too short? Or too long? Will your readers laugh at you? Will you cause literary agents to spill their lattes with laughter? 

Well, no. 

Honest truth? Chapter lengths don’t really matter too much. No manuscript has ever been rejected by an agent or neglected by a reader just because a chapter was too short or too long. 

That said, chapter breaks are one of the key rhythmical features of a novel. Your story’s most obvious beats. So, it makes sense to use those beats to enhance everything else you’re doing. Getting that right is what this post is all about. 

Chapter length, in a nutshell

  • Too short: 1000 words or under
  • Very short: 1000-1500 words
  • Short: 1500-2000 words
  • Standard: 2000 to 4000 words
  • Long: 4000 to 5000 words
  • Very long: over 5000

Those are the rules for adult novels. Kids’ books will have chapter lengths that vary by age range. And there’s no wrong here. Ducks, Newburyport has no chapters and it’s 400,000 words long. It’s still amazing.

What is a chapter? And why is a chapter?

OK. You know what a chapter is. A chapter is generally the major (and often the only) sub-division to be found in a book or novel. It’s marked, almost always, by a page break. The new chapter may be numbered or titled or even both.

In terms of scale, some books will also be divided into parts. (Part 1 might include 10 chapters, and so on.) Individual chapters may have minor separation breaks indicated by an asterisk, or similar. 

But you knew all that. More important is why is a chapter? Why have them? Why do books need or want them, even after the concept of an actual printed book has become a bit blurred out by e-books and audio books? 

And the answer is that any story has beats in it. Punctuation marks, in effect. Moments when the story – and the reader – want a moment’s pause. So the question of how many words there ought to be in a chapter is really a question of: how much text should a reader be asked to read before you give them a break? 

To answer that question, we need to figure out when a reader is likely to demand a pause. 

What is the purpose of a chapter?

The purpose of a chapter is to allow the reader to pause, and those pauses are most essential when: 

  1. There is a change of point-of-view character
  2. There is a major change of scene 
  3. There is a major jump in time 
  4. A major sequence of action has just been completed 

Put like that, it’s kind of obvious why you need a pause. You need a pause to avoid confusion. If you simply continued from one paragraph to the next while implementing a major switch of character / time / place / action, the reader would be perplexed. They’d need to read the section two or three times to figure it out, and that would (paradoxically) cause a weird slowdown in momentum. 

The chapter break, in effect, tells the reader, “OK, you need to hit the reset button and prepare for something a bit different. The story is continuing, but that last scene has now ended.” 

That convention means that as soon as the reader has flipped the page, they know to wipe the slate clean and prepare for some new scene to get going. 

And that’s also why you need to be a little bit careful here. You can’t just say, “Oh, that scene was in a café, this one is in a street, that one is in a park, so we need a total of three chapters to handle all that.” You need to use your judgement too. If the same pair of individuals simply wandered through a city, having a conversation about the same thing, it doesn’t matter at all that the locations they pass through vary. The reader, correctly, regards that as a single unit of action. 

If on the other hand, it’s not just the scenery that changes, it’s also the participants, their concerns and the type of action, you need to chop that sequence up into chapters accordingly. 

Read more on plotting the chapter breaks, here and here.

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What is the right word count for a chapter?

With all that in mind, we can start to figure out how long our chapters ought to be. (Clue: it’s your story that is going to govern this in the end. Your story, and your readers.) 

But here, for example, are some famous novels, along with word counts and chapter lengths: 

  • A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, 592,000 words, 19 chapter, average chapter length a totally insane 31,000 words. 
  • A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin, 298,000 words, 60 chapters, average chapter length 4,970 words 
  • Twlight, by Stephenie Meyer, 118,000 words, 25 chapters, average chapter length 4,720 
  • 1984, by George Orwell, 89,000 words, 24 chapters, average chapter length 3,700 
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, 216,000 words. 75 chapters, average chapter length 2,880 words. (Book is also divided into 7 parts.) 
  • The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, 65,750 words, 25 chapters, average chapter length 2,630 
  • Talking to the Dead, by me – Harry Bingham – 113,000 words, 49 chapters, average chapter length 2,300 words 
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, 96,400 words, 46 chapters, average chapter length 2,100 
  • Along Came A Spider, by James Patterson, 106,000 words, 97 chapters, average chapter length 1,100 

You can pretty much forget the first of those examples – the Vikram Seth one. His book was almost boastfully extravagant in terms of length. That was its selling point, in a way, and it is such an outlier, you can discard it. 

Martin’s Game of Thrones is epic fantasy fiction and its 5,000 word chapter length pretty much benchmarks the very top end of normal. 

Likewise, Patterson, with his famously rapid-fire fiction, pretty much benchmarks the bottom end of normal. Most books (including, I discover, my own) lie in the 2,000 to 4,000 word range. 

How to figure out what chapter length is right for you

In truth, you won’t really choose your chapter lengths. You’ll write your story, and your story will insert its own natural breaks, as you change scene, viewpoint or whatever. But as you can begin to guess from the data in the previous section, the story you tell is likely to impose a varying set of chapter lengths on you. So, from smallest to biggest, here’s what different stories are likely to need. 

Very short chapters, under 2,000 words

Fiction with very short chapters has a kind of jump-cut, fast-edited quality to it. It will work for action fiction, but even then, it’ll work for the very fastest – and least reflective – action writing. 

James Patterson is the huge benchmark of this type of fiction. You can’t really get shorter, faster, snappier writing than his … and notice that his chapter length doesn’t dip below 1,000 words (or not really. I expect that somewhere in his massive canon you’ll find an exception.) 

That means if your average chapter length falls below 1,000 words, you are probably trying to cut too often – or that you haven’t yet given enough weight and depth to the scenes you are telling. Remember that even action fiction needs space to make an impression. 

Normal chapters, 2,000 to 4,000 words

Just take a look at the list above. You’ll notice an impressive range of fiction in this ‘normal’ range. 

There’s young adult fiction (Fault in Our Stars). There’s my own crime fiction. There are a couple of absolute literary classics (1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale). 

In other words, whether you’re writing genre fiction, or literary, whether you’re writing for adults or teenagers, chapter lengths in this broad range will strike the reader as normal, expected, nothing to be alarmed about. 

Very long chapters, 4,000 to 5,000 words

If you’re writing chapters that regularly exceed the 4,000 word mark, you are, in effect, announcing to your reader that your story has a more than normal amount of heft and swagger. So George Martin’s Game of Thrones announces its genuinely epic aspirations in part by those epically sized chapters. 

For authors of epic fantasy, long chapters will certainly work. The same probably goes for authors of some kings-n-queens type historical fiction. But this will be the exception. To most readers, most of the time, very long chapters will just feel … very long. 

Chapter rhythms: mixing it up

So far we’ve spoken of average chapter lengths, which is all well and good. But you can have long ones and short ones, as well as plenty of middling ones. 

The shorter ones, especially, will mix up the rhythms of the rest and jolt the reader, in a useful way. 

At the longer end, I still wouldn’t generally advise going over 5,000 words all that often. It’s just a plot of text, and readers need to be able to put the book down now and again. 

At the shorter end, short can be very short. I’ve quite often written chapters that are 500 words or so. (That’s a page and a half or so of an ordinary paperback.) If you want to go to 300 words or even less, you can. All I’d say is that the hyper-short chapter is a little bit of an attention-seeking device. You risk having the reader think about you the author, rather than the story you have placed in front of them. 

And the story, of course, should always come first. 

You can find out more about standard word counts, here


How to end a chapter

Chapters end at natural breaks in your story. OK. We know that much. But you don’t just want to stop abruptly. You want to give your reader a satisfying ending for the chunk they’ve just read. Here are four great ways to end a chapter. They’re not mutually exclusive, so you might use more than one technique in a single place. 

