Silence—a Hostile Work Environment?

I find it nearly impossible to write in total silence.

I was still in high school when I discovered I was most productive in environments that weren’t absolutely quiet. Back then, I would take a portable typewriter to the university snack bar to pound out prose. Years later, when I was writing my master’s thesis, I would park in a booth at Taco Bell with my laptop. A friend of mine was the manager there, so I’d buy a drink and he’d bring me free food.

For a while I thought I was just quirky—or even defective. Then I read David Mamet’s book, Writing in Restaurants, in which the award-winning playwright and screenwriter equates public writing with performance art. A writer in a restaurant is, in many ways, similar to the sidewalk chalk artist who draws both pictures and crowds. The act of public writing includes an unspoken obligation to your “audience.” I know from my own experience that the pressure to “perform” helps keep me on task … even if the pressure is all in my head.

When writing in public, Mamet says, “Joy and sorrow can be displayed and observed ‘unwittingly,’ the writer scowling naively and the diners wondering, What the hell is he doing? Then, again, the writer may be truly unobserved, which affects not a jot the scourge of popular opinion on his overactive mind.”

I wrote most of my first NaNoWriMo novel at a McDonalds in Draper, Utah, where the dining room technically closed at midnight but the staff didn’t mind if I hung around longer. For 99¢ (plus tax) I got unlimited Diet Coke, free WiFi and just enough background noise to get my creative juices flowing. I also got words of encouragement from the cashiers who rooted for me from behind the counter. When I hit 50,000 words and “won” at about 11:45 p.m. on November 30, the restaurant’s employees joined me in my victory dance. It felt like a standing ovation.

Recently, I came across an article that refined my thinking somewhat. The Harvard Business Review piece, “Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop but Not in Your Open Office,” reviewed new research on “open office” environments, where office walls doors and even cubicle partitions are dumped with the intent of creating a more collaborative, collegial atmosphere. Anyone who’s ever worked in an open office knows that the model tends to stifle productivity rather than fostering it. The key question is why.

One of the studies mentioned in the article, this one conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, found that “the right level of background noise—not too loud and not total silence—may actually boost one’s creative thinking ability.” Obviously, the “right level” for one person might not be right for the next. But there is some pretty good research to give us general numbers. According to an article in the Journal of Consumer Research, “… [A] moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks…. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.”

A separate study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggested it’s the lack of privacy as much as noise levels that can torpedo productivity in an open office setting.

Which makes perfect sense. While a moderately busy restaurant or coffee shop provides plenty of background chatter to drown out the silence, it also provides a level of relative anonymity you don’t get around your co-workers. Unless you live in a very small town, most people you encounter in public are strangers. When you write in a restaurant, you’re alone in a crowd.

Or as Mamet puts it, “In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved.”

Obviously, sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop puts you in the crosshairs of the Chatty Cathys of the world. This can pose a real threat to productivity. “What are you writing?” “A novel! What’s it about?” “I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Let me spend the next 40 minutes telling you about it….” This happened to me a number of times until I learned the number one rule of writing in restaurants: don’t make eye contact.

This finding is borne out by a paper presented at the annual conference of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which found “that face-to-face interaction, [and] conversation … may disrupt the the creative process.” Interestingly, the creativity factors these authors tested for include “originality, elaboration, flexibility and fluency”—exactly what you want when you sit down to a writing session. You just have to find a way to keep the kibitzers at bay.

All of this goes to say that where you work—and especially where you write—may have a profound impact on how much and how well you produce. I get it; there are people who require complete silence to get their creative juices flowing. Others need music. The key, of course, is experimenting with different environments to find out what works best for you. If you’re having trouble getting your creative on at home, try trading the silence for some anonymous chatter.

Incidentally, if you find that you’re one of those people who thrives on background chatter, but you can’t always head to the nearest Starbucks to write, there’s a solution for that. Download the Coffitivity app (available for Android and Apple devices) and take your coffee-shop noise with you wherever you go.

You’ll just have to provide your own caffeine.

Silence - a hostile work environment

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.


You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.



Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Formatting Like a Microsoft Word Ninja

“Format guidelines were not instituted to drive you crazy. That’s just a perk.”
—Janet Reid, Literary Agent

The other day I was reading a blog post by agent-blogger Janet Reid (of Query Shark fame), who had some interesting things to say about the importance of manuscript formatting:

“I’m reading (as are all other agents and editors) a LOT of manuscripts,” she said. “When mss follow a consistent format, it helps me assess the pacing. If I get to page twenty and I haven’t yet gotten a glimmer of what’s at stake for Our Hero/ine, then I know there’s a problem. It’s essential that page twenty be about the same amount of words across the board.”

She went on to note that page 20 comes at about the 6,000-word mark if the text is formatted in Times New Roman. In Verdana, the 20-page point will come at about 5,000 words. With Courier, it’s more like 4,400 words.

Simply put, formatting matters. If you follow standard formatting conventions of font size, margin width, and so on, professional readers (including agents, editors and publishers) have an easier time gauging the pacing of your book. Even more importantly, formatting your work correctly can make you look more professional—and more “serious” as a writer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Microsoft Word is still the number one tool writers use to, well, write. (Yes, I know there are other programs, and I know a lot of writers are migrating to Google Docs.) As I scrolled down the comments on Reid’s post, I was amazed at how many writers don’t know how to perform the simplest formatting in Word. We’re talking basic stuff: auto-indenting paragraphs, inserting chapter breaks, inserting automatic page numbers, and so on. I was flabbergasted to hear some people still indent their paragraphs by hitting the space key five times, or that anyone would manually number the pages of a manuscript. But apparently, Reid sees this all the time.

Since I’m something of a Microsoft Word ninja, I thought I might pass on some important skills to help you get your manuscript submission-ready. The post will be long, but I’m hoping it will be helpful.


First, a quick Q&A:

Q: Is there a standard industry formatting convention?
A: No, there isn’t a single, super-secret document that tells you exactly how to format your manuscript for submission. Some publishing pros still want manuscripts formatted in Courier. Others prefer a 1.5″ left margin because they spiral-bind their submissions. Check the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines before doing your final formatting.

Q: What makes you an “expert”?
A: I edit and format documents for a living. In putting together this post, I consulted about a dozen sites on manuscript formatting, most published by authors, editors, and other industry insiders. I’ll throw a few of the more helpful links down below.

Q: Can’t I just format my manuscript any old way?
A: Absolutely! But if you want to be taken seriously, you should consider using the formatting that agents, editors and publishers prefer.

Q: But isn’t Comic Sans more “fun” than Times New Roman?
A: No. Using Comic Sans in any context other than a hastily printed “Restroom Out of Order” sign is a crime against humanity. Stop the madness!

