Excerpted from THE PORTABLE WRITERS’ CONFERENCE:
YOUR GUIDE TO GETTING AND STAYING PUBLISHED
(Quill Driver Books—to order, check your bookstore or call 1-800-497-4909)
OK, you've finally finished writing your novel, but you've had no luck marketing it, even though your closest friends have all read it and told you they liked it. A lot.
C'mon, what else are they going to say? Even though you swore them to tell you "the truth," you've got your fragile ego invested in a work you spent a significant amount of your life to complete — and no one wants to be the one to burst your balloon, particularly those who are close to you. Besides, they're unable to make any constructive criticism, because they can't figure out why your book doesn't quite work.
But I can, even though I haven't read it. I'm a "book doctor" who teaches new novelists how to rewrite their manuscripts to a publishable level, and I've discovered that most beginning novelists make the same mistakes. I can't guarantee that fixing these problems will get you published, but I can promise that it will improve your novel considerably.
A HOOKLESS BEGINNING
"There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I'd been treated by at least six of them. And married a seventh."
That's how Erica Jong began her 1973 bestseller, FEAR OF FLYING, and it's a helluva good opening. In two sentences, Jong tells us her narrator has had a lot of problems — but isn't too dysfunctional to have married a psychoanalyst — and she immediately arouses our curiosity by making us wonder what her main character is doing on a Vienna-bound airplane full of shrinks.
Your opening sentence, paragraph, or scene should be a hook to grab the readers' attention and perhaps give them some idea what kind of novel they're getting into. Agents, editors, and book buyers have too many books to peruse, and far too little time to do it in, so if you neglect the hook, readers may lose interest quickly and never find that your book really takes off around the fourth chapter. Just because someone has started reading your novel doesn't mean they're going to finish it — in fact, agents and editors frequently reject books after reading fewer than five pages! How far would you read in a novel that opens with: "Joe woke up when the alarm went off and noticed it was raining"? (Which brings me to a sub-peeve: First-time novelists often open their first chapters with weather reports.)
You may not know what the "hook" is when you start your novel — you might even write the entire first draft before you work on it — but don't neglect it. The beginning of your novel is the most important part.
MULTIPLE or DIFFUSE POINTS-OF-VIEW
Much more than the plot, what readers are most interested in are other people – and this means the main character’s thoughts and feelings, and how those relate to, and resonate with, the reader’s own experiences. Ideally, a novel should have one major point-of-view (POV): that of the main character, the protagonist. That means that the entire story should be seen through his eyes, in the same order that he finds out about events, and not including information to which he is not privy — he cannot see into anyone else's mind, so can only guess what others are thinking from visual and verbal clues, and also cannot know what he has neither witnessed nor been told.
Keeping one POV enables the readers to identify with the main character, at least to the extent that he is our eyes and ears. If you switch POV mid-scene, you give the readers a kind of literary whiplash which prevents them from really getting involved in your novel the way they would if they’d gotten to know – and were staying with – one person for the entire ride.
The only viable exceptions to having one clear POV throughout are, generally:
- If there is one adversary whose mind and
motivations are sufficiently juxtaposed to the protagonist's
to make a consistent alternation between those two POVs feasible
(a common device in serial killer novels, but not much else);
- Two or more entirely separate plots, each with a different
main character, are alternating through the entire novel before
coming together at or near the climax; or
- A single scene from another POV is used as a prolog and/or epilog, giving the reader a dimension not otherwise available through the hero's POV.
- If there is one adversary whose mind and motivations are sufficiently juxtaposed to the protagonist's to make a consistent alternation between those two POVs feasible (a common device in serial killer novels, but not much else);
LACK OF INSIGHT
Which tells us more:
"Gina bit her lip" or:
"Gina felt embarrassed, sure that everyone was staring at her"?
The first example is an observation, the second is an insight. Unlike a movie, a novel allows us to see inside the mind of the protagonist, and it is her personality and emotions which make a reader care what happens. Characterization makes a novel come alive, not the plot; a book still can be good with little or no plot if it's got some interesting and multidimensional characters, but a solid plot without well-developed characters might as well be an action movie.