  1. Symbolic reversal

A scene or chapter is there to tell its own mini-story, with its own beginning, middle and end. And because stories are about change, scenes are about change too. So, a scene is typically based around some kind of story question, which is then resolved or changed by the end of the scene. 

One good way to end a chapter is to find a way to highlight or encapsulate the change that has just happened. So let’s just say we have a proposal scene. Mark Manly has just gone down on one knee to propose marriage to Winona Winsome. He offers her a single red rose. 

She says no. She rejects him. 

There’s an argument. In the course of the argument, the rose is damaged. Winona marches out of the room. 

The scene ends with Mark clutching a bare-rose, no petals. A sign of his failure. 

I’m not sure that’s a super-brilliant way to handle a non-proposal scene, but you see the point I’m making. The rose comes to symbolise the hope at the start of the scene and the failure at the end. That’s one nice way to handle things. 

  1. Looking back

Alternatively, however, let’s say that Winona says yes. 

And let’s say that Mark has secretly loved Winona since he was an 11-year-old boy, seeing her arrive in (um, I don’t know) a skiff, a carriage, a hot air balloon outside his castle. 

The triumph with which our current scene ends – she said yes! she said yes! – could be a reason to look back to the past, to that 11-year-old boy, and the long trials and tribulations of his love. 

Again, a closing paragraph that looks back to the past could be a nice way to end the chapter. 

  1. Looking forward

Let’s twist the lens again. 

Winona wants to marry Mark, yes, but the Dark Lord of Boundercad Hall has sworn to enslave her. He is coming for Winona that evening accompanied by (oh, I don’t know) twenty mounted troops and a very scary parrot. 

So now, terrific, the intrepid couple see the prospect of infinite wedded bliss – but only if they can figure out a way to escape the clutches of the Dark Lord. So this chapter would naturally end with a look to the future. A glance up to the brooding presence of Boundercad Hall. Or a mention of the sound of horses being saddled, or a scary parrot squawking. 

That hint of the future isn’t a cliffhanger, exactly, but it reminds the reader that big things are on the point of being decided. 

  1. Looking sideways

If you have a dual-protagonist drama, then scenes (and chapters) will naturally switch from Person A to Person B and back again. 

So let’s say, instead of a proposal scene, Mark and Winona are planning to elope. We’ve just had a chapter with Winona buckling on a sword, preparing her horse, saying farewell to her beloved three-legged cat. And now – the chapter ends. She’s ready for her night of adventure, but what about Mark? 

You don’t have to make that question overexplicit in a chapter ending. (In fact, too explicit, and it’ll sound weak.) All you need to do is prompt the idea in the reader, as subtly as you like. So your chapter might end. “She was ready. All that mattered now was that Mark would be on that ferry.” 

Again, that’s not really a cliffhanger, but it switches the story question from Winona to Mark. The reader will now think, “Jeepers. Yes! What about Mark?” and they’ll be all prepped for a scene where we see Mark facing some obstacle to getting on the ferry in time. 

  1. The classic cliffhanger

You might think it’s odd that I’ve left the classic cliffhanger scene to last … and that’s because such things are quite rare and usually quite crass. 

The very first example – where the term came from, in fact was Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, and it’s terrible. (See here for more.) It’s terrible, because the chapter ends with a man hanging (thoughtfully, calmly) by his fingertips from a cliff … and the next chapter starts with the exact same person hanging (still calmly) by his fingertips in the exact same spot and the exact same situation. 

In fact, the badness of the Hardy scene reminds us that chapter breaks belong where stories have their natural breaks. There probably are good examples of the classic cliffhanger, but really, not many. For the most part, techniques 1-4 or some variant thereon will do you better. 


That’s it from me. Have fun with your chapters – and, as ever, happy writing. 

About the author 

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 

(You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here). 

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How Many Words in a Novel?

how many words in a novel (average word count)

How many words are there in a novel?

Learn the average wordcount for every type of novel, novella, genre, etc

When I (Harry Bingham) wrote my first novel, I started to worry that I was off the mark. I was scared that agents would reject my book simply because I had got the length wrong. How many words are there in an average novel? I didn’t know.

I went to a bookstore, gathered some (big, hefty) novels in a genre like mine, and sat there on the shop floor and counted words. It turned out that, yes, I was at the very long end of things, but not impossibly long.

I sold that book for a good six-figure sum, and have never looked back since.

At least you don’t need to run down to your nearest big store, since this guide will tell you quickly the ideal word counts for every category of novel.

How many words are in a novel?

The average wordcount for adult fiction is between 70,000 to 120,000 words. For children’s fiction, the general rule is the younger the audience the shorter the book, and for YA novels the average is 50,000-70,000 words. Nonfiction wordcounts sit between 70,000-120,000 words. Wordcounts also vary by genre, as detailed.

How long is a book of adult fiction?

Novel word counts, by type of book

So: how many words in a novel?

Broad guidelines

We’re going to talk some specific genres in just a moment, but it’s worth setting the landscape a little first, just because you may as well know the territory here, and because a lot of fiction simply doesn’t fit in tidy boxes.

So, the average wordcount for a typical novel is anywhere from 70,000 to 120,000 words. I’d guess that the actual average number of words in a novel was somewhere close to 90,000 words. (How come? Because novels mostly cluster at the shorter end of that 70-120K spectrum. There are plenty of prolific authors who might never break the 100,000 word barrier.)

These guidelines assume that your book is broadly commercial (rather than highly literary, let’s say) and that you are writing for adults. If you are within that broad zone, then as far as length goes, you’re doing fine.

But then again, sometimes fiction is long.

If your story justifies the length, you needn’t worry if you get up to 150,000 words, or even 180,000.

But that is on the very long side. 180,000 words print about 650 paperback pages. You only get away with novels of that scale if the story has an epic quality and storytelling is remorselessly excellent. (Also, don’t trust any source on the internet which tells you that such stories are unsaleable. They’re just not. My own first novel was 190,000 words long and was sold to HarperCollins for a lot of money.)

Romance genre

Romantic fiction usually runs from about 75,000 words up to about 120,000. Anything within those limits is fine. 70,000 words could be okay, but no shorter than that. If you’re over 120,000 words and writing a saga, that’s fine. If you’re writing an ordinary romance, you probably need to do a bit of cutting.

Crime and thriller genres

Crime novels often run a little longer than women’s fiction, so although 75,000 words is fine as a lower limit, anything up to 130,000 words is standard. Don’t go below 75,000, though.

Fantasy and sci-fi genres

Fantasy novels can be long. They can be up to 180,000 words, or even over 200,000, but the novel must be wonderful and must fully justify its word count. In other words, you must be scrupulous about editing every sentence for length.

Literary genre

If you’re writing for a more literary audience, then the rules above apply on upper limits. In other words, anything up to 120,000 words, no problem. Up to 150,000 is fine, but check you’re not waffling. Up to 180,000 words, you really, really need to justify that word count.

And lower limits are quite a lot lower. A good, short literary novel might be 60,000 words. A very good, very short one might be as little as 45 or 50,000. The shorter it gets, the better it needs to be. If you find your novella is as little as 30,000 words, consider merging two more linked novellas, presenting a 90,000-word package to agents and publishers.

Average word count in a novel: how many words

How long is a non-fiction book?

Memoir and biography

Most memoirs need to be in the 70,000 to 100,000-word range. Only if you’re a major celebrity can you blow right through that word count and just keep going.

