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What I Wish I’d Known Before Writing My First Book

Afternoon kids.

I wish somebody had hit me in the head with a 2X4 and said stop after I hit 80,000 words.

I remember the exact moment I found out there was a specific word count range for each genre of book. 

My heart literally climbed its way up my throat, leapt out of my mouth, and went running for the hills.

I was in Palm Springs for Thanksgiving, it was like five in the morning, which was the usual time you would find me writing, my mom was asleep in the bed next to me–we were in a hotel room–and I thought, just to humor myself, I would look up some interesting facts on writing books.

All I did was freak myself out with all this new information. I was, at that point, right around 72,000 words… and not even halfway done with my book.


I also thought at the time that I wrote straight up new adult fiction. 


I write adult literary fiction. They are ceremoniously different and require different word counts. 

I wish I had had that stupid website that told me John Green’s debut and J.K. Rowling’s debut were both under 80,000 words. That would’ve put it into perspective for me. 

So. We are starting this off with… 

1. Each Genre has a Word Count Range 

Stats taken from Writer’s Digest

  • Adult Fiction: 70,000-79,000 (low) 80,000 – 89,000 (perfect) 90,000 – 100,000 (high)
  • Adult Chick Lit can be lower: 70,000 – 75,000
  • Sci-Fi and Fantasy: 90,000 – 99,000 (low) 100,000 – 110,000 (just right)
  • Lower Middle Grade: 20,000 – 55,000
  • Upper Middle Grade: 40,000 – 55,000
  • Young Adult: 47,000 – 54,000 (low) 55,000 – 69,999 (perfect) 70,000 – 79,000 (all right)
  • Picture Books: Text for 32 pages (500 – 600 words) Do not go above 999
  • Memoir: 70,000 – 79,000 (low) 80,000 – 89,000 (perfect) 99,999 (high end)
  • Women’s Fiction: 80,000 – 100,000
  • Literary Fiction: 80,000 – 100,000 (just right) 125,000 (very high end)
  • Romance: 80,000 – 100,000

However, for a debut novelist, it is in my opinion one should always shoot for low rather than high UNLESS you write sci-fi or fantasy. 

2. Don’t Be Backstory Top-Heavy

What does this mean? Well, it means that your book is weighed down by your character’s past. Now, a little backstory is good, we need the exposition to understand why your character is the way he or she is. But if you’re starting your book with sixteen pages of an in depth look at your character’s sex history, it’s likely you’ll want to revisit the idea of starting your book anywhere else but where you’re currently starting it. 

Here’s why it’s not good. Backstory rips your reader out of the present moment and out of the story. It takes away from the momentum of what you are building and therefore stunts any forward movement. When you’re pulling your reader out of the action by telling her about this birthday party your protagonist visited seventeen years ago that introduced him to the antagonist, there are one of two ways to execute it correctly. 

The first way is by giving us one or two sentences explaining, as quickly as is possible, your protag met the antag at his cousin’s party. They’ve hated each other ever since. This is telling us. Now, as I’m sure you know, or maybe you don’t, you don’t want to write a book based heavily around telling. 

The second way is to show us this memory. This is going to take longer, but it’s going to read like the rest of your story. You’re basically going to execute a flashback in which your protag isn’t just telling us he met the antag there, we are experiencing it with him as if we were actually there. This flashback will have all the senses. The smells, the laughter, the smiles, there will be specific details, there will be dialogue, or actions, it’s basically like you’re showing us the memory as if we were watching it on TV. 

You don’t want like fifteen straight paragraphs of you just telling us this is what happened, this is why it didn’t charm me, and this is how we got here. You either want to tell us as quick as possible or show us in a way that engages the reader.

A good thing to do is take a long sprint of telling backstory, copy and paste it into a different word document, and then sprinkle the backstory through out instead of dumping it on your reader in one sitting.

3. Show Don’t Tell

This is a tricky one. I have spent countless hours executing this incorrectly. I have spent countless hours trying to understand just what it means by reading confusing posts I found on the Internet. 

The general misconception is that telling means you’re using the pronoun “I” a lot, specifically in first person fiction. 

That is not true, I spent a good month thinking I had a grasp on showing just because I would change a sentence like “I ran away” to “my legs ran away.” It’s really not any different. And it just makes me sound like an idiot. 

