So you’ve written the great American novel… or the next great British novel. I suppose congratulations are in order. You have indeed accomplished a grand feat. Most people who call themselves writers are sitting around dreaming about writing something so grand.
I have edited several novels over the course of my career, and the main problem that I have with these efforts are that usually the novelist seems to think that average readers read Charles Dickens or Herman Melville.
The style is usually plodding, lumbering along through backstory and explanation, where every detail of everything is described right down to the color and texture of the wallpaper.
To make things simple, I have devised three rules to make sure that we novelists avoid things that might make the average modern reader cringe. Here they are:
- Cut Out the Unnecessary Bits – In other words, if there are any paragraphs (or chapters) that do not drive the story along, then cut them completely out of the novel. An artful writer can do all the explaining through suggestion and hinting, letting the reader figure out and fill in any gaps. The trick is guiding the reader through these gaps while letting them use their imagination without letting them stray too far from the story. This takes much work and careful planning on the writer’s part, but is well worth the payoff. The way this is also done is through careful outlining and planning. I usually spend 3-6 months planning a novel before I ever write any chapters.
- Strong Unique Characterization – The male hero who saves the girl or who is an unstoppable dynamo is overdone and useless. Readers want unique heroes repackaged in the form of the unusual and unique. Robert Chazz Chute wrote This Plague of Days, in which the hero is an autistic boy…and it’s a zombie story. What is interesting about this narrative is that we follow a boy with autism through a post-apocalyptic landscape (I know…zombies are currently over saturating the market) but what makes Chute’s narrative sing is the uniqueness of the hero. We want to know if this boy can survive it, and we fall in love with his quirky character. It is what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer work. Buffy is a fish out of water in her new role as vampire slayer. What we need to do as writers is develop interesting characters that are not the normal run-of-the-mill hero crossing the threshold from dork into hero. The hero needs to be uncomfortable in the skin of being a hero. It worked for Katniss Aberdeen, for Amy Pond, and for Rick Grimes. Writers must create characters that are of this vein.
- Adverbs and “To Be” Verbs – One strong indicator of a powerful writer is the ability to tell a story with a minimal use of adverbs and also the shunning of “to be” verbs. Sure, “he was happy”, but happiness to one is vague to another. “He beamed” sounds much better to the mental ear, however. Click here for a list of overused adverbs if you want a few to avoid. Adverbs can truly truly slow down a narrative, and can absolutely spew forth vagaries that do not get to the meat of what writers are trying to hammer home. If writers can control their use of these two parts of speech, they can sweeten their narrative so that the text flows out of their keyboards and into the imaginations of their readers like a sweet dream.