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How Many Chapters Should my Novel Have?

Dear Editor | How Many Chapters Should my Novel Have?

How Many Chapters Should my Novel Have?

This is a new question. I’ve often seen people ask how long their novel should be, and I have covered typical word counts in a previous post.

How many chapters in a novel? I've often seen people ask how long their novel should be, and I have covered typical word counts in a previous post. Click To Tweet

But chapters?

I don’t think readers care how many chapters are in a book. What matters to readers is the chapter length and content, because that’s what affects the reading experience. Long chapters where nothing seems to happen gives the reader the impression the book is long and boring … and that’s not a book they’re going to keep reading.

Chapter Length

How long should a chapter be?

That depends. Along with long sentences, long paragraphs, and long scenes, long chapters give the impression of a slow-paced story. If you’re writing in a character-driven genre like historical women’s fiction, then you might be happy for your readers to feel the story is slow-paced and meandering.

But if you write thrillers, you’ll want short chapters. Short scenes. Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Because short and sharp feels fast.

Chapter length is also driven by scene length.

A scene is usually from the viewpoint of a single character, and takes place in a single time and place. A good scene shows the point of view character working towards a short-term goal (that usually contributes towards their overall story goal as a character). This scene may be followed by some self-reflection from the character (the sequel), or by a transition to another time, place, or viewpoint character.

So how long is a scene?

A scene is as long as it takes to introduce the Goal, provide Conflict, and show the Outcome. A lot of authors aim for 1,000-word scenes, perhaps because that’s their daily writing target. You can go shorter or longer, but if your readers are used to 1,000 word scenes, then longer scenes may feel like they are dragging. At any rate, most of your scenes should be around the same length (plus or minus twenty percent), with perhaps a few very short scenes in high-action parts of the novel.

Sequels should be shorter—as short as a sentence or two, and probably no longer than a couple of paragraphs. They are usually interior monologue, and longer sequels are therefore prone to turning into telling.

Jack Bickham says a good scene will do two or more of the following:

Provide information to the reader.
Drive the plot forward.
Deepen characterisation.

For more information on the scene and sequel method, check out this post.

The next logical question is this: how many scenes per chapter?

Some books have one scene per chapters, while others have two or three. I’d caution against having more than three scenes per chapter, as that can give the reader the impression the chapter is taking forever and the book is dragging – short scenes and chapters give the feel of a fast pace, while long scenes and chapters lead towards a slow pace.

The number of scenes per chapter might also be a function of genre and the number of point of view characters. For example:
  • Romance novels often have two point of view characters, with the hero and heroine each being the viewpoint character for around half the scenes. As such, it might make sense for each chapter to have two scenes, one from the viewpoint of each main character.
  • Romantic suspense novels often have three point of view characters: the hero, heroine, and the antagonist. The antagonist doesn’t get as many viewpoint scenes as the hero and heroine. The antagonist’s scenes may be short—because their purpose is to ramp up the tension rather than drive plot or build characterisation. As such, a typical chapter might have two longer scenes (e.g. from the viewpoint of the hero and heroine), or three shorter scenes (one from each viewpoint character).
  • Thrillers often have four or five viewpoint characters. Of these, two or three are likely to be minor players, and their scene count will reflect this. Each chapter might therefore have scenes from the two major characters and one of the minor characters. Or the chapters might alternate, with one being from the viewpoints of the major characters, and one from the minor characters.
How many chapters should my novel have? That depends on your genre, scene length, and other factors. #WriteTip Click To Tweet

These are broad guidelines—the best chapter structures will depend on your genre, your plot, and your characters.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to scene and chapter length.

Except one: don’t bore your readers.

The Importance of Revision and Self-Editing

The Importance of Revision and Self-Editing (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

Why do authors need to know how to revise and self-edit?

Doesn’t the publisher edit?

Yes, they do. At least, the good ones do. (I’d steer clear of any publisher that doesn’t edit … or charges you for editing. But that’s another conversation).

If the publisher is going to edit your manuscript, why do you need to edit it first?

If the publisher is going to edit your manuscript, why do you need to edit it first? Because you only get one chance to make a first impression for agents, publishers, and readers. #EditTips #AmEditing Click To Tweet

It’s a cliché, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. You need to make it count—which means presenting the agent or publisher with the best possible manuscript. Don’t destroy your chances by submitting something that’s less than your best.

Traditional Publishers

Publishers, like most businesses, are under pressure to produce financial results. Editing takes time, and time is money. Few publishers can afford to sign an author with a great idea but poor writing.

Publishers do edit. Publishers know authors make typos. They know we all have writing glitches or concepts we never grasp. Publishers understand that. But publishers want to work with manuscripts that have been written and edited well enough to enable them to assess the plot and characters, to judge the overall saleability of the story. They don’t want to be wading through complex and convoluted sentences that seem to say one thing but could say something different entirely.

Literary Agents

In fact, many publishers (especially US and British publishers) don’t even consider direct submissions from authors. They only accept submissions from reputable literary agents. Agents are paid on commission, usually 15% of the author’s advance and royalty. It makes sense that agent want to work with competent writers, as they get paid for selling manuscripts to publishers, not for editing those manuscripts in the hope of making a sale. It’s going to be easier to sign with an agent if you have stellar writing and self-editing skills.

Self-Publishing

What if you intend to self-publish? Then you definitely need an editor … and not just a proofreader. Traditionally published books will typically go through three or four rounds of editing: developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

Most editors charge by the hour. Some quote based on a word count or page count (a standard manuscript page is 250 words). Even if they’re quoting by the word or page, they’re budgeting on editing X words per hour or Y pages per hour so they earn their target hourly rate (and we’d like to earn more per hour than our teenagers earn at McDonalds).

So the more work your novel needs, the longer it’s going to take to edit, and the more expensive it’s going to be. That’s why it’s important to learn writing craft and learn to self-edit.

Here are nine free or low-cost alternatives to help you learn to self-edit and reduce your need for paid editing #AmEditing #EditTips Click To Tweet

Let’s look at some of the free or low-cost alternatives to help you learn to self-edit and reduce your need for paid editing:

Read Craft Books

Read books on writing craft. Read to learn, and never stop learning. (You can also mix this up with reading blog posts and reading about publishing and marketing—two more subjects you’ll need to master.)