Here’s what I have learned through countless beta-reads, and feedback, and blah blah blah. Telling your reader something is a lot like giving them the clue and the answer. A lot of times telling your reader something is going to offend them. It’s better to assume your reader isn’t a complete bonehead than to assume they need TLC and fifteen paragraphs explaining one detail that I can guarantee they’ll figure out. 

This is a very good post on showing and not telling: Storify

It’s so hard to explain, that’s why I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Because I would sit there reading a post about how a girl said if your camera can see it then you’re telling or whatever, and I’d walk away more confused than before. It’s really a trial and error type of deal, and the best way I know to figure it out is to have somebody who is an expert on it go through your work and point it out to you. Also, beta-reading somebody else’s work might help you to start recognizing just what is telling and what is showing. 

A quick trick, typically adjectives and adverbs are telling. Instead of saying he looked sad, you could explain his facial expression.

4. It Doesn’t Matter if Your First Draft is a Piece of Shit

DON’T STOP WRITING. Just because you go through your first draft and it makes you want to kill yourself, doesn’t mean that it is at ALL bad. My first draft was a piece of shit. And by the time I finished it completely, my writing had changed SO MUCH. So so so much. So all of a sudden, the whole first draft was a piece of shit, and the entire first half of it was an especially shitty piece of shit.

For your debut, it’s likely your novel will not start reading right until draft number six. I am on draft number six, and finally my book doesn’t read like a robot who has Turrets. 

It’s very hard to know everything you’re supposed to be doing and avoiding and checking and fixing and on and on and on. I wish I had had a post with a checklist that explained to me in great detail what the fuck I’m supposed to make sure I do for my book before I start querying. 

Your first draft is going to read terribly. It just is. The important thing to remember is DON’T GET CAUGHT UP IN THE HORRIBLENESS because once you finish the whole thing, going back through and rewriting and revising is going to be so much easier. 

5. Don’t Query Before You’re Ready

I really don’t think anybody is ever ready. I just think agents are masterful and can spot a NYT Bestseller even though the query letter might have still been ripped apart by like four different mentors. 

Honestly truly, I feel like we are all just scrambling around trying to figure out what your query letter is supposed to have, what your stakes are, how to sum everything up that’s important in your book in three paragraphs. 

It’s like we’re a bunch of headless chickens and just miraculously happen to run into a chicken who thinks maybe you’re not such a bozo. 

Don’t query until you’ve had at least one or two people look over your query letter and give you feedback. Don’t send your novel out until you’ve had at least one or two people beta-read the whole thing, or at the very least, the first ten pages. You’ve been reading and writing your own words for like however long it took you to complete your book and hate to break it to you, but you’re a shitty fucking judge of your own work.

I know I am.

Either I’m like yeah dude my work’s the shit or no dude, I thought I might go to the canyon in Malibu and pitch my computer and the backup USB drives off a cliff.

6. Don’t Start Your Book More Than Ten Pages Before the Coveted INCITING INCIDENT

Don’t know what your inciting incident is? That is concerning. You need to figure that out. Here’s a website for you: It’s Not What You Think it is

Starting your book in the wrong place is like book suicide. Give your poor book a chance to make something of itself. That being said… 


If you have prologue, it is in my opinion that you won’t get agented unless:

  • The information happens WAY before the book. Like years before. And is pertinent to the story
  • The information foreshadows a piece of the story that happens later on in the book and builds tension

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Can you change your prologue to chapter one and still have the story rumbling along smoothly? Yes? Then nix the fucking prologue.

I had a prologue. I queried like twenty agents with the prologue. I am ashamed. I changed the prologue to chapter one and combined it with chapter one’s substance, and everything still read the same.

8. Don’t Forget to Set the Scene

Ground your reader in the story by setting the scene early on. You don’t want to open up your book with fifteen pages of backstory and inner dialogue because your reader won’t feel grounded. 

Do you know what it feels like to float around in space? Ask the man who spent a year and a half up there. It’s not fun and it fucks with your internal organs. So ground your reader before he or she flies off into the exosphere and has no choice but to toss your book out the window so her or she can come back down. 

9. Break Up Your Dialogue

Nobody likes characters who pass back and forth soliloquies with no emotion whatsoever because you’ve chosen to write your dialogue without actions, facial expressions, setting the scene, or reacting.

We want your main characters to react to each other when they’re talking. We want the quirky little details that make he or she up. 

