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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?

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 11

Step Six: What is your target word count?

The ‘sweet spot’ for a modern novel seems to be 90,000 words (which equates to around 300 pages), but there is variation by genre:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired): 55,000 to 60,000 words, but can be up to 75,000 words depending on the imprint (e.g. Love Inspired Historical);
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words;
  • Cozy mystery: 65,000 to 90,000 words;
  • Science Fiction: 90,000 to 110,000 words;
  • Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000 words;
  • Chick lit: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Mystery: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Thriller: 90,000 to 100,000 words
  • Crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words
  • Suspense: 90,000 to 100,000 words

These figures are taken from posts from publishing industry experts such as Rachelle Gardner, Chuck SambuchinoColleen Lindsay and Book Ends literary agents. However, a recent post by literary agent Chip MacGregor suggests many contemporary stand-alone novels are in the 70,000 to 80,000 word range, with some going up to 90,000 depending on the project and the publisher.

Historical novels tend to be a bit longer than contemporaries, as they are more likely to be epics or sagas (which are over 110,000 words). Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than adult novels, so between 45,000 and 80,000 words, although they can go up to 100,000 words. Middle Grade can be anything from 20,000 to 50,000 words or more, but average around 35,000 words.

There are always going to be exceptions. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, is 240,000 words. George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books are a similar length, but he had already published several standard-length novels, so had a track record of sales to build on. And if you are going for a longer novel, make sure you are telling more story, not just adding more words. The last two 450-page novels I read could have told the story more effectively using fewer words (and has turned one of those authors from a must-buy to a don’t-bother for me).

As a first-time author, the advice is always going to be to take as many words as you need to tell the story, but count on being the rule, not the exception, and keep within the general word count limits for your genre and target market.

Paper costs money, so the longer your book, the less likely a publisher will pick it up (or, should you choose to self-publish, the less likely you will be able to sell paperbacks profitably). Equally, don’t go too short. Readers get annoyed paying what they consider to be full price for an ebook only to find out it’s little longer than a short story.

For reference, anything shorter than 40,000 words isn’t a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards dictate that novellas are around 17,500 to 40,000 words, between 7,500 and 17,500 words is a novelette, and below 7,500 words is a short story. Between 100 and 1,000 words is flash fiction (the kind often included in magazines), and a story that is exactly 100 words long is a drabble. Really.

Calculating Word Count

In the distant past, before the invention of the word processor with the automatic word count, there used to be great debate about how to calculate word count. After all, no one actually wanted to count each and every word, so it was agreed that the average double-spaced typewritten page was 250 words (25 lines at an average of 10 words per line).

That formula worked on a typewriter or when using Courier font in a word processor, but now we have multiple fonts to annoy people with, all of which take up different amounts of space on the page. But it doesn’t matter. We have Microsoft Word and the automatic word count feature.

Older versions of Microsoft Word would calculate word count differently depending on the font: Word 2010 is more sophisticated and gives the same word count regardless of font. Is the word count correct? I don’t know, and I don’t much care. It’s not as though I (or anyone else) is actually going to count the individual words. The word count from Word is good enough unless your agent or publisher wants you to use a different method (in which case, listen to them).

A couple of hints: in Word 2010, an American ellipsis ( . . . ) is three words, while an Australian ellipsis (… using three full stops or … using Alt-0133) is only one word. And * * * in your scene breaks adds three words with each new scene. If your word count is getting too high, cut the pretty scene break markers.

How long is your book? What do you think of these guidelines?

This concludes my series on defining your market and genre. Next week we will starting a new series looking at point of view.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 10

Step Five: Is your novel a stand-alone or part of a series?

My personal opinion is that, where possible, authors should plan to write a series of books. This has advantages in both the writing and the marketing:

Research

You can utilise your research into time and place for more than one book, reducing average research time per book.

Characters

You can utilise characters in more than one book, which means you have a more complete characterisation for minor characters (as they will be major characters in another book in the series). This gives your reader a better sense that she knows your characters and can relate to them.

Publishers

Publishers like a series, because a successful first book provides a ready-made audience for subsequent books. Publishers often take advantage of this to include teasers for the next book in the series, whetting the appetite of the reader.

First Book Free

Many publishers (and self-publishers) will make the ebook edition of the first book in a series free or very cheap (say, 99 cents) to encourage readers to try an new author and hopefully purchase additional books in the series, or some of the author’s back list titles.

Additional Editions

A series also gives publishers (or self-publishers) the option of increasing the overall sales by producing a reduced-price series-in-1 volume after the publication of the final book in a trilogy.