Basic Formatting Guidelines

Most of the sources I consulted agreed on the basics:

  • Pages: Pages should be letter-sized (8.5″ x 11″), oriented vertically with one-inch margins all around.
  • Font: Text should be in 12-point Times New Roman. When emphasis is needed, italics (and not underlining or boldface) should be used.
  • Paragraphs: Paragraphs should be aligned left (not justified) and double-spaced with no extra padding above or below the paragraphs. The first line of each paragraph should be indented by half an inch.
  • Chapters: Each chapter should begin on a new page. Center “CHAPTER” (in all caps) and then the chapter number at the top of each chapter, then begin the text of the chapter four to six lines below that.
  • Page Numbers/Headers: Page numbering should begin on the first page of Chapter 1, and should continue unbroken to the end of the book. Manuscripts should have a header that includes the author’s name and a shortened title of the work.

CAVEAT: I’m using Microsoft Word 2016, so if you have an older version, some of the controls and menus may show up in different places.

Formatting Pages


To configure your document in Microsoft Word, click on the Layout tab and set the overall document formatting using the first three icons.

  • Margins: Click the Margins icon and select Normal (1″ on top, bottom, left and right).
  • Orientation: Click the Orientation icon and make sure the document is configured for Portrait (vertical) instead of Landscape (horizontal) display.
  • Size: Click the Size icon and make sure your pages are set to Letter 8.5″ x 11″.

That’s it. Once you configure these settings, they should apply to your entire document.

Formatting Fonts

font-menuThe preferred font for most agents and editors is 12-point Times New Roman. To format your manuscript font, first select the Home tab.

Select all of the text in your document by pressing Ctrl-A (⌘-A on a Mac). With all of the text selected, pull down the Font menu and scroll down the alphabetic list of fonts until you find Times New Roman. Click to select it.

font-size-menuNext, with the text still selected, click on the Font Size menu (it’s right beside the font menu) and select 12.

Now here’s a trick a lot of people don’t know about. Select one of your paragraphs, either by clicking in the left margin of the document or by triple-clicking somewhere in the paragraph. If you consult the Styles menu, you’ll see that your paragraph is probably defined as “Normal” (default) style. The styles show up as rectangular tiles on the menu, and you know the style of the current selection because it’s outlined in gray. To ensure that Word doesn’t default back to Calibri (or some other font) at random, right-click on the “Normal” style tile and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.”


Formatting Paragraphs

One of the biggest mistakes some writers make with manuscripts is with paragraph indenting. As Reid mentioned in her post, some writers still use the “five spaces” method to create an indent. Others tab over to the 0.5-inch tab stop. If you’re doing either of these things, stop now! You’ll have no excuse once you know how to indent your paragraphs the right way.


To get started, select one of your “Normal” paragraphs by clicking in the left margin or triple-clicking somewhere in the paragraph. Once you’ve done this, look for the Ruler (it should literally look like a ruler) above the text, right below the menu ribbon. If you don’t see it, click to the View tab and check the box next to “Ruler” in the “Show” section of the ribbon menu. At the zero position on the ruler you’ll see a widget that looks like an hourglass with a rectangle at the bottom. Click and drag the top half of the hourglass over to the tick mark at exactly between the left margin and the 1″ mark. The first line of your selected paragraph should now be indented by exactly half an inch.

update-normal-styleOf course, that’s just one paragraph. You’ve got lots, right? Make sure the Home tab is selected, then right-click on the “Normal” style tile and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.” This will automatically indent all the paragraphs in your document.

“But wait!” you may be thinking. “I don’t want my chapter headings or section breaks indented!” Don’t worry. We’ll fix that.

align-leftNow let’s make sure the other paragraph settings are correct. With a paragraph selected, click the “Align Left” button on the “Paragraph” menu of the Home Ribbon. You can also press Ctrl-L (⌘-L on a Mac). Please resist the urge to justify your right margin. Though justified text looks nice and polished (published, even), professional readers hate justification because the variable spacing makes the copy hard to edit.

line-spacingRight beside the “Justified button,” though, is the line-spacing icon. Pull down this menu and select “2.0” to double-space your text. If the “Remove Space Before Paragraph” option shows up at the bottom of this menu, pull it down again and click it. Do the same thing is “Remove Space After Paragraph” appears on the menu. You don’t want this extra padding.

Once you’ve aligned your paragraph and fine-tuned the line spacing, right-click on the “Normal” style in the style menu again and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.” This will apply the formatting changes to all of your “Normal” paragraphs.

Fixing What You Broke

What if you’re reformatting a work in progress that uses tabs (or, deity forbid, spaces) to indent each paragraph?

First of all, AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH! Second of all, it’s easy to fix.

Press Ctrl-H (⌘-H on a Mac) to open the “Find and Replace” dialog box. This box is movable, so you can drag it off to one side if you have enough screen real estate. The window opens in its default configuration, but you’ll want the “Word ninja” version. Click the “More>>” button to expand the box to maximum ninja power.


First, click the “Find what” field. Find the “Special” menu at the bottom of the dialog and select “Paragraph Mark.” Word will insert “^p” into the “Find what” field.

Second, if you’ve been using five spaces to indent, click directly after “^p” and type five spaces. (Since they’re spaces, you won’t see them in the box. But they’re there.) If you’ve been using a manual tab to indent, Select the “Special” menu again and select “Tab character.” After you do this, you’ll see “^p^t” in the “Find what” field.

Third, click the “Replace with” field. Pull down the “Special” menu (at the bottom of the box) and select “Paragraph Mark.” Word will insert “^p” into the “Replace with” field.

What you’re telling Word is to look for a tab character (or five spaces), but only at the beginning of a paragraph (right after a paragraph mark). When Word finds this pattern, it will replace it with just a paragraph mark, effectively deleting the stuff you don’t want.

If you’re feeling cocky, click the “Replace All” button and let ‘er rip. If not, click “Find Next” and then “Replace” again and again until you feel brave enough to just click “Replace All.”

Now, repent and never use tabs or spaces again to indent your paragraphs.

Formatting Chapters

Now it’s time to put some structure into your manuscript. I know a lot of people don’t bother using styles, but in my opinion, you can’t afford not to use them.

Each chapter in your novel should begin on a new page. You can create a page break two different ways. The clunky way is to click the Insert tab, then click the “Page Break” icon. The easier way is to press Ctrl-Enter (⌘-Enter on a Mac). If you’re editing with white space hidden—that is, if the document looks like one continuous strip of white—the page break will show up as a horizontal gray line across the document window. If white space is being displayed, and the text is broken into discrete pages, you’ll see an actual new page.


center-textNow let’s create a chapter heading. Type “CHAPTER,” followed by a space, followed by your chapter number. Right now, the heading is probably formatted like all of your other text: 12-point Times New Roman, indented half an inch. Select the heading, either by clicking in the left margin or by triple-clicking on the heading itself. Then center the heading, either by clicking the “center” icon on the Home ribbon, or by pressing Ctrl-E (⌘-E on a Mac). Then, with the heading still selected, drag the top of the ruler’ “hourglass” widget to the zero position so your chapter heading isn’t indented.


