The complexities of novel writing
I recently participated as a judge for a romance writers contest. Entrants provided the first 20 pages of their unpublished novel. To evaluate the submissions, judges were provided a scoring sheet with twenty characteristics to evaluate.
That really drives home the challenge of writing a good novel. For novices out there…or even experienced writers who may need a refresher, I thought I’d summarize a few of the characteristics that seem to trip us up.
1. Showing, not telling
You’ll hear this a lot, and it takes some time to master this concept. Good writers work details about their characters’ backstories into their scenes seamlessly, without a “data dump” of narrative text.
Learn to weave the description of the location, characters, and time period into the story like you’re seasoning food. Sprinkle a little here, a little there, and let the reader discover what they need at a natural pace.
Example from my WIP Counting on Him:
First draft using narrative text
Gabby couldn’t believe David wanted to talk to her. She’d broken up with him because he’d been so controlling. Sure he seemed like the perfect guy, handsome, smart, confident, and Jewish, which was something her mother insisted upon. But he always thought he was right, disregarding her opinions. It drove her crazy.
He’d been surprised when she ended it. And now he was telling her he wanted to get back together. That he was sorry. She didn’t know how she felt about that.
Revised using dialogue:
“I’ve been thinking about you.” David reached for her hand and rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. “I hate the way we ended.”
He locked eyes with hers. They were the color of the Mediterranean Sea, warm and blue. It was what first drew her to him. Her chest tightened. She wasn’t ready for this conversation.
But he was. Flashing her an apologetic smile, he said, “I know it was my fault. I always think I’m right.” He shrugged. “But I’m the only son of a Jewish mother. I can do no wrong.”
Gabby couldn’t hold back a smile. She’d met his mom. It was totally true.
“Why didn’t you tell me you found me controlling?”
She pulled her hand away and wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I didn’t realize it myself. Then, once I noticed, it drove me crazy. I couldn’t let you control my life.”
2. Settings set the mood
Use the setting as another character in your book. Include descriptions of the sounds, scents, lighting, etc. to convey a mood–the ominous hum of computers in a deserted office, a salty ocean breeze reinvigorating a tired soul, or the soft inky blue of twilight bringing the end to a perfect day.
Weather can be a very effective tool, adding emotion to a scene – rain pounding against the window when depressed or the searing heat of the summer sun making an anxious situation even hotter.
The only sound Gabby heard was her sneakers pounding along the trail, echoing the refrain in her head, “Now what? Now what?” As sweat dripped into her eyes, she swiped at her forehead, dragging her a hand through her unruly hair. Stupid humidity. Stupid sweat. Stupid Sean.
Be strategic when developing your characters as well. Convey their personality through your descriptions of their clothes, car, home, job and accessories. Instead of writing “David was determined to be successful and always dressed to impress.” convey that through his description.
David pulled up in his Audi. Naturally, he angled it to take up two parking spots. Climbing out of his car, he pulled off his Montblanc sunglasses and tucked them into the pocket of his crisp lime-green Hugo polo. Everything David owned had a logo.
3. Writing natural-sounding dialogue
There are three things to remember when writing dialogue. People talk in short bursts, they frequently interrupt the speaker, and they usually stick to one subject in each statement. I’ll explain.
“Joe, I know you said you’d pick up my car for me, but the repair shop called and said you didn’t show up. So now I have to catch a ride with Sally tomorrow. What happened? And why didn’t you clean up your breakfast dishes? You know I hate when you leave them in the sink.”
Add action tags and Joe’s reaction to make conversation more natural
“Joe, I know you said you’d pick up my car for me, but the repair shop called and said you didn’t show up.” Gabby threw her purse on the counter and glared at him. “Now I have to catch a ride with Sally tomorrow. What happened?”
Joe didn’t look up from his laptop. “I forgot,” he mumbled.
That made Gabby even more angry. Didn’t he care at all? Obviously not, she fumed, noticing the sink was still filled with dirty dishes. Storming over to him, she flicked the laptop closed. “And why didn’t you clean up your breakfast dishes? You know I hate when you leave them in the sink.”
I hope these tips help.
It’s amazing how easy it is to spot these unwieldy examples in someone else’s writing, while being totally oblivious of them in your own work.
Don’t be afraid to let others read your work. Tell them what to look for, so they know the type of critique you are asking from them.