The current trend in a romance series is for each book to focus on one couple, who get their Happy Ever After at the end of the book. Subsequent books will feature a different couple as the hero or heroine, but will include some scenes with the characters from previous books. A series may follow:

  • Siblings or family members (e.g. Kaye Dacus’s Brides of Bonneterre trilogy);
  • Close friends or work colleagues (e.g. Irene Hannon’s Heroes of Quantico trilogy);
  • A specific location (e.g. Gayle Roper’s Seaside series or Susan May Warren’s Deep Haven series);
    A common theme (e.g. DiAnn Mills’s Call of Duty series). This can be less popular with readers, as we don’t get to see any of the characters we have come to know in the earlier books;
  • A family through time (e.g. Gilbert Morris’s Wakefield Dynasty, Jack Cavanagh’s American Family Portrait, or Roseanna M White’s new Culper Ring series). Each successive book follows one member of the next generation through their defining moment. These are usually romances, in that the family member meets their future spouse, and one of the advantages is the ability to refer back to previous characters (generations) to give a sense of continuity. One of the disadvantages (from the point of view of the author) is that these series require a lot of research, as each book is set in a different time period.

The trilogy that takes three or more books to tell one story has fallen out of popularity, although authors such as Jamie Carie are still using this format. Personally, I don’t favour it as I don’t like cliffhanger endings, but it can be successful.

Not all series fall in the romance genre (although most do). Mysteries are often written in a series, with the focus of each novel on solving the mystery. Authors such as Mindy Starns Clark or Julianna Deering will include a romantic subplot that sees some movement in each story with a full resolution only at the end of the series.

How many books in a series?

Trilogies are the most popular, although some series will have four or more books. Other authors will set more than one series in the same character universe, which allows them to keep up with previous characters while focusing on a new set. Susan May Warren is currently trying this with her Christiansen series (set in the same location as her Deep Haven series), and Karen Kingsbury took it to a ridiculous extreme with the Baxter family: a total of twenty-three related books across the Redemption, Firstborn, Sunshine, Above the Line and Bailey Flannigan series.

Read in order or stand alone?

It can be very annoying for the reader to pick up the second or third book in a series and find it difficult because they don’t understand the backstory that was covered in previous novels. Equally, the reader who has faithfully followed the series doesn’t want to be drowned in repetitive backstory (see the Amazon reviews for Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury).

So does the reader have to read the books in order to get the full story, or can each novel function as a stand-alone story? Ideally, both. And this is the trick in writing a successful series: to include enough information about the previous novels to ensure the story is a well-rounded stand-alone novel, but still satisfy those series readers who want to know what has happened to their favourite characters.

Are you writing a stand-alone or a series? What advantages do you see in writing a stand-alone novel?

Next week we will discuss how understanding your genre will help you determine the ideal word count for your novel.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 8

Worldbuilding Genres

Many bookshops have a section called ‘Sci-fi/Fantasy’ or similar, which annoys writers because they see the genres as being quite separate—and they are. What these novels do have in common is the requirement for world-building: the ability of the author to create a credible imaginary world in which the story takes place. This includes developing the physical characteristics of the world (e.g. geography and ecology) as well as the history, culture and religion of the different people groups in the story.

AnomalyAfloatSneakFire ProphetSoul's GateThe 13: FallDigital WinterH2O the NovelSwipeSpirit FighterIllusion
 
The world might be a long time ago on a faraway planet (Star Wars), it might be a futuristic version of Earth (Star Trek), it might be post-apocalyptic Earth (The Hunger Games) or it might be contemporary Earth but featuring a sub-culture hidden from the rest of us (Harry Potter or Twilight). Each of these require a different type and level of worldbuilding.

This genre isn’t heavily represented in Christian fiction, although publishers like Marcher Lord Press and Splashdown Books specialise in what is generally referred to as speculative or visionary fiction. In Christian fiction, speculative or visionary fiction includes some aspect of the supernatural, and this may or may not be biblically accurate (which can cause problems). While speculative fiction might have a romantic sub-plot, the main plot is almost always an action plot.

 

Science Fiction

Usually set either on another planet or system (Star Wars), or featuring star-travelling humans in the distant future (Star Trek). Science fiction novels usually feature an adventure plot rather than a romance plot, although there are some exceptions. There is usually a heavy reliance on technology, but the key to a successful sci-fi novel is the same as for any other novel: plot, character and conflict.