If your characters are talking on a sofa, break up their dialogue by saying he said this and then he kicked his feet up on the coffee table and continued. She said this in a tone that sounded like she was dying and his eyes lit up like a lamp was burning inside his scull right behind his eye sockets. 

Get the idea? We want to feel like this is a scene we’re watching. 

Do the same thing for internal dialogue. I love manic thoughts just as much as the next, but they can get a little cumbersome after three straight pages of living inside the protag’s brain.

10. Don’t Be Afraid of One-Liners

I’m talking about your long ass paragraphs containing three or four beautiful lines in them and your reader feels the need to sprint through it to get back into the action and in doing so completely mows over and doesn’t appreciate that one line you spent fifteen hours perfecting. 

Feel free to make large paragraphs into three small paragraphs, they’re punchy, they read easier, they don’t intimidate the reader when she’s looking fifty pages ahead for the first time Hazel and Augustus kiss and, to her dismay, discovers they don’t kiss for a while and before they do she has to read some pages that look congested.

Much love to you John Green, as my favorite author, you’ve done way too much right. But I wish you cut up your paragraphs a teensy bit more and gave me this line: “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities” without the first fourteen lines of what Hazel is wearing and the desolate condition of the hospital room. I wish you had isolated that beautiful line. 

11. Do the Whiny, Unlikable Character Right

If you have a fucking bitch for a protagonist, you need to have a beta-reader go through and make sure she doesn’t suck so much that your reader is going to send your book through her bedroom wall and write a fucking Yelp review on it. 

I’m talking to you Veronica Roth. Tris is the worst main character on planet Earth, she literally killed me. But, apparently, others felt differently, though I think it was more about the AMAZING story and world Veronica built than Tris, who was so selfless it was just fucking unbearable. 

I actually had a scene later on in my book where my beta-reader told me he lost all respect for my main character and suggested I rework the scene.

So what did I do? I reworked the scene, because you don’t want people to hate your main character. They need to at least like her enough to hang out with her for eight hours straight. 

Do the unreliable narrator right. Don’t know if your narrator is unreliable? Here:

It is a character who tells the reader a story that cannot be taken at face value. This may be because the point of view character is insane, lying, deluded or for any number of other reasons. – Now Novel

Here’s a website: Unreliable Narrator

12. Don’t Shy Away from Contractions

Seriously. Please stop talking to us like you live in an old Victorian in the 1800s. Contractions cut down on word count and help the flow of your story. 

I’m telling you, stop with the I wills and I ams and I cannots and we haves and on and on. 

13. Don’t Use Crutch Words

I’m talking about the following words:

  • Just
  • That
  • Almost 
  • Actually
  • Like
  • Literally
  • Of
  • Um
  • So
  • Anyway
  • Really
  • Very
  • Right?
  • Ya know?

All of these words just, like, really take away from your writing, ya know?

14. Don’t Let Your Writing Get Bogged Down by Adverbs and Adjectives

Sometimes, less is more. I know you found a really cool new adjective or adverb and just can’t wait to use it, but if the sentence doesn’t need it and it’s better off and reads just right without it, why the fuck are you using it?

Yes, it’s super cool that you used hypnotic to describe the pool water. But you also used clear, blue, and diaphanous. So pick one and move on.

Instead of telling us your protag smiled sadly, show us that her lips are turning down at the corners. Or that her smile didn’t reach her eyes.

Instead of telling us your protag is running slowly. Tell us he’s jogging. 

Instead of telling us your protag is eating sloppily, show the food gushing out of the corners of his mouth. 

Get it? It’s better to show us instead of overdoing it with the -ily, -ic adverbs. 

17. Don’t Lean on Pronouns

Especially important for first person fiction writers. The pronoun “I” is very repetitive, watch out for it. Try building sentences with all of the sense when going through your work and noticing it reads like the bird from Finding Nemo.

16. Reach Out to Other Writers or Join a Writing Community

As always, I am alive and thriving on Twitter with a very vibrant writing community made up of generous souls whom I adore. I’ve had some tragic run-ins with a couple of them, but that’s to be expected when it comes to people who are either introverts, pretentious, or wildly creative. 

You can find me on Twitter with the handle: @HarlecETizmer. Don’t be afraid to reach out, I would LOVE to be there for you and to root you on. I wish I had had a community of people rooting for me when I was just getting started. 

It’s been a pleasure kids,



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