Thanks so much for all your lovely comments RE part one of this blog post, it’s great to hear that my posts help not only me but others too, and I hope part two is as helpful and insightful as part one. Without further ado, let’s begin…
Overworked descriptions and cliche metaphors
I realise that overworked and cliche are two different things but keep an eye out for both, as they risk making your work look like the uninteresting ramblings of an amateur writer. To clarify:
“Hannah clumsily grabbed her red, ceramic, heavy mug and filled it to the brim with scalding, hot, brown coffee. It burnt her calloused, dry hands.”
Although this sentence is not horrendous, it’s a little too descriptive. One or two adjectives would have sufficed. See below.
“Hannah grabbed her mug and filled it to the brim with scalding coffee. It burnt her calloused hands.”
This one is self-explanatory but some examples of a cliche metaphor are:
– His eyes shone like diamonds
– Her rosy, red cheeks
– His deep, blue eyes
Accidental or thinly veiled racism/sexism/homophobia etc.
Sadly this is more common in novels than you may think. Of course, most of the time the author does not intend to offend, but it does happen. I have read a few reviews of a current popular novel where the readers felt that the only POC in the novel was represented badly (she was bitchy and homophobic with apparently no redeeming characteristics), so when creating characters, please be aware of the above.
Of course, only you, the writer, know your story world and its inhabitants, but it may be wise to consider whether or not your cast is representative of both ethnicity and gender, especially if it’s set in today’s modern world.
Watch out for outlandish developments
Every plot point and development needs to be a logical step up from what has happened before it. Even shocking plot twists or action scenes have a build up and have been ‘set up’ to some degree. Everything needs to be linked, or the result of something that precedes it, so try not to add in outlandish plot points just to ‘spice up’ your novel. I was recently reading (and enjoying) a novel where there was no mention of cannibals, until all of a sudden, just for a little bit of conflict, the protagonist was abducted and almost spit-roasted for dinner. It struck me as out of place, awfully random and to be honest, a bit stupid. All events in your novel are stitched together, so keep your eyes peeled for any random scenes or pointless developments.
Make sure your MC is actually participating in conversations
This may sound stupid but keep an eye out for this, especially if there are lots of characters. It’s all too easy to allow your protagonist to take a back seat and merely observe events and interactions. Make sure your MC is a driving force in the conversations – it’s easy (especially in first-person) to have the narrator pass thought or judgement on a situation in their head when it may be best if they were to make their judgment out loud to the other characters.
Is your main character somewhat likeable?
Don’t get me wrong, flawed protagonists are great, but your readers must want to root for them, so they have to have something going for them, even if that thing is pure grit or ruthlessness in gaining the story goal. They don’t need to be perfect or even nice, but at a basic level check that they aren’t (unless intentional), any of the following: racist, sexist, unnecessarily bitchy, unfairly jealous, whiny or homophobic).
Watch your use of nonsensical sentences
Of course, creatively writing is part of the fun, so go forth and use your imagination but read every sentence to make sure it does actually make sense. There’s no point trying too hard to be literary or whimsical if the meaning behind the sentence is lost to the reader.
Watch out for deep yet pointless conversations
A deep conversation is all well and good but if it randomly appears in your novel and doesn’t contribute to the overall goal or theme then cut it – it’s just fluff.
Don’t make your antagonist flat
No one is 100% evil, not even your villain. Evil for the sake of evil is something that comes up in a lot of negative book reviews, so make sure your book isn’t one of them. As well as this, don’t make your protagonist 100% good. No one likes a Mary Sue.
Another obvious point that is all too easy to overlook. Ensure consistency throughout. Some examples of things to look out for:
- The weather – if it’s snowing one minute, chances are it’s not going to be boiling hot the next.
- Character hair, eye colour, clothing or jewellery.
- Where your characters are in relation to one another as well as if they are sitting or standing. Also, which characters are actually in the scene.
- Time of day
- Spelling of names, places, and made up things.
The above is just the start. There are so many things (most of which will be unique to your novel) which you will need to keep a check on. For example, in a scene in my novel, my characters are wearing masks that cover their mouths. It would, therefore, be a bit stupid if I forgot this and described a character’s smile (because how the heck would you know if he was smiling or not?!). FYI this totally happened. Oops.