Now let’s style the heading as a heading. Find the “Heading 1” tile on the Styles menu, but don’t click it! Instead, right-click on the tile and select “Update Heading 1 to Match Selection.” Boom—this updates the style and applies the style to the heading.


navigation-paneHere’s the awesome part. When you style chapter headings as “Heading 1,” they show up on the “Headings” list on the Navigation Pane. (If you don’t see the Navigation Pane on the left side of your document window, click the View tab and check the box next to “Navigation Pane.” It also shows up when you press Ctrl-F or ⌘-F to Find text.) Now scroll down through your document, styling each of your chapter headings as “Heading 1.” As you do this, they’ll appear in the Navigation Pane. This menu of headings is interactive, so when you click on a heading, Word takes you straight to that chapter in your document. As you edit, Word highlights the heading of the chapter you’re working on, helping you keep track on where you are in your book.

This is one of the most indispensable features in Microsoft Word. Use it to your advantage!

The text of your chapter should begin four to six lines below your chapter heading. Since both your “Normal” and “Heading 1” styles are double-spaced, this means you should leave either one or two blank paragraphs between the heading and beginning of your chapter. Now go through your manuscript and make sure everything is consistent.

Extra-Special Awesomeness

While you’re drafting, you can make your life even easier by adding a brief description to your chapter headings. For example: “CHAPTER 1 – Sally meets Billy at the park,” “CHAPTER 2 – Sally goes to school,” and “CHAPTER 3 – Billy loses his socks.” These descriptions show up on your Navigation Pane, forming a clickable quick-reference outline of your entire story as you go. (If the Navigation Pane truncates the heading, just hover your mouse over it and the entire thing will be displayed.)


Obviously, you’ll want to go through and delete these descriptions before you send your manuscript to an agent, editor or publisher. But while you’re actively drafting and editing, they’re really helpful.

Formatting Scene Breaks

Scene breaks, also known as section breaks or blank-line breaks, are those separators within chapters that usually appear in published novels as an extra space between blocks of paragraphs. When they fall at the bottom or top of a page, they’re sometimes indicated by a short line, a row of asterisks, or sometimes an ornamental glyph.

create-new-styleIn your manuscript, scene breaks should be set off as a separate, double-spaced paragraph, with either a number sign “#” (or “hashtag” if you’re under 20) or a row of three asterisks “***” centered between the margins. You shouldn’t include any additional blank lines before or after the scene breaks.

The easiest way to manage scene breaks is to set up a style to handle them. To do this, type your “#” (or “***”) and format it correctly by centering the paragraph and eliminating the indent. Then right-click the selected paragraph and find the “Styles” icon on the pop-up menu. (It should be on the top one, at the far right.) Pull this down and click on “Create a style.” This will open a dialog box called “Create New Style from Formatting.” Name your style “Scene Break” and click “OK.”

The “Scene Break” style will appear as a new tile on the “Styles” menu on the Home ribbon. Now, when you want to create a scene break, just type “#” or “***” and click on “Scene Break” and Word will format it for you. Easy peasy.


Title Page and Table of Contents

Do you need a title page? Yes. Do you need a table of contents? Not necessarily, but if you’re going to export your manuscript as an e-book for alpha or beta readers, a table of contents can really come in handy.

Title Page

Title page format is one of the least standardized manuscript elements. Opinions vary, but most everyone agrees that the following elements must be included:

  • Title of the work
  • Author
  • Author’s contact information
  • Word count

Some sources suggest that you include the work’s genre as well as information about your agent, if you have one.


Click to View Larger Image

Here’s a good template for a title page, based on an analysis of a number of industry recommendations. Beginning at the top of the page, at the left margin, type your name (on one line), your address (on two lines) and your phone number and email address (on separate lines). Single-space this block of text.

Skip down to roughly the middle of the page and type the title of your work, in all caps, centered on the page. Skip a line and type “by,” then skip a line and type your name. Skip two lines and type “### Words,” replacing “###” with the word count of your manuscript, rounded to the nearest hundred. (Some guides say to the nearest 1,000.)

You can add your genre if you want, though if an agent or publisher has requested a manuscript they probably already know the genre of the work.

One thing you shouldn’t bother putting on your cover page is a copyright notice. But don’t take it from me; take it from Janet Reid:

Your work is protected by copyright law as soon as you write it.

Once your work is sold to a publisher, there’s a clause in your publishing contract that says the publisher will register the work with the US Copyright office.

You should not register something with the copyright office at the query stage. And you also don’t need to put the (c) notice on your manuscript.

Basically, including a copyright notice in your manuscript makes you look like a newb, and you don’t want that, do you?

Table of Contents

Sure, you can create a manual table of contents, but why would you want to do that when it’s so easy to have Word create one for you?

toc-menuThe table of contents should come directly after the title page. First, create a new page by pressing Ctrl-Enter (⌘-Enter on a Mac). Type “Contents” or “Table of Contents” and format as a heading by clicking the “Heading 1” style. Then hit Enter a couple of times.

Now click to the References tab. (In some previous versions of Word, this feature was in the Insert tab under “References.”) Click on the “Table of Contents” icon and select “Custom Table of Contents…” In the dialog box that opens, make sure that “Tab leader” is selected to a row of dots, and click the down arrow beside the “Show levels” setting until the number is “1.” Then click “OK.”

toc-dialogYou should now have a table of contents containing the names and page numbers of all of the chapters you’ve marked using the “Heading 1” style. To make sure the table is formatted correctly, select it by clicking on the table and then un-indent the lines using the top-hourglass slider in the Ruler. Make sure the font, font size, and other settings are consistent with the rest of your document. When you’ve done this, right-click on one of the lines, pull down the “Styles” menu and click “Create a Style.” Call this style “Table of Contents” and click “OK.”

The table of contents doesn’t track your content in real time, so you’ll have to tell Word when you want it to update. To do this, right-click on the table and select “Update Field.” An “Update Table of Contents” dialog box will open. Click the radio button beside “Update entire table” and click “OK.” Voila! All of your chapters, chapter headings, and page numbers will synch up with what’s in your manuscript.

Formatting Headings and Page Numbers

Remember Janet Reid’s comment about the crucial page 20? The only way readers will know when they arrive on page 20 is if the pages are numbered. What really blew me away was when Reid said, “Recently I’ve had several authors who have inserted page numbers by hand….” Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? This actually happens? Yes, and apparently it’s not uncommon. This means, of course, that one little change to the text on page one can throw off the pagination for the rest of the manuscript. For the love of Mike, don’t do this!

Besides page numbers, another key aspect of manuscript formatting conventions is the inclusion of a header at the top of every page. Imagine a busy agent carrying a stack of five unbound manuscripts. She drops the stack and the pages get mixed up. Without a header on each page, the agent wouldn’t be able to sort the identically formatted manuscripts back into proper order.

Here’s another tricky part. The cover page should not have a header on it. Any pages before the first content page of your book should use lower-case Roman numerals. The actual numbering should restart at chapter one (or your prologue, if you have one), so that page 20 comes at the actual 20th page of the text of your book. We’ll call this point the “story beginning.”

Here’s how to make that all happen.

To get started, go to the View tab and make sure “Print Layout” is selected under “Views.” (The other options are “Read Mode” and “Web Layout.” You don’t want either.) Now, look at the page breaks in your document. If you see just a gray line (and not actual page boundaries), position your cursor over the gray line. It will change to the “Show white space” cursor, which looks like a capital H with up/down arrows in the pockets. Double-click on the line and you’ll expand the continuous page to individual pages.


