The best advice I can possibly give anyone looking to write a novel is to just sit down at your keyboard and write. It’s a waste of time attempting to craft the ‘perfect’ book because it won’t happen in your first draft. This allows you to write with a degree of freedom because you don’t need to worry about showing it to anyone until AFTER you go back and take a critical look at it. Once that time comes, here are a few things to look for.
Is There Danger & Death?
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a heart-warming story about how a woman baked muffins for a charity and accidentally stumbled upon a cure for cancer that saved the world, there needs to be an element of danger and the risk of death for at least one of your characters. Of course, ‘death’ can also mean the end of someone’s career or destruction of their reputation too.
Without an element of danger, the story will simply drift along and bore the reader to tears. Does anyone care if Rita’s muffins tasted delicious and she stumbled on a cure for cancer while taking the delicacies to the charity drive? Not unless she is pursued by a gang of international terrorists/assassins intent on taking the drug by any means necessary in order to start a bidding war!
Don’t start your novel by showing people enjoying life in their sleepy little hamlet for too long unless you want your book to remain unread. As I mentioned above, the reader will only engage if there is some challenge, danger or threat to one or more of the characters. From the first line of the first page you need to add in ‘extraordinary’ elements. Remember, this is ‘fiction’ not ‘happy families’. In fact, every single scene needs to have some kind of problem; otherwise it is just wasted space.
Whatever you do, don’t allow your characters to talk like they’re in Eastenders or a similarly crap soap drama. Dialogue is arguably the toughest skill to master in fiction writing and this is precisely why literary agents and publishers place such stock in it. When editing your manuscript, pay close attention to the dialogue and cut out any fluff sentences or phrases you find. In some cases, you may need to erase/edit entire conversations. Here is an example of poor dialogue:
“I’m not happy with your behaviour at all” said Peter.
“Why are you angry at me? What did I do wrong?” asked Mike.
“You know perfectly well what you did wrong” said Peter.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about” said Mike.
“You slept with my sister you snake” said Peter.
You can quickly edit the conversation to look like this:
“I can’t believe you did that” hissed Peter.
“Did what?” enquired Mike.
“Slept with my sister” said Peter angrily.
Next time you edit a long stream of dialogue, copy it into a new document and look to cut out bits and pieces. Most of the time you’ll reduce the length AND prefer the new dialogue. Again, use tension in these scenes and use dialogue as a means for at least one character to push an agenda.
Is Your Book Predictable?
If your novel loses its predictability it loses its appeal. A great solution is to strive to add something unexpected into every single scene if possible. Consider what might happen next in your story and write down several alternatives; it’s best to avoid choosing the first one because that’s likely to be the most predictable path.
This unpredictability can come in the book’s dialogue, an action scene or a description that sheds new light on the story or a character’s outlook. While it is probably best to make these lists when planning the book, you can still fall back on this technique after writing your first draft.
The above is undoubtedly a lot of work but if writing really means that much to you; it will seem like a pleasure rather than a chore to implement the tips above. Writers must always strive for productivity but ultimately, high quality writers win the day above prolific ones.