Do your research
If you’re representing a culture or a movement (think BDSM in 50 Shades) do your research so as not to offend those who are part of it. 50 Shades often has those involved in the BDSM movement complaining that it’s not accurate and is sexist etc. This also applies to different cultures – you don’t want to cause offense.
Your protagonist is hot-wiring a car? Check that the methods used are viable and correct (but don’t put your new-found knowledge to use!).
Do you have too much inner monologue?
This boils down to the whole show-don’t-tell thing (see part 1). If the protagonist is talking to himself and summarising what’s happening, would it be better and more engrossing to the reader if it was changed to action or dialogue? The answer may be no but it’s worth checking just to be sure.
Have you started in the correct place?
If your novel only picks up pace in the last 75% (like several books I’ve read recently) then consider starting the novel later. You don’t want your readers to give up before the good bit, so why not move the good bit forward.
Are your characters cardboard cut out or cliche?
Is your novel populated with dumb blondes, geeky redheads who look gorgeous when they take off their glasses, handsome square-jawed football players or brooding dark-haired Byronic heroes? If yes, consider changing it up a bit. As well as this, make sure your characters are multi-faceted. Why not give your star football player an interest in sewing, or make the seemingly dumb blonde an owner of a multi-million dollar company? Use your imagination and inject some uniqueness and life into your world.
And that’s it for now! Let me know what you think of the above in the comments!
This week I thought I’d write a blog post detailing some of the things to look out for when re-drafting and editing your novel. I’m currently at this stage in my own novel writing journey and it’s arguably the hardest stage so far – perhaps even worse than the dreaded first draft. I will be referring to this list continuously myself as I draft, re-draft and hone my novel and I hope it will be just as useful to you. I have split this post into two parts as it would have been a little bit too long to be one. Part two is now live and can be found here.
When writing dialogue, keep fancy dialogue tags to a minimum. There is nothing wrong with plain old ‘said’. Changing it up every now and then to add variation and drama is fine, but if your novel reads like:
Fix it, because it does get annoying. I recently stopped reading a novel 3 pages in because I just couldn’t get past the annoying use of tags.
Show don’t tell
Sorry to bring up the obvious – and you will have heard this numerous times – but it’s important, hence why it keeps cropping up. Show the reader your protagonist is distraught through body language, don’t tell them straight up that your protagonist is ‘sad’. Telling instead of showing distances the reader and this is the last thing you want to do.
Even worse than telling is over telling. If you’ve dedicated a whole paragraph to describing how your MC’s (main charactrer’s) love interest is sad, think about it – could this have been portrayed by describing her drooping shoulders or a flicker in her eyes?
Another obvious yet important point. Even the most well-crafted sentence or most beautifully-designed story world can be completely undermined by a single typo. It’s a sure-fire way to ensure both readers and agents stop reading immediately.
Keep an eye out for repetitive dialogue, imagery or word use. Also, check that you aren’t repeating something in dialogue that’s already been said via inner monologue and vice versa. As well as this, watch out that you don’t mention something unimportant more than once, as you risk bringing too much attention to it. The dad character is too busy on his mobile phone to pay attention to your protagonist? Great, mention the phone once and then leave it, don’t keep referring to it after every mention of the father.
Dialogue should be interesting and believable. Are your characters saying hello every time they meet? Cut it. Are they discussing something in unnecessary detail, purely for the sake of the reader? Cut it.
Example: If your MC and his mother are talking about that time when MC’s sister tried to kill herself, they wouldn’t discuss it like this, as they both already know the details of what happened.
“Mother, I don’t want to leave her because she tried to kill herself seven months ago by taking 20 packets of pain-killers.”
This exchange is being used purely to relay backstory to the reader and it shows. There’s no subtlety or intrigue and it’s just plain amateur. There has to be a better way to get the information across.
Also, make sure there is a point to every piece of dialogue included. Don’t include a rambling conversation between your protagonist and their next-door neighbour purely to set the scene, unless of course, the neighbour is an important element of the storyline.
