I was musing about the fact that I’ve read some books that were pretty good. I liked the characters, liked the story line, but something just was off about things and it made the book… okay.
If you’re an author, you’re thinking, “I don’t want my book to be just okay. I want it to be great! Catcher in the Rye! To Kill a Mockingbird! I WANT TO BE GREAT!” Because OKAY just sucks.
I’m there with you. I want you to be great, too. But let’s sit down for a second and talk about your weaknesses, as I see ’em. I’m speaking from the heart here, as a reader of the fine goods you are purveying.
First, the little stuff. Your typos are killin’ me. When you publish a book, there should be no typos. That’s your standard. 100%. No typos. I’m obsessive about typos, and I’ll highlight as I go. It bothers me that much. If you have an editor, make sure she gets all those suckers. If you think that typos are okay, then please don’t publish your book.
Homophones. No, it’s not slang for a gay man calling your cell, it’s two words spelled differently but sound the same. I make these errors too. Again, your editor should nail these, every one. I think, if you’re typing 10,000 words a day, you’re probably going to have a moment when your brain says “too” and you type “two.” Just make sure it’s edited later to omit them, get the right words.
Adverbs. One adverb every so often is alright, I guess. If you have them in every paragraph, I urge you to do away with them. Weasily little words like “mostly” and “horribly” and “surprisingly” do not a great manuscript make. It’s the writer’s equivalent of having your heels up in dressage (which you will never, ever see in professional dressage. Never). Maybe it makes you comfortable. I don’t know why you need the bloody things so much, but it’s about 1000 extra words your manuscript didn’t need. Does the adverb help the book? (I was going to put “actually” in there, then laughed at myself.)
Passive everything. Use active voice. Passive is for characters who speak that way, and that’s it.
Infodump. I am now going to type at you for a couple pages about the politics of my universe, just so you know who is what. First, we’ll talk about the wizards’ guild, and then about the nature of magic, and then we’ll talk about Piotr the Pensive, who is king of the wizards, and then we’ll talk… well, I’ll type about the nature of the wizards and the elves, and nary a conversation or goal oriented scene will you read for… oh, I say about 5,000 words.
Please don’t do this. Write the bloody scene like this:
Now, do you see anywhere in that list something that says “infodump at the reader”?
So it’s not:
- Nothing happens
Excise those evil chapters from your book. If it isn’t knowable by the characters then you ought to figure out a way to work it in without making my fiction reading into M.C. Bishop’s “Roman Military Equipment,” or a thinly disguised polemic on why you, the writer, hate republicans. Not that Bishop’s book is bad. It’s amazing. But it’s not fiction.
Got some favorite verbs or words? We all do. Got one or two that you like to use a lot? I remember reading one author’s books and one thing that I wish his editors would break him of is all his characters do eye-rolls. 17 times a book! You can do a word frequency check on your Word manuscript to discover how often you use certain words. You can also ask your beta readers to note any that occur too frequently. Sure, there’s words that you will use a lot, like “said.” That’s fine. Dialogue tags mean that you’re using dialogue, which is a nice way to move your plot along. I’m talking more about words like, say, “obfuscated.” If I use that more than once in my manuscript, it sticks out, because it’s an unusual word. I’m saying, be creative in your word use. There’s thesauri in abundance and perhaps there’s another word you could use instead of that one.
And… that brings me to deep POV. If you’re using that, instead of the fascia of shallow POV, it’s going to break you of a lot of habits, such as passive voice and adverb use. Deep POV demands more discipline than just blarbing your manuscript onto the page. There, you craft each moment in the scene, and let your reader experience it with the character. Taste it. Touch it. See it, smell it, hear it. Ah, there we are in the scene with the protagonist, looking over his shoulder, smelling the mouldering forest floor, feeling the oppressive warmth of the mid-day sun through the pine needles, feeling a cool breeze and the feeling of nettles on our leg. Oh dear. Nettles?! Find some Dock Leaf!
