Five Ways Numerical Data Can Improve Your Novel

From diyMFA:

A few weeks ago, I shared how numbers could improve your writing life. Today, I’m going to discuss how numerical data can improve your story. The suggestions I present here are in the context of novels, but you can apply these principles to other forms as well. 

As with the previous article, I don’t want to scare away any writers who fear the very mention of numbers. I promise there are no complex equations or proofs here – just practical ways you can use numerical data to help you revise your novel. 

1. Pace Yourself

Pacing is all about rhythm, and rhythm is very mathematical, so it should not be surprising that numerical data can identify pacing issues. For starters, determine your word count for each of your chapters. Are they within a close range of each other or do they wildly fluctuate throughout the book? You might have a good reason for a lot of variation in your chapter lengths, but make sure this variation is serving a purpose. 

Note where your novel’s critical scenes occur as a percentage of the entire manuscript. Does your inciting incident happen at the 30% mark? Your opening is too long. You can also look at the length of each critical scene. Maybe your climax is occurring at an appropriate point, but you fly through it in two pages. 

Consider your genre and age category when evaluating your pacing. For instance, middle grade and YA novels typically start and end quickly, with early inciting incidents and late climaxes, so your pacing will feel off if you have a long introduction or resolution. If you’re writing romance, you have a problem if you haven’t introduced the love interest in the first 50% of the book. In a murder mystery novel, readers expect to encounter the crime early, not 25% of the way into the book.

Numerical data can help you identify potential trouble spots, but it should not be prescriptive. If your figures slightly differ from the recommended standards for your market, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem. If you can justify the choices you’ve made and your beta readers don’t notice a problem with your pacing, then you’re probably fine. 

2. Break It Down

Once you have a solid draft, figure out the composition breakdown of your manuscript. With a set of highlighters (use a different color for each category), identify dialogue, world building and description, action, character interiority, and backstory. Approximate the percentage of your total word count that you have written in each of these categories. (The computer can give you more precise information. Highlight in different colors on your screen and calculate your percentages easily. The printed version, however, may have an advantage in making a visual impact, and approximations will work for this, so pick your preference.)

Is one category dominating your story? If so, can you justify this? There may be an excellent reason your novel is 80% dialogue, so long as it is an intentional one. 

Conversely, is one category lacking? Adding passages to enhance that category may give your novel more balance.

3. Remember the “Comp” in Comp Titles

“Comp” is short for comparison. A comp title is a book like yours, often sharing genre, market, and style. Comp titles demonstrate your novel has an audience. 

Choose a comp title you admire. Break down its composition, as described above. If you’re daunted by tackling a full novel, then try a few choice chapters, including the opening and closing chapters, the inciting incident, and the climax. Determine the percentages spent on dialogue, setting and description, action, character interiority, and backstory. 

Then take a literal approach to the word “comparison” by comparing your novel’s composition to that of your comp title. They probably won’t be exactly the same, but you should pay attention to big discrepancies. This is how you learn from published authors. 

Link to the rest at diyMFA


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