The mirror scene
Ah, the good old ‘using a mirror to describe the appearance of the first-person protagonist’ trick. There is nothing inherently wrong with a mirror scene, but think carefully about having one and if you do, make sure it is interesting. I have one in my novel at the moment and I’m debating getting rid of it entirely. It’s a good device to use to describe your protagonist, but it’s done so often that it’s becoming a ‘trope’.
Cut lectures and long, preachy paragraphs
A well-written novel will have substance and morals, but these will be weaved subtly throughout and won’t be force-fed down the reader’s throat. Avoid sounding preachy by cutting down (or even cutting out completely) long paragraphs used purely to relay your opinions on certain divisive topics.
Cut the exclamation marks unless absolutely necessary
Pretentious, annoying names
Keep an eye out for these. Unique names are great, ridiculous ones are off-putting.
Do all your novel elements make sense together?
At risk of sounding mean and crass, if you’ve just dumped every interesting thought you’ve ever had into your novel, then chances are, it’s not structured or well thought out, and will only be interesting to you, and you alone. If you’ve got a load of cool but vaguely (if at all) stitched-together ideas, then perhaps you need to seriously think about your story structure. If you’re serious about publishing your novel once it’s done, perhaps take one of the interesting elements and play with that and cut anything that doesn’t fit with it.
Insta love – it’s a word that appears on Goodreads a lot. Some readers love it but most hate it. People don’t just fall in love in seconds or even days. Lust perhaps, but love, no. Build up the relationship believably before you plunge in with the L word.
Do you have too much backstory or exposition in one paragraph or even in one chapter? If so, consider drip feeding it instead. Also while you’re at it, think – do you really need a whole paragraph to describe something when in fact a single sentence would do just fine?
Are you giving things away too quickly?
I read a novel that did this quite recently. Basically, the novel was about a present-day female protagonist who was brought back in time to marry a lord in medieval Scotland. Sounds great, right? Wrong! Instead of joining the protagonist as she wakes up in medieval Scotland with no idea what had just happened to her, the readers are told within the first chapter what is about to happen to her via several paragraphs of clunky backstory. What could have been an intriguing, drip-fed premise had been laid bare in a single paragraph and explained in painful detail. Why should I read on when I already know what is going to happen?!
Characters referring to each other by name all the time
That’s not how we talk. Period.
Too much lengthy description about unimportant things
Yes, scene-setting is great but please don’t discuss your MC’s handbag through three paragraphs of detailed description if it’s not relevant to the plot.
If your twist comes out of nowhere, then you may need to go back and add in little hints as to what’s to come. Yes, it needs to be a surprise (it’s a twist after all) but it needs to also be believable. If all of a sudden your MC turns into a frog because of a curse you need to at some point discuss said curse beforehand, even if it’s just briefly.
And that’s it for part one. Now on to part two.
Up until a month ago, I was happily muddling through my second draft. Although I knew there were problems with it, it wasn’t until I was about half-way through, that I thought it would be helpful to sit down and reassess the structure and elements of my story as a whole.
After many hours of brainstorming, I concluded, in short, that:
- My main character was boring – her arc was weak and she was, let’s just say, forgettable.
- The subplots weren’t adding to the story.
- There were many plot holes.
- There were also several unnecessary scenes that I had become attached to (because I had spent SO many hours working on them, I couldn’t bear to get rid of them).
I thought about several methods that I could use to remedy the above issues. I started off by researching character development, how to write good subplots and finally decided that the extra scenes I loved so much had to go.
Although I had made progress doing this, I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to see all of the elements of my novel plotted out – I wanted to see how the character arc linked with the relationship subplot, how the character arc impacted the main plot and how my character changed over time. If I could physically see all of these elements in play, I felt that it would be easier for me to weave them together in a coherent order. I started off by doing this on my laptop, in a table that looked something like this:
This was helpful for a time, but sometimes you just need something physical to wrap your brain around. Cue, the notecards:
You have probably heard about using flash cards to outline a novel. There are many good articles online that explain exactly how to do this (try this and this). These methods are mainly to help you when you first start planning your novel, but they can also help if you just want to see your novel as a whole, in order to move bits around and assess whether or not the structure you have currently is working.