Popular non-fiction

For the kind of book that normally sits on the front tables at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, you’ll find that 70,000 to 120,000 words is about typical. If the topic really justifies length (and especially if your credentials are highly impressive) you can go longer, but check that you remain interesting, even at length.

Niche non-fiction

For anything really niche – e.g. How to Get Started in Internet Fraud – there are no real limits. Just write a good book on the topic and let length look after itself.

How long is a children’s novel?

Young Adult fiction

YA fiction usually needs to be 50,000 to 70,000 words. You can go up to 100,000 if your material is phenomenal and justifiable, but no longer than that.

Middle Grade fiction

Children’s fiction is so varied in terms of length, type, illustration. Your best bet is to go to a good children’s bookstore and look at books like your own in terms of target audience. Multiply up by the number of pages and get to a rough word count. The younger the child, the shorter the word count.


Do you need to edit your novel?

Take a good look at the average word counts you need for a novel or non-fiction.

If your book is too long and you need to cut it, don’t fret. It’s often possible to take a good 30,000 words out of a book without really affecting the content, just by being rigorous about what works – what words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes truly earn their place.

The secret to effective self-editing is always just a relentless search for material that isn’t really contributing to the story . . . and searching at every scale. So you need to ask, “Is this chapter or scene really needed? Could I cut it or simply delete it?” But you also need to ask, “Does this sentence contain more words than it needs? Could I do the same job more effectively with less?”

Bear in mind that cutting a 12-word sentence down to 9 words might feel like nothing to you . . . but that’s the same proportionate reduction as cutting a 120,000 word novel down to 90,000 words. And you only achieve that kind of reduction by being picky about every single word.

Why not try checking out our self-editing course to build on those editing skills. Or, peruse the range of editing services we offer.

Need more help?
Did you that we have masses of resources available completely free to members of the Jericho Writers community? If you become a member, you get access to:

  • An incredible course on How To Write that has a bazillion glowing testimonials from writers just like you.
  • A video course of the exact same depth and quality on Getting Published.
  • And loads of filmed masterclasses
  • And filmed interviews with authors, agents, publishers and others.
  • The chance to pitch your work to literary agents, live online.
  • And much more as well.

You’d think that you’d have to pay thousands of dollars for all that, right? But we’ve made it available at a ridiculously low price. Pop over here to find out more. We built our club for writers like you, and we’d be absolutely thrilled if you chose to join us.

About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)

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Diversity in genre fiction

Diversity in genre fiction

Guest author and blogger Rhoda Baxter studied molecular biology at Oxford, which is why her pen name takes after her favourite bacterium. She writes contemporary romantic comedies in whatever spare time she has. Here are her thoughts on diversity in fiction.

When is a book ‘not Asian enough’?

There’s been a lot of recent discussion about diversity in publishing. A lot of people lament the fact that there aren’t enough diverse characters in fiction. There is diversity in the people who live in the UK and diversity in the subsection of those people who write books, so why the mismatch? As part of this discussion someone brought up the fact that books with BAME protagonists are judged by a different set of criteria – one of which is is this book Asian enough/black enough?

This question winds me up. What is the benchmark for a book being Asian enough? Who sets it? How often is it reviewed? What is the point of it?

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I write romance, arguably the biggest selling genre in fiction. I’m British/Sri Lankan. Asian is part of who I am. It’s not something I consciously work at. If you asked me to list the things that define me, my Sri Lankan background would not make it into the top five. As a kid, I lived in a regular house, went to a regular school, read the same books, watched the same TV shows and listened to the chart show every week, just like the rest of my classmates. Of course, there was the odd Goodness Gracious Me moment, but mostly, my life wasn’t vastly different to my friends’. It wasn’t as though as soon as I shut the front door I was transported into another world of sari’s and spices. Yet, if you read mainstream fiction featuring Asian characters you’d think that was the case. No wonder everyone was so astounded that Nadiya Hussein chose to flavour her cheesecakes with fizzy pop (or that she even baked in the first place!).

My first book featured middle class Sri Lankan characters. I wrote about people who were, basically, a bit like the Asian people I know. I submitted to agents and small publishers, I had a few notes back, a few requests for the full manuscript. ‘Asian Lit’ was popular at the time; White Teeth and Brick Lane were still riding high. The most useful feedback I got back was “I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it”. It wasn’t Asian enough for literary fiction and not white enough for genre fiction.

Being the pragmatic sort, I wrote the next book with white main characters. Given that I write about middle-class people, the things that worry white characters would be pretty much the same as the things that bother Asian characters – job security, sexism, bullying, the quest for love. Besides, people are people, regardless of what shade they are, and white characters have the same range of feelings as brown ones. I placed this book with a small publisher relatively easily.

If you want fiction to represent the experiences of a wide range of people, you need accept those experiences as they are presented – even if they don’t fit into your preconceived notions. Rich people face different challenges to poor ones. First generation immigrants face different challenges to their children. No two Asian homes are the same, because no two families could be the same. So perhaps we should stop trying to pretend that they are. How can fiction show the reading public any variety in the Asian experience of life if the publishing industry insists that very variety does not exist (or, more accurately, that the reading public won’t buy it).

‘Diversity’ isn’t about showing Asian characters doing things in an Asian way, or gay characters doing things in a gay way or disabled characters doing things in a disability adapted way. That’s just pandering to stereotype. Diversity is achieved by showing characters of different backgrounds doing things in their own way and telling their unique stories. If it makes minority characters look less different than the majority expect them to be, that might even be a good thing.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I write under a pen name since my real name is difficult to spell, and it helps to keep my writing career distinct from my day job – but I have always submitted my work to publishers and agents under my real name. I think (although I have no data to back this up) that the ‘is it Asian enough’ question arises not from racism as such, but from a skewed assumption of what readers can stomach.

As a point of principle, I always have at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each book. In my latest book (Please Release Me) the heroine is mixed race. I’m sneaking minority characters into mainstream genre fiction one book at a time. Interestingly, readers don’t seem bothered at all.

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How to finish a novel and schedule writing time

How to actually finish your damn novel

How to schedule your writiing time, and get your novel finished

One of the hardest things about finishing a novel – before you think about ideas, characters, or plotting – is finding time and confidence with all those words to write.

Maybe writing a novel seems like a mammoth task, a distant dream.

Read on for tips in writing productivity, how to get organised with your writing, and how to finish a novel.

A massive spoiler: you can do it.

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How to schedule your writing time (by the hour)

How can you be sure to finish a book you start?

Lots of writers prefer spontaneity to planning out writing times. If vagueness hasn’t been helping, though, setting goals could help make a novel seem less imposing.

Goals may adapt as you go on, too (perhaps by the day, if you’ve written something one day that negates what you were planning to do the next day, and so on). This shouldn’t be an inflexible process.

Just decide on your writing days per week, how much time you know you’ll roughly have to dedicate to writing on each day.

Some days, you may have an hour or two. On others, you know you may just have twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes can still count.

If you want your novel written, you’ll need determination – and Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope even paid someone to get him up and bring coffee, so he could write in the few hours before he went to work. Even if your designated writing times aren’t every day, they should still be fixed (as much as you can make them).

Show up for your writing, keep it habitual.

If you’ve been struggling to make time for writing on a more fluid basis, see if actively planning your writing like this makes a difference.

How to set your writing goals (and achieve them)

Let’s explore this idea of hours more, how you’ll make the time productive, once you’ve scheduled it into your day.

Perhaps you’ll allot in your diary (or mobile calendar) an hour of each weekday to writing your novel. List its ideal outcome. Does Chapter 1 need starting? If you’re further on than that, does a scene need revising? Does a ‘filler’ or ‘bridge’ section need getting down on paper, before you go back and figure out how to make it better later?