There’s not a lot of Sci-fi the Christian market—Kathy Tyers is the only author I know who specialises in this genre, although Christian authors such as CS Lewis and Lynne Stringer write general market sci-fi from a Christian world view.

Fantasy

Fantasy usually has an Earth-likes etting. Where a science fiction novel depends on science and technology, a fantasy world often incorporates magical elements (e.g. Lord of the Rings), or mythical creatures (e.g. dwarves, elves and dragons). Technological advancement is often similar to medieval Europe. There are a lot of authors writing Christian fantasy, many of which feature an allegorical romance representing Christ’s love for the church.

Paranormal

Stories featuring vampires, werewolves and other shapeshifters, mermaids, zombies, witches, wizards, or humans with psychic abilities. Paranormal novels tend to be contemporary, and paranormal romance is especially popular. The author needs to define the ‘rules’ of their paranormal society and ensure that characters obey these rules (or face the consequences). There’s probably a little less world-building in a paranormal novel than other genres discussed here, because there are a number of long-standing genre conventions (e.g. Stephenie Meyer faced a lot of criticsm for her sparkly vampires).

Paranormal romance (PNR) has been rising in popularity in the general market over the last decade, but predominantly in the general market. It doesn’t usually fit with a Christian worldview. The only examples of PNR I’ve seen in the Christian market are novels like The Widow of Saunders Creek by Tracey Bateman (traditionally-published speculative fiction with a romantic element) or Barbara Ellen Brink’s self-published Amish Vampire series (which I haven’t read, so can’t really comment on their Christian element).

Dystopian

Stories set on some alternate version of a future Earth. Classic examples include The War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher, and The Running Man by Richard Bachmann (better known as Stephen King). They tend to have an adventure plot, often centred on a chase or survival, and are particularly popular in Young Adult fiction (e.g. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins). Christian authors writing for this market include Jerel Law (Son of Angels) and Krista McGee (Anomaly).

Time Travel

Features the hero, heroine or both travelling back or forward in time, having to adjust to a new way of living. Time travel romance was popularised in the general market by novels such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and Christian authors to have used this plot device include Tamara Leigh and Meredith Resce.

Do you write fiction that requires some level of worldbuilding? How do you describe what you write? What do you feel are the essential ingredients in a novel of this type?

Next week we will discuss the next step in defining your genre: time period.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 5

What genre are you writing?

In this post we are addressing the traditional understanding of genre, as opposed to the market segment (described in the previous posts). Christian fiction is a market segment, like Young Adult. There are different genres within the Christian fiction segment, just as there are different genres in the general market.

It is important that you are well-read in your chosen genre. Don’t just read books by established authors (which get published because of the author’s track history, not necessarily because of their quality). Read books by debut authors, because you need to understand what publishers are choosing to publish now, and what readers buy.

It’s also important to be widely-read: Nicholas Sparks reads 100 books a year. Some authors don’t like to read while they are writing, as they are afraid they will subconsciously ‘borrow’ (plagiarise) from the books they are reading. If this is a problem for you, then read outside your genre while you are writing, then go back to reading in your genre when editing.

Read Amazon review for books in your genre, because you also need to understand what readers do and don’t like. Read the glowing five-star reviews, the critical one-star reviews and the middle-of-the-road three-star reviews. Think about the themes that come through in the reviews. What do the readers like? What don’t they like? What makes them stop reading? While reviews are for readers (to help them make a decision as to whether or not this a book they will enjoy), they can serve a useful purpose for authors as well, by telling them what not to do.

Some authors want to blend genres , either because they believe it makes for a more satisfying plot or (more commonly) because they don’t understand genre and want to appeal to everyone. If you fall in that second group, I suggest you read the first post in this series again. By seeking to appeal to everyone, it is likely you will end up appealing to no one .

Fiction is generally divided into literary and genre fiction. Literary fiction has been defined as “complex, literate, multi-layered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas” . some is challenging; I often find it is so focused on the writing and ideas that it fails to convey the story. One good place to look for literary fiction is the Man Booker Prize long list. Don’t expect to find any in your local Christian bookshop, as Christian fiction is most definitely genre fiction.

Genre (or category) fiction is something literary authors look down on as inferior writing, because it is literary fiction that wins major awards. Be that as it may: genre fiction sells books. Literary fiction may win awards, but rank and file consumers only buy it when it wins a big award (and then can’t always finish reading it).

At the highest level, there are three main genres:

Romance: developing a romantic relationship between two people, with a happy-ever-after ending;
Action: mystery, suspense or thrillers, where the primary focus is on the action, not the character relationships;
Worldbuilder: genres such as science fiction, fantasy, dystopian and paranormal, set in another world.