You can collapse this later in the same way: just point to the break and double-click.


Now we need to convert the page break before your first chapter or prologue to a section break. Click to the Layout tab and click right before your first chapter heading. The insertion point should be right to the left of the word “CHAPTER” (or “PROLOGUE”) at the story beginning.

breaks-section-next-pageNow find the “Breaks” option in the “Page Setup” section of the Layout tab. Pull down the menu and click on the “Next Page” option under “Section Breaks.” Nothing will look different, but this is a crucial change.

Click over to Word’s Insert tab. Click the “Header” icon and select “Edit Header.” (You can also double-click directly on the header to edit it.) The ribbon will change to include some new options only available when working with headers. (“Header and Footer Tools” under the Design Tab.)

link-to-previous.pngFirst, find the “Navigation” section of the Design tab. You’ll see an option called “Link to Previous” that is probably selected (grayed out). Click on it to deselect it. The “Same as Previous” message at the bottom, left of the header will go away. You should now just see “Header -Section 2-.”

Click on the header area and type the following: Your last name, a slash, a shortened title of your book, a slash, then the word “Page.” For example, if your name is Smith and your book is called “The Short, Happy Life of Wendell Jones,” you might type something like, “Smith/Wendell Jones/Page.” If word is indenting the heading, move the top-hourglass widget back to the zero position to make it stop.


With your cursor still at the end of the header line, press Ctrl-R (⌘-R on a Mac) to right-align the text. (You could also click back to Home and click on the Align Right icon in the Paragraph menu, but this is quicker.) Now, with your insertion point to the right of “Page,” type a space and then click the “Page Number” icon on the Design ribbon. From the menus, select “Current Position” and then “Plain Number.” The number you see will likely be 2 or 3 or even higher.

page-number-formatClick on the “Page Number” icon again and select “Format Page Numbers.” The “Page Number Format” dialog box will open. Make sure the number format is set to “1, 2, 3, …” Down where it says “Page numbering,” Click the radio button next to “Start at” and make sure the number next to it is “1.” When you click “OK,” you should see the page number at the story beginning change to “1.”

What you do next depends on how much “stuff” you have before the first actual page of your story.

If you just have a title page…

Scroll back to your title page. The label beneath it should say “Header -Section 1-.” You’ll probably see a duplication of the header you used for your main chapters. Select the whole header by triple-clicking on the text and hit delete. Click “Close Header and Footer” and you’re done!

If you have a title page and other stuff…

If you’ve added a table of contents or other pages before your story beginning (like a dedication page), you’ll want to retain the header, except for on the title page, but change the numbering before the story beginning.

Scroll up to the page right after your title page. This is likely where your table of contents or acknowledgments page is. If the header isn’t selected for editing, double-click on it to edit.

Click on the “Page Number” icon and select “Format Page Numbers.” The “Page Number Format” dialog box will open. Click on the “Number format” menu and set to “i, ii, iii, …” then click “OK.” Now click on the checkbox next to “Different First page” under the “Options” section of the ribbon. Then click “Close Header and Footer.”

If you did everything correctly, the title page should display no header at all, and the first page after that (but before the story beginning) will have the “Name/Title/Page ii” combination on it. The header at your story beginning should be “Name/Title/Page 1.” Mission accomplished! Once you set this up, you shouldn’t ever have to mess with the headers again … unless you change your title (or your name).

A Few More Formatting Conventions

Spaces Between Sentences

If you know what a “typewriter” is, you were probably taught at some point to hit the space bar twice after sentence-final punctuation (periods, question marks, exclamation points, close quotes). If this old practice is still fossilized in your mind, it’s time to re-train your brain. If you can’t get out of the habit, use “Find and Replace” (Ctrl-H or ⌘-H on a Mac) to find all of your double-spaces and replace them with single spaces.

Formatting for Chapter Beginnings

Published novels will oven employ drop caps or a line of words in small caps at the beginning of chapters. Resist the urge to so this in your manuscripts. Agents and editors don’t want manuscripts that look frou-frou and professionally typeset—they just want a clean, simple copy they can read quickly.

Italics, Underlining and Boldface

Most formatting guides indicate that you shouldn’t use underlining or boldface anywhere in your manuscript. If you need to emphasize a word or phrase, use italics. Back when typewriters were the state of the art, underlining was the norm. Today, italics are standard. To quickly set text into italics, press Ctrl-I (⌘-I on a Mac).

Manuscript Format Links

16 Manuscript Format Guidelines (Daily Writing Tips)

How to Format a Novel Manuscript (Scribophile)

Correctly Formatting Your Novel Manuscript (Advanced Fiction Writing)

Format Your Novel for Submission (The Editor’s Blog)

What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript? (Writer’s Digest)

Proper Manuscript Format for a Novel (First Manuscript)

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Fingers vs. Feet—How NaNoWriMo Is Like Running a Marathon

Running and writing are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity. They are seemingly miles apart on the spectrum, but in reality, not at all.

For both, you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.

—Amanda Loudin, Washington Post

On October 7, 2017, I was fortunate enough to run the St. George Marathon for the very first time. Since I ran the race while I was in the middle of preparing for this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was impossible for me not to see the similarities between marathon running and marathon writing.

Not everyone enjoys running, of course, but over the past several years it’s become a big part of my life. It’s also become an integral element of my writing process. Even if you have no interest in ever running a marathon (or even a 5K), if you’re “competing” in the 50K/30.0 “marathon” of NaNoWriMo, you’re still a marathoner in my book.

Why? Because they’re similar in so many ways.

1. You must prepare.

Marathons aren’t run on race day. They’re run in the months (or years) of training that lead up to race day. The race itself is essentially the final exam after many hours of practice, and just like NaNoWriMo, it’s basically pass or fail.

There may be some people who can just waltz up to a marathon starting line and, without any training, run the race. These people are freaks of nature and we will not speak of them again. Similarly, there are people who can begin pecking away at their keyboards on November 1 without preparing at all and still finish a novel by November 30. These people are freaks of literature and should be applauded.

Nothing will guarantee that you’ll succeed in either endeavor, but preparation sure can help. If you’re running, preparation means miles—and lots of them. You can do tempo runs and hill work and fartlek training (it’s probably not what you think), but distance is the key. If you’re writing, you can do all sorts of things to get ready for your NaNoWriMo “marathon.” You can brainstorm, outline, “snowflake,” create character bios and write character monologues. You can work on developing good writing habits—after all, each novel you write is “training” for the next one. You can read extensively in your genre. All of this can help contribute to your success between the “starting gun” at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and the “finish line” at midnight on November 30.

By the way, for all the talk about “writing sprints” during NaNoWriMo, I’m not a big fan. Slow and steady finishes the race, whether you’re running or writing. Lots of practice actually helps you win.