We have to be able to understand what makes the protagonist tick, what are her strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears. Many beginning writers' heroes are nonentities who lack dimension or depth; their main purpose seems to be to conduct the plot. Remember that everyone has a personal set of quirks and habits, and so should your major characters. Reveal your character’s background through her reactions, what she relates to and why; people don't respond in a vacuum — our present reactions are formed by our past experiences.
It is essential that you develop your protagonist's personality from the inside-out, consistently showing us what she thinks and feels as events unravel, keeping us up on how she reacts to the other characters she runs into.
"I am looking forward to going to the prom with you on Saturday," Karen said.
Bill responded, "We are going to have to take the bus to the prom on Saturday, Karen, because my father will not lend me his car. Is that all right with you?"
While that may be all right with Karen, it’s not OK with me. People don't really speak that way – particularly teenagers! Native speakers of American English use contractions ("I’m, we're, won't") and shorthand ("OK?" instead of "Is that all right with you?"), seldom speak in complete sentences, and use slang appropriate to their ages and backgrounds.
Each of your characters should have his own syntax and vocabulary, different from the others, rather than all sounding the same . . . and probably much like the author. Some will swear, others won't. Some are educated, and their speech patterns will show that; others might have limited vocabularies or use regionalisms. The reader should be able to learn about the character from how she expresses herself, as well as from what she is saying.
As an exercise, try removing all external indications of which character is speaking in a written conversation and see if you can still tell who's talking. If you can’t, your dialog needs work.
Listen to the people around you talking; mentally type their sentences as they speak. Notice that in a conversation between two people, the other's name is hardly ever used — and usually only for particular emphasis, as in: "I'm leaving you, Steve."
Check your television’s settings menu to activate its closed-captioning capabilities; if you use that in addition to the audio, you can read the same dialog you're hearing.
Try reading your novel's dialog aloud — it will help you avoid lines which sound written — in the theater, such dialog is said to have "printer's ink" in it. Once you develop an ear for dialog, your characters will seem much more real.
You know the old adage "Write what you know"? Although it's sound advice, it doesn't mean you have to write your novel about a guy who sits on the couch in his skivvies and channel-surfs. Likewise, you don't have to be a homicide detective to write a police procedural, you just have to be willing to do some research.
I saw one manuscript in which the main character was supposed to be a hospital administrator/psychiatrist, and another in which the protagonist was meant to be a bestselling author, but the novelists obviously knew nothing about hospitals and psychiatry or the publishing business, so their lead characters came off as inept and unbelievable. Fiction should be well-researched because it adds verisimilitude; if you try to fake it, it'll show.
Don't do your research by watching television or movies — the information thus obtained is notoriously incorrect. (For instance, you know the white outline that TV police often leave where a body has been? It's a Hollywood invention; doesn't happen in real police work.) Spend the time and energy to find out what you need to know from a reliable source. Doing research online is easy, but always take into account the source of the information you obtain; there’s a lot of misinformation perpetuated on the Net. If you don’t have Internet access, libraries and librarians are still excellent sources.
Try to talk to people who work in the field you need to investigate. If you need a coroner, diamond merchant, or nurse to "talk shop" with you, look up some in your area, explain that you’re writing a novel involving their field of expertise and offer to take them to lunch. Go with a prepared list of questions to cover what you need to know. If you are fortunate enough to be able to interview someone, make sure to write down some of their work-related lingo — for instance, police "clear" a case, rather than "solve" it.
Use only what research is needed to make the characters sound real; throw the rest away — don't show off your research.
In real life, a trial lawyer tells the jury what she's going to show them (her opening statement), then shows it to them (her examination of witnesses), and finally, tells them what she showed them (her closing argument). However, you can't do that in a novel because you bore the reader by telling them the same thing three times. Most beginning writers tell the reader too much, which can result in a suspense novel without any suspense. They tell the reader what the protagonist thinks, then the protagonist tells another character, who then rephrases it.
