Anachronisms—Anything that is placed in an inappropriate historical context is an anachronism. Avoiding anachronisms is something writers have to be very careful about when their story is set in another era. For instance, you could have someone eating canned peaches in the context of the American Civil War, but you can’t do that during the American Revolutionary War. Be particularly careful with metaphors. You don’t want to compare something to a rocket ship if your story is set in Roman times.
Assumed actions—You can save words by avoiding expressions such as She reached down and . . . and He reached over and [patted her hand] and He extended his [hand][arm] and . . . Such actions can be assumed. Just say, “She picked up the book” and “He patted her hand” and “He put his arm around her waist.”
Attitude—In a nonfiction manuscript written by one of my clients, The author referred to the Chinese people by saying: “The positive side is that they’re trainable.” This is what I said to her: You can allow a character to say anything he/she wants in a novel, but in a nonfiction book you must be careful not to offend readers with an inappropriate attitude. Some people may believe what you said to be true, but your form of expression is painfully condescending and exposes the writer’s ethnocentric prejudices all too clearly. Remember that you’re talking about a people with a cultural heritage spanning five thousand years (as you admit in the next sentence), not chimpanzees or theme-park seals—people who once considered the West barbaric (and perhaps still do). I’ve seen no studies that indicate that the intelligence quotient of Asians is statistically lower than that of other ethnic groups.
An author is certainly entitled to his or her opinions, but they should be shown, not told, or ascribed to another source. If you think the Chinese have the table manners of starving hyenas, for instance, then show the reader how they eat rather than simply saying they eat like hyenas. Too many statements like the one cited above will both lose readers and brand you as an insensitive “ugly American.”
Backtracking—The actions and events of a story are best told, for the most part, in their natural, chronological order. Doing so helps the novelist to maintain the sense of forward movement of his story, its momentum, and its pace. If a writer presents the action out of sequence sometimes, the narrative can suffer from backtracking, which can confuse or even irritate readers. Backtracking may occur in a small way within a single paragraph or in a much larger and more disruptive manner such as when the novelist presents entire scenes or chapters out of the normal progression of events.
We must remember that the novelist’s goal is to keep the reader in the moment (the “ongoing present” of story time) and to reveal things as they occur. You don’t want your narrative to have the feeling of moving one step forward and two steps back, especially if that happens repeatedly.
Began to/started to + verb—Just as in real life, people in novels either do or say something or they don’t; they don’t just begin or start to perform an action. So saying that someone “began to” or “started to” do something is unnecessary in most instances. Instead of writing something like “Tony started to run to the front entrance,” just write “Tony ran to the front entrance.”
Book length—A first novel should be between 60,000 and 90,000 words. Most print publishers prefer a minimum word count of around 70,000 words for a first novel, although some don’t want anything shorter than 80,000. Some general guidelines:
• Mystery—60,000 to 80,000 words
• Thriller—90,000 to 120,000 words
• Sci-fi—80,000 to 120,000 words
• Romance—50,000 words or a little less
• Young adult—25,000 to 60,000 words
• Novella—25,000 to 40,000 words
• Business/how-to—50,000 to 70,000 words
• Memoir—50,000 to 90,000 words
Whatever the case, each chapter should have enough room to develop so that it offers the reader a sense of unity and completeness, of including a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each chapter is like a clockwork wheel whose cogs mesh with the other wheels, all of them turning within the larger wheel of the story. Writing a two- or three-page chapter isn’t necessarily “wrong” (see Robert B. Parker’s “Spencer” novels, for example), but including such chapters arbitrarily amid much longer ones makes the mechanics feel out of balance and synch. Better to strive for more symmetry by constructing chapters of similar size, including a noticeably shorter chapter only if you need a transitional bridge, which is often the case between sections of higher action, for instance, or when you need to link a wide gap in story time.
Chapter One—The first chapter is vitally important, especially in commercial fiction, because this is where you have to hook the reader. The opening should introduce the main character(s), the story problem (or a strong hint of the problem), and the catalytic event (the “motivating incident”), and it should give the reader a general idea of what the story is going to be about. Find a point in time where MC, motivating incident, and problem converge and let the action, the characters, and the plot develop from there. If your first chapter does not open with the protagonist (it doesn’t have to), then it should begin with some intriguing action that raises questions that the reader wants to see answered.
