What Ally Carter said

Ally Carter has a wonderful post on asking the wrong questions about writing.1 She is a HUNDRED PER CENT correct! Go read her!

I’ve been asked every one of those questions many many times and I always struggle to answer them but I couldn’t figure out why exactly. Thank you so much, Ally Carter, for figuring it out for me.

So many beginner questions at writers conferences are more concerned with marketing than they are with writing. This is putting the cart so far in front of the horse it ain’t funny. Questions like—How long should a YA novel be? Should I blog to promote my book? (NO! Blog because you enjoy it.) How do I find an authentic teenage voice?—are coming at things from the completely wrong direction. (Read Ally Carter’s post for the right questions and excellent answers.) Especially when these questions come from people who haven’t finished a novel yet.

Write the book first.

Write in a genre you know and love and understand. Do not attempt to write a YA novel if you’ve never read any YA novels. My first novel is an adult historical. A genre I know and love. It didn’t sell. My second novel was YA. Another genre I’d read obsessively for years. It also didn’t sell, but it was seen by an editor who took a risk on buying an unwritten trilogy from me because she loved the concept. She’d seen that I could write a good novel so she trusted me to write three more.2

As I wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy I did not think about word count. I just wrote the book and it was as long as it needed to be, which happened to be 65 thousand words. I have never worried about the length of any of my books. They’ve all been the length they needed to be. YA novels range in length from as little as 40k words to as long as—what was Libba Bray’s The Sweet Far Thing?—25 billion zillion katrillion words? Right then. But they were good words. The book is unputdownable even though it’s so heavy it could break your wrist.

When you’re writing your first novel your job is not to worry about word count, or any of those other irrelevancies, like how it will be marketed, your job is to write the best book you can. If it’s a billion zillion katrillion words long then fine as long as those words aren’t boring and crap.

Writing comes first. Always.

I have said this many times and sometimes I get the response that I must be lying because that person sent their extremely long novel out and it was widely rejected. The reason given was that it was too long.

I doubt very much that the agent/editor was saying that the book was too long for YA. There are many very long YAs.3 What they probably meant was that the book was too long for the novel it was. I.e. it wasn’t well-paced. The book needed cutting—not because it was YA—but because it was boring. If you’re getting that same comment over and over again then it’s time to stop sending the book out and go over it to see if they’re right. Are there sentences/chapter/sub-plots that could do with cutting and or trimming?

Or is it time to let that book rest and move on to the next one?

I’m always astonished by the people who say they want to be a writer who stop at one book. Well, it didn’t sell, they’ll tell me. THEN WRITE ANOTHER ONE. If you’ve written the book and it’s as good as you can make it then move on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. One of my friends wrote more than a dozen novels before they finally sold one. I sold my third novel. My first and second remain unpublished. It’s just how it goes.

It could be that your first novel was not ready to go out. It could be that now is not a good time for it. There are many many reasons books get rejected. Ninety-five per cent of the time it’s because they suck. Don’t worry, if you’ve been paying attention to the criticisms you’ve been receiving, and reading lots of really good novels, and working on your rewriting skills as well as your writing skills then your next novel will be much better. By the time you get to your tenth you’ll be rocking out loud.

Did I mention that it’s the writing that’s the thing?

  1. Via PubRants. []
  2. Which is a good thing to keep in mind. Sometimes even when you’re being rejected the editor/agent remembers you, because while they may not like that particular book, they see a glimmer of talent and hope that the next book might be more to their taste. Editors and agents are always looking for new and exciting writers. It’s a big part of their job. []
  3. By the likes of Libba Bray and Cassandra Clare. []


  1. marrije on #

    Haha, I knew the “ninety-five percent” link went to Making Light before I even moused over it. This should tell you something about me reading lots about marketing before actually well and truly finishing the writing of my own proper books. 🙂

  2. strugglingwriter on #

    Thanks you so much for this Justine. It’s something I really needed to hear today.

  3. Justine on #

    marrije: Nothing better has been written. Slushkiller for the gold!

    strugglingwriter: You’re welome. I struggled for almost twenty years before I was published: “Never give up, never surrender!”

  4. Amy on #

    Well, it didn’t sell, they’ll tell me. THEN WRITE ANOTHER ONE. If you’ve written the book and it’s as good as you can make it then move on to the next one.

    That’s what Jane Austen did. Her first novel, “First Impressions” never sold. Years later she rewrote it and it sold under a new name: “Pride and Prejudice.”

  5. Elodie on #

    ( Are their sentences/chapter/sub-plots that could do with cutting and or trimming?
    This should be a there. just nitpicking.)

    This is such a good post, and so true. You don’t see sports people that go “oh, I wanted to run the marathon, but I tried once and didn’t get past a mile.” o.O You practice!
    Also about the shortening a long novel…. it reminds me of, I forget, maybe Emerson? Who once wrote a letter that started with “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” It takes a lot more work in my opinion figuring out how to cut out the boring and keep all the information in a shorter text than to just write a long book. And it’s what makes the difference between good idea and good novel. (well, not that some long ones aren’t good, but they’ve had the same kind of work done on them–they’re long instead of super-long!)

  6. Justine on #

    Elodie: Fixed. And, yes, no one expects to be able to dunk straight away. They get that athletes train so why don’t they get that writers do too?

    It was George Bernard Shaw who said that.

Comments are closed.