2. You must begin with the end in mind.

When starting anything monumental, it’s critically important to have a goal. With NaNoWriMo, as with a marathon, you have a built-in baseline. If you don’t write 50,000 words or run 26.2 miles in the time allotted, you can’t count it as a “win.” In race terms, that’s a “DNF,” or “Did Not Finish.” As a point of pride, nobody wants a DNF on their record.

For my first marathon, I was just hoping to finish, but I had more ambitious goals my second time around. My target was to get close to a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, with the understanding that I would go for a BQ in my next full marathon. I actually missed that goal, but only because I overshot it and ran the race faster than expected. That’s the good kind of goal-missing, and it’s more likely if you’ve put in adequate preparation beforehand.

Five years ago, I just barely managed to complete my first NaNoWriMo, verifying my word count at 11:55 p.m. on November 30. I prepared a little better the next few years, setting and reaching higher goals each time. You never know what you can actually accomplish until you really put the effort in. And whether it’s a race medal or a pile of words to craft into a finished novel, the result can be very rewarding.

Just keep thinking about posting this to all your social media accounts on December 1:


3. It’s all about pacing and consistent effort.

I run pretty fast for an old guy, but I  know my limits. I wanted to be realistic when I was game-planning St. George, so I picked a pace I knew I could handle … and then pushed it just a little further. The difference between training pace and race pace comes from adrenaline and willpower. It’s amazing what the human mind and body can accomplish when they conspire to psych each other out.

The baseline target pace to win NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words over 30 days—and that’s if you write every single day. It’s a great idea to set your goal a little higher than that, and supplement your daily writing with some additional “marathon” writing sessions throughout the month. Then (and this is the key to finishing NaNoWriMo) make sure you stick to it.

If I don’t hit my goal on a particular day, I make up for it the next day. Or the next. You have to make it a priority, which almost always means giving up other things. I don’t watch TV during the month of November. I don’t read anyone else’s books. I even cut back on my mileage.

In addition to adrenaline and willpower, you’ll probably need caffeine. That’s a big component to success. Your mileage (of any kind) may vary, of course.

Here’s another trick: When you hit your daily goal, walk away. Literally stop in the middle of a sentence, close your file and shut off your computer. Stopping in the middle of things (in medias res, so to speak) gives you somewhere specific to pick up during your next writing session.

4. Sometimes, things go wonderfully wrong.

Anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo multiple years knows that feeling of nervous excitement that comes on the day before the challenge begins. It’s very similar to what a marathoner feels right before a big race.

My goal for the 2017 St. George Marathon was to finish in 3:30:00, which would bring me within five minutes of a Boston Qualifying time. When I boarded the bus for the starting line at 4:30 in the morning, I was feeling great about this target. Then I realized I was missing my safety pins. Then I lost my phone. Seriously. I managed to get new pins and find my phone, but then my watch lost contact with the GPS satellites just minutes into the race. Because of this, I had a difficult time tracking my pace. The result, and I’m not making this up, was that I ran the first half of the race much faster than I’d planned.

That might sound like a good thing, but actually it was a real concern. I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to maintain that pace for the duration of the race. My worry was that I’d bonk at mile 18 and have to walk the rest of the way. A race-ending injury was also a real possibility.

We’ve all had writing projects that go pear-shaped. Anything can go wrong, but sometimes, when things go wrong they actually go right. Here are a few possibilities, and the obvious solutions:

  1. Problem: There’s “no there there”—you simply can’t squeeze enough words out of the story idea you picked. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. (There’s nothing in the rules that your 50,000 words have to form a single, coherent project.)
  2. Problem: You lose interest in your story. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. If you don’t have a new project at hand, free-write (using writing prompts, if necessary) until something catches your fancy.
  3. Problem: You get partway through your draft and realize your book is morphing into something completely different than what you planned. Solution: Go with it. In December, you can revise the earlier chapters to match the later ones.

5. You will feel self-doubt.

A I mentioned, when I hit the halfway mark on the St. George course I experienced a major moment of doubt. I must’ve looked a little lost, because a woman running beside looked over and asked me if I was doing okay. According to her race bib, her name was Bonnie. I admitted to her that I was going way faster than I had intended. Bonnie’s reply: “That’s a good thing, right?”

Maybe yes, maybe no. I told her I was worried I would crash and burn. Wisely, Bonnie asked me what my gut—and my body—were telling me. I did a quick self-check. I was feeling pretty good for having just run a pretty fast 13 miles. When I told her so, she looked over at me and said, “You got this. Go for it!” I’d never met this person before, but her little pep talk was the turning point for me in that race. I give Bonnie a lot of credit for helping me realize I could do what I’d set out to do.

Whether you’re doing your first NaNoWriMo or your tenth, at some point you’ll probably question whether you can finish or not. Find your Bonnie. Talk to a friend—writer or non-writer. Write your next 1,667 words and then treat yourself to ice cream. See a movie or get a pedicure. Then get back to your keyboard and finish your dang novel. You’ll thank yourself, afterwards.

One of the best T-shirts I saw at the St. George Marathon said “I can do hard things.” Writing 50,000 words in a month is hard. But you can do it.

6. The accomplishment is permanent.

st-george-medalThere’s no such thing as a “participation trophy” in competitive running. You don’t get anything just for showing up, but you often do get a medal for finishing. Similarly, you get exactly nothing for starting NaNoWriMo if you don’t finish it.

As with any competition, it’s all about the numbers. The registration cap for the 2017 St. George Marathon was 7,800 runners. About 6,000 made it to the starting line, and exactly 4,723 crossed the finish line under their own power, within the time limit.

A 26-year-old man from Lindon, UT, finished the race first, setting a new course record of 2:14:44. Yikes! The very last person to finish before the cutoff was a woman in her mid-40s from Idaho. She finished in 4,723rd place with a time of 7:27:29, and she was as deserving of his finisher’s medal as the guy who came in first. Both “won” in the sense that they ran the 26.2 miles in the required time frame. And nobody can ever take that away from them.

Numbers matter in NaNoWriMo, but mostly in determining who wins and who doesn’t. It makes no difference whether you write an hour a day or whether you produce those words in the first 24 hours (or even the last 24 hours). If you crank out 60K, 70K or even 100K words, you’re no more a winner than the person who writes exactly 50K. And once you’ve verified your words and received your winner’s certificate, it’s an accomplishment you can claim forever.

According to one estimate, about half a percent of the U.S. population (or around 1.6 million people) has finished a marathon. Believe it or not, being a NaNoWriMo finisher puts you into an even more exclusive club. According to the NaNoWriMo organization, roughly 384,000 people attempted NaNoWriMo last year, but only 34,000 won. (As far as I can figure, about 66 percent of participants were from the U.S.) The average win rate over the past five years is just 12.5 percent.

You can be part of that 12.5 percent. Don’t settle for being a NaNoWriMo starter. Be a finisher!

If you’re working furiously toward your 50,000 words, keep going! If you get stuck, I encourage you to put on your running shoes and go run a mile or two. Even if you don’t get the inspiration you need, you’ll be one or two miles closer to running your first marathon!


(For the record, I finished the 2017 St. George Marathon in 429th place out of 4,720, 40th in my age group, with a personal-record time of 3:16:57. I also qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon with a “cushion” of over eight minutes.)