A good way to jump-start a story is to begin with your MC involved in some activity. This doesn’t have to be the slam-bam blow-up-bridges kind of action. Dialogue is action, too. Just so you have somebody doing something. That action will be more interesting if it at least implies what the main story problem is. This stimulates the MC to take some action in response. That’s when your story starts moving. After that, always think of your story in terms of problem, struggle, and resolution (beginning, middle, and end). Remember thatfiction is typically about people in trouble or, as one writing instructor put it, “people behaving badly.” That’s why readers should be able to see or surmise trouble of some kind in the first chapter.
Chapter length—How long should a chapter be? I hear this question now and then. My answer: Each chapter of a novel should be an independent unit that includes a beginning, a middle, and an end. It connects logically with the previous one (unless it’s the first chapter) and to the one that follows. Chapters are most commonly unified when the writer concentrates on a specific and natural segment of time or action or a combination of the two. One chapter in a crime/mystery novel, for instance, may cover one day in a P.I.’s life, during which s/he learns the name of an important witness, finds that person and interviews him/her, talks to an old buddy on the police force, and finally adds another piece to the puzzle s/he’s trying to solve just before calling it a day. A chapter could also be much shorter, in which, say, the P.I. talks to his friend on the police force.
No rule says that a chapter must contain a certain number of words, but it should include at least one scene. Anything shorter is like the jump-cut in film. You can use scene fragments as you approach the climax of a thriller, but you shouldn’t put them elsewhere.
As you plan your novel, think about how you can divide your story into natural segments of dramatic action that are limited in time and space, with each chapter beginning and ending at a logical point.
Character description—How much character description should you write? I believe that less is more—and so do many professional writers. One of those pros, the multiple award-winning novelist Lawrence Block, puts it this way:
I’ve long felt that there’s a great advantage in not furnishing a physical description of a viewpoint character, and this is true whether you tell your story in first or third person. The story, after all, is seen through his eyes and over his shoulder, and you often come out ahead letting the reader make up his own mind what the lead looks like. (Often, I suspect, the reader winds up seeing the narrator as looking rather like himself. That’s as vital a process in fiction as transference is in psychoanalysis, and the last thing you want to do is impede it.)
Stephen King offers essentially the same view in his book On Writing.
The worst thing you can do is to stop the action to insert a long, detailed description of a character. A quick sketch of the person and his clothing is okay if you can do it in a line or two. Beyond that, you should sneak in more details only here and there. Using comparisons works well. For instance, you could say “I wasn’t going to mess with this guy right now. He weighed a lot more than my 185 pounds.”
Character names—Readers will keep track of your various characters more easily if you’re consistent in the way you refer to them. Generally (but not always), writers refer to their good guys by their first name and to bad guys and neutral characters by their last name. The best names for fictional people help with characterization. For instance, they should reflect the character’s ethnic background.
Characters ranked in importance—Characters in your story can be ranked one, two, and three in importance. These are your primary, or main, characters, your secondary characters, and those we could call “walk-ons.” Generally speaking, only characters of some importance to the story will speak and interact much with your main characters, i.e., those who help to advance the plot.
Character tags—You can add to the individuality of your story people if you give them particular “tags,” which are those little habitual things that people do that are, well, characteristic. For instance, someone may fuss constantly with his/her hair or clothing, tug an earlobe, sit and bounce one leg continuously while speaking, or use the same word or phrase repeatedly. Observe people around you closely, and you’ll soon discover a host of tags that you can use.
Characters must change—Readers like to see main characters change over the course of a story. Showing changes in your story people is one of the novel’s primary tasks. An engaging MC will be faced with conflicts of all sorts—inner conflict, conflict with other characters, and conflict from challenging situations. When the protagonist manages to choose the behavior that is “good,” ethical, and moral in spite of good reasons to do otherwise, then he/she emerges as a stronger, more admirable individual. Antagonists are similarly confronted, but their choices are motivated solely by selfish reasons or psychosis.