Maybe there’s a weeknight you know you’ll have limited time, so take out just twenty minutes for research, editing or mind-mapping ideas for a scene. Maybe there’s a weekend you know you’ll have lots more time, so set yourself a bigger task.

Try giving one ideal outcome to each time you write, to help turn your novel into a manageable project (so if you do more than that, wonderful).

Few people can find long stints of time to write as they’d like. The only agreed solution (between the ‘planners’ and the ‘pantsters’) is to carve writing hours into a schedule, then stick to them, making them useful.

You can always break up your writing time with something called the Pomodoro technique, too – 25 minutes of work, then 5 minutes to break – rewarding yourself as you go.

Bring your close family and friends along, too. Your desire to write is a part of you, so having support and understanding from others will help.

How to protect your writing space (and headspace)

Whilst it’s possible to write anywhere, your headspace and surrounding environment can help you keep up a writing discipline.

Surround yourself with writerly comforts. Some need black coffee, others need green tea. Some need quiet, others need jazzy playlists. Some need cushions, others need a wrist support. Some need scattered notes, others need filing systems.

Make your writing spot a place you’ll literally love coming to.

If it’s just not possible to create a makeshift writing space at home, settle yourself where you’ll feel comfortable, even if it’s just in bed with a laptop. (And why not?)

Respecting your physical space, the bustle of a café could be less taxing than the bustle of home in terms of productivity. If you need to remove yourself from home distractions for a bit, why not take yourself to a coffee or lunch? Treat yourself to whatever feeds your writer’s brain. Perhaps during a lunch break at work, you’ll be able to take yourself and your laptop to a café somewhere.

Also, any space (and anyone’s headspace) nowadays is easy to infiltrate with wi-fi. Protect focus by turning off the wi-fi. (You can always ‘reward’ yourself with the Internet later.)

Keep things fun, just keep yourself to task, too.

How to keep going and finish your novel

First, start now.

There’s never going to be a time when you’re readier to write than the present. Start writing, then keep it habitual, even between projects. Carry a notebook and pen with you. Try jotting ideas on the go. If you’re a first time writer, try checking out this page for extra advice and inspiration!

Second, release some pressure.

Allow yourself to be carried along, to enjoy and let loose. Allow your first draft to be imperfect because otherwise it can’t get written. You’ll have time to edit once it’s out on a page, but you can’t edit from nothing (editing, by-the-by, we can help with once you’re ready).

Third, you can do it.

If you’ve set yourself a word count of 10,000 words every month (as an example, aiming for between 2,000-3,000 words per weekend), you could have a first working draft in less than a year before all your structural editing and revisions go in.

Fourth, remind yourself how much you want this.

If you want to be published, you’ll need to be resilient, as well as kind to yourself. Getting a first draft out is hard, and a first draft is allowed to be flawed before you go back and edit.

Oh, and fifth?

Get some damn help! Our editorial services are there for your assistance, as well as an incredible self-editing course that will help you on your way to finishing your novel. Most importantly, hang around in a supportive writing community, crammed with expert resources, that will help you achieve what you want to achieve.

But where is such a wonderful community to be found, you cry?

Well, let’s see. Jericho Writers is a club for writers. And it’s low cost, and cancel-any-time. And it has an eat-all-you-want approach to a gazillion writing resources. And it’s full of people like you. And those people seem to go on to get published. And you can find out more about that club right here, right now. We really hope you sign up with us. We’d love it if you did!

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How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

Guest author and blogger Lauren Sapala is a writing coach, the author of The INFJ Writer, and writes about writing, creativity, and personality theory on her blog. She currently lives in San Francisco.

It’s often empowering to understand what helps you as a writer, but types only take us so far. First and foremost, you’re you.

What builds your own creativity and what holds you back?

If you’re struggling to make headway on a writing project, think how you best work, how maybe a “weakness” could be a strength, and what’ll most help you finish – will it be a deadline? Or a designated day of the week to write?

For more on the MBTI system, the Myers & Briggs Foundation website is a great place to start. However, I’d urge every writer to experiment with many different methods of writing to find what works best for them. There can be great variation, even among the same type.

Every artist is an individual.

All artists should give themselves the permission to do whatever works best for them.

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Are you an intuitive writer?

I struggled for years as a writer. I wanted desperately to write a novel, but I couldn’t even write the first page. Then, when I finally worked up the courage to take a creative writing course in college, I failed miserably. I stopped writing altogether for seven years.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I discovered my Myers-Briggs personality type that I began to shine as a writer. Finding out that I was an intuitive personality was just the information I needed to finally move forward.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a system of 16 personality types that divides people along a spectrum of traits that determine how an individual interprets and reacts to the world.

The MBTI system focuses on such tendencies as introversion versus extroversion, and intuition versus sensing (i.e. relying primarily on concrete information gleaned from one’s five physical senses). The complexity of the MBTI system is too vast to be addressed fully in this article, so if you don’t already know your type or you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating area of psychology, I recommend you make use of the wealth of helpful resources that can be found online.

If you do already know your type, and you want to know a bit more about how this affects your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, look at my selection of “writers by type” below, to discover how you can start using your type as a creative advantage.

These below are intuitive personalities on the MBTI system – ones I seem to work oftenest with, encouraging their ideas and intuitive talent.

Tips for INFJ writers

I’m an INFJ writer myself, and so I’m intimately acquainted with many of the most common obstacles INFJ writers face. The number one challenge I see INFJ writers struggle with is perfectionism.

INFJs have a rich, all-consuming inner life, and they excel brilliantly at seeing the big picture and imagining the ideal version of how something could take shape in the future. Because INFJs are such amazing abstract thinkers, it’s easy for us to bring together different elements in our mind to form a perfect whole. It’s when we try to make this “perfect whole” a physical reality that we’re confronted with the real world and all the messiness, pitfalls, snags, and less-than-perfect elements it contains.

INFJ writers who are unconscious of their own perfectionistic tendencies will get stuck at this stage, always dreaming and never making any of their dreams a reality. It’s only when INFJ writers realize that the real world is never perfect, and anything they create will necessarily be bound to this real-world truth, that they can begin to accept their writing for what it is, flaws and all.

Tips for INFP writers

INFP writers suffer the most from too many ideas, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the choices and different creative paths they could take. I’ve written on my site on the non-linear way I’ve often seen INFP writers work. This can be a strength, though – a means to connect patterns between scenes, images, characters, and ideas.

It’s also not uncommon to see an INFP writer working on several writing projects at once, but the problem is not that INFPs work on too many things at the same time. Instead, the problem is that they tend to judge themselves harshly and resist their natural tendency at every turn.

INFPs need a lot of variety. They also need a sense of flexibility and the freedom to be spontaneous and fluid in their artistic pursuits. Out of all the types, INFPs are most likely to work in circles. This means that the INFP writer usually works on one story, then moves onto painting for a few days, then moves onto writing a poem, and finally circles back to the story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach and, in fact, it can work quite well for INFPs who have accepted their nature and embrace this circular way of working. INFP writers run into trouble though, when they compare their creative processes to others and try to force themselves to work in a linear manner.

Tips for ENFJ writers

Out of the four intuitive feeling types (INFJ, INFP, ENFJ and ENFP) the ENFJ is the type that is most likely to fall prey to an extremely harsh inner critic.

ENFJs are almost preternaturally aware of the relationship dynamics surrounding them, and that includes a thorough assessment of how others view them and how they measure up in the larger order of any community of which they happen to be a part. This leads many of them to easily play the comparison game, and many times feel like they’re coming out on the losing end.

