Look at your wall. What do you see? Floral paper, framed prints, cigarette stains? Whatever you see, I hope it includes character sketches. If you're writing a novel, you'll need a capable compass. Writing apps like Evernote and Scrivener can be dandy, but you'll probably find that nothing beats wall-tacked papers organized brightly, right before your eyes. Think of the detective's wall. The white board. The profiles. The question marks. The arrows. Things circled and highlighted, intentionally, to keep the investigating team on track. Can't remember Ruth's eye color? Forgot which town Sebastian is from? No worries. Look at your wall. A quick eye-flash can prevent a ray of inconsistencies.
Generosity is king, but not in novel writing. When it comes to the opening pages of a story, you should steer clear of verbosity, of having your characters talk too much---too early on. Stuffing crisp pages with too much backstory is also a no-no. The reader is not a duck and you are not in the foie gras business. So, relax. Treat your readers like guests, greet them with a dabble of perfume behind the ears, a handshake that grips, a gaze that intrigues. Dangle delectable hors-d'oeuvre before their eyes, then chill their blood when they least expect it.
The ancient Egyptians knew how to paint a picture. A single owl glyph could fan an entire chapter through the reader's mind. Because of this, the Egyptian could write economically, saying so much with so little. In fact, writing was so nifty that terminal marks were neither used nor needed. Eyes spilled. Heavens de-veined. As a novelist, you could learn much from the ancients. Lessons? Learn to symbolize. Economize. See. Learn to tell wild, wonderful stories where periods are not needed in the reader's mind. Learn to write. Learn to type. Learn to paint.
Nothing beats a ripe story idea. The pulp. The spring. The color. The succo fresco. Peels have an extraordinary ability to flair and hang with grace, bare life slowly. Stories should be like peels, wouldn’t you say? After all, readers want what you’ve got—haute mystery, herbaceous plots, and characters that have a thing for lingonberries. What they don’t always want is your delivery, your mashy-pea delivery. The fix? Don’t spell everything out for them. Respect their intelligence and let them participate, infer, guess, hurl a shoe across the den in ecstasy. Yes, that’s what they want all right. Think fruity.
Writing is -ation: observation, imagination, interpretation, demonstration, elaboration, innovation, communication, actualization, invitation, magnification, fortification, edification, deliberation. Yes, writing is all this and more; and sometimes all this and less. Yes, sometimes "It's the grape" and sometimes "It's the black braucol" and both times are OK. The scene dictates the sentence. Or in jazz speak: the timing dictates the twelfth.
Everybody hates toxins. From bungee-jumping sentences to rogue-running alliteration, literary toxins can pipe even the best manuscripts. Plot. Characters. Climax. Even resolution. Often excused as experimentation, cleverness, and style, these bugs—ranging from clichéd wordiness to excessive dialogue tags—call for cutting. The solution? Uproot and reboot. Listen to your team of alpha readers, beta readers, and professional editors. Note any feedback that teeters on the big three: ambiguity, disbelief, and verbosity. Then, do what must be done. Detox!
Some novels never die. Shy characters do the marvellous. Obscure characters eek the stupendous. The taming of the arrogant and the spitfire and the cheese-maker. Yes. We love the classics. We adore the book that rightly anaesthetizes. We bare the scars of missed trains, and sleepless nights, and dog-eared pages. Perhaps, on a determinedly unstarry night, we've even awaken two towns over, face window-pressed, novel splattering one knee, lost. So tell me: When you warm your favorite chair and whittle keys, are you writing for today? Tomorrow? Millennia? Answer frankly. And make every word count.
As sure as leaves turn orange in autumn, you’ll need to plumb your manuscript. With more than a hundred thousand new titles added to Amazon each month, you’ll need more than a swanky cover with your name in stilts to nab the sale. You’ll need that certain bloom. And while that bloom will vary from genre to genre but the gist will boil down to this: read your novel’s opening pages aloud. Is your language brisk and unassuming? Or it is cloaked in fancy words that would make the reader reach for the dictionary? Don’t let $100 words get in the way of clarity. Use the $10 words if it will make your reader say “Yes!” and spark. (Ka-ching!).
Glue words are alive and well and living in your manuscript. Extraneous and gummy, these words do nothing but clog. They bloat lines. Kill clarity. And create sticky sentences. The goal? Recognize your glue. Own your glue. Expel your glue. Reduce the number of glue words to make your sentences more readable. It's possible to have as much as 75% glue in just 8 words. Don't buy it? Consider these common glue words: the, not, until, just, right. Sticky as Hell. (Mount Helena, that is.) So, learn to rephrase, and you'll be better. Tighter. Happy De-glueing!
Writing can be exciting. Especially for the first-time novelist. Birds are no longer birds, but falcons. Sugar is no longer sugar, but elixir. Hats, havens. Ants, gods. Typing the first chapter is Jupiter—sensations seem marvellous, heaven-sent, and they mean business, right? Right. But writing is never just about the sensation (at least it shouldn't be). It's also about the audience. About who you're writing to. About their wants, needs, expectations. Yes. If they'll gush over falcons, give them falcons. If sugar, give them sugar. Think of writing as a love affair; not you hard and fast; but you and them and red winds whirling. Making Jupiter.
Promises to "do better" is what the new year brings. That and yo-yo diets. Ankle-weights. A grocery list ticked with foods you frickin' despise. Yeah. I get it. The things we do for the sake of the thirteenth month. Our writing gets shanked, too. A string of similar hasty treatments. New trending styles. New trending genres. New trending themes—from bombshell robots to billionaire werewolves. Yeah. Like I said, "I get it." But bear this, precious one: writing from the gut is classic. Always will be. I promise you that.
"You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal." James Baldwin said that some sixty years ago and it still rings true today. A monumental writer with a series of awards to his credit, Baldwin certainly knew a thing or two about crafting sentences. Writing, after all, is like a healthy meal—fresh ingredients, the right spice, and clean cookware. Greasy, over-salted food will do you no favors. Like bad writing, it will land you straight into the slush pile: one way or another. So take heed, don't let your quill bleed. Write sharp. Crisp. Tart. Shrewd. Harp. Recap: "Clean as a bone."
When's the last time you made someone cry? Don't worry. It's not a trick question. As a novel writer, you ought to be thinking about emotion with every chapter. Chapters are like calculators. Press the right buttons and you get a result. Readers expect to "feel" something: a quicker pulse, an unexpected chuckle, sweaty palms, shivers, a call to action, you name it. It all depends on the type of book you're writing. It all depends on your genre. Your job as a writer is to be fully aware of all the buttons as your disposal. Trust me. It'll be just the thing to knock you onto the bestsellers list. Cry!
Give every character a job. I'm not talking about a profession or a vocation in the story. I'm talking about a role in making this thing we call a 'novel' rise up and sing. That's right. Treat each character as if they were on your payroll. Ask them daily: "What are you working on? Plot? Mood? Pacing? Backstory?" This is key if your goal is to write superb chapters. Scene and sequel tie in nicely with this approach, as it reminds you to "balance" each chapter. Think of a see-saw. Sometimes, you'll start with action and end with emotion. Other times, you'll start with emotion and end with action. But you can't do any of this if your characters don't clock in. Jobs!