Clichés and trite expressions—Don’t use tired and worn-out expressions, including clichés (“like a bat out of hell”) and trite phrases (“try though he might”). One challenge of being a good writer is to find new and vivid ways to use words to paint mental pictures.
Conflict, purpose of—Once you have the premise for a story and the main characters in mind, you should ask next, Where is the conflict? and What is the catalytic event? Energy is required to get a story off the ground, so you must present some event that forces your character(s) to do something. That event is part of the conflict. You must introduce or at least hint at that trouble as soon as you can—on the first page or in the first paragraph or even in the first sentence, if possible. A story doesn’t necessarily need a larger-than-life villain or life-threatening events to overcome, but all good stories have conflict. A story with characters who all get along perfectly well is bow-ring.
Next ask, Does the protagonist have to struggle to get what he/she wants? If not, then you have no conflict. If the protagonist has nothing to fight for and/or against, then the story will have no feeling of movement. And without conflict and movement, your story will be of little interest to readers. Conflict creates drama, which is what readers want.
Deus ex machina—This phrase, meaning “god from the machine,” comes from ancient Greek drama. It refers to the way a story resolves itself in the climax—the “cavalry to the rescue” ending. In this scenario the hero doesn’t solve his own problems; some outside force does it for him. Modern readers find this unacceptable. They want a logical, believable ending, not a contrived one.
End quote, paragraphs—When you have someone speaking without interruption and you need to start a new paragraph of dialogue, do not put a quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph. By not using an end quote, readers know that the same character continues to speak. Do, however, put an opening quote at the beginning of the next paragraph, which tells the reader that the paragraph to come is dialogue. When the character stops talking, then add the end quote.
Epigraphs—An epigraph, the dictionary says, is “a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme.” Although epigraphs are not always desirable, they can function as a way of commenting on the world that you are depicting in your novel. If you can’t find any appropriate quotes, you can invent some and attribute them to nonexistent sources, including a person. Dean Koontz has done this with epigraphs from his fabricated The Book of Counted Sorrows.
Genre-mixing—Before you write a genre novel, you must know what category it belongs in, such as mystery, thriller, crime, romance, sci-fi, etc. You don’t want to mix genres. Literary agents and acquisitions editors want to pigeonhole books quickly and easily so they know exactly what they’re selling (the editor, remember, first has to sell your book to her editorial board) and know where your book will be shelved in the stores. If they can’t slap a label onto your book immediately, it will be a tough sell.
“Made his/her way”—I see this phrase a lot in the work of new writers and in published books, as well, when the writer is indicating that a character is moving from point A to point B. The expression is not inherently “wrong,” but I think it has been rendered colorless (if not almost meaningless) by thoughtless overuse. English is well stocked with verbs that describe human locomotion, most of them livelier and much more visual than this expression. I would use a robust verb in my own writing rather than settling for “made his way.” I suggest you do the same. See "Verbs for Human Movement."
Mistakes: Writers’ top 12
1. Writing sentences in the passive voice—Watch out for excessive use of the passive voice of verbs. Replace was and were with verbs that show action: Write Burglars stole a lot of jewelry instead of A lot of jewelry was stolen by burglars.
2. Using the same words over and over—Watch out for pet words. Find good synonyms to bring variety and life to your writing.
3. Using too much punctuation—Avoid being showy or self-consciousness about punctuation. Save the semicolon for formal writing, and don’t use it in dialogue. For guidance, consult a good basic text like The Elements of Style.
4. Using too many contractions—Using many contractions in exposition (narration) signals an informal style that may not suit the target publisher or the audience. When in doubt, check the publisher’s style sheet or ask for advice.
5. Writing “purple prose”—A common affliction of new writers, who often use too many adjectives and too much description: “The rich, red tropical sun rose brilliantly over the sparkling azure blue water, spreading its glorious warmth over the dewy dandelions, sensuous snapdragons, and sleepy morning glories that opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.” Barf!
6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective usually works better than two.
7. Using clichés—Writers should avoid clichés like (ahem) the plague. Find an original way to express your thought.
8. Overusing $10 words—Too many unfamiliar, highfalutin’ words will turn off most readers. You don’t want to sound as if you’re showing off or talking down to the reader. Academic and technical writing, however, allows more such terms.
