10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel
“Remember what Aristotle said 2,000 years ago about drama: You have to have a plot, character, meaning and spectacle.”
— Anne Rice
Any writer worth her keyboard will tell you there is no single, carved-in-stone Right Way to write a novel. If you want to create a book worthy of being published by one of the major New York houses, you need to study the craft and the market, then choose the techniques that make the most sense to you. Discover your own Right Way.
That’s why my most important advice to new novelists can be summed up in three words: take your time. Don’t expect to just pop your first effort in the mail, cash your advance check next week and see your name on the New York Times bestseller list next month. Rushing a manuscript to market is the most common mistake beginners make—and it’s the fastest way to a rejection slip.
So turn off your printer and put that FedEx envelope away. Do your book and your career a favor and slow down. Join a writer’s group. Get some feedback on your pages. Attend a workshop or two. Write. Write some more. Re-think and revise. Only submit your novel when it’s finished, polished and ready for the critical eyes of New York agents and editors. You’ll get a faster sale, a better contract and a much happier start on your career.
As you revise, consider these ten tips for making your novel stand out from the crowd.
- Open with a surprising hook. Your first five pages can make or break your manuscript. First, hook the reader with an opening line that surprises, intrigues, startles and makes her want to know more. Then show what’s at stake. Show that there’s something of great value to be won or lost. We should see from the first paragraph, the first line, that this story will be full of conflict, that the protagonist has an enormous problem to solve.
- Don’t overload the beginning with background. Don’t meander around setting up your story. Don’t tell us everything the main character has done in the past ten years that brought her to this point. If you ever have more than two or three paragraphs of background strung together at a time—whether in dialogue or narrative—red lights and alarm bells should be going off in your head. Weave that background in as you go, and do so as late as possible in the story. Let us get to know this fascinating character as she deals with the trouble she’s in. A reader is only interested in knowing background after she already cares about the character.
- Give your characters strong goals. Your characters must have motivation for what they do. Specific, detailed motivation. Don’t just say, “She was determined to make her own way in life.” Tell us why. Make it concrete. Maybe she’s determined to open her own business, run her father’s cattle ranch successfully, go to New York and make it on Broadway, whatever. Ask yourself, “What’s her personal pot of gold? What does she want more than anything else in life, and what steps does she take to get it?”
- Give your characters weaknesses and flaws. A good novel is a story of transformation. You’re showing the reader how your characters grow and change, how they overcome (or are overcome by) their problems and flaws. That means they need to have problems and flaws in the beginning. If they start out as perfect people, there’s no conflict, nothing to overcome—and no reason to keep reading. As one of my editors says, “Your [protagonists] should be diamonds in the rough at the beginning. We only see glints of their true heroism. They’re tumbled throughout the book until they truly shine in the end.”
- Create powerful conflicts. Conflict is what keeps a reader turning pages, keeps her wondering, “What’s going to happen next? How will these people ever work this out?” You need tension, high stakes, crackling disagreements—not bickering over trivia. To create powerful conflict, give your characters powerful, opposing goals. That’ll give you plenty of real plot, so you won’t have to depend on coincidences and misunderstandings.
- Remember what readers want most: emotional impact. Readers of popular fiction don’t want to experience the events of your novel at a distance; they want to FEEL what’s happening. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry. They want to get goosebumps when the detective in your mystery ventures into that dark alley. They want to sigh when the heroine kisses the hero in your contemporary romance. To achieve that, focus on the characters’ emotional reactions to what’s going on. Constantly ask yourself, “How does she feel about this?” Then use vivid writing to make your reader feel those emotions.
- Strive for more dialogue than narrative. Editors—and readers—like books with lots of dialogue because they tend to have a faster pace. Narrative tends to slow things down and usually leads to telling instead of showing. Don’t tell the reader, “He was poor. He had an education. He had a good heart, etc. . . .” That’s flat and uninteresting. Instead, show the character’s poverty in his clothes, his education in his speech, his good heart in his actions. Showing with action and dialogue creates vivid characters and a fast pace; telling only bogs down your story.
- Control point-of-view. You’ll see ping-pong POV all the time in published books—but editors are getting less and less tolerant of it. Ping-pong means writing one paragraph in Character A’s point of view, then one in Character B’s, back and forth. It’s like playing ping-pong with the reader, and she’s going to end up bruised and confused. If you must shift viewpoint, try to do it only once within any given scene. Better yet, switch only between scenes. By staying in one POV at a time, you help your reader identify with, and empathize with, your characters—and that’s the secret to keeping her emotionally involved.
- Eliminate clichés. The hero of your thriller is a retired government agent called back for one last job…The protagonist in your chick lit novel is determined to quit smoking and lose ten pounds…STOP! If you’ve seen a character or story element before, don’t re-hash it. If you’ve seen it even once, an avid reader has seen it ten times, an editor has seen it a hundred times—and you’re writing your own rejection slip. Instead, make your people, scenes, settings and situations fresh. How do you know what the clichés are? Read ravenously in your chosen genre. There’s no substitute.
- Polish your writing skills. If an editor sees passive voice, run-on sentences, or grammatical and spelling errors, she won’t read past the first two pages. Don’t tell yourself, “It doesn’t really matter, as long as my story’s good.” It does matter. Editors get plenty of manuscripts with good storytelling and good writing. They don’t have to settle for less. If you don’t have a good basic command of writing skills, invest in yourself and your dream: take a writing course. Buy Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and Baker’s The Practical Stylist. (And if you have to ask what passive voice or a run-on sentence is, you don’t have a good basic command of writing skills.) Make your writing shine.
Invest time and effort in yourself and your novel, and you’ll be celebrating that first sale soon. I send you my best wishes for many writing dreams come true.
USA Today bestselling author Shelly Thacker has earned lavish praise from Publishers Weekly, Locus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Detroit Free Press and booksellers who have called her “a virtuoso beyond compare.” A two-time RWA RITA Finalist, she has won numerous other honors for her fiction, including a National Readers’ Choice Award and many Romantic Times Certificates of Excellence. There are more than one million copies of her novels in print.
Copyright © 2004 by Shelly Thacker. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for individual writers to print one copy of this article for personal use. Any other reproduction by any means, print or electronic, is strictly prohibited without written permission of the author.