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Thinking Through Your Brain … and Then Your Fingers

Last week, an author I follow on Facebook (Larry Correia, best-selling author of the “Monster Hunter International” books, among other awesomeness) made an interesting observation about his writing process:

Ten years ago when I was starting out, I wrote my first book while I had two jobs. I had to write super late at night, or marathon weekends. So I beat myself up trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible. I’d often write until 3:00 in the morning.

But I wrote a ton of stuff that wound up not being that good, which got thrown away. After the first couple years I learned to never bother writing past 1 in the morning, because there was a 90% chance anything past that, no matter how awesome I thought it was at the time writing it, was going to suck.

Then when I only had one job, but my career was taking off, and I was writing less crazy hours every night, and then shooting for 5,000 word days over the weekend. It made for a ton of really late nights and long ass Saturdays and Sundays.

And I still ended up throwing out a bunch, or spending a lot of time editing and cleaning.

For the last few years I’ve written full time, I do about 2,000-3,000 a day consistent, and I usually wrap up around 4;00 in the afternoon or so because my creativity is worn out by then and my mind is starting to wander.

But now, I seldom have to throw away much, and the editing time is a lot shorter. Because when I’m not pushing as hard, the first pass is far cleaner.

So even though I was cranking out more words in shorter amounts of time back then, the overall productivity is better because when I’m not pushing crazy hard, there is less clean up time later.

As Howard Tayler would say (for those of you who listen to the Writing Excuses podcast): “LUXURY!” It would be great to be able to quit my job and write full time. But I have this weird addiction to food, clothing and shelter, so I still haven’t quite made that jump. Someday, I hope. But not today—not yet.

I imagine there are more TTOF readers who are in the “starting out” phase, as opposed to writing full-time like Larry Correia. We have no option but to write when we can, always during the times when our day jobs and other responsibilities aren’t commanding our attention. For some, that means getting up early and cranking out words. For others (like one of my writing group friends), that means arranging our schedules for long lunchtime writing sessions. For me, that means blocking out the last several hours of the night for writing time.

Discovering your most productive time of day is just smart. Some other important considerations include location (kitchen table, home office, coffee shop, public library?) and auditory stimulus (this music, that music, silence?). Timing and environment can have a profound impact both on how quickly we write and on the quality of what we produce. But I suggest you can become more productive as a writer by paying attention to the length and frequency of your writing sessions.

Brain-Writing vs. Finger-Writing

In general, I believe that “trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible” can be counterproductive. I have a non-scientific explanation for this. Your brain may work differently (or maybe mine is defective), so all of the standard caveats apply. I’m basing this on my own experience, and of course your mileage may vary.

I think writers have two brains. We have a normal one that allows us to walk, do our jobs, recognize our spouses and progeny, tie our shoes and make it to dentist appointments on time. Deep inside our skulls, we also have a “writer’s brain” that generates story ideas, dreams up characters and conflicts, makes connections between plot points, and generally does all of those other things related to the weird stories that pop into our heads.

During the “brain-writing” phase, our writer’s brains spin like crazy to queue up ideas for us to put on paper. Then we sit at the keyboard and do the “finger-writing,” during which we transfer those ideas onto paper (literally or figuratively) so they can be revised, edited, and cherished forever. (Or thrown out—that’s always an option.) While finger-writing only happens when we’re actually at our keyboards, brain-writing happens all the time—while we work, play, and even sleep.

(The only time brain-writing might actually shut down is when we watch television. I could be wrong on that, though. Remember: I said this was non-scientific.)

The concept of brain-writing explains why we sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a current or future project. Our ever-restless writer’s brains tend to spit things out on their own schedule. We have to write down those ideas immediately or they can be lost forever.

I don’t know about everyone else, but it seems there might be a practical limit to how much stuff my brain can queue up at one time. When I try to finger-write beyond the point in a story where my writer’s brain has brain-written, the quality of my prose (and my storytelling) tends to suffer. In Larry’s parlance, I can always tell when I’m “pushing crazy hard,” meaning that I’ll end up with stuff that either gets tossed out or requires a lot more work to hammer into shape.


Guessing at Larry’s Schedule

The idea of brain-writing and finger-writing helps explain the pattern of production (both in quantity and quality) that Larry described in his post. What it sounds like is that, when he was writing part time, he was trying to cram his finger-writing into a few long sessions. Today, as a full-time author, he’s producing fewer words, most likely in shorter bursts.

Based on what I know about Larry as an author and a guy, if he’s producing between 2,000 and 3,000 words per day, he probably has a schedule that goes something like this:

8:00: Get up. Scratch. Eat something manly.
8:15: Shoot a moose using ammo he crimped with his own teeth.
8:30: Personal hygiene activities of various kinds.
9:00: Sit down at computer. Destroy Internet trolls. Drink the tears of his enemies.
10:30: Write stuff.
12:00: Eat a manly lunch. More scratching.
1:00: Wrestle a bear or blow something up. Whatevs.
1:30: Destroy a few more haters. Twerk on their disemboweled arguments.
2:00: Write more stuff.
4:00: Done. Go out and fell trees with karate. Bench-press a Camry. More scratching.

My point is that he’s probably writing his 2,000 or 3,000 words in a couple of sessions per day, with some time in between for his writer’s brain to front-load more content for his afternoon session. And then, of course, he has all evening and overnight (while his regular brain is fighting ninjas, plotting the overthrow of a small South American country, and possibly even sleeping) to do the brain-writing ahead of his finger-writing the next morning.

Personal Writing Retreats

Two Novembers ago, I did something that I’d always wanted to try during NaNoWriMo: a personal writer’s retreat. Since I live relatively close to Las Vegas, I threw some clothes in a bag and drove to Sin City for a veritable orgy of word-cranking. My goal was to see if I could produce 15,000 words in a single long weekend. I managed to do exactly that, but only by spreading my production across multiple short sessions.

On Thursday, I wrote for about two hours as soon as I got to town. Then I had some dinner, saw a show, and wrote for a couple more hours. Boom: 3,000 words my first night.

Friday morning, I went to Einstein’s for a bagel, caffeine, and another thousand words. I returned to my hotel, where I showered and watched a little TV, then cranked out another 1,000 words before the housekeepers knocked on the door. I went out and did some shopping, then camped out at a public library for a while, pounding my keyboard like a rented mule. I was able to generate over 6,000 words that day in six sessions. I did essentially the same thing on Saturday, slept the sleep of the dead and drove home on Sunday with a draft that was 15,000 words longer. And doggone it if many of those words didn’t turn out to be pretty good ones.

I guess I could’ve tried it a different way, chaining myself to the hotel desk first thing in the morning and saying, “You’re not allowed to eat, sleep, or do anything else until you produce 6,000 words.” Would that have worked? I don’t know. But that’s not how I work. And that’s the point.

By the way, I repeated the experiment again in 2016, with similar results.

Add Sessions, Not Hours

What I’m trying to say here is that it is possible to increase your production, but if your fingers get too far ahead of your brain, the stuff you produce might not be the best.