Work with a Critique Partner

Many authors work with one or more critique partners, often swapping a chapter at a time. You revise and edit their chapter or manuscript, and they do the same. This is a great option, as long as your critique partner knows the craft of writing fiction—otherwise they could be giving you bad advice.

Work with Beta Readers

A beta reader is a volunteer who reads you full manuscript and offers feedback on specific issues. Some authors use beta readers for the final proofread, after the copyeditor has covered the manuscript with (virtual) red pen. But it’s more common to work with beta readers before the manuscript goes to an editor. After all, there is no point in polishing a novel with underlying plot or character issues.

Enter Contests

Contests are a cost-effective way of getting feedback on your writing. Most contests for unpublished writers offer feedback from the judges. Even contests that only judge the first five or fifteen pages can be useful, as most recurring writing issues show up in those early pages.

Judge Contests

You don’t have to be a great writer or self-editor to judge a writing contest—many contests are actually looking for reader judges.

If you’re a new writer, then reading a published novel with judging criteria in mind is a great way of learning what agents, editors, and publishers consider important in a novel, and will help you with your own writing. If you’re a more experienced writer, then judging is a great way of giving back to your favourite writing organisation!

Hire a Writing Coach

Some writing coaches have expensive packages, but many charge by the hour. You can learn a huge amount in a couple of hours when the coach is specifically focused on your writing.

Hire an Editor

Freelance editors don’t always charge hundreds or thousands. Most charge by the hour, and many will offer a free sample edit. Many will also agree to edit a sample of your manuscript (e.g. the first 5,000 words) for a reasonable fee. This won’t identify overarching plot or characterisation issues, but will show you your writing strengths, and the areas you need to work on.

Take a Course

I’m a big fan of Margie Lawson’s online training courses (www.margielawson.com), and credit Margie’s Deep Editing techniques with helping me with my contest wins. There are other great options out there: Author Accelerator, One-Stop Shop for Writers, and My Book Therapy, to name a few. Also check out the Romance Writers of Australia OWLs and the RWNZ webinar recordings.

Attend a Conference

Attending a conference is a great way of learning more about the craft of writing. It will also help you connect with potential agents, publishers, critique partners, beta readers … and freelance editors.

No matter how you plan to publish, it’s in your best interest to learn to edit your own work.

It will reduce your overall editing costs and will improve your chances of attracting the attention of your dream agent and publisher.

I’ll be sharing my top tips over the next few months.

Can I use flasbacks in my novel?

Dear Editor | Can I Use Flashbacks in My Novel?

I’ve recently worked on a couple of novels that used a lot of flashbacks to “show” the character backstory to the reader. This got me thinking: are flashbacks a good way of sharing backstory?

Should authors flashbacks?

I’ve talked about backstory before, about the need to keep backstory to the back of the story, or to marble it in to the present story. I’ve also talked about showing, not telling (and why it’s not a good idea), and how to identify telling.

Tip: sharing backstory is generally telling.

Some authors know this, so they use a flashback as a way of showing the character’s backstory. But flashbacks aren’t always the best approach either.

So can authors use flashbacks in their novels?

Sometimes.

But only when a flashback is the best way to share backstory. And only when that backstory needs to be shared.

In Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Nancy Kress gives two reasons you might consider including backstory:

  • If the character history is so complex that the only way it can be portrayed is through backstory.
  • If the backstory itself is so funny or eventful that it will fascinate readers.

In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends writing in full the key scenes which have turned your character into the person they are at the beginning of your story. I suspect this is one of the dangers of using the Story Genius method: writers are tempted to include these backstory scenes as flashbacks, because they have written them and because Lisa Cron says:

… many of these scenes will appear in snippets and flashbacks in the novel itself.

However, she also says the scenes themselves aren’t included in the final novel. Information from them might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks points out the danger in the Story Genius approach:

There is a risk if you choose to craft a detailed backstory ahead of time. By writing and investing a lot of energy in a backstory, you’ll be tempted to use too much of it.

I think this is the trap many new authors fall into with flashbacks.

They’ve written the scenes and want to share the information. Scenes are showing, not telling, so it must be okay. Right? Wrong. Flashback scenes aren’t necessarily the best way of showing this information.

In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Brown and Dave King say:

Flashbacks are not recommended, as it brings the story to a halt, which can make the present-time story hard to follow.

Valerie Parv agrees, in The Art of Romance Writing:

Flashbacks are risky. The essence of good storytelling is to make the reader want to know what happens next, so an excursion into the past can slow down the story.

Sol Stein asks the following questions about flashbacks:

  • Does the flashback reinforce the story in an important way?
  • Is it absolutely essential?
  • Can the reader see what’s happening in your flashback?
  • Is the opening immediately interesting or compelling?
  • Is the reader’s experience of the story enhanced by the flashback?
  • Has the flashback helped the reader feel what the character feels?
  • Is there any way of getting the background information across without resorting to a flashback?

How do your flashbacks rate against Stein’s questions?

If your flashbacks fail Stein’s test, then you probably don’t need flashbacks. But you might still need to include some or all of that information, to provide your readers with the backstory they do need to know to best understand the present story.

Backstory, flashbacks, and back flashes: what are they, and which is right for your novel? #WriteTip #WritersLife Click To Tweet

In Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, James Scott Bell talks about marbling backstory into the novel. He also suggests using a back flash rather than a flashback:

Back flashes are short burst in which you drop information about the past within a present moment scene. The two primary methods are dialogue and thoughts.

If you have to use flashbacks, then:

  • Ensure the flashback is motivated by something in the present (e.g. going swimming could trigger a flashback about swimming as a child).
  • End the flashback by coming back to the initial trigger.
  • Ensure the flashback has a direct impact on the events in the present.
  • Only use a flashback when you can’t use a back flash (i.e. marble in the backstory).
  • Include the flashback as part of a sequel, not a scene. Scenes are about action, and even flashbacks which are shown, not told, are inaction—they are the character remembering a past event.
Should you use flashbacks in your novel? Here are five tips to writing a great flashback. #WriteTip #Flashback Click To Tweet

We expect scenes to have action. Interrupting an action scene to deliver a five-page flashback (however exciting) is as annoying as interrupting a scene to deliver a five-page info dump or five pages of barely relevant interior monologue.

Instead, include the flashback (or interior monologue) in a sequel, a quiet time where it’s believable that the character is reminiscing about past events and their effect on the present.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by scene and sequel, read Plot: Scene, Sequel and Summary).

