Sunday, January 2, 2011
Writing Tips - A Novel Writing Checklist - In a Nutshell
So, you’ve decided to write a book, more precisely a novel, a work of fiction. I, for one, am thrilled because I love well-written fiction. But only well-written fiction. Fiction that is sloppily written is a huge turn-off for me, and if I encounter a sloppily written book, it’s more than likely I’ll never give that author another chance. There are just too many good books out there waiting to be read.
If you’re like most new writers – even writers who aren’t “new,” then you might have tried your hand at writing a novel before only to give up the project fifty or so pages in. I think most of the people who fail to finish their novels fail due to lack of planning, and yes, in my opinion, that includes developing an outline and knowing your ending before you write the first word.
I hope the short checklist below will help aspiring authors to finish their books and to make those books the best they can be.
Write What You Know
Everyone who writes, and many who don’t, have heard the rule, “write what you know,” and it would seem a very easy rule to follow. However, even experienced writers can get tripped up once in a while. For example, I decided to write a book set in 1940s Ireland. Why not? Since I wasn’t born until 1977, I could easily research the 1940s, I thought. After all, plenty of people my age write historical novels taking place in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been to Ireland several times. I thought I knew the country well. I certainly love it. However, when I sat down to write the book, I found I didn’t like the writing at all. I didn’t feel it was very good, and it certainly wasn’t up to my usual standards. I had been to Ireland. I could describe parts of it very well. I had researched the 1940s. I wasn’t going to give any of my characters a cellular phone, a color TV, Internet access, or call waiting. I knew the style of dress, what people liked to eat, the popular songs, etc. But even though I did know all of that one big problem remained. I’m not Irish. Not even the smallest part of me. As much as I love Ireland and respect the Irish, I don’t have an Irish soul. I’m French and American. When I set the same story in 1940s Appalachia (I’ve spent a lot of time in Virginia and West Virginia), it made all the difference. This was a world I really knew - inside and out.
If you’re going to be writing about a real town or city, you have to know that city through and through. Know which streets are known to be “good” residential districts; which streets and areas are known for their restaurants and shopping; be able to describe any distinguishing statuary, etc.; what trees and flowers grow in that part of the country; what birds frequent that habitat; what are the principal stores in the area; how old is the town and are the descendants of its founders still around; etc., etc.
Questions like the above could go on and on and on for pages. The bottom line is that it’s all in the details, and if you’re going to write about a real place, you’ve got to get those details right. They might seem like small things to you, but be assured, they won’t be small to people with an intimate knowledge of the place you’re writing about. It’s tiny details like these, this intimate knowledge of a place that will make your book come to life.
Even if you’re writing about a fantasy world, that world will have to have consistency in its rules. Create your world and then know it like you know yourself. No, know it better than you know yourself.
Know Your Characters
This one also seems self-evident, but I’m amazed at the number of writers who tell me they prefer not to know their characters when they begin writing; they prefer to let their characters reveal themselves to them. It’s true that characters often surprise us with what they’ll do and not do, but if we don’t know our characters before we start writing, we’re going to find our writing is inconsistent and unbelievable. You really do need to spend time writing those detailed character biographies many of you thought you could get away without doing.
I’ve read manuscripts in which the same character has blue eyes in some scenes and green eyes in another. I’ve read manuscripts in which characters were meek and shy in some scenes and strong and assertive in others.
If you don’t know your characters’ personalities and motivations – inside and out – then you’re going to be writing scenes that will cause readers to shake their heads and say, “He/she wouldn’t do that!” And when a reader does that, you’re going to lose that reader’s trust.
So, write those character biographies. Get them out of the way. Be assured your characters will still surprise you along the way.
Identify Your Villain Factor
The essence of any novel is conflict. Without conflict, a novel is just “he went there and did this” or “she went there and did that.” Without conflict, there’s no suspense; there are no questions raised in the mind of the reader. There’s no reason for any reader to keep turning the pages or to care. Some beginning writers (and some who aren’t beginners) think conflict should be reserved only for mysteries and thrillers, but every book needs conflict. That conflict can be external, as in the case of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in which Santiago is in conflict with the sea and the marlin. (Hemingway was a master writer, like his work or not, and Santiago, in his conflict with the marlin, is also in conflict with himself.) Sometimes an individual is in conflict with the society in which he or she lives as is Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But many times, especially in highly literary novels, a character is in conflict with himself or herself. A character may want to do something, but his or her moral code prevents it, and he struggles with his conscience. The best books contain several types of conflict. Sit down right now, if you haven’t already, and identify the conflict in your book, your “villain factor.” Make it as specific as possible.