If you want to produce more, instead of adding hours to a single regular writing session, try adding another session to your schedule. If you’re a morning writer, tack on an hour at lunchtime and see if that helps. If you’re a night writer, try pounding out some words right after work, then returning to the keyboard after your writer’s brain has had time to get ahead of the story again. If you want a high-production weekend, you might do better with four sessions spaced out rather than a single marathon of frustration.

Your brain might be totally different from mine, but maybe not. Who knows? It never hurts to try.
David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Survey Analysis: How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovetIn my post from last month, “How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?” I talked about how authors of young adult books are including more profanity, sexual situations, drug use, and other controversial content in their novels. I was really curious to find out in greater detail what readers of all ages thought about various difficult topics. Leveraging Google Forms and Sheets, I created a survey to find out.

The survey was both a success and a failure. On the plus side, I got almost 200 responses, which was more than I expected. On the negative side, only six of those responses were from actual young adults. The rest were from grownups (18 and older) who read young adult literature.

I promised to provide an analysis of the results, so here they are. Please note that I’m not claiming statistical significance here. I’m not a stats person, though I do consider myself something of an Excel ninja. Though it’s interesting, I would caution against reading too much into the data I present below. When in doubt, write the book you want to write.


From sharing my results with various groups, I managed to get a total of 195 responses. The demographic section of the survey tells us a little about the people who completed it.


As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of people who responded to the survey were adults. The breakdown by age category is here:

Age Category



12 – 14 years old



15 – 17 years old



18 – 29 years old



30 – 39 years old



40+ years old




The overwhelming majority (86%) of respondents were female. Here’s the full breakdown:










Something else, or I prefer not to answer



Last year, I was at a writing conference, attending a panel about writing young adult fiction. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and asked the question: “What can be done about the perception that YA is dominated by females?” I actually laughed out loud when I heard this. All four panelists were women. Maybe 80% of the audience were female. This isn’t a “perception” … it’s a reality.


Survey respondents came from 27 US states, plus some international locations. However, because of my circle of friends (and also because of the groups where I went to solicit responses), the vast majority of the responses (54%) came from people who live in Utah.

Here’s the breakdown of how many responses came from each location;

Alabama (1), Alaska (1), Arizona (14), California (7), Colorado (4), Hawaii (4), Idaho (11), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Louisiana (1), Maryland (1), Michigan (3), Minnesota (1), Nevada (5), New Mexico (1), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Oregon (4), South Carolina (1), Tennessee (2), Texas (8), Utah (105), Virginia (2), Washington (5), Wyoming (1), Other or International (5)

Average number of books read per month

I thought it would be interesting to know whether the respondents were voracious or more casual readers. Because of this, the survey asked how many books, on average, each of the respondents read.

Books per Month



less than 1



1 or 2



3 or 4



five or more



Percentage of books read in the young adult genre

Finally, I asked what percentage of books each of the respondents read in the young adult genre.

Books in the YA Genre



less than 25%



25 to 50%



51 to 75%



75% or more




Using the word “methodology” automatically makes things more scientific, right? Well, probably not, but I did have a method to my madness. For every topic or subject matter in the main section of the survey, I asked respondents to rate their comfort level using the following rating scale:

  1. Very uncomfortable. I actively avoid books like this, and won’t read them at all.
  2. Uncomfortable. I have a low tolerance for books like this, and sometimes stop reading if I encounter the topic.
  3. Moderately comfortable. I don’t seek out books like this, but I don’t avoid them if the story is good.
  4. Comfortable. I don’t mind reading books like this, and often enjoy them.
  5. Very comfortable. I enjoy reading books like this, sometimes seeking them out specifically.

To analyze the responses, I considered a 1 or 2 to be negative (discomfort) and a 4 or 5 to be positive (comfort). The 3 responses were neutral, so I ignored them for the purposes of analysis. Using this methodology, I created Pro/Con comparison for each item, and then compared them as percentages.

As an example, the first question asked the respondents’ comfort levels with “Bible” curse words like “damn” and “hell.” (I actually asterisked them on the survey so nobody could complain about being exposed to profanity). In the results, I got 60 5s, 63 4s, 61 3s, 8 2s and 3 1s. (Yes, three people indicated they were “Very uncomfortable” with encountering the words “damn” and “hell” in a YA novel. Go figure.) Adding the 4s and 5s and the 1s and 2s together, I got a Pro score of 123 and a Con score of 11, or 91.8% Pro and 8.2% Con. Make sense?

So let’s look at the individual sections and scores. To reduce clutter, I’ll provide just the Pro and Con tallies and percentages for each item. However, you’ll find a link to a PDF with the full scoring at the bottom of this post.


I grouped the questions about language into three categories: “Bible” curse words, scatalogical and “body part” curse words, and F-bombs (which my teenaged son calls the “Elder Swear”). The results didn’t really surprise me:


Pro %

Con %

Stories with characters who use “Bible” curse words (d**n, h**l)



Stories with characters who use scatalogical or “body part” curse words (s**t, a**, d**k, c**k, c**t, p***y)



Stories with characters who drop F-bombs (f**k)



On one of the groups where I posted this survey, a group member took me to task for grouping words like “shit” and “ass” in with the body part swear words. The names for female body parts, she claimed, were used more for sexual power games than for curse words. I can see her point (to a point), but I was just trying to do a survey, not make a statement about gender politics.

Sexual Content

As far as I can tell, one thing that distinguishes young adult from middle grade fiction is the introduction of sexual situations. (Sometimes, when meeting other writers, I like to joke that I write “middle-grade erotica.” It’s just fun to see the looks on their faces as they try to parse that.) As in all of the categories, I ordered the items based on what I expected the relative comfort/discomfort levels to be.

Sexual Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with lots of sexual content but no actual sex between teens



Stories that talk frankly about pornography and masturbation



Stories depicting hetero sex between teens



Stories depicting sex between teens and adults



Stories depicting taboo sex involving teens (incest, BDSM, etc.)



One aspect of the results surprised me: overall, the respondents were slightly more comfortable reading stories about actual sex than about pornography and masturbation. I don’t know why, but I was really taken aback to see that readers found simulated, solitary sex more disturbing than the real thing.

The last question in this section is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t seem that the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon has trickled down to the YA reader. E.L. James’ books pushed BDSM into the mainstream to a certain degree, but that’s not happening for adult readers of YA fiction.

LGBTQ+ Content

Like it or not, young adult fiction tends to be heteronormative in the sense that it assumes that most boys like girls and most girls like boys. (It reflects the real world in this way.) Since I personally know a number of readers who intentionally steer clear of books with gay and lesbian protagonists, I figured it made sense to ask these questions separately.

LGBTQ+ Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is incidental to the plot



Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is crucial to the plot (including “coming out” stories)



Stories with minor LGBTQ+ characters



Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens



Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens and adults



YA readers seem to be more accepting of LGBTQ main characters if their sexuality isn’t directly tied to the plot. The big difference in comfort levels between the first and second items above kind of surprised me. Minor gay and lesbian characters (I was careful not to use the word “token”) seem to be more acceptable to more readers.