Also, don’t begin with a flashback. Readers need to care about the character in the present before we can care about them in the past. The one exception to this is starting with a Prologue—in which case the question becomes whether you need a Prologue, or whether than information can better be shared as part of a scene or sequel.

Flashbacks can be perfectly good writing. But they must be used with care.

If they’re not necessary to move the story forward, then they should go. Remember, kill those darlings!

12 More Popular Romance Tropes

12 More Popular Romance Tropes

Last week, I introduced the concept of tropes, and discussed ten popular romance tropes.

Today I’m introducing more popular romance tropes, and giving some examples.

Best Friend’s Sibling

The hero falls for his best friend’s (usually younger) sister, or the heroine falls for her best friend’s (usually older) brother.

This is similar to the Friends to Lovers trope, as the hero and heroine usually have a preexisting relationship through the best friend/sibling. The two often get together after one returns to their hometown (e.g. during an illness, after the death of a family member, after a relationship or marriage breakup, or after serving in the armed forces).

Ugly Duckling

The unattractive heroine finds true love after undergoing a makeover and emerging as a physical beauty.

This can be a difficult trope to make work as a writer, especially as a Christian writer. Readers don’t want to read about a hero who is so shallow that he isn’t interested in the heroine except for her looks, which means the hero needs to see and want a relationship with the heroine even before her transformation.

While the Ugly Duckling is usually the heroine, the story could be twisted so the hero gets the makeover, as in the show Beauty and the Geek. However, the same challenges still stand: readers are not going to relate to a heroine who doesn’t value the inner man.

Other Man/Other Woman

This is similar to the Love Triangle. The hero and heroine meet and start a relationship, which is disrupted by the reapperance of an ex. This could be an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, an ex-fiance, or an ex-spouse. The ex makes it clear they want to get back together, which often scares off the current partner. The main character has to chase off the ex and convince their new love that the ex is history.

The challenge with this trope is similar to that of the Love Triangle: if the OM/OW is a likeable character, then some readers will want them to get back together. But if the OM/OW isn’t likeable, the readers wonder why they got together in the first place and question the judgement of the heroine/hero for ever being with that person (especially as the OM/OW often ends up being a cheater, drug addict, or other miscreant).

Example: Central to Nowhere by DJ Blackmore

(One tip I’ve heard for authors writing Other Woman: don’t make her completely unlikeable, because your readers and publisher might decide she needs to be the heroine in your next book.)

Marriage of Convenience

The hero and heroine agree to marry out of necessity, then fall in love. This is a common trope in historical fiction, where it can be that the couple are brought together by tragic circumstance (e.g. a widower wants a mother for his children) or forced together by awkward circumstances and cultural norms (e.g. in Victorian times, couples who spent time alone together without a suitable chaperone were often forced to marry to protect her reputation. Or, at least, that’s what fiction would have us believe).

Example: Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke

Secret Romance

The hero and heroine meet and start a relationship, but keep it secret from friends and family for some reason. This isn’t such a popular trope in Christian romance, probably because Christian readers don’t like to see characters lying to each other or to their family and friends without good reason.

Example: Romeo and Juliet

Love at First Sight

The hero and heroine meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. In real life, some people believe in love at first sight, but others say it’s not possible: that love is a choice, or that love grows as two people develop their relationship. They say love at first sight is attraction at best (and more likely lust), as we can’t truly love someone we don’t know. As such, Love at First Sight has to be managed carefully in Christian romance.

Reunited Lovers

A couple are separated by forces outside their control—overbearing parents, an accident, a war. In some historical romances, one character travels (e.g. to America), promising to send for the other but something goes wrong. Anyway, the two meet again, years later, and have the opportunity to rekindle their relationship.

Trapped

Two strangers are trapped together in an elevator or a snowstorm (or anything that forces the hero and heroine to spend time together with no interruptions). They form a relationship, continue that relationship after they are rescued, and live happily ever after.

Example: Danger in the Shadows by Dee Henderson

Mail Order Bride

Mail order bride stories are typically set in the American West, between 1870 and 1900. Women were scarce, so men would advertise for brides, correspond with them, then pay their train fares from some eastern city to the West. As such, it’s a marriage of two almost-strangers in the nineteenth century of online dating.

Example: Escape to the West series by Nerys Leigh

Opposites Attract

Two people who appear to be polar opposites are attracted to each other, and have to work out if their relationship can overcome their differences. This is a popular trope, as opposites give instant conflict … which means plenty of external tension.

Example: Then There Was You by Kara Isaac

Bad Girl/Boy

The “good” character (often the heroine) is attracted to someone her parents or friends consider to be an inappropriate choice—the “bad boy”. This gives two levels of conflict—the hero may have to convince the heroine he’s “good enough” (or vice versa), and they both have to convince others that their relationship can succeed despite their differences.

Example: The Masterpiece by Francine Rivers

Soul Mate

The hero and heroine are destined to be together by fate/the gods/some other external and usually supernatural force. If either the hero or heroine is in any other relationship, it is destined to fail. The Soul Mate trope is common in urban fiction or paranormal romance, where it seems that all good werewolves and many other werebeings readily accept that they are somehow supernaturally linked to one other being.

This is an uncommon trope in Christian fiction, perhaps because it shows a preference for predestination vs. free will, and modern Christian fiction tends to avoid such theological questions.

Conclusion

The advantage of using tropes is that readers are familiar with them and often have favourite tropes they will read over and over. The disadvantage of using tropes is that readers are familiar with them, and can become bored because the trope is too predictable.

One solution to this problem is to twist tropes (e.g. have a male Ugly Duckling), or use multiple tropes. Many of the tropes do work well together. For example, a Fake Romance may be coupled with a Belated Epiphany, where the fake relationship comes to an agreed end, then one main character realises s/he actually does love the other.

Can you think of any romance tropes I’ve missed? What’s your favourite romance trope?

10 Popular Romance Tropes

10 Popular Romance Tropes (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

Most genre fiction uses some kind of trope as a shorthand way to hook a potential reader. So what is a trope?

What is a Trope?

Tropes are plot devices, characters, images, or themes that are incorporated so frequently in a genre that they’re seen as conventional. (Source: Reedsy)

Many genres have tropes. For example, consider any Star Wars movie. They all use The Chosen One trope—a main character with some kind of natural advantage that enables them to defeat their foe. Annikin Skywalker has The Force. Luke Skywalker has The Force. Rei (not Skywalker … yet) has The Force. And that enables them to defeat the evil around them. Okay, so Annikin then joins the forces of evil, but that sets up Rogue One and the second (first?) trilogy of movies.