Although the above methods suggest only using about 60 cards, I decided to break this down further. I ended up with well over 150 cards, and not enough floor space to lay them out on!
What I did
I had four colours of card:
I dedicated each colour to a certain element of the novel:
Green – Main plot events
Pink – Character relationships and subplots
Yellow – Character arc
Blue – Other
To further explain:
On the GREEN cards I wrote (among other elements):
- Each element of my three act structure
- Opening scenes
- The inciting event
- Each of the three disasters
- Character introductions
- Character reactions to the main events.
- Character reflections on the main events.
- Main scenes.
On the PINK cards, I wrote any events and interactions that happen between the main characters.
For example, my novel has four main characters, each of whom have varied relationships with each other. Two of the females in my novel end up falling out – so on a few of the pink cards, I have made a note to include:
- ‘The rising tension between X and X’.
Finally, towards the end of act two, these rising tension cards make way for the:
- ‘X & X have a huge argument over X.’
That way, the argument doesn’t come out of nowhere.
You can also include:
- Any elements of a romantic subplot
- Scenes that show the changing dynamics within relationships and friendships.
- If two characters are falling in love, you can include the increasing romantic tension between them.
On the YELLOW cards I detailed my character arc:
- How the character is at the beginning of the novel.
- Various actions showing how the character acts at the beginning of the novel.
- Introducing any fears the character has.
- Introducing any coping mechanisms that character employs.
- Events where the character has to face her fear, preferably varying in seriousness. Say she is scared of spiders, have her face the fear several times, and in varying degrees of ‘scariness’, until she finally faces the entire fear head-on.
- Anything that will affect the character arc – the impact character for example.
- How the character is at the end of the novel.
- The character’s epiphany.
- The character’s choice in the climax.
- Elements of characterisation for the main character.
- You get the idea….
And finally, on the BLUE cards, I detailed any other event that I thought was important and didn’t want to forget.
- Anything that needs foreshadowing – so if the protagonist is going to use a bow and arrow in the climax, it must be introduced, preferably a couple of times, near the beginning of the novel. So I would take a blue card, cut it into however many pieces, and write ‘introduce bow and arrow’ or ‘protagonist uses bow and arrow here.’
- Any element of scene setting.
- Backstory and flashbacks that are relevant to the plot and character building.
- Elements of characterisation.
- Resolutions to the subplots or resolutions to any of the character relationships. For this reason, a lot of these cards will come at the end of our plotting.
You can either create the cards as you go along (this is what I did), or you can create your cards and then arrange them. The beauty of this method is that you can move things around, take bits out and alter elements, without having to try and wrap your head around pages and pages of on-screen text.
Once you are happy with the layout, you can then take a photo of the layout, or do what I did and re-type it into a word document, which you can then follow when you write your drafts. The only slightly annoying thing about using the notecards is, unless you have a large surface or floor that you can leave them on, you will spend a lot of time tidying away and re-laying the cards (unless you figure out your structure in one sitting). To ensure that I didn’t ruin the order of the cards, I collected them up chapter by chapter and bull-dog clipped them together.
Of course, bear in mind that each novel is extremely different, so use the above steps merely as guidance!
Happy writing! Let me know if you find this method useful at all!
When you first begin your initial research on how to plan and write a book, there are countless useful blogs (listed at the bottom of this post) and articles on the elements that make a good story, in particular:
- The three act structure
- The use of three disasters
- Conflict (of which there are many types)
- Character arc and premise
- Goals (story goals, life goals and scene goals)
In isolation, the theories relating to the above are pretty digestible, however, they do not work on their own. Each theory interweaves with the intention of coming together and creating a well thought out story with a clear purpose. The complexity of this is overwhelming and personally made me want to tear my hair out.
Being a designer, I like to visualize things, so one morning when my head felt like it was going to explode, I whacked out a pen and began to scribble. I was on a mission to work out how each of the following theories slotted together to create the bigger picture, and to find a way to convey this in the simplest way possible. This is what I came up with. (Please note, this is based on the three act structure).
