All writing advice is subjective, but there are some mistakes in writing that WILL ensure your novel’s failure, not only to your readers but to those who might be your potential agent or publisher. I’ve never really come across these mistakes when I used to review short stories for my literary magazine (I might have, I just don’t remember), but as a self-employed editor, I most certainly have come across them—and have made one or two myself.
- Happy Beginnings. Many first chapters must start out with some sort of tension. In the first two books of The Stars Trilogy, they start out with heavy tension. Amelia from When Stars Die is terrified of the impending trials that will determine her readiness to be professed as a nun, and she is also seeing shadows no one else sees. That is when this book begins. In the sequel, Alice is slated to be executed for being a witch. In the most recent book I’m writing, the chapter starts out with my teen protagonist trying to get drunk: he is a recovering alcoholic, too. These are not happy beginnings. You don’t want your story to start out with your protagonist having a perfect life. Something that essentially upsets your character must occur.
- Fearless Story. Something needs to threaten the character throughout the book, whether this is the threat of death, the threat of psychologically coming undone, the threat of losing things the character love, and so on and so forth. A story without fear is not a story at all. Throughout When Stars Die, Amelia’s primary threat is the threat of death: her death and her younger brother’s death. Think about your favorite books and what threatened the characters in these books the most.
- Loaded Dialogue. In real life dialogue is loaded, but readers want to read a more concise version of that dialogue. I didn’t have too many issues with loaded dialogue in When Stars Die, but I did in its sequel. Let me give you a few examples of loaded dialogue, and then how to fix that dialogue.
“Gene, can’t you stop drinking just for one freaking night?”
“No, Josh. You just don’t understand me. You don’t understand what this does for me.’
“I might not understand, but I do know this isn’t the best way to deal with your problems.”
“Then obviously you’ve never had problems before.”
“Obviously you can’t handle your own problems!”
Here is a more concise version:
Josh glares at the shot glass. “Shit. Just stop already.”
“Give me a reason.”
“Do you really need one?”
I look beyond Josh, swirling the vodka. ”Your life’s perfect.”
Josh digs his nails into the palms of his hands, the knuckles whitening. “Screw you, Gene. Screw you.”
- Predictability. Sometimes there are some very astute readers who can already tell what is going to happen. For example, I am an astute reader. I already knew who the culprit was in Cheryl Rainfield’s Stained, but that didn’t make the book any less enjoyable. I also had one reader who adored When Stars Die, even though some of the twists were not twists for her; however, many other readers of mine did not see the twists coming. These twists keep your book from being predictable. Knowing what’s coming can kill the tension.
If you’re struggling with making something unexpected happen, come up with a list of outcomes that could occur in certain situations. Concentrate on description, dialogue, and action. Write what could occur with your description. With Amelia’s character, she often describes things rather negatively because of her surroundings, so when she comes across something positive, the surprise lies in the negative she is still going to find. You can create a twist using your dialogue to shock the other character. Refer to my dialogue example above. Josh is put off by Gene’s ambivalent attitude about his drinking problem. As for action, there needs to be unexpected outcomes that occur. For example, in When Stars Die, you think Amelia is supposed to kill a certain antagonist, but she’s not the one who does it.
- Ambivalence. You love the book when you draft; however, when you begin to revise it, you hold a certain amount of ambivalence toward it. You already wrote the book, so you lose your excitement because you think nothing new can happen. But a lot of new things can happen. Delve deeper into your characters. Flesh them out. Find better ways to tell your story. Look at all characters, including your antagonists, and see how you can make them better. Look at sub-plots and find ways to make them stronger. Revisions are essentially about cutting the fat, about making the book much better than its draft, about trying to make the second draft different from the first. I love the process of revisions, because I already know what revising a draft means.
Message me with any questions or comments. Next post will be on writing a novel without an outline, which is crazy, because I can’t do this. This post will be for those who absolutely do not want to outline, even if they are stuck on their stories.
Ohh, “Loaded Dialogue” is a thing I’ve had issues with (in my writing & in what I read) for years without having a term for it. Thanks!