And we’re still waiting for the end of Rae’s story, but that’s another trope: Good Defeats Evil (even in the face of unbelieable odds).

What is a romance novel?

A romance has to end with an “emotionally satisfying ending”. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a romance (according to Romance Writers of America, and romance readers everywhere). Most readers take this to mean a “happy ever after” (HEA) ending, although some general romances will have a less final “happy for now” (HFN) ending.

Below, I’ve listed some of the common romance tropes along with a brief definition.

Note that in Christian fiction, any reference to “lovers” is meant in the Victorian sense, not the modern sense! Also, Christian romance is always hero and heroine, and it’s implied that the “happy ever after” ending is “will you marry me”, not “do you want to move in with me and my teenager and our new puppy” (which sounds to me more like live-in unpaid housekeeper than forever love).

Yes, some Christian romances have a “happy for now” ending, but those tend to be stories where the hero and heroine hadn’t met before the story started, and which take place over a short space of time (days or weeks). In these cases, it’s not reasonable to expect the couple to be ready to make a lifelong committment, although the implication is that’s where the relationship is headed.

So what are some popular romance tropes?

Friends to Lovers

The hero and heroine are long-time friends, but come to realise their feelings are more than mere friendship. The challenge with this story is that one or both of the main characters wants to take the relationship to the next level but is afraid to make the first move because they’re afraid of ruining a good friendship.

This is one of my favourite tropes, both because it represents my own journey and because I think it’s important that marriages are built on a base of friendship and respect, not attraction and lust. This is especially true in Christian romance, where readers expect the characters to model Biblical values.

Example: True Devotion by Dee Henderson

Enemies to Lovers

The hero and heroine already know each other, but don’t like each other. Those reasons seem rational at first, but as the couple get to know each other, they realise they had a false impression of the other person. These stories don’t have the awkward “do I make a move and risk ruining a friendship?” question, because their is no friendship to lose. As such, they are often fun stories … especially as the reader knows the couple are destined to be together long before they work it out.

Example: Maybe It’s You by Christy Hayes

Unrequited Love

This is similar to the Friends to Lover trope in that the hero and heroine are long-time friends. The difference is that one has been in love with the other for a long time—often years. The story centres around the lover’s uncertainty over whether to tell the friend or not, and the friend’s slow journey to realising they see the lover as something more than a friend.

These stories can often be bittersweet, as one perfectly nice character has had to watch the person they love date other people, and sometimes even get married.

Example: Sweet on You by Becky Wade

Fake Romance

Two people fake a romance to satisfy some external plot point e.g. a character wants a date to a family function. The couple spend more and more time together, and eventually realise they love each other. This can be complicated when one or more of their family/friends knew it was a fake romance, so the couple then have to convince the unbelievers that their relationship is for real.

Example: I’m sure I’ve read books with this trope, but can I remember any? No. Can you?

Love Triangle

One main character is forced to choose between two possible partners. This can go two ways:

  • The main character has to choose between two wonderful people (so a perfectly nice character ends up getting hurt).
  • The main character thinks they’re in love with A (or is in an existing relationship with A), but is also attracted to B (who is much nicer than A).

The problem with the love triangle is that if you’re not careful, half your audience will be convinced the story ends with the wrong couple getting together.

Examples: Last Summer by Brandy Bruce

Forbidden Love

The hero and heroine meet and fall for each other, only to find there is some external reason why they can’t be together. This could be a family feud, religious differences, or racial differences (especially in historical fiction, where there were often laws prohibiting interracial marriage).

Note that Christian romance readers expect the hero and heroine to both be Christians, so a romance between a Christian and a non-Christian would fall into this category, and readers would expect the non-Christian to have become a Christian before the end of the story.

Example: Romeo and Juliet

Secret Royal/Billionaire/Star

A regular member of the public meets and falls for a member of royalty, a billionaire, or a famous actor or sportsperson without knowing who they are. The Secret person likes being treated as a person instead of as a title/wallet, and the two start a relationship. There is the inevitable dustup when the regular Joe/Joelene finds out their partner’s true identity before they can get their happy-ever-after ending.

It used to be secret millionaire, but a million dollars doesn’t sound as impressive as it used to!

Example: Managing the Rock Star by Emma St Clair

Secret Baby

A woman falls pregnant but never tells the father that she’s had his baby, usually because they are somehow separated and she never gets the chance. Months or years later, they meet again and the father works out his ex had his baby and never told him.

I went through a phase of reading and enjoying secret baby romances, but then the improvements in technology and social media made it harder to believe that the woman couldn’t tell the father she’d had his baby. This meant she hadn’t, which meant she had to have a good reason for not telling him … and many didn’t.

Example: Return to Baragula by Mary Hawkins

Belated Love Epiphany

One main character realises they love the other after the other character has left the city or country (who left because they realised they were the victim of Unrequited Love). This epiphany is followed by the late-to-the-party main character chasing the other through the airport or across the world to declare their love.

Example: Close to You by Kara Isaac

Second Chance Romance

A couple break up for actual reasons (as opposed to being separated for reasons beyond their control), then meet again months or years later, discover they still have feelings for each other, and try to rekindle their relationship. This usually means they have to work through whatever obstacles prompted them to break up in the first place … and sometimes some new obstacles as well.

Example: Sweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter

Conclusion

So there you have ten popular romance tropes. I’ll be back next week with more. What are your favourite—or least favourite—tropes in your favourite genre?

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant.

We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

The Christian Writers Code: Applying Philippians 4:8 to Christian Fiction

Chawna Schroeder Shares The Christian Writers Code

I’m a member of American Christian Fiction writers.

I’m not sure if it’s the biggest organisation for Christian writers, but it’s certainly one of the biggest. And it’s not just Americans, despite the name. One of the benefits of ACFW membership is a free monthly online training course covering some aspect of writing, publishing, or marketing. One course that stood out to me was The Writer’s Code, run by Chawna Schroeder.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the title, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking courses I’ve taken (or lurked in). Chawna started by saying:

Craft - how we tell a story - is only half the equation. The content of our stories is equally important. - Chawna Schroeder

This is especially true for us as Christian writers, as Chawna went on to demonstrate using the standard set in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

This is what Chawna has dubbed The Writer’s Code: the eight qualities of Philippians 4:8. I think it also provides a solid basis for considering what is Christian fiction … and what isn’t.