ENFJs also have a strong need for connection and community. If they feel isolated in their writing pursuits, or like no one understands them or “gets” what they’re attempting to do with their writing, they can quickly shut down and then begin isolating themselves even further. ENFJs must feel emotionally supported by a group of peers they love and respect. This is when they will do their best work.

Tips for ENFP writers

ENFPs are similar to INFPs in that they suffer from the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many ideas, but with ENFPs this includes an outer world component that can contribute to even more overwhelm.

Simply put, ENFPs are unabashed extroverts. They love people and they love getting out and having adventures with people. A healthy ENFP might work two jobs, have a family, and still take up demanding hobbies such as snowboarding or Spanish classes in their spare time. This kind of schedule usually leaves little time for writing.

The number one problem most ENFPs struggle with is finishing things. They begin novels, plays, and short stories full of enthusiasm for the project, but then a sparkly, too-interesting-to-resist person or cause comes along and immediately distracts them. The best method for ENFPs is to devote one day a week to a certain piece of work (maybe the novel they’ve always dreamed of writing) and keep firm boundaries in place around that day so that the project gets a guaranteed slice of their creative energy on a regular basis.

Never feel boxed in, though. Find your best writing habits.

Always do what works for you.

Learn about Lauren’s journey and read more at her site. Learn more about all different MBTI types and writing styles – and check out more free writing advice on us.

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Writing a book for the first time (tips you need)

Writing a book for the first time - how to get started

Writing a book for the first time (tips you need)

If you’re writing a book for the first time, it’s good to have the tips you need in one place. Here are our advice pages on all aspects of novel-writing.

How to have ideas and inspiration

Nothing is harder to come by than inspiration, and it’s not enough to be inspired, you need a concept a publisher is also likely to get excited by.

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Story, plot and pacing


Any good story needs strong, convincing characters to populate it. Even if you’re writing a true story (a memoir, for example), you need to bring your characters to life on the page. Here’s how to do it:

how to get started writing a book for the first time

Prose style and editing your work

Sentences need to matter as much to you as paint does to a painter. And remember that good writing is usually good re-writing, so be prepared to put in the hours.

Our guides:

Next steps

Have we remembered to mention that writing a book for the first time is quite hard?

Help is at hand, if you need it from us.

  • Get editorial feedback on your work. We work with partial manuscripts, as well as complete ones.
  • Try a writing course. Our courses are online, so you’ll be able to work around commitments.
  • Come to our events like the Festival of Writing to meet literary agents in person and pitch your manuscript. Signing up to our mailing lists you’ll be first to hear announcements.

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15 Common Novel Writing Mistakes (Beginner Writers Beware!)

common novel writing mistakes

The 15 Most Common Novel Writing Mistakes – And How To Avoid Them

If you’re a beginner writer, then you have to read this. We tell you what the most common mistakes are – how bad they are – and how to fix ’em!

We see a lot of novels here, many hundreds each year. And our writers are an admirable, successful bunch.

We’ve had years of experiences, lots of time spent understanding what agents wants and what they really, really don’t.

It all adds up to a pretty good idea of the most common novel writing mistakes made by newer writers as they set out to write their first novel.

Oh, and we’re going to talk a lot about mistakes in this post – but please don’t think we have anything other than total respect for new writers. I’m Harry Bingham, and I am now a successful author with a ton of novels and other books behind me. I’ve been commercially successful and the mistakes that we’re going to talk about here? Well, luckily for me, I don’t make them any more.

But I did.

My first novel?

Not too bad, actually, by first novel standards. But I still deleted the first 60,000 words of the first draft, because those words just weren’t good enough.

My second novel?

A total, utter, ocean-going, gold-plated, forty-eight carat disaster of a book.

That one made most of the mistakes we’re going to talk about here . . . and was so bad, I deleted it. So my second published novel is really the third novel that I actually sat down and wrote.

No exaggeration. It was that bad.

Anyhow. That’s my confession out of the way. And, like I say, we take our hats off and say, ‘Nice writing, ma’am. Good on you, sir.’ to anyone at all who has the guts to write and complete a novel.

But you want to know which mistakes our editorial team sees most frequently? They’re the ones we gonna talk about right now.

What follows is a checklist of which mistakes are most often made and, more importantly, what to do about them.

To make it more interesting, we’ve taken a stab at guesstimating how many manuscripts commit these errors, giving them a howler rating according to how hard they are to fix.

So draw a deep breath, and take courage.
As Neil Gaiman said, ‘if you’re making mistakes,
it means you’re out there doing something’.

We like that.

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1. A terrible concept

Some concepts just don’t work.

An ‘educational’ novel for Young Adults with reams of explanation about climate science stuffed into a creaky plot. A book for adults that features the life history of the author’s parrot. A sad story about a woman’s not-very-terrible mid-life crisis that ends with her deciding to work part-time and take up baking. None of these books stand a chance of interesting an agent. (Well, okay, if they were handled by an out-and-out genius, perhaps, but almost no one is.)

The stats of doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *****

You can’t fix this error. You must start again. Get help on your elevator pitch, or just firkle out some new and better ideas.

2. A book that doesn’t ramp it up enough

Surprisingly, this is something we see a lot. Thrillers that don’t quite thrill. Comedies that don’t really make you laugh. Romances that aren’t all that poignant or stimulating. Literary fiction which doesn’t really dazzle. And you can’t be so-so about these things. If agents and editors are faced with a choice, and yours isn’t the more thrilling thriller, which do you think they’ll pick?

Short message: Ramp it up.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-20%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

You can fix it in theory, and with a lot of work, but sometimes it’s better just to pick a better idea – say if your story isn’t exciting you enough to make it exciting for others.

3. A manuscript that’s written for a different era

Agatha Christie, Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson … these are big selling authors, so if you write like them, you’ll get sales like them, right?

Well, no. Those guys wrote for the market as it was when they got started. They dominate that market – both subject-wise and era-wise.

Unless you know your era very well, as well as do something distinctively new, there is no reason why agents, editors or readers should favour your book. It’s the same with books trying to reprise the 1980s comedies of Tom Sharpe. Or YA authors rewriting Stephenie Meyer, not noticing there’s been quite a lot of vampire-lit since Twilight.

Just don’t do it. Unless you’re writing historical fiction, it’s as well to write for the world as it is now.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-5%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

This error is all but unfixable in truth, unless you’ve written exceptionally well. Sorry!

4. A manuscript with no discernible USP

Your USP. Your ‘Unique Selling Point’.

Sometimes, a manuscript only ticks the boxes. It’s a love story with genuine warmth. It feels contemporary. The writing is fine, and perhaps it’ll be top of an agent’s slushpile – but you need to be in the top nought-point-something-percent of that pile to get taken on, and what that’ll tip the balance in your favour is usually an angle, a concept, a pitch that’s immediately captivating.

A tale, for instance, about a time-traveller’s wife? I want to read more. I’d pick up The Time-Traveller’s Wife.

Or a fostered child in Nazi Germany, stealing censored books and visited by death? The Book Thief is an original take in children’s fiction, on a troubling, much-visited subject.

If your book doesn’t an original concept, it’ll hamper the search for an agent – but we’ve clues on building a strong elevator pitch you can read for that.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-30%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

It’s a lot of work, but you can fix this. Usually, you need to take some already-extant aspect of the novel, and simply push it further than you’ve so far dared to go. Or you can take some totally new element and ram it in. (So Stephenie Meyer took ordinary teenage angsty-romance lit and rammed into it with a vampire story. Wow! Brilliant collision. The results were . . . well, you know damn well what they were. A global multimedia phenomenon.)