9. Making all sentences the same length—Varied sentence length is one characteristic of good writing. The right combination of short, medium, and long sentences actually helps hold the attention of the reader and keeps things moving.
10. Adding information that’s off the subject—Is all your text relevant to the story at hand? Do all the people mentioned add something to the story? If not, determine where you have strayed, cut out the junk, and get the narrative back on track.
11. Using too many words (overwriting)—Some writers just go on and on, with no sense of getting to the point, piling on adjectives and adverbs, making vague or irrelevant statements, and using several words when one would do. Eliminate unnecessary words.
12. Being too general—Vague and general statements take the life out of your writing. Be specific. The best writing is packed with details that engage the senses and emotions, allowing your readers to participate in the scene being described. Fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: Give your readers concrete details, details, details.
Novel length—One of my clients submitted a manuscript to me that was more than 300,000 words long. That’s not a novel, I thought. It’s a doorstop. Here’s what I said to him:
The length of your novel presents some problems in today’s literary marketplace. Generally, publishers prefer commercial fiction to be in the range of 60,000 to 90,000 words. A typical mystery, for instance, is 60,000 to 80,000 words. Sci-fi and fantasy novels often run longer, up to 120,000 words, but even the publisher Tor, long known for its sci-fi/fantasy list, now says they want novels of 75,000 to 100,000 words. Acquisitions editors tend to shy away from any book with more than 100,000 words, especially if it’s a first novel, because at that point production costs become a serious concern.
Selling a novel of more than 300,000 words, therefore, could be almost impossible. Getting editorial help from someone like me presents another problem, because editing costs are based on the word count. A 330,000-word manuscript translates to 1,320 pages (at 250 words/page, the accepted standard). Just reading that many pages would require many hours, so editing costs would be prohibitive since professional editors don’t work for minimum wage.
I don’t mean to discourage you. Just want to tell you some of the facts of life in the publishing world today. You still have some options. One to consider is dividing your Big Whopper into three parts of, say, about 80,000 words each and marketing it as a trilogy. When you try to sell a novel, you have to have the whole thing written, unlike a nonfiction book, which may be sold on the strength of a book proposal. If you cut Mr. Whopper into three books, you would need to have only the first one ready for presentation, not all three of them. Your agent and publisher would be happy to hear, though, that you had the two follow-up books “almost done.”
If you want to keep working on this epic sci-fi book, I think this strategy has some merit. To get started you could concentrate only on Book One—an 80,000-word project instead of an intimidating one of more than 300,000 words. By doing this you would reduce your work load and your editing costs by two-thirds. Another option is to shelve the Whopper for the time being and concentrate on a different novel—one that isn’t nearly so massive but still has commercial potential.
Action—“Actions speak louder than words” may be a cliché, but it became one because it’s true. Action is especially important in the novelistic world. Plotting serves largely to arrange the narrative in a manner that gives the writer the best ways to show rather than tell his story. Showing requires action of some kind. As you plan each scene, ask yourself What action can I show the reader now? Always focus on the next significant event and get there as soon as possible. Your main goals are: 1) getting the action moving quickly and 2) beginning the scene with a moment that will ignite readers’ interest by sparking their curiosity or by creating tension, surprise, trouble, or potential trouble for your POV character.
Action sequences, thoughts and feelings—When you describe physical action, don’t forget about the feelings of your VPC, which are just as important (or even more important) than the facts of what happens, especially if you’re describing broad or violent action. Think about this: If your VPC is in the midst of violent action, will his brain be inclined to organize the events as they unfold and report them like some sports announcer? Probably not, because the experience could be filled with raw fear, panic, emotional trauma, and the shocks of physical pain. The foremost thought would probably concern survival (“fight or flight”). Even if the action you’re describing isn’t very violent, you still want to include the thoughts, feelings, and sensory impressions produced by what’s happening along with the events themselves. To do that when all hell breaks loose for your VPC, you have to fade from his outer world to the inner one, taking the reader with you.
Acronyms used in this section: POV = point of view, VPC = viewpoint character, MC = main character
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