The Writer's Code: the eight qualities of Philippians 4:8 adapted for the Christian writer by Chawna Shroeder #ChristianFiction #ChristianWriter Click To Tweet

Whatever is True

Our writing needs to reflect truth—a conformance to reality. This includes the truths of historical fact, scientific principle, moral law, and human nature. As writers, we can bend historical fact or scientific principle if it benefits the story and depending on the genre (e.g. science fiction or fantasy). What we can’t or shouldn’t do is bend the truth to deceive readers. But bending the truths of human nature can mean we’re writing unrealistic situations.

Whatever is Noble

We need to write about noble heroes and heroines (the antagonists don’t have to be noble). Characters who know right from wrong and live accordingly, who treat others with respect, and who don’t manipulate or deceive others. I would agree this is where our main character needs to be at the end of the novel, but great fiction shows a change in character—such as becoming a more noble person.

She also points out that we should handle difficult situations in a noble manner: we don’t need to graphically show everything. Sometimes the noble choice is to fade to black.

As Christian writers, we should handle difficult situations in a noble manner: we don't need to graphically show everything. Sometimes the noble choice is to fade to black. @ChawnaSchroeder #ChristianFiction Click To Tweet

Whatever is Right(eous)

This means writing stories which conform to the Bible and reflect the standards of God, the character of God, and the will of God. For me, this is what sets true Christian fiction apart from fiction written by Christians—the Godly themes and messages. This doesn’t mean only showing characters doing right: that’s going to become boring and preachy. And it goes against the first rule, writing what is true. People are not perfect, so our characters shouldn’t be either.

Whatever is Pure

Purity is freedom from contamination—we should show good as praiseworthy, and evil as something to be avoided or overcome. Chawna also addresses the nature of “clean” fiction, and points out that human standards of what is “clean” change, but God’s standards of what is pure do not. Guess which one we should be aiming for?

Chawna also points out, rightly, that a pure book which reflects God’s truth may have some less-than-savoury elements, while many “clean” books reject the existence of God.

Whatever is Lovely

Yes, we need to pursue loveliness in writing! People appreciate beautiful writing, so add vivid description, use rhetorical devices, add cadence, add variety—anything to engage our reader’s emotions, evoke sympathy and compassion, and perhaps even inspire our readers to change and become better people.

Whatever is Admirable (of good repute)

This quality is about us as authors (and people) as well as about the content we create. Chawna points out that we gain our reputations through association, consistency, and by being memorable.

What she calls reputation by association I call author brand. We all have a brand, and we manage and develop that brand by carefully considering how we are seen online and in the marketplace, and through acting that way consistently (we don’t need to share everything, and we certainly shouldn’t overshare).

Chawna also encourages us to be memorable by seeking excellence, not settling for mediocrity … which leads us nicely onto the next point.

If Anything is Excellent

Chawna challenges us not to write with a “good enough” attitude:

Rather than striving to make every word count, rather than polishing our stories to our fullest ability, rather than digging deeper, we settle for the minimum to gain what we desire. We make our novels good enough to snag an agent, good enough to publish, good enough to win that coveted award … Excellence is never satisfied with “good enough”.

She also uses this commandment to address the spiritual aspects of our writing:

How often do we stop with just proclaiming the simple truth rather than delving into its rich depths in a way that helps our readers not merely know the truth but understand it and even experience it through the lives of our characters?

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Yes. Pursue excellence.

If Anything is Praiseworthy

Praiseworthy has two meanings: earning praise from God, and earning praise for God. Chawna suggests writing with God as co-creator rather than writing for him. And seek to glorify God with our writing. I think this goes back to the previous point of seeking excellence. We do not glorify God by publishing a “good enough” novel. The readers will see it, and the reviews will reflect it.

Chawna finishes with a Writer’s Pledge, which she has given me permission to share:

I, ______________________________________, hereby pledge I will learn more and more to create stories which are worth thinking about, conforming to the qualities listed in Philippians 4:8, stories which:

  • Conform to reality in historical fact, scientific principle, moral law and human nature (true);
  • Offer noble characters, handle serious matters with respect, and deal with ignoble characters/matters appropriately (noble);
  • Reflect the standards of God, the character of God, and the will of God (right);
  • Offer characters worth imitating, portray sin/evil for what they are, portray God for who He is, show the consequences of actions (positive & negative), and employ the power of suggestion when appropriate (pure);
  • Please the senses and move the reader’s heart toward love (lovely);
  • Promote a good reputation through appropriate associations, consistency, and being memorable (admirable);
  • Go beyond the status quo and pure entertainment and are the very best I can produce with the time and ability God gives at any point (excellent);
  • Earn commendation from God, and most of all, glorify Him (praiseworthy).

What do you think?

You can find Chawna Schroeder online at her website (www.chawnaschroeder.com), blog (www.chawanschroeder.blogspot.com), and on Facebook.
9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

I regularly see social media posts from aspiring fiction authors looking for tips on writing their first novel. But there is more to writing than just writing. At least, according to Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot - Stephen King

I’ve been reading Christian fiction for over twenty years.

I’ve seen trends come and trends go, which means I’ve got a good feel for the genre and have learned what publishers buy.

And I’ve been working as a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction for the last seven years, which means I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts, good and bad, and have learned something about the craft of writing from each one. I’ve attended conferences featuring speakers such as James Scott Bell, Michael Hauge, and Damon Suede. I’ve undertaken online training courses from the Christian PEN, Author Accelerator, and Lawson Writer’s Academy, and I’ve completed a hands-on immersion course with international speaker and writing coach Margie Lawson.

I’ve also read dozens of books on writing craft and dozens more books on book marketing. Each has contributed to my understanding of how to write, edit, publish and market books in this new world. A world where aspiring authors don’t need an agent and a big-name publisher. A world where authors can self-publish without the stigma of ‘vanity’ publishing.

I’ve learned a thing or two.

So here are my nine keys to writing your first novel. Or your tenth.

1. Understand Genre

Publishers publish by genre, booksellers organise their stores by genre, and readers read by genre. Your book has a better chance of succeeding if you understand what genre it is, and meet the expectations of readers of that genre. For example, a romance novel has to have a happy ending in which the hero and heroine are together. If he dies at the end, it’s not a romance novel.