In short: you have to think big and bold to solve this issue. It will be a lot of work though. Tinkering-type solutions will not be the fix. Get better ideas.

5. Lousy presentation

Manuscripts written in purple ink? With awful spelling or weird fonts? And punctuation that forgot to turn up for work?

This is less common than folklore would have you believe, partly because computers and spellcheckers eliminate egregious faults. Nevertheless, tell-tale clues can often be enough.

Let’s suppose I were an agent, and I received a manuscript, and that manuscript had loads of run-on sentences, which is where you have independent sentences separated by commas rather than full stops, and if I was quite busy, maybe I would think I had better things to do than read any further.

If you were the author, you might be quite upset that I never got past the first page – so give yourself the best chance of ensuring this doesn’t happen.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

On the one hand, punctuation is simple to fix. A problem is that poor punctuation is often allied to sloppy prose, which takes a lot more work. Both things matter. If you are sure that your prose and story are fine, but know you need input on presentational matters, you could think about copy-editing, but be careful. Most manuscripts don’t need copy-editing, just better writing. Manuscript presentation help here.

most common mistakes in writing a novel

6. Lack of clarity in prose

The first job of your prose is easy. It needs to convey meaning, clearly and succinctly. Your meaning must always be clear. When you use pronouns (‘it’, ‘she’, ‘he’, etc), it must be clear who or what is being referred to. Don’t use ‘dangling modifiers’. Your reader needs to know where they are and when, and what’s happening (unless, of course, you are being deliberately mysterious). This is simple and so basic, but not all manuscripts achieve success.

Simple message here: you are seeking to make a living as a professional writer, so the basic quality of your writing has to be good enough. There are no shortcuts here.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ** to ****

Sometimes, a rigorous line edit is all that’s needed, but sometimes sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking, harder to address. In truth, I think it’s very rare that a novel with genuinely poor writing will ever be lifted to a place where it can be effectively published. (And that’s true even if you’re aiming at self-publishing. The standards of both routes are much the same these days, as in the end the readers call the shots.) Learn how to write better prose.

7. Writing is not economical

Most writers don’t think enough about making every sentence as economical as it can reasonably be. Very few books can bear too much verbiage, so prune, then prune again. Be ruthless. If you haven’t cut at least 10,000 words from your manuscript by the time it comes to editing, you haven’t really tried.

We’ve had many beginner novelists offer us manuscripts that needed to lose 30,000 words or more. What we always try to communicate is that they can probably lose that level of word count without actually losing any content.

Like if you have a 12 word sentence that could be written just as well as in only 9 words, you’re not losing content, you’re just removing surplus. Likewise, we’ve seen descriptions of (say) a North African street market which were kinda great, but involved 6 descriptive sentences. Those 6 would probably work more powerfully, if you just picked the 3 best images/sentences and went with those. The reader would actually end up with more sense of the place, not less. And so on.

The short message: be more brutal with your work than you currently think possible. Your work will love you back and give you a great big kiss once you’re done. Learn how to edit a book.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 30-50%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): * to ****

Again, sometimes a good edit is all that’s needed, as long as sloppy prose doesn’t equal sloppy thinking.

8. Writing is over-the-top

Before I started editing manuscripts, I just didn’t know this was an issue, but it really is. We get so many manuscripts that are just loaded with extremities – scream, agony, torture, yelling, misery, overwhelm, fury, all on the first page – sometimes even all in the first paragraph.

Of course, strong language is vital, as is emotion resonance, but you need to be careful, to moderate its use. A surprising number of first-time novels just cram too much all in on page one, then carry on cramming. Nuance is key.

Short message: gently does it. Lead with the character and the story situation. Oblique is better than direct.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

It’s easy to fix in theory, so long as these issues aren’t deeper than just poor word choice. Again, the root cause is quite often that a first-time writer isn’t properly in contact with his characters and that can be a harder issue to fix.

(Oh, and did you pick up on my non-gender neutral ‘he’ just then? Yep, well, most of our editorial clients are women, but the people who most often make this mistake are men. And by “most often” I mean “90% or more”. Sorry, lads, but it’s true!) Strangely, a good way to write a book with good emotional texture is to really work at your dialogue – the two things often go together. You just can’t write strong dialogue, unless you have a tight handle on what your characters are feeling moment to moment. Our dialogue tips here.

9. Clichés abound

Full-on clichés are (thank goodness) relatively rare in manuscripts we read. We don’t read many ‘wet blankets’, or ‘sick as a dog’ instances, but cliché is so often more insidious than just those howlers. You can have passionate, flame-haired girl. Or scenes of domestic bliss that involve log fires. Or villains who are steely-eyed. A cliché is anything which makes us feel we’ve read this before … and, sorry to say, in that broader sense, we see a lot of these in manuscripts.

Short message: any kind of cliche starts to kill the reader’s absorption in your story. Very soon you will lose that reader completely.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-50%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst):** to ****

Once you’ve identified a phrase, character or plot device, it’s simple (if time-consuming) to fix. It’s finding the things that’s pesky.

10. Points of view are mishandled

We read a lot of work where one character is thinking and feeling something … then, suddenly, we’re in the head of some completely different character, sharing their thoughts and emotions. And obviously, it is okay to move about between characters, but this transition must be properly handled (normally by moving properly out of one head, before moving into the next). Our colleague, Emma Darwin, has some good advice to follow, but when those transitions aren’t correctly handled, you cause giddiness, confusion in the reader, and are at risk of causing rejection letters to come a-fluttering to your doormat.

Short message: keep control over your points of view. One simple rule to follow is: one point of view per chapter. More sophisticated writers can mess about with that rule but if you’re unsure – just follow it! If you want the real ins-and-outs of point of view, you can get a very detailed guide here.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Very fixable, but normally a slew of changes will flow from any initial set of corrections.

Free plotting worksheets

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11. Descriptions absent or bland

We’ve read novels where all action seems to take place in a white and featureless void, where any description is bland or muted. Readers want to be transported to a different world. So transport them. Descriptive writing is actually essential to this goal.

We’ve got some great advice on how write descriptively right here. The techniques involved are suprisingly easy . . . and they can deliver an amazing lift to the novel. More than you think.

Sometimes, however, if a novel lacks emotional punch, it’s not to do with the descriptions – but an absence of drama on the page. In such cases, the issue is nearly always to do with the author telling the reader about the action, rather than just showing us the action as it happens. Too much telling will kill a novel stone dead, and you can’t let that happen to yours. Here’s all you need on show vs tell, in case you need a refresher.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **

Easily fixed, just make sure weak descriptions aren’t masking a broader problem with prose style.

Intermission: Do you need help?

New writers make these mistakes because writing novels is HARD. But we can help – and save you huge amounts of wasted time.

Writing a novel is hard.

Writing a novel for the first time is harder.

Writing a novel for the first time and making sure that your novel is strong enough to be published – well, that’s one heck of a goal to set yourself.

It’s OK to find this tough.
It’s OK – actually sensible – to get help

So, take that sense of place issue, for example. Are you sure you’ve got that right? We’ve got a brilliant video on that exact topic (that also gives you a genius technique for adding a whole layer of richness to your novel.)

Or ask yourself: are you really sure that the basic idea for your novel is strong enough? We’ve got a video on that too.

Or prose writing and cliche? How confident are you there? Well, we don’t have one video on those topics – we’ve got three and they’re crazy good.

You can see some of our sample testimonials here (scroll about 2/3 of the way down), but they say things like:

“Hugely inspiring”

“A breath of fresh air”

“Extremely useful”

“Almost entirely focused on practical application . . .
it encourages and inspires the user to make extremely constructive improvements to their work.”

But there’s going to be a catch, right?

