It’s hard to be a beginner. Kids, they’ve got that whole teacher / student dichotomy down, but when you’re a grownup with a novel burning a hole in your pocket (not to mix my metaphors or anything), it’s not always easy to resume the role of student. But, my friends, the path to publication—which runs directly through the Editorial Woods—can be long, circuitous, and frustrating. You’ll need some help.
If you’re a greenhorn novelist, the writing world is not an easy landscape to navigate without guidance. From what to do with your desire to write and how to start thinking about publishing, to the three simple (ha!) things publishers look for, and the absolute necessity of getting good feedback while you’re writing, you’ll have begun to see that This Writing Thing isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Recently we’ve talked about the most common mistakes beginning writers make: the manuscript’s too long, doesn’t have a plot, has too much going on, isn’t well written, and so on. But that was a general list. Now let’s talk about the very specific things I see in manuscripts from unpracticed authors—and what you can do about them yourself.
It’s OK to be a beginner! We all were at one point or another. So if you’ve written a novel and are thinking about next steps, here’s a little checklist by which to consider your manuscript. Work your way through it on your own—it’s called self-editing—and after your rewrite we’ll talk.
1. Let’s identify the plot, the subplot, and the protagonist.
Sounds almost unbelievably simple, doesn’t it? Use the formula here to state the plot, simply and briefly. Yet I see manuscripts all the time in which it’s hard to tell what the plot is—either because there’s so much going on that the plot is lost in clutter or the events that happen aren’t causally connected (that is, there really isn’t a plot). Once we’ve identified the plot, that should reveal the protagonist, who is also sometimes hard to pick out in the clutter of too many “main” characters. The novel needs at least one subplot (and if you’re a beginner, you should probably stick with one).
2. I want to see genuine conflict.
I’m talking Conflict with a capital C: the protagonist has to have a problem and he needs to have roadblocks to the solution of the problem. He wants something and he can’t have it. He needs to hit rock bottom, he needs to give something up, needs to be willing to make a sacrifice. He needs an antagonist (someone who opposes him, who stands in his way). And misunderstandings don’t count as conflict. Give me some double-toil-and-trouble conflict! Got it?
3. Let’s create a first line, first paragraph, and first chapter that grab the reader’s attention.
This cannot be stressed enough: you’ve got to hook readers right out of the gate. By all means, write the novel. But then go back and spend some quality time with your first chapter. Give me a first line that is so charming I’ll still be smiling by the time I reach chapter 2. Give me a protagonist so irresistible I will read past my bedtime. Blah is not going to cut it.
4. Learn and practice show, don’t tell, until you can recognize it before you are tempted to write it.
I keep writing about show, don’t tell because it seems to be such a difficult concept for writers who are just learning the craft. Bottom line: allow your readers to do the thinking. Let us draw our cues from things your characters say and do. Once this concept “clicks” for you, you’ll stop telling for good.
5. Build me an interesting character.
Building a character doesn’t just include a name and looks and how he talks. You need to understand the way your character thinks about everything. Google “fiction character chart” and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see that character building also includes developing a milieu—the physical and social setting in which your character exists. Don’t forget to consider POV, since this will also reveal character.
6. Does this scene / conversation / plot point advance the plot?
Or did you just include it because you thought it was fun? Or exciting? Or cool? Well, don’t do that. Every scene needs to move the plot forward. Something has to happen—action, a revelation—that moves readers another step toward the climax of the story. If that cool element of your story isn’t actively revealing plot, cut it.
7. Leave coincidences and contrivances behind.
It’s important that your story has the ring of truth to it. The reader has to believe the world you’ve crafted and the characters you’ve built—and that goes for character names, details of everyday life, and convenient coincidences. (Remember this rule of thumb: coincidences are OK to get your character into trouble, but not out of it.) So simplicity is your friend. As is foreshadowing.
8. Write realistic dialogue.
We’ve talked about dialogue before (here too). I know it’s not easy; it will take practice. Write it and tighten it up, so it sounds natural. Ask your friends to read aloud with you, or just do a dramatic reading for your loved ones. (My cats love my dramatic readings!) And stop using adverbial dialogue tags.
9. Develop themes that hold the story together.
Theme is probably the last thing beginning writers think about … and yet it will enrich your manuscript in so many ways. In shorthand, theme is the meaning of the story. Themes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy include dualities and parallelisms such as loss and farewell, knowledge and enlightenment, death and immortality, power and temptation, fate and freewill. You don’t need to work quite so hard; I’ll be happy with something like a bittersweet good-bye to childhood. :) Write your story first, perhaps; the theme will no doubt reveal itself as you go. On your second pass use this knowledge to enrich dialogue and narrative to support the theme.
10. Clean up the manuscript.
Would you start cooking for your dinner party in a dirty kitchen? No, you wouldn’t. And would you start cooking for your dinner party without knowing how to operate the stove? Again, no. Learn how to use the tools you have, and learn how to format a manuscript. Then clean everything up. Do your level best to find typos. Run spell check. Look for missing punctuation.
Again, it’s OK to be a beginner. That’s where every writer starts. Writing a novel isn’t easy! If you thought it was going to be, you might reconsider your choice of leisure time activity. :) But if you’re tough enough, let’s get started on those self-edits.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”