Novel Writing Formula

There are magic numbers when writing a novel, did you know that? It’s true.


Nope, I’m not playing the lottery, but these are the numbers to keep in mind while writing your novel. Some might argue that it should be 5-10-30-60-90-120 – but good gracious! That gets confusing.

So, while you memorize those numbers, let me explain them to you.

10 – The number of pages you get to attract attention (this tends to lead to older audiences, because the younger your intended audience the faster you have to snag their little minds). Trying to query? Several agents/editors allow for 10 pages to be included with your submission package, there is variance so ALWAYS check and FOLLOW submission guidelines that are on any agent’s or editor’s website. But a good rule of thumb is ten pages. Make the reader care. Do NOT drop a series of back-story bombs and expect that to create concern for your main character. Avoid any and all cliches to begin your story. Start the story where it starts getting good, not before.

30 – The number of pages you have to increase the tension of your manuscript. Build up the tension. Get the reader’s heart rate up. Now, you can sprinkle in a few bits of back story bombs, but use sparingly. Think of them like salt. Too much salt kills any amazing dish of food, period. Give the reader a clear understanding of the main character’s objective. Tell them why. Explain what is getting in the way. (If you are asked to submit a partial manuscript, this is it. The final chance to wow and amaze, before getting the axe, or getting a full request.)

60 – The number where you should be hitting the climax, or be darned close to it. It’s time! Bring all the boom! By now, your main character should be in way over their head. They should be in all kinds of doubt, and worry. They should be neck-deep in trouble, and the readers should worry that they may not get out of it. This is the time for action and not back story, if you throw in any back story now, you’re going to murder your tension. Killing off the tension now will seriously piss off your readers. This should be all tension and excitement.

90 – The number of pages you have to start decreasing your plot toward our ending. Whew! The main character made it. It wasn’t easy, but damn that climax was something else. Now, it’s time to give your reader a bit of a breather. Still, no matter what, keep the flow tight and concise, but it’s okay to ease the tension some now. If there is anymore back story that absolutely must be told, sprinkle it in here. (A side-note on back story, please only use it if it is of dire circumstance to your overall plot. Back story is very often overused and readers simply don’t really care.)

120 – End the thing already! Make sure all your subplots, twists and kinks, and absolutely close off your main plot line by the time you reach this page number. I suppose this is really self-explanatory. Tie up all the loose ends neatly.

The actual page numbers will vary slightly with the final word count. These numbers are not so much to force your manuscript, but use them as a guide. Work in 30 page increments after you snag the reader’s attention in the first 10 pages. This formula can also be used when revising to help you cut out unnecessary fluff, or to add more meat to the story if need be.

For me, I tend to write out an outline before beginning any novel (or screenplay, but that’s a different post to come) and write out the numbers and the event that I want to have happen there.

An example;

For my YA work-in-progress it goes something like this.

10 – Clover and Zeke meet

30 – Clover discovers Zeke’s secret is deeper than just dodging his draft card for the Vietnam War

60 – The police are on to them, and they are nearly caught at a war protest march in D.C. Clover stands by him especially when she finds out she loves him. And even though, Zeke is caught and arrested.

90 – Clover helps Zeke escape the jail with the help of their hippie friends, and Clover realizes she’s pregnant.

120 – Clover encounters her parents again after running away nearly a year prior.

Upon completion of my first draft, I’ll use this formula again to focus my revision process. In fact, it is very likely that I will use this formula each and every time I have a new draft.

Bam! There you have it! At least for my wip. My Middle Grade Adventure that I’m currently querying is a bit different, but that’s because it is for a younger audience. In fact, each book in that series is a bit different. If you have questions about works for younger audiences using this formula just drop me a line and I’ll help the best I can. Even if it means another blog post breaking it down for younger readerships, and you brave, brave souls that write for younger ones. I mean, come on, most picture books are shorter than this post, by nearly 400 words. o.O

P.S. I am planning on doing a post on writing for the tiny stories coming later in this series of writing advice posts.

Questions or comments are welcome. Thank you for reading!


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