Note that many genres have a range of sub-genres , and I will be discussing the major genres in future posts, starting next week with romance. But first I’m going to cover one major and one minor genre that don’t fit easily into the three main genres above:

Women’s Fiction

Women make up approximately 85% of the market for Christian fiction (and are still a majority of general market fiction). The novels are focused on women (although they are not necessarily written by women, e.g. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks), and they explore the nature of character, human nature and relationships without the requirement for a romance or a happy-ever-after ending. Characters are searching for meaning, for an answer to a problem of the mind. They may cover more than one generation, and the ending may be bittersweet. While women’s fiction might be difficult to define, it’s had a place in the bookshop for years and will continue to do so.

Men’s Fiction

You’ve never heard of the term? That’s not a surprise. I made it up. Only 13% of members of American Christian Fiction Writers are men , and that’s reflected in the books that are published. So Men’s fiction isn’t so much a genre as a possible gap in the market. The problem is that, as a woman, I have no idea what men like to read. Of the men I know well enough to know what they read (all three), all of them read the same kinds of books as their wives (if they read at all). Is this because they like the genres their wives read, or is it because they don’t read, therefore don’t buy books, so are stuck reading whatever their wife brings home?

The other issue, especially in Christian fiction, is that the major publishing houses don’t know how to sell to men, as discussed by Mike Duran regarding mystery writer J Mark Bertrand.

So, men. What do you like to read? If there really was a men’s fiction genre, what would it be?

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 4

Are you targeting the Christian market or the general market?

My previous post attempted to define traditional Christian fiction, and looked briefly at some of the issues people (Christians and non-Christians) have with the conservative evangelical approach of most Christian fiction. This week we look at the alternatives:

  • Inspirational fiction
  • Crossover fiction
  • General market fiction

Christian Fiction (Inspirational)

Just as there is no clear definition of Christian fiction, there is no clear definition of inspirational fiction. I waver between liking and disliking the idea of ‘inspirational’ fiction. Some people find Christian fiction too preachy, full of too-perfect characters treating each other with sickly-sweet holiness, never doing anything wrong.

These people might even be Christians, but non-Christians are certainly not interested in this kind of fiction. They might be interested if there was a little less focus on preaching and a little more focus on reflecting real-life situations. Many non-Christians won’t knowingly read a Christian novel and will complain if they accidentally download a Christian novel as a Kindle freebie, accusing authors and publishers of being unchristian by not properly categorising their novel.

This is where Inspirational fiction can play a part.

I like the idea that fiction can reflect a Christian world view and inspire thought without descending into sermons, but without gratuitous sex and violence. I like the idea that writers can explore some of the more gritty issues of life, like drug or alcohol abuse or the consequences of lust.

But I dislike the term ‘inspirational’. It doesn’t necessarily restrict itself to Christian. Many self-help books are inspirational, but could in no way be described as Christian.

And I haven’t liked some of the Inspirational Christian novels I’ve read, because in getting rid of the praying and preaching, some authors have removed everything overtly Christian, leaving a story that could be published by anyone except for the fact there is no sex, violence or swearing. I like this in general market fiction, but if I’m buying from a Christian publishing house, I expect the book to be, well, Christian.

Yet there have been other inspirational novels I have enjoyed, although these are more likely to be thrillers than romance: perhaps because I can believe God not being front-and-centre of a murder investigation, but I can’t imagine leaving Him out of a romantic relationship.

Crossover Fiction

Crossover fiction is a relatively new term used to refer to novels written from a Christian world view (and often published by an ECPA-member publisher), but one that doesn’t specifically refer to Christianity. The characters may or may not be Christians, they won’t quote Bible verses and they won’t go to church. It’s not that they don’t ever, just that they don’t within the timeframe of the novel (or if they do, it’s a minor plot point). This may be another way of describing Inspirational fiction, or it may be a way for Christian publishers to market books they hope will appeal to a wider readership.

General Market Fiction

In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner rejects God who is the basis of our worldview and values, yet argues that good fiction is underpinned by some form of morality. Gardner then goes on to complain that “our serious novelists, like our painters and composers, are short on significant belief”, that “their works lack conviction”.

As a Christian, I see this as a contradiction in terms: you can’t throw God out of fiction then complain fiction has no significant belief, no conviction and no true morality. After all, “spiritual growth and the search for truth are also integral issues in human life, issues that are sometimes ignored altogether in general-market fiction(Penelope J Stokes).