Well, sort of. There is and there isn’t.

This (super-premium, 17 video) course is pretty expensive to buy outright.

So don’t buy it. Simple. Save your money.

Because as a member of Jericho Writers, you get full, free, unrestricted access to that course.

Oh, yes, and all our other video courses. And our filmed masterclasses. And our Cinema. And our Townhouse community. And so much else as well.

And membership of Jericho Writers:

  • Is low cost
  • Is cancel-any-time.
    You can literally sign up, and cancel in the same day, and still enjoy the single month’s membership you paid for. We hope you don’t do that, but if you just want to spend one intensive month using our materials, that’s fine with us. Whatever works for you.
  • Is absolutely stuffed with benefits, and we’re adding more all the time
  • Was developed for writers exactly like you.
    We’ve had over ten years serving writers like you and we’ve got hundreds of them published. We’d love to help you too. We’re sure we can do it.

That’s a crazy-good deal, right? I certainly hope so, at least, because when we developed the whole membership concept, the basic brief to ourselves was, “Let’s just build the writing club of our dreams. Let’s make that thing happen, then charge as little as we possibly can.”

So that’s what we did.

Id love it if you chose to learn more about membership, or just say what the heck, I wanna sign up.

But if that’s not right for you now, sit tight, and we’ll review the last common mistakes that writers make when they write their #1 novel.

12. Unliterary literary writing

We get plenty of ‘literary’ novels. Literary fiction still relies on a wonderful plot or a stunning premise to hook its audience, and if you want your novel to sell as a ‘literary’ one, it has to be flawlessly written. Basic competence is not enough: you must demonstrate something more.

If you don’t read a lot of literary fiction (Pulitzer / Booker Prize type work), then you are probably not writing it either.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-30% (of literary novels)

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

You need to pay careful attention to prose style, but this exercise is usually manageable. You just need to care, a lot, and make sure that you take care with every sentence you write.

13. What happened to the plot?

Strange, but true. Some writers complete an entire novel without really knowing what their story is. And stories don’t create themselves. We’ve got some great (free) advice on plotting here – with further help on plotting and making use of the snowflake method to plan things out – but needless to say our video writing course has got three beefy and important videos on that exact topic. This is an issue you just have to get write, irrespective of what genre you choose to write in.

If you do have a plot, but the book still seems saggy, then revisit the above on economy in writing. Cutting is the answer to many a writing ill.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

A strong story matters in all genres, and for debut novelist especially. Jane Austen, Shakespeare et al. aren’t above plots, so you’re not either.

14. Unbelievable or bland characters

Sometimes, everything seems to be moving along all right in technical terms. Story, check; descriptions, check; prose style, check. Still, somehow, a manuscript is failing to connect with its readers.

It’s often because the central character(s) aren’t really showing up for work, and that in turn is usually because you, the author, don’t yet know them sufficiently – almost as though you don’t trust your imagination to feel out the limits of the people you’re writing about.

We’ve got some simple free advice right here, but our best stuff is in our writing course. Three fat videos on this one crucial topic.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Poor characterisation is easy enough to fix, albeit there’s some work involved. Often the issue is just that a writer was so busy constructing the novel’s plot / settings / research underpinnings etc that they couldn’t handle the additional act of characterisation too. If that’s the issue, then the advice is just, “Time for Draft #2”

15. You haven’t really finished your novel

Yes, we know – you’ve reached the final full stop – but when you reach that milestone, you are perhaps, if you’re lucky, halfway done.

Many novels – even ones accepted by an agent – need to be reworked, re-edited and reworked again. That’s how they get better and why all professional authors work closely with a professional editor, supplied via their publisher. You mightn’t yet have that vital support and advice from publishers, but you can get editorial feedback from consultancies like ours. We’ll check your manuscript for any structural weaknesses.

We also run a unbelievably good self-editing course so that you can develop your own editorial skills. Astonishingly, about 1 in 6 of our graduates from that course have gone on to be published. And there are more popping through the pipeline every month. It’s an extraordinary course. It always sells out. And you should grab it when you can.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? Hard to say!

Agents reject 999 in 1,000 manuscripts, so arguably 999 people are sending work out too soon. Explore what editorial feedback may offer or – an easy, low cost, do-it-now option – just sign up for membership of Jericho Writers. We’ll genuinely be delighted to welcome you on board.

In the meantime – everyone – happy writing, and good luck!

More on how to write a book

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Literary Agents for young adult fiction

How to learn the market for YA fiction

literary agents for young adult fiction

How to learn the market for YA fiction

Something to be conscious of as a fiction writer is the market for which you write. Young Adult (or YA) fiction isn’t a genre, but it’s a defined label in publishing, typically considered for readers aged 12-18, though this too is fluid.

Since the publication of titles like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, YA is a term you need to know if you’d like to write for a teenage audience, as well as convince literary agents and publishers that you can.

The most important thing is to always read debuts in your genre, and for the age you’d like to write for. These are the books publishers are looking for.

Whilst it’s true publishing trends will always shift, books read by your ideal ‘audience’ are evidently the books they enjoy, so it pays (literally) to be conscious of them.

Read on for our top tips on how to learn about the YA market and write for this age group.

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Make the hardest part of writing easier

Step 1: Write your own trendsetter

It pays to be aware of trends and the market, if only so you can buck them a little.

This is a balance, however.

Readers of The Bookseller can see regular updates on new UK book deals, and every spring, may espy annual coverage of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, with ample talk and speculation of what’s hot and selling as foreign printing rights are bought and sold. There will always guaranteed be a sentence or two on trends, on what publishers of Middle Grade or Young Adult books are hunting for.

It’s as well to be conscious of trends, but what’s trendy will soon be outdated. If you’re still writing, a hot topic now could be obsolete by the time you’ve finished your novel.

Trends move fast, and a single book can also change things.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight happened to be a YA phenomenon, but the ensuing paranormal romances ‘competing’ for attention with Twilight blurred a little into one another, even as the tide continued and anticipated the rise of dystopian fiction, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and so on.

The lesson of all this is to try and present an idea (even an old idea) authentically. Vampires have been written about before and Bram Stoker’s titular Dracula preying upon Lucy Westenra laid the founding of an established trope. Twilight just happened to hit a certain chord for its readership and this at once predicated and, in so doing, slightly nullified its trend.

So be careful and cautious of trends, since these can be a double-edged sword. Trends are transient, they escalate and subsist again.

Whilst it pays to know your audience and what’s in the bookshops, to be conscious of the books teenagers are drawn to and reflect on why this is the case, bear in mind trendsetter-novels aren’t necessarily the books you want to compete with. Satiated trends mean a saturated book market (for the time being).

Even if you’re ahead of the bookshops, trying to keep up with publishing news and new book deals, what you know now won’t be the thing your writing can keep up with.

You’ll need to write your own trendsetter.

Step 2: Read, read, read YA fiction

That said, read around and shop as much as you can for YA fiction, obvious or intuitive as this may sound. Your novel can’t exist in a vacuum. It’s no good disregarding what your audience is reading now, so know YA books to know your audience.

You’ll need to write in this subtle tension, conscious of taste in YA, of past commercial successes, making your novel similar enough and yet entirely original.  You must create a book that fits into the market.

Read around the sort of thing already out there you’d like to write, too. It’s not that vampire-human romances hadn’t been written about before Stephenie Meyer’s Bella and Edward. It’s not that Greek gods hadn’t been written about before Percy Jackson and the Olympians from Rick Riordan. It’s been observed how similar J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a Wallflower are, etc.

You’ll want your book to fit with a canon of similar stories, without just writing ‘copies’ of things done before.