And this is it jazzed up and redesigned a little for you guys…
This graphic aims to give an overall picture and act as reference for those of you who need a friendly reminder of how all your planning fits together. Further planning tools and printables will be provided for each of the sections to further assist your planning process at a later date.
To those of you who are new to the writing world, I will dissect and explain the graphic in more detail below to aid understanding. Those of you who are already familiar with what it all means, feel free to take it and use it whenever you need a little reminder or clarity.
Acts, disasters and scenes
The three act structure is generally the main structure that your novel will follow. It is a well known and respected structure, used often in novels and play writing. Each act has a specific ‘purpose’ which will be discussed in further detail below. Each act is also made up of smaller scenes. Each scene takes the protagonist one step closer to the story goal. Within the three act structure there are the three disasters. The disasters again have a specific purposes.
Act 1 and first disaster– Act one is roughly one quarter of your story and should set up the story and introduce the reader to the characters and the world in which they live in. It should also introduce us to the problems that the protagonist needs to solve.
At the end of act one comes the first disaster. This disaster acts to commit the protagonist to the story (he knows what he wants, his goal and he goes after it) and bring him to the point of no return.
Act 2 and the second and third disaster – Act two takes up approx. 2 quarters of your novel. The first half of act two (the second quarter of your novel) should see your protagonist’s reaction to the first disaster and begin his quest to the goal. The second disaster strikes at the end of the second quarter (half way through the second act). This disaster is bigger than the first one and acts as a major set back to the protagonist reaching his goal. The third and final disaster comes at the end of act two. This forces a decision/ a change of mind-set that will set up the third and final act.
Act 3 – Act three presents the climax, resolution and presents whether the protagonist reaches his story goal. It is not always a bad thing if he doesn’t, as throughout the process he could realise that what he thought he wanted, is not what he needed. Act three ties up lose ends.
There are three kinds of goals; story goals life goals and scene goals.
The story goal is what the protagonist wants the most and the problem that he needs to solve. This could be an external physical achievement such as graduating, or internal such as a change of mind-set or attitude.
The story goal does not only affect the protagonist. it is likely to affect the rest of the characters too. For example, if the protagonists goal is to save the life of his wife, but he fails, her family, friends and children will also suffer the consequences. When the stakes are high, the readers care more about whether he achieves it.
The life goals of the characters can be totally separate to the story goal. For example, the protagonists story goal is to save the life of his wife but his life goal is to become a professional trapeze artist. He has ambitions and goals that make him a memorable and realistic character. He is living in a multi-dimensional world with hopes and dreams of his own before the first disaster strikes.
Each scene within a story must have a purpose. This is where scene goals come in. In each scene your character must want something, which is then met with conflict (see below). Each scene acts as a step towards the story goal.
The role of conflict
As the graphic suggests conflict comes not only as the three major disasters, but is also present at scene level. Scene level conflict is directly related to scene goals, because it acts as the opposing force.
Conflict could be one of two things: internal or external. Internal conflict may mean your character is battling internal emotions or feelings. External means he is up against something physical such as another person, the weather, time etc.
Also bear in mind that conflict does not have to be anything huge. It could be as minor as your protagonist missing the bus – even such a seemingly insignificant event will produce a setback, pulling the character further away from his story goal.
Be sure that your character does not lose or win all battles. There needs to be a mix of both highs and lows to ensure tension and avoid predictability.
Put simply, your characters arc is the journey and changes your character makes between the beginning of the story and the end of the story. Your characters begins at point A, and ends at point B. ‘Stuff’ must happen between these points that incite and create this change. If there is no journey, you will find it hard/impossible to progress your story.
Veronica Sicoe offers a detailed explanation of different types of character arcs here
James R Hull offers an interesting insight into the difference between growth and change here
K.M. Weiland. explains in great detail how to write different types of character arcs here
What is a premise? There are diverging opinions on premise, what it is and how useful it can be. The following explanation is my own interpretation of it and what I see it to be. The premise as I understand it and as I refer to it in the graphic, is what the protagonist learns throughout the book – the end result of his character arc. Examples such as ‘Lifes too short to worry’ ‘If you love her let her go’ or ‘I am good enough’ to name a few.