Okay, you’re avante garde and you eschew the 3 act play. Your book has five acts, because you’re just that smart and you know how to transcend the form.
Um… no. You don’t. Look, just do the three acts in your first hundred books, and then you can go to something more crazy and go all James Joyce moo cow on us. Until then, don’t make your structure suffer. There’s SO MUCH WRITTEN on how to write a screenplay. 120 pages, put this event here, that event there, boom, your story is done and everyone will love it. Oh, but you decided to put the climax at the beginning to surprise the reader ( and then bore the living daylights out of her from that point on). Structure is the biggest reason your book is dull or flat. You didn’t give the readers the same boring format. Act I: Character in normal world. Hints of something coming. BOOM! Door of NO RETURN to act II. Act II, the character is in it now and stuff happens to build up to DOOR OF NO RETURN to ACT III. CLIMAX! Denouement. And then write your sequel. That’s simplifying it, but some books I read don’t do this at all. Sometimes, I think the writer just lucked out and got it right, other times it might look contrived, but if that structure isn’t there then the book will be like Kansas. FLAT.
Yeah, I’m trying to sympathize with your protagonist. He has to save the world! But I don’t care enough about the character to want him to save the world. Give me a reason to like your protagonist, beyond the fact that he’s a Mary/Marty Sue and you the author are so awesome. Oh, and burden your character with some negatives. Everyone has negatives, so why is your character the exception? Boring boring boring. Flat. I want your character to have some awful flaw. GIVE HER LEPROSY. Chop off a leg. Gouge out an eye. And then assign some awful negative trait.
Then arc that character.
And yanno? You can arc everyone. I dare you. Don’t let the rest of your cast just sit around. Make them arc, too. Make them realize their wants and needs and that what they thought was true was truly wrong and make them arc. Make your villain arc. Arc arc arc! I want this so bad. No arc, flat book. Multiple arcs, awesome book.
Your stakes suck. Yes. There needs to be some life and death, give and take, and I need to believe it. MAKE ME THINK YOU’RE GOING TO PULL THE PLUG ON THE PROTAGONIST AT ANY MOMENT. MAKE ME BELIEVE IT. It oughta be like talking to a Mafia guy: “You know, it would be tragic if a 747 were to fall out of the sky and crush your protagonist, if you get my meaning.” If you can’t do that, go back and figure it out. If I’m not convinced, then you’re not doing a good job for your readers and you should reconsider what you’re writing. Life. And. Death. Like the whole “Who am I going to the prom with?” question. That’s life and death. And who wins the oscars. That’s life or death. Er, no, not the oscars thing. Every once in a while, drop a piano on some beloved supporting character so that I know that you, the author, mean business and the protagonist might just be next, because you’re a rattle snake in a ten-gallon hat kind of mean. Someone somewhere said, “kill your darlings” but I don’t think they meant to destroy your supporting cast. I say, “get them, too.”
Stakes vs. Tension. You need tension to keep the thing taut and the reader on the edge of his seat. Sometimes, I’m readin’ something, and the stakes are awesomely (unnecessary adverb) high. Ripley, save the girl from the alien queen in the basement and escape the atmosphere plant in the next four minutes before the whole place goes up in a mushroom cloud. And the tension is there. Why? Because the stakes are high (life and death) but also because she’s going into this place where the aliens will jump you AT ANY TIME and they have acid for blood and there’s a stupid alarm blaring “you have three minutes to reach minimum safe distance” and freakin’ H.R. GIGER covered the walls with this crazy stuff and the whole thing is done so that you absolutely are on the edge of your seat. Stupid Ridley Scott made us go deep into the lair of the bad queen to get Newt, he didn’t let us just get out of that easy. The tension on that was fantastic!
So make me wish for a seatbelt. Make me desire peace and stability. Give me tension. Give me high stakes.
The next time you put keyboard to screen, write this book. Write the great book. I will give you my undying fealty by buying all your books, reading them, and posting five star reviews that say “this author understands structure, character, and will not disappoint you like the last five.” That’s the biggest gift I can give you.