There are many Christian authors publishing in the general market whose “books reflect the reality of God and the depth of their own spiritual experience(Penelope J Stokes). Examples include John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark and Maeve Binchy.

And if we remember that as Christians we can only ever write with a Christian worldview, then maybe we will find a way into the general market, which might actually give us the opportunity to share the good news, (to paraphrase St Francis of Assisi) by preaching the gospel at all times, using words where necessary.

What do you think? What do you read? What market does your novel target?

Next week we will discuss the next step in defining your target audience: genre.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 3

Are you targeting the Christian market or the general market?

“Anything a Christian writes must reflect the truth of God’s account. If as a Christian we don’t write from a biblical worldview, we’re not portraying reality as it is.” Ann Tatlock

What is a biblical worldview? It the opposite of the post-modern view, which says that God is dead, we are a product of chance, reason alone will build a better society, there is no hope of life after death, and all paths lead to god . Penelope J Stokes defines Christian fiction as fiction that tells the truth. She goes on to comment that what we typically call Christian fiction is actually conservative evangelical fiction, which has not just an “acknowledgement of God, but a distinctly religious viewpoint, usually marked by the conversion of one or more characters”.

Christian Fiction (Evangelical)

The US-based Evangelical Christian Publishers Association require that books are consistent with their Statement of Faith (which is essentially the same as the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. American Christian Fiction Writers has a list of Recognized Publishers , which specifies that books must be written from a Christian world view, and must conform to the generally accepted standards of the CBA:

  • Main characters will be practicing Christians. Any character who isn’t (especially in a romance) is expected to have an on-page conversion during the course of the novel;
  • Christian characters do not gamble, play cards, drink alcoholic beverages or dance (although they might drink a little or dance in more ‘edgy’ contemporary stories). Love Inspired does not permit any mention of Halloween;
  • Conservative Christian values, but without mentioning a specific denomination;
  • No swearing;No strong violence, especially towards women;
  • Romantic relationships emphasise the emotional side of love rather than the physical (too much emphasis on the enjoyment of the physical will earn a Christian novel the ‘edgy’ tag, even if it’s no more than a kiss, yet there is an apparent contradiction in that Christian fiction may feature rape).

Some Christian novels tread close to the line in one of more of these traits, which is likely to earn them an ‘edgy’ tag. Others might consider ‘edgy’ to be more realistic: it’s a sad truth that Christians can still be victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, and it makes sense that our fiction should address these issues.

“We may have high and noble hopes of spreading the gospel to the world, but in most cases evangelical novels are read by other evangelicals; only rarely does a religious novel find an audience among the unconverted.” The exception might be Jewish author Chaim Potok: when asked why atheists and agnostics would read his novels but not read Christian fiction, he replied “Jewish authors do not proselytize.” Evangelical fiction certainly proselytizes. The conversion scene is a central focus, particularly in a romance which has a strong theme of not being unequally yoked with unbelievers.

What do you think? Should Christian fiction authors ‘preach to the choir’ or convert the masses?

Next week we will discuss the look at Inspirational, Crossover and General Market fiction.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 2

Step One: What age group are you writing for?

The standard industry age categorisations are:

  • Middle Grade: approximately 8-12 years of age.
  • Young Adult: approximately 13-18 years of age
  • Adult: Over 18

Young Adult (YA) is not a genre: it is an age range, as is Middle Grade. Books for children and teenagers cross a range of genres, as do books for adults.

Middle Grade

Middle Grade targeted at readers approximately 8-12 years of age. They are solid readers, able to cope with chapter books with few or no illustrations, and some in-depth in plot and characterisation. The lead characters should be a year or two older than the target audience: if your hero is sixteen, it is likely that the book is Young Adult, not Middle Grade.

Middle Grade fiction for girls will often feature teenagers in their middle school or early high school years, and will focus on relationship issues (e.g. bullying, mean girls) or growing up issues (e.g. physical changes). Fiction for boys is more likely to be adventure-based, and will probably feature two or three protagonists. It may well have a main female character so it will appeal to girls as well (at this age, it seems that girls will read anything, but boys won’t read ‘girl books’).

Prominent Christian authors writing for this age group include Nancy Rue (Lily and Sophie books), Jerry B Jenkins (Left Behind: The Kids and Red Rock Mysteries). Newer authors include Evan Angler (dystopian fiction) and Jerel Law (speculative fiction). Both Angler and Law have a male protagonist and a female secondary lead, to appeal to both genders.

