During the past year I’ve done more novel critiques than usual. Some have been so-so, some were very good, and a few have already sold. What was the difference between the “very good” and the “sold” manuscripts? In my opinion, it was the overall strength of the novels.
Often the “very good” book manuscript was strong except for just one area. Maybe there was no felt emotional connection with the main character, or all the dialogue voices sounded like the author’s voice. Perhaps the one weak area was lack of suspense despite beautiful prose, or poorly researched historical facts, or terrible mechanics.
The strong writers had taken time to strengthen even their weaker areas.
Often when I mentioned the trouble I saw, the writer emailed me back and said, “I knew that was a problem. I guess I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.” It’s better to listen to your gut feeling and assume if you know there’s a problem, others will see it too.
“Hoping an editor won’t notice” isn’t a solid marketing plan. Even if they had the time (which they don’t), editors aren’t in the business of fixing the story for you or teaching you how to write. They never have been. That’s up to you—but what can you do?
Back to School
“Unless you’re working with an expert instructor, you need to be designing your own writing improvement program,” says James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers. “Work out a systematic plan to overcome your weak areas by setting up self-study programs.”
We all hope our novel’s strengths will over-ride the weaknesses, but you want your novel to be healthy overall, not just mostly healthy with one or two weak areas. If your physique were great except for flabby underarms, you would target that flapping fat with exercises and a program designed specifically for upper arms. In the same way, if your novel is weak in one or two areas, you need a specific exercise program to strengthen that area.
For example, if your problem is dialogue that all sounds like the same flat voice, you might need a self-study program called “Creating Distinctive Voices.” Your study question might be: How can I create distinctive voices for each character, so distinctive that I can tell who’s speaking without any identification?
A Plan to Grow Strong
Here’s one plan, and you can adapt it for any area you want to improve:
- Make a list of novels where you remember the characters coming through in their dialogue as distinctive. (accent, regional speech, slang, choppy vs. languid speech, hip vs. old-fashioned, formal vs. grammatically incorrect, straightforward vs. flowery speech, etc.)
- Choose several of these novels and re-read them specifically for the dialogue. Keep your study question in mind as you read. Underline passages that do the job and then write a few scenes where you try to accomplish the same thing through dialogue. Don’t copy their words, but try to copy the technique used.
- Buy some books on the particular writing problem you have and study them. There are good writing books available on every area of craft you can imagine. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel, nor do you have to submit stories that are weak in one or two areas.
In today’s economy, your stories need to be the cream that rises to the top. Ensuring that your novel is strong in every area is one way to do that.
What ways have YOU found effective in making your writing stronger? Leave a comment!