Yes, authors do can do genre mashups (Amish Vampires in Space springs to mind), but even that adheres to the expectations of each of the constituent genres (I think. I don’t read vampire novels, so don’t know how it stacks up against them).

Understand your genre, and write to the norms of that genre.

2. Write What You Love

If you love trashy romance, write romance novels. Don’t write highbrow literary fiction with beautiful language but where nothing much happens. Don’t write gung-ho action adventure novels in which the hero fights his way through innumerable blockages in order to reach his goal and get the girl. Conversely, if you read literary fiction, don’t write Amish romance because someone tells you that’s what sells.

Write what you love for two reasons. If you’re writing in a genre you love to read, you’ll know the conventions of the genre and what the reader is looking for. And your writing will flow better because it’s something you want to write (unlike so many of those creative writing assignments in school).

3. Read what you write

Read in your genre. Read outside your genre.

Read old books. Read new books.

Read novels which have won awards, and try to work out why they won. Read award-winning novels as judged by industry professionals (e.g. the Christy Awards), by writers (e.g. the Carol Awards) and by readers (e.g. the INSPY Awards). Read the Christian novels I review on my author website.

4. Study the Big Picture

The big picture element of writing is the relationship between plot and story and structure and characterisation. Most craft books focus on one or two of these aspects, but the more I read, the more I come to believe that you can’t look at any one of these in isolation. They all need to be considered as you’re writing your first novel.

Here are some books I recommend which examine these big picture elements:

5. Study the Technical Craft of Fiction

You also need to understand the basics of modern fiction. Yes, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were great writers, and you can look to them for insight into the big picture elements. But don’t try and emulate the way they wrote.

Novel writing has changed a lot in the two hundred years since Austen was first published. Writing your first novel in Jane Austen’s style won’t win you many fans. Even novels from the 1990’s might be too old-fashioned in terms of style to be of benefit in terms of their technical writing craft. (Although they will still be of benefit in terms of the big picture elements.)

The modern writer needs to understand:

  • Point of View
  • Showing not telling
  • Scene and sequel

For advice on these issues, try:

6. Understand the Mechanics of English

There is no point in knowing how to craft a great novel if you don’t have the technical writing skills to get it on the page so people can read and understand it. Christian editor (and founder of The Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network) Kathy Ide calls this the PUGS: Punctuation, (word) Usage, Grammar and Spelling. There is nothing worse than picking up a novel which is hard to read because the author doesn’t understand how to order words in a sentence for maximum reader impact.

For advice on actual writing, I recommend:

7. Join a Community

You’ll learn as much from your fellow writers as you will from books, so join a community of writers. This could be online (e.g. Facebook groups such as Australasian Christian Writers). It could be a formal organisation (e.g. Romance Writers of America or Australia or New Zealand, American Christian Fiction Writers or Omega Writers or New Zealand Christian Writers). It could be a Christian group or a general market group. It could be for fiction writers or all writers. Just find a group, join it, participate, and learn.

8. Write

You can study too much. It was true when Ecclesiastes was written and it is true today. Study, but ensure you get words down on paper as well. Or get pixels on a computer screen.

9. Learn to Self-Edit

Yes, I’m a freelance editor so you’d think I’d have a vested interest in people not editing their own work, to give me more to do. But correcting simple mistakes the author could have corrected for themselves isn’t much fun, and means I might get too focussed on correcting commas and hyphens at the expense of more fundamental questions of plot and style. And anyway, the cleaner the manuscript in terms of writing mechanics, the cheaper the edit.

Tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can help with the most technical side of this self-editing, identifying things like passive voice and overused words and commonly misused words.

But you need a human to pick up that your heroine’s hair colour changes three times without her ever visiting a hairdresser, or that there is headhopping in Chapter Four or that you have a nasty habit of structuring every sentence the same or that your mute minor character actually had a couple of lines before she miraculously started talking again.

For advice on how to self-edit your novel, I recommend:

Do you have any questions about writing? Ask in the comments.

Finally …

This is my last post for 2018. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family, and will be back on Wednesday 9 January. I wish you all the best for a blessed Christmas and a happy and productive 2019!

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character have to be Likeable?

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character Have to be Likeable?

I often see writers discussing whether their characters have to be likeable. Obviously not all characters have to be likeable: the role of the antagonist is often to be unlikeable. But what about our main character? Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice?

Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice? Click To Tweet

In my manuscript assessments, I often refer to James Scot Bell’s LOCK elements of a novel. It says that in order to fulfill reader expectations, every plot has to have:

  • Lead
  • Opposition
  • Conflict
  • Knockout

The Lead has to be a character readers can bond with, and there are four ways writers can create this bond. The Lead needs to be a character we can identify with, someone we care about, someone who is likeable, and someone facing an emotional struggle.

But does the Lead have to be likeable?

Not necessarily. Michael Hague says writers (and screenwriters) need to create characters readers can engage with emotionally, and creating a likeable character is one way to achieve that aim. But characters don’t have to be likeable if they have other qualities that will engage the reader (or viewer). For instance, a character could be someone we feel sympathy for, or someone who we worry about because they are facing some kind of physical, financial, or emotional threat.

Bell agrees. He says:

Not all Leads are likeable, of course. When rendering a negative Lead (someone who does things we don’t like), substitute power. Characters who have power over their world and other characters—because of charm, intelligence, or competence in their field—fascinate.

Hague agrees:

Powerful heroes hold a fascination for an audience and elicit empathy on an almost fantasy level.

Hague cites four forms of power:

  • Power over other people
  • Power to do what needs to be done
  • Power to express one’s feelings
  • Superpowers

Well, I guess that explains Lex Luthor, The Joker, and other cartoon evildoers. They might not be likeable … but there is something compelling, something fascinating, about even the most unlikeable characters. The same could be said for popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.

So, no, your characters don’t have to be likeable. They can be crazed, power-hungry megalomaniacs.

But does this mean you can make your main character unlikeable?

That depends on your genre and target reader.

I read a lot of romance, and I believe romance demands likeable characters.

There are two essential factors in a a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America):

  • The novel must focus on a central love story.
  • The novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a happy-ever-after ending).

I find that I have to like both the hero and the heroine in order to believe in that central love story, and to want the characters to have that required happy-ever-after ending. Give me two likeable characters, even characters who appear to be polar opposites, and I’ll be wanting them to get together from the moment they meet.

