The following is a partial list of discoveries I’ve made in the last few years that have benefited my own writing, and which I also find myself attuned to as I read others’ writing. I’m not trying to pose as the Master Writer imparting wisdom to neophytes; in fact I’m just happy to have found the positive items and cast off the negative ones after years of being attached to certain methods which really weren’t working. So it’s with a sense of personal relief that I offer the following.
While I know it’s still possible to fool yourself, my basic criterion has evolved to be willing to ask the basic yes/no question of any part of a novel, from a chapter down to a word: “Is this really working?” (A slightly different tack: “Does this contribute?”) And from there I can make it right or change it.
It really is a wonder that you can be so attached to something you’ve written that you don’t even think to ask this question. So most of the items below I’ve learned mainly from having compromised them along the way and having had to clean up the resulting mess. Many of these are purely mechanical processes, but you can still be so attached to a mechanical process that it gets in the way of what you’d really like to be saying.
In fact, many of these changes in tactics have come about from interaction with the publishing world. Even some rejection letters have been of benefit in helping me understand the following.
1. What Works
One digital file per novel. It was a revelation to realize that publishers want exactly one file for the entire novel. Up until 2009 I was attached to having each chapter be a separate Word file. I guess I expected I’d send the whole thing on a CD and hope a prospective publisher would eagerly open thirty chapter files one after another! Also, when I did discover how important the single-file manuscript is and began assembling these chapter files together myself, I found that the bewildering styles of Word, differing subtly from chapter to chapter, meant that File-Insert produced horrifying formatting results: italics and regular formatting reversing, font size changing, font color and identity changing. Just write the whole thing as one file and keep backing it up. One file simplifies everything and according to Word documentation, you can have a 32 MB Word document if you wish. I have three extremely long novels that behave well in Word, including my archival, dementedly-long first novel, the never-to-be-published Akard Drearstone Draft 1, which is 5 MB, 2,379 pages, 682,516 words in one file …
Be prepared to use all your word processing skills to change the formatting, margins, fonts, indents, etc. exactly as a prospective publisher outlines on its web page. Save the MS. under an altered file name, and if it gets rejected, delete this reformatted version and do all further revisions on the master copy. You don’t want a bunch of different versions to keep up with the inevitable corrections any novel needs. With practice you can get this process down to one evening’s work, and it’s fascinating to see how your novel works in these different formats. Consider that all this is entirely for the benefit of the ideal reader, who is also you.
Make shorter chapters. Not much more than fifteen pages, usually shorter. Readers do like to take breaks and orient themselves. Chapter 14 of Akard Drearstone Draft 1 was one hundred fifty typewritten pages with only three section breaks; my original The University of Mars had eight extremely dense chapters spread across 320 typewritten pages. That would make anyone reluctant to take up the manuscript.
The printed manuscript is optional. Though it sounds shocking to anyone who’s ever keyed in three hundred pages of a novel on a typewriter and made numerous photocopies of it and of sample chapters, you will probably never again mail a publisher a cardboard box containing your novel on paper. However, since I do want an archival paper copy just in case we enter an electricity-less Dark Ages, whenever I make significant revisions to a novel, I make a second digital copy, single space it, pare the margins down to 1” and the font to Times New Roman 10, and this usually results in a print a little over a third as long as the original. I print this and, when electricity is restored after the Apocalypse, I’d probably just scan this paper copy in again …
Know what characters are and what a story is. I can be fair to characters. I can control the space of a novel. This is not to say that I’m always successful at creating characters, or that the plot coming out of these characters always works.
Put the plot into one straight chronological order. Flashbacks may be intended as dramatic revelations of a character’s past, but they’re usually disconcerting and really not necessary. The straight chronology clarifies your thinking and the reader’s understanding.