A story is a collaboration between writer and reader; please allow readers room to think on their own. If you've already told your readers that the redhead couldn't have killed the doctor because there is no midnight flight on Wednesdays, don't make them read through it again while your detective tells that to his captain. Assume your readers are as intelligent as you are; don't "talk down" to them.
Try to leave things hanging at the ends of scenes and chapters, so the reader will wonder what's going to happen, instead of already knowing — if they know, there's no reason to finish reading the book!
A RUSHED ENDING
In an early draft of my first novel (LOVE BITE; Warner Books 1994), I got to the scene where the protagonist and the antagonist have their climactic confrontation, but I was so sure by then that the reader would have guessed the final outcome – and thus found my telling it to be anticlimactic — that I skipped it entirely.
I didn't understand why my editor was so upset about that — I thought I was being subtle! — until I edited someone else's novel with the same problem. My client had led up to all hell breaking loose after one antagonist died, yet he skipped all that hell and went directly to the summing up, depriving his readers of seeing the villain get his come-uppance. The readers deserve a big, dramatic scene when they finally get where you've been leading them — don't be stingy with it!
But an author should not end a novel with the climax. After the climax, there should be a denouement, a winding down. It can be an epilog, or a resolution of a subplot, but without it, any ending will feel terribly rushed and unsatisfactory — and will leave the reader reluctant to ever read any of your books again!
Before I finish here, I'd like to point out that you can't write novels if you don't read them. When you read published fiction, study what you read — ask yourself how the author makes you like, dislike, and/or understand the characters. Figure out how the author makes those characters come alive for the reader. If you find yourself reading rapidly, step back and observe how the author has paced the book. You can even learn from badly written books — if you're bored or otherwise not involved, try to figure out why, and how the author has lost your attention. If you read with a critical eye, you can learn from any novel, by either positive or negative example. I learned how to how to write and edit saleable fiction by being an active and analytical reader.
Don't get discouraged. Not everyone who plays piano will get to Carnegie Hall, and not everyone who writes will get published — but if you don't continue to work at it, you'll have no chance at all.
One of the best ways to set an editor's teeth on edge is to misuse apostrophes, so I'm going to give you a quick lesson here on the appropriate use of this much-maligned punctuation mark. Although the proper use of apostrophes won't get you published, apostrophe abuse will mark you to an editor as someone whose writing is less than professional, so it is worth your while to learn this stuff. It's not just fussiness!
CONTRACTIONS: An apostrophe in a contraction indicates that two or more words have been contracted into one word with some letters missing, as in: you'll = you will, I'm = I am, She'd've = she would have, etc. Note that it's (with an apostrophe) means only "it is" (see Pronoun Problems, below).
POSSESSIVES: An apostrophe followed by an s indicates possessive, as in: Woody is Janet's dog. The possessive of a plural noun allows for the apostrophe to follow the plural without an additional s, as in: The editors' screams could be heard down the hall from their conference.
PROPER NAMES PLURALIZED: The apostrophe should never be used to pluralize a proper name. Therefore, it is: Say three Hail Marys, or The Baxters are not home. (Note, however, that The Baxters' house follows the rule for plural possessives, above.)
LETTERS/NUMBERS PLURALIZED: Just add an s, no apostrophe, as in: CODs, RRs, In ones and twos, and She was a hippie in the 1960s. If you are leaving out numbers in a year or decade, use the apostrophe where the missing numbers go: It happened in ‘92 or ‘93, not in the ‘80s.
PRONOUN PROBLEMS: Related to apostrophe abuse are common errors regarding certain pronouns; please learn to distinguish which form is called for by your text:
It's/its: Use an apostrophe if it's is a contraction of "it is" – It's not my job – but not for the possessive – The cat tried to catch its own tail.
They're, their, there: The contraction of "they are" is they're –They're going to be late again. The possessive of "they" is their – That is their problem. The reference to place is there – Go over there.
You're, your: The contraction of "you are" is you're – You're going to get the hang of this eventually. The possessive of "you" is your – Your son dug up my flowers.
Who's, whose: The contraction of "who is" is who's – Who's paying attention here? The possessive of "who" is whose – Whose book is this?