YA novels like Beauty by Robin McKinley, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas or Uprooted by Naomi Novik share links to Beauty and the Beast, but each of those books is still unique. The same is true of books like Ash by Malinda Lo or Cinder by Marissa Meyer, with ties to Cinderella.

It’s just that an old idea was reworked by an author in new ways.

So learn what teenagers like, then read what they like. (If you’re not sure, look up book blogs like The Mile-Long Bookshelf.) How does your novel compare to the YA books you’ve found? How do you feel your own work will be judged?

It’s also worth noting that it pays to read contemporary YA fiction. Classical lyricism and verbosity needn’t concern you so much as writing a resonant, gripping story to hook modern readers.

There have been various game-changers in fiction-publishing for young people. Melvin Burgess’ Junk (or Smack in the US) was one. The book won the Carnegie Prize and Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in the UK in 1996. Whilst its subject (heroin addiction) caused ripples of shock, Junk paved the way to an increasingly mandatory style of authentic, honest, raw writing that’s now commonplace in YA publishing.

The success of Junk among its readers, with its prize-winning status, changed perceptions and sent publishers a message.

What’s needed in successful YA fiction is resonant, emotional experience teenage readers can connect with.

Step 3: Know your subject (and write sensitively about it)

If you’re also thinking of writing on a possibly more controversial topic, explore sensitively and with all due research. Don’t just write to shock. Write to be poignant, and so to connect.

The Fault in our Stars by John Green caused a stir when it was accused of being ‘sick lit’ (a pair of terminally ill teenagers fall in love). Whilst its subject seemed to ‘shock’ some adults, its poignancy that so stirred readers nullifies these sorts of ‘grown-up’ objections.

Who cares?

The Fault in our Stars isn’t a shocking novel. It’s a moving one. It’s been adapted for film, its catch-lines passing into contemporary language via its readership. (‘Okay?’ ‘Okay.’)

Melvin Burgess has shared how his novel Junk, about teenage drug addiction, has been life-changing for some teenage readers, but it’s important to note Melvin Burgess knew his setting. He knew these emotional landscapes.

More recently, Lisa Williamson wrote a resonant transgender protagonist in her YA novel The Art of Being Normal, though she herself is cisgender, but she’s spent time working for the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service. She brought her experiences to her writing.

Bear in mind, though, LGBT+ is not its own separate genre or subgenre, nor should fiction be defined by country or ethnicity, as still per some bookstores.

Patrick Ness’ novel More than This features protagonist Seth, who is gay, but this is incidental to its main plot and it’s okay for this to be the case. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a high-school love story between a Korean boy and an American girl, and sometimes it need only be this simple.

You needn’t write clunkily to make a point.

As Rainbow Rowell herself has said:

“Why is Park Korean?” The first time I was asked that question, three or four months ago, I had a pretty short answer: “Because Park is Korean.” … Because Park was always Korean. Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.) Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.

Only by writing sensitively and incidentally can writers help make sure all sorts of characters become unquestioned players of mainstream fiction, not sectioned by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or anything else.

Everyone, everything, should be mainstream, especially in YA publishing.

Teenagers, who will be faster than adults to question norms and pick up on injustices, should be catered to in the novels they read and not be defrauded in this respect.

Appreciate and accommodate for diversity in your own YA writing.

It’s good also to have first-hand experience of what you’re writing, but if not, the importance of empathy and careful research to create an authentic emotional experience can’t be stressed enough.

Step 4: Know your audience (and keep prose authentic)

This is important. You must know your audience. You can’t write about living in a teenage character’s shoes unless you know teenagers well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write about and to.

YA readers will be looking for experiences outside their own, looking for ways to challenge and break rules, and will be (strongly) averse to feeling patronised or educated in fiction. Write about being a teenager, and never write to educate.

Again – to best do this, read and read up on YA novels that are doing well.

Respecting ‘voice’, too, author Joan Aiken has also observed adolescents are ‘lightning-quick to spot hypocrisy or artificiality’. Never patronise and never attempt a ‘coolness’ that can’t sound organic, at home and natural in your first-person narratives.

An inauthentic teenage voice will destroy your book before it ever reaches a literary agent. This offers a good reason YA fiction should be taken seriously.

A manuscript assessment can also certainly give you invaluable editorial feedback with insights into the commercial perspective that drives YA publishing, and to harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in YA fiction.

Happy writing!

More on writing for children

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Make the hardest part of writing easier

Julia Hamilton

Taking emotional possession of your characters

Taking emotional possession of your characters

Guest author and blogger Julia Hamilton is the author of six novels, most recently Forbidden Fruits and Other People’s Rules, both from HarperCollins. Before those, Julia published with Penguin (A Pillar of Society, The Good Catholic, and After Flora) and Collins / Flamingo (The Idle Hill of Summer).

I’ve recently read a couple of submissions as an editor where the author is writing about someone they knew, in one case a brave, soldier father, in another an interesting aunt. Our biographies are often submerged in our novels: the idea of a roman a clef was precisely this: thinly veiled characters whose identity could be guessed at by the reader. Many authors find this a useful device from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is the Night or even Violet Trefusis in Broderie Anglaise.

It’s not so much why authors write about their own families and people they know, it’s how they go about it. Do you stick to facts or do you muck about with them?

My first novel was based on the life of a cousin of my great-grandfather’s, a soldier in the Great War who kept some (rather dull) war diaries that were published after his death in 1918 and are often quoted by military historians because of the pinpoint accuracy of his observations of the landscape and his obsession (very necessary) with the ranging of his guns as an artillery officer.

But what interested me was what he was really thinking on the inside.

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Make the hardest part of writing easier

I’d found draft diaries in one of those tin boxes with his name in white paint on the side and the top that hinted at a much more interesting interior life: he was a Catholic convert and obsessed by his religion, he had a tender but slightly tentative relationship with his wife and was enjoying the war enormously, although he writes about his suffering, too. Even more interesting was the fact that all the (to me) interesting bits had been scored out with blue pencil before they were published.

Here was my subject, I felt.

But this was my first novel, how the hell did I go about taking emotional possession of someone who had really existed? The facts of his life daunted me to start with: they seemed so final and definitive, how could I change them and what would I change them into? And not only that, but the detail of the Great War almost crushed me to death. It’s a huge subject about which I knew not very much.

I mentioned what I was doing to someone (a great mistake, never mention tender subjects like this at a dinner party as you run the risk of exposing yourself to the highly contagious disease of doubt, rife amongst authors), and he said, ‘Oh, but hasn’t the First World War been done to death?’

Well, yes, it had. But not by me, I decided, after a bad day or two. I proceeded with my task.

My hero, Gerard (his middle name, in fact), died in real life in 1918. Did that mean I had to somehow write about four whole years of the most written about war in history? After about a year, I realized that I could do whatever I liked. For fictional purposes, I killed him off sometime in early 1915, but I used the text of the real (and indescribably moving) letter written by the priest who buried him to his wife in the actual novel, a letter that afterwards appeared in The Faber Book of Letters, adding another twist to the whole roman a clef business.

When the book was reviewed in the TLS, the reviewer knew of my character’s real identity and mentioned his quite famous war diaries in the review. So what was true and what wasn’t? By the end I couldn’t remember and quite frequently confused my own fiction with fact, so successful had I become at my task of ‘playing God’. In fact, immersing myself in the First World War changed my life for good. As a result, I took my then young children every Remembrance Sunday to the ravishingly beautiful service in Westminster Abbey, something they remember now with great intensity. We visit the real Gerard’s grave whenever we go that way through the haunted battlefields of the Somme, too – and I always weep.

If you want to take emotional possession of your characters, let them take the same of you.

More on character development