Be Genre Specific
Unless your book is a mainstream novel, e.g., Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or a highly literary one, e.g., Kate Walbert’s The Gardens of Kyoto, which means it fits into no particular category and would be suitable for a wide audience, then your book is a genre novel. If you’re writing within a genre, i.e., romance, horror, mystery, police procedural, cozy, science fiction, fantasy, historical, etc., make sure what you write fits the mold and expectations of that genre. Many people like to call their novels “literary” when they are really just “mainstream.” (A literary novel would imply loftier themes than a mainstream book and be more character driven.) Genre writers sometimes want to call their books mainstream. Don’t make this mistake. We’re all attuned to write something a little different. There’s nothing wrong with writing a genre novel, so if that’s the way your writing mind works, get over thinking there is. Mary Higgins Clark writes romantic suspense, and she has a huge, loyal, and devoted readership, and she’s gotten megarich with her writing. Ditto for Tom Clancy and thrillers. Think about where your book would be shelved in the bookstore. Being able to identify your book as “mainstream,” “literary,” “romantic suspense,” “horror,” “a cozy,” etc. will definitely make it much easier to market.
Embrace a Theme
All books, even genre novels that are more plot driven than literary books, can be improved by embracing a theme. You need to identify your theme or themes before you begin writing, though of course additional themes will emerge as you write, adding depth to your main theme. Ask yourself questions like the following: What is my book about? Is it about the importance of family and how bonds are formed among people? Is it about the transcendent power of love? Is it about the importance of showing mercy to those less fortunate than I am? Or is it about people who get their “just desserts?” Providing a running theme throughout your novel will unify the work and make it “all of one piece.” People who fail to do this often find their readers saying, “The book started out one way, then it became something else altogether.” Readers don’t like this. Don’t let it happen to you.
Determine the Best Point of View
First of all, you need to write in either first or third person. (First person employs “I” and would go something like this: “It was high noon when I left the book shop and went to the park. And that’s when I first saw her.” Third person would distance us more from the narrator and go like this: “It was high noon when Steve left the book shop and went to the park. And that’s when he first saw her.”)
First person books like The Gardens of Kyoto, seem to be en vogue right now, and they can be easier to write than books written in the third person, but first person isn’t always the right choice. Some good writers successfully mix first and third person, but I wouldn’t advise this unless you really know what you’re doing. Right now I’m working on a novel that employs first person in the book’s present and third person in the book’s past, and it’s working out very well for me.
Don’t even think of writing in the second person (“you”) as Jay McInerney did in Bright Lights, Big City. Yes, it worked in that book, but it takes a very skilled writer to pull it off and just the right material. I once wrote a story that was told in the second person, and it worked out wonderfully, but I don’t think I’d be inclined to write an entire book that way, and most readers, including me, very much dislike that point-of-view when reading it over the "long haul," i.e., a novel.
I know a lot of would be authors who are expecting a million dollar advance for their first novel and, hopefully, a movie deal with Adam Sandler or Nicolas Cage or Daniel Craig or even Jack Nicholson in the starring role. Take a deep breath and face the truth about your novel: As good as it may be, if this is your first book, a million dollar advance and a movie deal probably aren’t going to happen. Oh, it does happen, on occasion. Elizabeth Kostova sold her debut novel, The Historian, for more than two million. Diane Setterfield sold her debut, The Thirteenth Tale, for more than one million. Film rights and foreign rights to both books were also sold, upping the ante. But they are the exception, not the norm. Most debut novels sell for advances of $2,000 to $10,000, and most never even see the back end of the bestseller list. The Gardens of Kyoto is one of my favorite books, and it’s also one I’ve mentioned several times in this piece. It’s a beautifully written novel, lofty even. But most people I know, even those who love highly literary books, have never even heard of it. Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips was better known than The Gardens of Kyoto, and was also a favorite of mine, but go look at the number of reviews it has on Amazon. Not many. The gorgeous Gilead by Marilynne Robinson wasn’t well known until it won the Pulitzer.
Write because you love to write; don’t write for the money you think you might earn. Think of the money as a “side benefit.” And make sure your novel is as polished and as professional as possible before you submit the manuscript to any agent or editor. If you’re unsure about certain aspects of your book, hire an Independent Editor like me or like someone else out there you trust to go over the manuscript. Remember, you only get one shot with each agent and editor. Make it your best one.