In addition to writing and teaching, one of the things I do for a living is to evaluate manuscripts for their suitability for publication. I read fiction (and non-fiction) across several genres, and write comprehensive reports on the books. I try always to guide the author towards knocking his or her project into a shape that could be credibly presented to literary agents, publishers and general readers. You know how Newman and Mittelmark introduce How Not to Write a Novel by saying, ‘We are merely telling you the things that editors are too busy rejecting your novel to tell you themselves, pointing out the mistakes they recognize instantly because they see them again and again in novels they do not buy,’ well they’re right; I am one of those editors.
However good the idea behind a novel, when the author is still learning the craft of writing – like any other apprenticeship – the same mistakes do come up again and again. If we were discussing, say, learning to drive, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with this type of analysis. In literature, however, it is often believed that writing has something to do with either natural ability or common sense: so it’s a talent you have to be born with (rather than a skill you learn and improve by doing), or, conversely, that it’s actually very easy, and that anyone can write a novel without any experience beyond basic literacy and the consumption of popular fiction. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to service a gas boiler or walk into an operating theatre, scalpel in hand, without years of training, but plumbers and surgeons and all manner of specialists in other fields routinely presume they can do the job of a professional author without any prior knowledge whatsoever.
At the risk, therefore, of offering a deficit model of ‘creative writing,’ here, in no particular order, is my top ten list of common mistakes in unpublished (and unpublishable) manuscripts, on a scale of ‘Don’t do this’ to ‘For the love of god, no!’ In my early authorial career, I’m pretty sure I did all of these myself. I’m restricting myself to novels here, and I won’t bother with the obvious stuff about poor presentation, typos, and not reading the submission guidelines for now – that’s a post in its own right. I’m writing here of structural and technical issues in the narrative itself, whatever the subject of the story or its genre.
STARTING TOO SLOWLY
If you do the math involving the client list of an average literary agent, usually under 50, and the number of submissions most apparently receive every week, about 200, then you’ll get an idea of how much time an agent’s assistant is likely to spend looking at your opening chapter before it hits the slush pile. You might also like to ponder the fact that over 650,000 books are published, in English alone, every year. All in all, the odds of a single book standing out in this crowd would make the most reckless and suicidal of gamblers keep his money in his pocket. This is what you are up against. Winning The X-Factor would be a piece of cake by comparison.
You need to hook your reader from the first line. Following this startling and intriguing opener, make the first scene a good one. Consider starting your story in medias res – in the middle of things – and introduce a compelling character at a moment of crisis. Slow burners and stylised literary meditations are, of course, perfectly valid in the name of our art, and I know that rules are made to be broken, but trust me on this: establish your primary character, set the scene, state the dramatic premise, and start the story. A slow beginning will not compel a disinterested and overworked professional reader to turn the page, and with that your novel is over.
UNPLANNED CHARACTERS & OBVIOUS SELF-PORTRAITS
As previously mentioned, my dad loved to paint, and he always reckoned that inexperienced artists tend to unconsciously reproduce their own features in portraits. This is equally true of many early career authors. Now I know that on an existential level every character we create has to be part of us, but just as our kids have our DNA but are nonetheless unique individuals, so are the most effective literary characters. Good fictional characters grow out of imagination and detail work. You need to know their biographies as you know your own, and when your character is faced with a particular situation the question you must ask yourself is not, ‘What would I do?’ but ‘What would he or she do?’
Fictional characters can grow out of stories, or stories can grow out of characters, but either way if you look at successful examples then you’ll realise that you understand what drives them, while a decent plot will place barriers in the way of whatever goal they wish to achieve or crisis they must overcome. Good characters feel like they’re us, and you achieve this by creating a credible, well-researched and meticulously planned life for them, and then not showing all of it in the pages of your book.
BAD DIALOGUE & TOO MUCH OF IT
Good dialogue is a function of good character creation. If you put the hours in on your character biography then, eventually, they will start to talk to you. It can take a while to tune in, a bit like channelling a spirit, and you’ll have to redraft some dialogue scenes many times to get them right, but the individual voices will come with practice and patience.
Bad dialogue, on the other hand, is usually the result of a poorly planned character. In this case, you’ll probably find that all your characters sound the same, probably like you, with little difference in tone from the narrative voice of the text itself. Another common issue is superfluity. If dialogue does not tell us something important about the speaker or move the plot forward, then cut it. Don’t chat. Also, describe the cadence, idiolect and individual strangeness of a voice – do not attempt to replicate these features phonetically.
The biggest mistake I see in dialogue, however, is the quantity. Even though novelists have all the tricks and tools of narrative prose available to them, many still insist on writing screenplays by mistake. It’s as if we all watch so much film and TV that when we block out a scene we imagine it not as real life or units of a narrative, but as a scene in a movie, when character is revealed only through what they say and do in front of the camera. Break it up and cut it back. Worry about the film version after you make the bestseller list.
MINIMAL SCENE SETTING OR PURPLE PROSE
In many ways this relates to my point on the overuse of dialogue, in which very little scenic detail is provided, let alone stylishly conveyed. In this case, you might as well be watching naked shop dummies arranged upon an empty stage. (Samuel Beckett might have pulled this off in the sixties, but that’s another argument.) Practice describing the essence of people or places, and be aware of your genre while you’re doing it: horror stories and thrillers, for example, rely more on atmosphere and suspense, while historical fiction seeks to recreate a vanished era, and science fiction to build worlds and civilisations. Avoid cliché and hackneyed expressions, and go easy on the lists and the adjectives. Be vivid but do not overdo it. You are not in advertising, so avoid ‘Purple Prose’ – anything that is overly ornate, sentimental, or rhetorically extravagant draws attention to itself and interrupts the flow of the narrative. This is a very ancient error in literary composition, the term being attributed to Horace a couple of thousand years ago (Inceptis grauibus plerumque et magna professis purpureus – ‘Purpureus’ meaning ‘lustrous’ or ‘dazzling.’). As the great man wrote in his Ars Poetica (c.18BC): ‘If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?’
FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND DRAMATIC PACING
Maintaining a strong, page-turning momentum requires an understanding of narrative pace. Basically, you have two gears: ‘Mimetic’ narration is a ‘slow telling,’ which dramatically stages events for the reader, creating the illusion that these events are unfolding in real time. ‘Diegetic’ narration is rapid, panoramic, and summary, communicating essential or linking information efficiently, without the illusion of reality. The diegetic narrator says what happens, without trying to show things as they happen. Prose narratives necessarily use both modes of telling: a fully mimetic story would last forever while a totally diegetic one would just be a plot summary. Aim for balance, ebb and flow; don’t get stuck in one gear. I have read many novels in which far too many trivial and tangential scenes are portrayed mimetically, like the live stream of a reality TV show, in which both primary and secondary characters randomly display and repeat their typical behaviour. Equally, I’ve read many primarily diegetic novels, with much of the plot told and not shown, as they say, in which the prose feels more like an essay than a story.
TOO LONG OR TOO SHORT
Although the words ‘story’ and ‘plot’ are usually taken to be interchangeable, they are very different animals in our game. Simply put, the story is the actual sequence of events as they happen (or would happen) in real time; the plot, on the other hand, is those events as they are edited, ordered, and presented in a prose narrative. The story has to be chronological, while the plot may be non-linear, and necessarily selective. The plot does not, therefore, require the inclusion of every single piece of information connected with the story. Failure to recognise this basic conceptual distinction can lead to novels that are as rambling and digressive as a family anecdote related by your grandmother at Christmas; the real story does not start for several hundred pages, if at all, while similarly ending only when the protagonist dies of old age. If you have that much good material, consider a trilogy, because most publishers will not touch a novel by an unknown author over an absolute maximum of 100,000 words.
Similarly and conversely, some ‘novels’ are more accurately ‘novellas’ or ‘novelettes,’ and only 40 – 50,000 words in length. This is fine if the average age of your intended audience is twelve, but a bit thin otherwise. There are, of course, some beautiful literary novellas out there, but there are many more in which a short story is stretched and padded far beyond its breaking point, while complex plots shoehorned into short narratives invariably suffer from an inelegant haste on the part of the author to cut to the chase. There is no atmosphere or suspense, characters are underdeveloped, and you’re back at that confusion between film narrative and prose again. The reading experience is thus like eating too much food or not enough, the end result being far from satisfying in either case.
There’s a difference between applying Joseph Campbell’s narratological model of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and plagiarism. Just saying.
DELUSIONS OF LITERATURE
In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the character of Timothy Cavendish at one point remarks, ‘As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.’ This is very good advice, even though Mitchell himself is cheekily offering up a novel that does all these things (he’s that type of author, though – don’t try this at home). The academic study of English literature is a wonderful discipline, and I am a product of it myself, but it will not teach you how to write well yourself. In fact, you have to unlearn an awful lot of this stuff in order to find your own voice, while attempts to emulate the great modernist and postmodern stylists invariably leads to parody and pastiche, and not in a good way. I’m not saying dumb it down, just forget about bricolage and intertextuality, and resist the temptation to explore the philosophy of literary form by making explicit references to process and device in your story. Experimental narratives can be exhilarating, but the great ones are rare; most are just pompous, pretentious, and dull, and either way you’ll never get rich writing one unless you can nail a creative writing professorship as well.
He increases the rhythm infinitesimally, and his breathing becomes more erratic. My insides start quickening, and Christian picks up the rhythm.
‘You. Are. So. Sweet,’ he murmurs between each thrust. ‘I. Want. You. So. Much.’
‘You. Are. Mine. Come for me, baby,’ he growls.
His words are my undoing, tipping me over the precipice. My body convulses around him, and I come, loudly calling out a garbled version of his name into the mattress, and Christian follows with two sharp thrusts, and he freezes, pouring himself into me as he finds his release. He collapses on top of me, his face in my hair.
And I don’t care how many copies it sold, it’s still f***ing terrible.
LACK OF EDITORIAL REVISION
Most manuscripts that land on my desk aren’t ready. This simple truth really takes in all of the above issues, because if you’ve redrafted a novel enough you’ll have caught most of these mistakes and corrected them. The first draft of anything is just that, the beginning of the creative journey, never the finished product. As the editor Mary Hill put it so well, ‘There is no such thing as good writing, but only good re-writing.’ Only the amateurs and the bloggers think that anything written off the top of the head is worth sharing, and writing that is so fluid that it appears somehow effortless is invariably the result of numerous redrafts and major and minor editorial revisions. As noted in my first post, writing a novel is a marathon, and you can’t rely on your initial momentum to carry you to the finish line. The first draft is all about getting the ideas down, and this is why I always stress the importance of writing every day and just adding new words to a big project. A common misconception at this point is that the job is now done. Not true. You have only built the house; now you have to decorate. This should be fun, but the process is no less important or involved than the original composition. To be an effective editor, you have to keep in touch with your inner writing monkey, enthusiastically banging away at that keyboard, while also acting as your own secretary and critic, organising and evaluating all that raw wordage. If you want your book to be any good, then expect the redrafts to go into double figures.
Any halfway decent creative writing course or guide will tell you more about all these areas. But they cannot teach you style – that you have to find yourself. There is no big secret to good writing. All you have to do is read widely and critically, understand narrative structure, and then keep practising until your individual style emerges.
And just remember, folks, you heard it here first!