Substance Abuse

I remember being shocked, as a young teenager, reading about teenagers drinking and smoking in The Outsiders. I was probably 13 when I discovered that book, and nobody in my sheltered circle of friends did any of that stuff. My kids had a very different experience. In my kids’ school, vaping and seems to have replaced smoking as the default bad-habit-du-jour.

And remember: The Outsiders was published in 1967. Teens have always smoked and boozed and used drugs.

Substance Abuse

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting teenagers smoking or vaping



Stories depicting recreational drug use by teens



Stories depicting alcohol use by teens



Stories depicting the abuse of prescription drugs by teens



Stories depicting the sale or purchase of illicit drugs by teens



I actually expected the Pro scores here to be a little higher. It’s possible that the older audience skewed the numbers here to the Con side.

Mental Illness

There has been a huge effort over the past several decades to destigmatize mental illness. In the past several years, I’ve read YA books with protagonists who have Tourette syndrome, with severe depression, and even sociopathy. Readers seem to see mental illnesses as just another obstacle for characters to overcome.

Mental Illness

Pro %

Con %

Stories focusing on protagonists dealing with mental illnesses



Stories that prominently feature self-harm (cutting and other self-injury)



Stories focusing on protagonists who have eating disorders



Stories depicting characters with suicidal thoughts or who attempt suicide



The one surprise here is the balanced Pro/Con score for self-harm. From what I can tell, in the United states, around 6-10 percent of teenagers intentionally hurt themselves, with “cutting” being the most common activity of this type. At the same time, less than 3 percent of of teens struggle with eating disorders. With self-harm being two or even three times more common than eating disorders among U.S. teens, you’d think it would be a topic more people would be comfortable reading about. Not so, apparently. That self-harm is significantly less acceptable to readers than suicide should be an eye-opening fact.

Abuse and Violence

I’m not certain I got the questions in this category “right.” Violence is a staple of growing up—kids beat up on each other all the time. I tried to think of the types of abusive situations that might cause someone to put a book down.

Abuse and Violence

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting sexual abuse involving teens or children



Stories depicting sexual assault involving teens or children



Stories depicting domestic violence



Stories depicting other kinds of violent situations



Interestingly, the Pro/Con rating for sexual assault is within half a point of the rating for hetero teenaged sex (see above). And the readers I polled are more comfortable reading about sexual assault than about consensual sex between LGBTQ teens. That last question is kind of a catch-all, and doesn’t really say much about anything.

Social Issues

Speaking of catch-alls, this last category was exactly that.

Social Issues

Pro %

Con %

Stories involving bullying (real-world or cyber)



Stories involving racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality



Stories involving sexism, sexual discrimination or sexual inequality



Stories in which teens talk about or get an abortion



Stories involving firearms



Stories with heavy political content



The bullying question was a gimme. Bullying is so pervasive in all aspects of teenagerhood that I would defy anyone to come up with a single YA novel that didn’t feature bullying of some kind.

I wasn’t surprised by the Pro/Con ratings on the “ism” questions. I was pretty surprised that my respondents were more comfortable reading about teenagers with guns than they were about teenagers getting abortions. (But then, I had a very Utah-heavy population that responded.) The question about politics was also interesting. I wasn’t expecting a two-thirds Pro rating on that one, though I’m not sure whether I expected it to be higher or lower.



Again, since this turned out to be essentially a poll of adults, I’m not sure how much we can extrapolate regarding teen readers. It’s worth pointing out, though, that adult readers of YA fiction are often the “gatekeepers” who buy the books, put them on library shelves, assign them for classes, and so on. So grownup attitudes about young adult fiction are still worth considering.

You can download a more detailed analysis of numbers below. Enjoy!

YA Fiction – How Edgy Is Too Edgy?


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?


I didn’t actually set out to answer those questions. But over the past several months, they’ve been on my mind. A lot.

Let’s back up. My teenaged daughter is a voracious reader. She always seems to discover and read the “hot topic” books months before I even hear about them. She’d read all John Green’s books before I even got a whiff of The Fault in Our Stars, and she read Thirteen Reasons Why way before Netflix even thought about vandalizing the book as a miniseries.

In the run-up to my NaNoWriMo project last year, I decided I wanted to write the kind of YA book my daughter likes to read: edgy, real, and touching on the scarier areas of high school life. I settled on a revenge novel, one that used multiple points of view. Then she and I sat down and brainstormed about the horrible things high schoolers do to each other.

Some of the ideas we came up with together were pretty dark. But I was drawn to the characters they suggested, and I thought they made for a great story. I’m revising now, struggling with my beginning, but I’m still happy with the way the book is shaping up.

To help me get in the right frame of mind for this book, I’ve been reading extensively in the “edgy YA” category. Here are a few of the books I’ve devoured in the past few months:

  • Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. Deals with suicide, bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, rape and voyeurism.
  • King Dork, by Frank Portman. A comedy dealing with sex, drugs and (of course) rock ‘n’ roll—plus bullying, alcohol and assault with a deadly tuba.
  • Hate List, by Jennifer Brown. The main character is the survivor (and unwitting participant) of school shooting rampage. Also touches on bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, sexual issues.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews. A very funny, profoundly weird story about terminal illness, bullying, racial issues, drug use and gangs. Contains copius F-bombs.
  • Looking for Alaska, by John Green. This multiple award-winning book deals with sex, smoking, death, more sex, and alcohol and drug use, with enough profanity to earn it a hard R from the MPAA.
  • The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Abuse and poverty, some surprising violence (domestic and otherwise), lots of language and bullying and mentions of kiddie porn mixed in. So far, my favorite book of 2017.
  • Castration Celebration, by Jake Wizner. Billed as “High School Musical—rated R,” this book revolves around sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, alcohol, suicide, and depression. And it’s a comedy!

Now, I live and write in southern Utah, so I work in a bubble. Though this isn’t an absolute, readers here tend to gravitate more toward sci-fi and fantasy, focus on “clean romance,” and stay away from heavy realism. The bubble is thick and isolating—so much so that, when I began introducing my current project to my writing group, one of the members asked, “Do books like this actually sell?”

Publishers don’t release sales numbers, but if we look at Thirteen Reasons Why on Amazon, we see the book has 29 separate formats and editions, including seven hardcover, nine paperback, two digital and four audiobook. There’s also the popular miniseries on Netflix. What this says to me is that Jay Asher probably doesn’t have to feel around under his couch cushions for gas money. Similarly, Looking for Alaska is available in 55 different formats and editions. Millions of copies of both books have been sold.

Obviously, books for teens with lots of “adult” material can be incredibly popular and make bucketfuls of money for their authors and publishers. But I’m still curious to know: how far is too far, and how much is too much? Are there specific topics that readers just don’t want to encounter in young adult novels?

I can’t answer that question. In fact, it’s a question I’m asking TTOF readers. I’ve put together a survey for you to fill out:


Copy-and-paste link:

You’ll be asked about various thematic elements and  your level of comfort with them. I encourage you to respond to the survey, and to ask your friends to do so as well. I’ll summarize the results in a future column.

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at