It is important that you don’t get too bogged down with trying to find a premise that is moral and deep, or forcing your story to fit around a premise from the start. You may start with the premise and go from there, but equally you may not even know exactly what your character learns until you finish the book. What is certain and important is that your character will go through changes throughout the course of the book, and this change is a vital element to consider in the greater context of your novel’s overall structure.
I hope you find the graphic useful, and it would be great to hear your comments!
Everything I know I learnt from a variety of valuable sources (listed below). Undoubtedly, I will be returning to many of these sources time and time again for further guidance. Check them out!.
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
After you’ve figured out the rough plot of your novel (I used the first 4 steps of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method), it may help you to outline it.
An outline can be viewed as a basic ‘wire-frame’ of your plot which you can refer to throughout the first draft stage. Although it isn’t for everyone (some may find it too prescriptive), it can be helpful in ensuring that you don’t forget any of the major plot points or stages of character development. Your outline can also help you to figure out when to incorporate subplots and to identify elements of your novel which don’t fit in with the overall storyline.
This method assumes that you have plotted your novel using the three act structure, and that you have a rough idea of your storyline. You can read more about planning your novel and using the three act structure here.
This method gets you to think carefully about the beginning, middle and end of:
- Your novel as a whole
- Each of your three acts
- The chapters and scenes within the acts
By doing this, you will (hopefully) end up with a detailed plan which summarises your novel in three varying degrees of detail.
You should end up with something that follows the below structure. (Click the image to enlarge). Please note that the image is just an example. Your plan might omit the romantic subplot and you may choose to plan your novel using scenes instead of chapters.
I have also included this second image (my actual, much uglier outline), to further illustrate this.
You can create your own outline by following the following steps.
- Start off by writing a summary for each of your three acts. What happens in each?
- Plot the beginning, middle and end of each of your three acts.
What needs to logically happen in each act so that the protagonist can get from the beginning of the act to the end? As you plan each act, you will begin to see scenes and chapters forming.
- Once you start breaking the acts up into smaller chunks (either scenes or chapters), ensure that each of these also have meaningful beginnings, middles and ends. Each scene/chapter should be relevant to the plot and should propel the protagonist towards the chosen story goal. I chose to plan my novel using chapters, but this is just a personal preference.
- Continue to plan out each scene or chapter this way until you have reached the conclusion of your novel. Don’t worry if you have yet to decide on a specific ending to your novel – you can always leave this blank for now and write the ending after you know more about your characters and plot. You should, however, have a rough idea as to whether or not your protagonist achieves their goal.
- Once you have outlined the main plot, you can begin to think about subplots such as inner character conflict and romance story-lines. Separate these out into main ‘signposts’ and ‘turning points’ and intersperse them within your overall plot where you see necessary. You can have as many signposts as you see fit, but ensure that the events are reflective of, and add to, the main plot. The subplot points can appear wherever you wish and needn’t follow the below plan. As each novel will vary considerably, it is impossible to suggest where each of these points should be, hence you should use your own judgement when deciding where to include these.
Once you have figured out all of the above, grab a large piece of paper (bigger than A4 would be best!) and use the above to create a visual plot outline that follows the above plan. You can do this on Word (using the table feature) if you prefer. I created my plan in Adobe InDesign.
And VOILA! You now have a plot outline, which I hope will help you tackle the mountain that is the first draft! I know I found it incredibly helpful, and hopefully you will too!
There are several things you may want to do once you have finished your outline:
- You can use it as a point of referral as you begin the drafting stage of your novel.
- You can use it to analyse your plot structure in great detail before you move onto the next stage of the novel writing process.
- You can use it to help you write a chapter by chapter synopsis. After I had completed my plot outline, I had planned to use it as such as I felt that a synopsis would help me write the first draft. This might be a helpful thing for you to do, if you like to plan in even greater detail before you begin the drafting stage. Personally though, I got to chapter three before I decided to stop writing the synopsis and just get on with writing the dreaded first draft!
Any questions, feel free to comment below!