But give me a whining female lead, and I wonder what the hero sees in her. The same for stupid women—I like my heroines to be intelligent. I don’t do lazy. Or angry, or focusing on career over family and relationships (that’s a valid life choice for some women. But not women who want to be heroines in romance novels).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an equal opportunity hater. I also don’t like whining men (yeah, yeah. Men don’t whine. Except when they do). I don’t like stupid men, lazy men, or men with anger issues, or men who are focused on their careers more than their families and relationships.

Male characters like that make me wonder why the female is pursuing him. Grow some self-respect, ditch this guy, and find a good Christian man who values you for who you are. Yes, it’s so much easier to make these judgments with fictional characters than in real life.

Of course, if neither character is likeable, then I’m inclined to think they deserve each other and abandon the book.

So in romance novels, I insist on likeable characters.

What about other genres?

Likeability might matter less in genres where the focus is less on the likeability of the main character and more on his or her skills.

For example, in a legal thriller, we want to see a competent lawyer, someone who will use his or her legal skills to best the evildoer in court. The same often holds true in other suspense genres: medical thriller (think of the TV show, House), thrillers, or police procedurals. We’re less concerned with whether the main character is likeable in the traditional sense, and more with whether justice will be served through the action of the (unlikeable) main character.

Likeability takes second place to ability.

We can respect a competent main character even if they aren’t necessarily likeable.

But there are limits. I remember reading one speculative thriller, the first in a series of four. I gave up about halfway through the first book when I realised the too-stupid-to-live character wasn’t going to die a fast, horrible death. No. She was being set up to be the main character across the whole series.

I prefer to read about characters who are likeable. I also like to read novels with a low body count, and where it’s easy to tell the goodies from the evildoers. But that is more a reflection of my personal reading preferences rather than a you-must-create-likeable-characters rule.

It might also be that many writers choose to create a likeable character who we feel sympathy towards because she is facing some kind of threat—ticking all three of Hauge’s boxes, and all four of Bell’s elements. It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that’s what sells.

Do our characters have to be likeable? It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that's what sells #WriteTip Click To Tweet

What do you think? Do you prefer to read about likeable characters? What exceptions can you think of?

Dear Editor - How long should my novel be? Word Count in fiction

Dear Editor | How Long Should my Novel Be?

How long should a novel be? This is a common question from first-time authors. Unfortunately, the answer is often vague: it depends.

First, let’s discuss the way we measure the length of a novel.

It was too difficult to count words in the days before word processors with an automatic word count feature, so manuscript length was measured in pages. One page, typed double-spaced and with a ½ inch (1.27cm) indent at the beginning of each paragraph was counted as 250 words. A writer aiming to write 1,000 words a day would therefore write around four pages, and a novel was somewhere between 300 and 400 pages.

The same holds true today: the novels you see in the bookstore or library are usually somewhere between 300 and 400 pages, which is approximately 75,000 to 100,000 words.

What If my Word Count is Shorter?

Sure, some novels are shorter than 75,000 words, depending on genre and the target age of the reader. But if we’re talking about a novel written for adults, then a shorter manuscript might not be classified as a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America classifies Nebula Award submissions into four categories based on word count:

  • Short story: under 7,500
  • Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500
  • Novella: between 17,500 and 40,000
  • Novel: over 40,000

American Christian Fiction Writers classify a novella as between 15,000 and 45,000 words, and a short novel as 45,000 to 70,000 words. Short novels are often category romance (see below). Publishers rarely publish a novella as a stand-alone story, but they may be published as part of a collection, or as the introduction to a new series.

Stories can go shorter: flash fiction (the kind often included in magazines) is between 100 and 1,000 words. And a story that is exactly 100 words long is a drabble.

What If my Word Count is Longer?

Manuscripts can go longer. Novels over 110,000 words are generally classed as epics or sagas, and are usually from well-known authors such as George RR Martin or JK Rowling. Publishers are more likely to take a risk on a long novel from an author with a track history of solid sales. Having a novel that is part of a series may help, as the publisher knows they will get some sell-through sales.

But consider: does the novel need to be this long?

A high word count may mean the author needs to do more editing. Or it may be a factor of genre. Or it may be that the author didn’t realize publishers (and readers) do have expectations around word count.

If you have a longer novel, make sure you are telling more story, not just adding more words. Many of the 450-page novels I read could have told the story more effectively using fewer words. Their stories could have benefited from stronger editing.

Word Count Depends on Genre

Certain genres require more words. Science fiction and fantasy novels often require a large amount of worldbuilding—introducing the reader to the world the author has created, introducing the people which inhabit the world and their cultures and customs, and (sometimes) explaining the science and technology. This information must be shown, not told, and showing almost always takes more words than telling.

Historical fiction also requires a degree of worldbuilding to bring the reader into the setting—and the further removed that time and place is from our own, the more information the author is going to have to give the reader in order to immerse the reader in the setting. Again, this information must be shown, not told.

In contrast, a contemporary romance or mystery novel requires less in the way of explaining the setting. Readers live in the modern world, and we don’t need to be shown what an iPhone is or does. Equally, familiar historical settings (e.g. Regency England or Civil War America) need little introduction. Readers often know these settings as well as or better than the authors.

Typical word counts for common genres are:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired): 55,000 to 60,000 words)
  • Cozy mystery: 65,000 to 90,000 words
  • Crime: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000 words
  • Historical fiction: 80,000 to 110,000 words
  • Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Romance: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Rom-com: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Science Fiction: 90,000 to 110,000 words
  • Suspense: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Thriller: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Women’s fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 words

For more information, check out:

Word Count Depends on Target Age

Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than adult novels, so between 45,000 and 70,000 words, but the word count is flexible (especially in science fiction or fantasy).

Middle Grade can be anything from 20,000 to 50,000 words or more, but average around 35,000 words. For lower middle grade readers (ages 7 to 10), aim for the lower end of this range. You can go higher for upper middle grade.

Picture books for children are almost always 32 pages and around 500 words.

What Do I Do if my Book is Too Long?

Edit.

In On Writing, Stephen King advises that authors should cut around 10% of their word count in their second revision, as this will make the writing tighter and improve pace. I find I have no trouble cutting 10% of the word count in many novels I edit. If this thought scares you, here are some books which might help:

But this assumes the basic structure of your novel is sound. Reedsy says:

Most of the time, an overly long word count is a symptom of major plot or pacing problems in a novel — issues that need to be solved during the revision process.

