October 4, 2018
For many children's writers, the concept of attempting a novel is daunting at best and filled with questions. So for the sake of those looking toward this exciting writing option, let's answer a few unusual but frequently asked questions.
How Long Should a Chapter Be?
This is probably the most common question. How long should a chapter be? Unfortunately, the answer is one of those that everyone hates: it depends.
Novels don't have an "ideal length." Generally speaking, the younger your reader, the shorter your chapters should be. For the short chapter book series I've written, my chapters are usually three to four pages long. But a chapter book isn't really a novel. It’s really an intermediary step between picture books and novels. A complete chapter book is usually fewer than 10,000 words (and sometimes much less) so this format is unusual. You probably won’t be averaging three or four page chapters for normal novels. Unless it works for your book.
You see, that's really the sticking point. The chapter should be the length necessary to include a scene (or perhaps more than one) with dialogue and action that accomplishes something in terms of plot, hopping us closer to the inevitable ending of the book. But length? Length can vary and often does. The older the reader, the more likely that chapter length will be variable within the same novel since some chapters will take longer to accomplish that plot hop than other chapters.
Novels are a bit like chocolate bars. You could chop one up randomly and you’d have pieces, but the result would feel haphazard and not very aesthetically pleasing. Or you could break them into the neat pieces the bar seems meant for, along the scoring that is already present. For your novel, there will be places where the book divides into chapters naturally. You simply need to find them. Now, different from a chocolate bar, the pieces it divides into naturally may not be particularly uniform. I've actually seen chapters that were one sentence long and that worked perfectly because the sentence was stark and shocking and represented a major hop forward for the book. But you won't usually see something nearly that short because it's rare that you can accomplish much in such a short chapter. But the key to keep in mind is that chapter breaks aren't random, they occur when the purpose of the chapter is accomplished.
Now, if you're writing one of the novel types that benefit from cliffhangers, a chapter will often accomplish one thing, then push us to a scary spot and break for a new chapter. This kind of cliffhanger chapter break will help keep a reader glued to the page and pushing on. So I think of this as a chapter arc that accomplishes something, and then a little explosion of surprise. Not every novel lends itself to cliffhangers. Action-adventure (which is one of my favorite genres to write) will usually have cliffhanger chapter endings. Mysteries often do and so do humor books. But many character driven novels and literary novels use few cliffhangers to drive action and count on the reader's connection to the characters to keep them reading.
What is a High Concept Novel? What is a Mainstream Novel?
Novels tend to grow jargon, and two that confuse many people are "high concept" and "mainstream." The two tend to be related as both are connected with novels that are easily marketed to the public after they are published (which is appealing to a publisher).
A "high concept" novel is one that has a premise or core element that can be boiled down to a single exciting line. For instance, Artemis Fowl was described as "Die Hard with fairies." That's a high concept. Another example of a high concept series would be Spy Mice, which is mice who are spies. When Spy Mice was conceived, spies were very popular in children's novels and television shows and movies for kids. So the book married something really popular (spies) with something unusual (mice as spies). This made the books easy for the agent to market to a publisher.
Mainstream, on the other hand, means accepted and popular to the largest segment of the audience. Mainstream novels are rarely edgy (though what is edgy today could be mainstream tomorrow as "mainstream" is not a fixed collection.) Mainstream novels tend to expand beyond typical genre but will often contain elements common in genre novels. For instance, vampires were mainstream for a while (though they've fallen out of favor for most audiences now) but the novels that pushed vampires into the mainstream took a horror genre creature (vampires) and mixed it with romance. Then to keep things moving, they added a dash of suspense. So a mainstream novel will rarely be an exact example of a specific genre because it's the ability to expand beyond genre that tends to make the novels popular and therefore mainstream.
So, as a writer, do you need to strive to create a mainstream or high concept novel? No. You need to write the novel that is within you and that should be a novel that is meaningful to you. It may turn out to be high concept or mainstream, but those are labels for marketing teams and agents to worry about. You need to focus on writing well.
I Wrote Some Stories, Can I Combine Them and Call It a Novel?
This is a very popular trick in self-publishing and I've read more than one writer who tried it. When this happens, a writer crafts a series of what he or she imagines would be great picture books (or perhaps short stories) but then discovers they don't sell very well. And self-publishing picture books is expensive. So what to do with this series of related stories that use the same characters? Couldn't they simply be gathered together into one book and called a novel? Well, in self-publishing, you can call your book most anything you like, but it won't actually be a novel. A novel is not a collection of stories. It is a single story journey that takes you through many scenes, challenges, and actions while also driving forward toward the destination. A collection of stories is highly unlikely to manage to do that. Therefore, you're almost certainly not going to interest a publisher in a book created in that fashion, and your options will be limited to self-publishing for such a book.
So why not simply call it a short story collection and try to sell that? Sometimes writers do try that, but then find publishers do not snap up short story collections from unknown writers. In general, even with a well-known author short story collections sell less well than novels (though David Lubar's Weenies collections seems to have done very well, which shows that every rule has exceptions). As a general rule, if a publisher cannot count on the writer's name to drive sales of the collection, they will generally not buy it. Now, the writer of the series of stories could set them aside and focus on new, marketable materials and then trot the short story collection out when they're a more "known" entity, but that requires patience on the part of the writer.
The final question related to this is rather obvious. How about self-publishing? If you self-publish this story collection that you're calling a novel, is it likely to sell well? That's a tougher question. It's not impossible if you selling within one of the hot self-publishing genre (for example, young adult books in romance, cozy mystery, science fiction, or fantasy). Rude reviews from readers who expected a novel may come your way, but if the stories are extremely compelling and lie within those genres that sell well in self-publishing, you might do well. If your stories don't fall into those areas, you're probably better off to sit on the stories and work on other things with the plan to return to the stories when you have the name recognition to sell them. And who knows, with some time set aside, you may come up with a true story arc that would allow you to transform those stories into an actual novel through heavy rewriting.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.