Writing a novel? Six bits of advice

October 5, 2010

Over the past few weeks I have been one of the judges of a novel writing competition for unpublished writers. During my reading,  it became clear quite quickly that there are common mistakes that inexperienced writers tend to make. I have certainly made  all of them myself.  The following comments are directed at anyone who is writing a first novel, whether or not they are planning to enter a competition.

One caveat:  as with any form of literary advice, it will be possible to think of examples of successful novels that break these rules. However I think new writers would generally be well advised to follow these suggestions more often than not.

1 Start with a strong scene. Judges, agents and editors have a lot of manuscripts to read and the ones that start feebly are highly likely to be cast aside after a few pages. If your manuscript begins with ten pages of throat-clearing it will be on the discard pile before the reader has got anywhere near your big scene on page 187. Start with something  that grabs the reader – as Dickens does in chapter one of Great Expectations, in which Pip is menaced by the convict in the graveyard.  A scene like that hooks the reader and makes them want to keep going. A powerful opening is also far more likely to appeal to  potential buyers in a bookshop, if your book makes it that far.

2 Keep the plot moving.  As Peter Temple said at the Melbourne Writers Festival recently: a novel is like a shark, it must keep moving forward or it dies.  It’s disappointing how many manuscripts don’t have much forward momentum, or allow potentially interesting stories to waver and lose direction. Our most fundamental reason for reading a novel is our desire to be told a good story – which is why  novels with mediocre writing but a compelling plot continue to sell in the truckloads despite their flaws. 

3 Learn to cut. Ruthless cutting of your work is one of the clearest distinctions between someone who is serious about writing and someone who dabbles at it. Every scene, every dialogue has to have a purpose, and if you don’t know why it is there, it should be cut. Don’t waste time on long pointless conversations or wordy descriptions.  Get rid of cliches. And end a scene at the right moment, as soon as it has done its job.

4 Don’t use the novel as a vehicle for your theories.  Got strong views about global warming, Nazism, the evils of technology? Write an essay, or a blog post. The novel is not the place to expound your opinions, especially if you are going to illustrate them by means of a ridiculously improbable plot and cardboard characters.  A novel is for telling a good story with strong characters. Of course, novelists have opinions, but rather than telling the readers what to think, leave room for them to interpret the action for themselves.

5 Avoid first person disease. My early attempts to write a novel suffered this complaint to an embarrassing degree and now I know I was not alone. First person narration can be a powerful tool, but not when it involves telling the reader every stray thought that passes through the narrator’s head, from dreams to memories to fantasies to opinions on the state of the world. This is simply self-indulgent and maddening.  If you are writing in the first person, get your narrator to stick to the story.

6 Avoid cliched characters and situations. For example, not every young adult novel has to feature a lonely, orphaned teenager with  supernatural powers. I know that this has been a standard narrative trope from King Arthur to Harry Potter, but too many writers seem to reach for it as a lazy shorthand way of setting things up. It may seem a big call, but try to find something new – come up with a character and a way of telling the story that has never been done before, as Mark Haddon did with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which the narrator is an autistic boy. Through the eyes of that narrator, even the simplest and most everyday events are seen as if for the first time, and the challenges he faces – like the impossibility of reading human facial expressions – are things that most readers have never considered before.

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