A manuscript assessment is a great way to identify major plot or pacing problems. Or work with a critique partner or beta reader. They can help you identify plot or pacing issues that could reduce the word count.

Publishing

If you’re planning to submit to a traditional publisher, then it’s in your best interest to ensure your word count is consistent with publisher (and reader) expectations, which means abiding by the word counts above.

If you are planning to self-publish, then your word count could be shorter or longer than these guidelines. Yes, there are exceptions. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is 305,000 words. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is 240,000 words.

However, don’t plan on being the exception. As Chuck Sambuchino says at Writers Digest:

Aiming to be the exception is setting yourself up for disappointment.

A lot of self-published authors write short fiction—it’s quicker to write, which enables them to publish more books. Many authors self-publish longer books, because they can.

Whether you’re writing short, on target, or long, make sure your writing is top-notch. Be ruthless. Tighten your sentences. Cut anything that doesn’t advance the story or deepen characterization.

Don’t self-publish a bloated 150,000-word saga just because you can.

How long is your work-in-progress? Does your word count fit within these guidelines?

Dear Editor: Deity Pronouns - Should we Capitalize Pronouns Referring to God or Jesus?

Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Pronouns Referring to God or Jesus?

Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Deity Pronouns?

This question has recently been raised in one of the (many) Facebook groups I’m a member of. This group happened to be a Christian reader group, but it’s a question that seemingly flummoxes readers and writers alike.

Do we need to capitalize personal pronouns when referring to God?

Style manuals refer to pronouns such as He, His, Him, and Your when referring to God as deity pronouns.

I was taught that we capitalize deity pronouns as a matter of respect and honour (dubious, as I’ll show below). I was also taught that we use double quotation marks for speech (still true), single quotation marks for speech (now considered dated), and to add a comma where I’d add a pause if reading aloud (not true, and a topic probably best left for another blog post).

The Facebook group’s answers unhelpfully ranged from “Yes, always” to “No, never” with a healthy sprinkling of “Sometimes” and “It depends”. Several respondents based their answers based on the practice in their Bibles … which were equally inconsistent (for those who are interested, compare the New International Version with the New American Standard Bible).

Surely there is an answer. That’s why we have style guides!

What is a style guide?

Most publishers have a style guide: a set of rules governing how they treat a range of editing questions including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Editors will follow the guidelines of one (or more) of these style guides in editing or proofreading a manuscript and may also create a style sheet explaining the spelling or treatment of words specific to that manuscript to ensure correctness and consistency.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the two most commonly used style guides in the USA, with the other being AP (Associated Press). As a broad generalization, CMOS is more commonly used for fiction, and AP is more common in journalism. Non-fiction publishers may follow CMOS or may use a genre-specific style guide.

CMOS says (8.95):

Pronouns referring to God or Jesus are not capitalized unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise.

So that’s one vote for not capitalizing deity pronouns … but the author can decide.

The New Oxford Style Manual (NOSM)

The New Oxford Style Manual is one of the major UK style manuals and incorporates New Hart’s Rules (the UK equivalent of Elements of Style by Strunk & White). The NOSM (like CMOS) grew out of the need for the Oxford University Press to have a consistent view on style for their publishing business.

NOSM says (p97):

Use lower case for pronouns referring to God where the reference is clear, unless the author specifies otherwise.

That’s another vote for lowercasing deity pronouns unless the author prefers capitalization.

The Australian Style Manual (ASM)

The Style Manual is the official style manual used by the Australian government, as well as many Australian publishers and authors. New Zealand publishers may also use it, as although it’s not new (2002), it’s considerably newer than the local equivalent, which is 1995). It’s also shorter and easier to read than CMOS! ASM says (p127):

In the past, the capital letter assigned to God was often extended to the attendant pronouns … but this is now less common.

That’s a non-answer. We don’t want to know what’s common or uncommon. We want to know what’s right!

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (CWMS)

Zondervan (publishers of the New International Version of the Bible) recognize that the major style guides don’t address many of the style issues raised by those writing for a Christian audience, so they publish their own style guide (written by Robert Hudson). Many Christian publishers use CWMS, either alone or in conjunction with another style guide such as CMOS.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style says (p145):

Most publishers, religious and general, use the lowercase style … to conform to the two most popular versions of the Bible (the bestselling New International Version and the historically dominant King James Version).

That’s another vote for telling us what people do. Helpful. Not.

It might be worth pointing out that Zondervan publish the NIV. Zondervan are owned by HarperCollins, who also publish the New King James Version, which also lowercases these “deity pronouns”.

CWMS points out that (despite popular belief) we don’t capitalize as a way to show respect or honour. After all, we capitalize God and Satan, yet only one deserves our honour.

In addition, there is no true historical precedent for capitalizing. Capitalization became trendy when lots of Nouns were being Capitalized for Emphasis (a trend which rightly disturbed grammarians). William Tyndale (translator of one of the earliest English Bibles) didn’t consistently capitalize God, let alone He or Him (or he or him), and neither Hebrew nor Greek distinguishes between lowercase and capital letters the way English does, so the original Scriptures provide no guidance.

What CWMS does say is this:

[Capitalizing] gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of irrelevance to modern readers.

That’s worth thinking about—no one wants to their work to be considered dated or irrelevant.

A fiction author may therefore consider it appropriate to use He and Him in a historical novel. That may well the case, but the “rule” shouldn’t hold true for all historical fiction. It would appear odd for Jesus to refer to himself as “Me” in a biblical novel at the same time as his enemies were referring to him (Him?) as “You”.

CWMS goes on to point out that capitalization can be confusing for younger readers (who were never taught that deity pronouns should be capitalised). Also, using capitals could imply emphasis where none was intended.

Summary

Yes, the major style guides prefer that personal pronouns referring to God are not capitalized. But they also allow for author (or publisher) preference.

So if you (or your client) wants to capitalize He and Him, You and Your, then they can. My preference would be only to capitalize the pronouns referring to God in historical fiction where capitalization was consistent with the time setting (e.g. for novels set in Victorian England, but not Roman Israel).

The most important factor in any editing decision is consistency.

We can refer to Jesus as He or he, Him or him, but we must choose one and apply that style choice consistently. Neither He nor he is incorrect but using He and he is definitely wrong.

What do you think? Do you capitalize deity pronouns? Why or why not?