Young Adult

Young Adult novels are written for teenagers, although many adults purchase and read YA fiction (one study found that 55% of YA fiction is purchased by adults). The themes in young adult literature are often very anti-Christian, with a lot of paranormal elements, including vampires, werewolves, mermaids and witchcraft. Dystopian novels are also popular. Those YA novels that are set in the ‘real’ world are likely to promote lust over love and sex over abstinence, glamorise abusive relationships, or endorse politically-correct alternative lifestyles.

Plots are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character, who is usually in their mid-to-late teens, and may deal with issues such as peer pressure, divorce, illness, alcohol or drug use, gangs, violence, sex, pregnancy, incest and rape. Needless to say, there is a lot of debate around the suitability of these topics to the age group, but supporters argue that reading about these social issues help readers deal with real-life challenges.

Melody Carlson is probably the best-known Christian author for girls in this age group. Most Amish novels and Christian historicals also feature girls in their late teens, and are suitable teenage reading even though they are nominally targeted at adults (I think this is one of the reasons I don’t like Amish fiction: I find it rather juvenile).

I’d like to be able to suggest some solid YA authors for boys, but had trouble finding any. Is this why Omega authors such as L D Taylor and Lynne Stringer are targeting this age group?

Adult

The standard genre classifications for adult fiction are:

  • Literary
  • Mystery, Thriller and Suspense
  • Religious & Inspirational
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy

There are numerous sub-classifications within all of these (and note that ‘Religious and Inspirational’ is not restricted to the Christian religion). We will go into more detail in future posts.

New Adult

New Adult is an emerging genre, featuring protagonists in their early to mid-twenties facing ‘new adult’ problems such as college, relationship issues, starting work or sharing a flat or apartment. New Adult novels are invariably contemporary: the concept doesn’t work as well in a historical context, because people were typically working and/or by this age, so there was no idea of a time between finishing school and taking on the full responsibilities of adulthood.

Are you clear what age group your novel is targeting?

Next week we will discuss the next step in defining your genre: market segment.

How to Write A Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 1

As a reviewer and editor, I read a lot of fiction, mostly Christian fiction. I see a lot of the same mistakes over and over, especially from first-time authors. My intention with this series of articles is to address some of these common errors to enable fiction authors to improve their writing.

The first issue I want to address is genre. Books from traditional publishers fall into a range of defined genres, which enable readers to easily pick books they will like. The rise of self-publishing makes it more difficult for readers to understand what they are buying based on the brand of the publisher, and many self-published authors haven’t thought through what they are selling. What genre are they?

Before you begin writing your novel, you should know what genre you are writing in. The number one mistake of beginning writers in this area is to not consider genre at all. – Angela Hunt

I agree the first step in writing a novel is to consider your genre. This may be similar to the plotter vs. pantster debate: is it better to plot out the novel in advance, or to have only a broad idea and write by the seat of the pants? Do you need to understand your genre before you start writing, or will it become obvious as the story comes together?

Author Karen Baney maintains the importance of defining your target audience before you begin writing. It is tempting to say ‘my story is targeted at people aged 8-80’ (yes, I’ve seen that). What is more likely is that story isn’t designed to appeal to anyone. A good book may well appeal to people outside the target market (think of the number of adults who buy and read Young Adult fiction), but first you need to meet the needs of a target reader. This could be defined as some or all of:

  • Age;
  • Gender;
  • Religion;
  • Race;
  • Geographic location;
  • Education and occupation;
  • Hobbies and interests;
  • etc.

Can you describe your target reader in these terms? If not, try. If you can’t define your target audience, how will you sell your novel to a publisher? Or to readers? Genre underpins the publishing world:

  • Publishers publish by genre;
  • Agents acquire by genre;
  • Readers purchase by genre.

And readers review by genre. If a book doesn’t meet the expectations of the genre, you can expect low-star reviews with comments about not meeting expectations (I know. I’ve read many, and even written a few myself.) There are advantages to having a broad idea of your target audience before you begin.

Understanding your target reader will:

  • Provide insight into your target market, which will help with determining the most appropriate marketing strategy and developing your platform;
  • Inform some of your writing decisions, including the most appropriate point of view, the number of viewpoint characters, tense, voice, style and word count;
  • Help ensure you don’t stray off-topic as you write;
  • Inform the length of your story.

Whatever genre you write in, make sure you are widely read in that genre so that you know you are following the rules of the genre.

Future posts will cover each of these aspects of genre, starting next week with target age.

What do you write? And what do you read?