Put yourself in the place of the ideal reader. Basically, it’s me recalling what works well when I’m reading other people’s fiction. What works and what doesn’t work becomes more and more clear to this ideal reader. You want to be considerate of this reader–who is not to be confused with some ideal critic. You’re not out to appease anyone, you’re out to give a gift to your ideal reader, the same gift you’d like to receive. When you yourself are bored by something you’ve written, it’s guaranteed that everyone else will be. You are not going to “get away” with a single thing–though sometimes you feel like such a hot artist that you ought to be able to.
Play to your strengths. One of mine is dialog, so my novels tend to be dialog-rich. This in turn has made me better able to use italicized thinking and make it seem like real thoughts, not clumsy exposition.
A problem with any plot situation can always be resolved. Just make something up. Chances are one of your characters will be enhanced by this new craziness. Somehow this really works for me. Think of something outlandish, then ground it. It usually helps open the novel up.
You can cut out a lot of the “He saids” as long as you effectively make clear who’s speaking. I’ve cluttered many a manuscript up with too much of these, and it speeds everything up to omit them where possible. Also, in something like “‘Get out of here!’ he shouted,” it’s usually obvious that “he shouted” is redundant, so you can cut out a lot of words like cried, screamed, shrieked, and bellowed, dialog words I’ve tended to overuse. I just finished a fresh edit of my novel CommWealth and just by cleaning out this sort of fluff I reduced it from 62,166 words to 61,091–that’s 1,085 words I don’t have to subject the ideal reader to.
Length of novel. 60,000-100,000 words. You see this range a lot on publisher web sites. I think this is about what the ideal reader wants to deal with. Also, it seems that if you can’t learn to craft a novel in this range, you need to think about what it is you’re trying to accomplish. I do have some longer novels that I think had to be their respective lengths in order to tell a complex story. In fact, I enjoy reading extremely long, well-crafted novels, but I do approach new examples with wariness, as I want to establish a sense of trust with the author in the first pages before committing to the entire thing. Back to the original Akard Drearstone, my “teaching/learning novel” which was 1,587 typewritten pages and which I later realized was one good novel, one bad novel, and three mediocre novels squashed together. I later cut it down to that one good novel, the current version still a bit long at 132,758 words, but … 19.42 % of the original. I’ve always thought I finally got the one good novel out of that rather insane rough draft.
Navigating by energy. If I find myself truly enjoying rereading my own work, I know it’s good. If I find myself wincing at it, getting bored, and coming with some justification that dull passages are “necessary” to the plot, then I’m on the wrong track. It’s always hard to admit that something’s not working; but navigating by your energy levels is a useful way to start seeing through that.
2. What Doesn’t Work
Characters spouting exposition or philosophy. Or explaining the overly complicated plot. It should be obvious that this doesn’t belong in a work of fiction. You don’t even enjoy rereading your own clumsy exposition yourself. Why should anyone else? The first chapters are always dangerous in this regard. And if you need a character to explain the whole plot at the end of the novel, to put everything in focus, the plot has clearly failed.
Massive shifts to new scenes, times, characters. Meandering plot. Needing to explain everything. Turning your novel into an encyclopedia of the imaginary world you’ve created. A lot of this comes about from attachment to blocking out scenes and ideas in planning and in the rough draft. You’ve hammered all this stuff together into some ungainly sculpture and really haven’t considered whether you’ve made a space where any other human being might want to walk. Sometimes this comes from a desire to show off everything you know about fifteenth century Greece, and so you have all sorts of flashback chapters to fifteenth century Greece, and then clumsily reveal later on that the fifteenth century Greeks were ancestors of your twenty-first century protagonists. Sheesh! Who cares? Why not drag all those colorful characters into one time and place and see how they mix?
Attachment to old versions. The first version felt so good to write that you unconsciously carry it around long after you’ve known down deep that it really doesn’t work anymore. This can be very difficult to get a grip on.
“Necessary” dull passages. You have a great Chapter 1 and a great Chapter 3, but you feel the dull Chapter 2 is necessary to explain how you got from 1 to 3. Or worse, as in the case of my original The University of Mars, the first 300 dull pages were “necessary” to set up the really good last 20 pages. It’s obvious that dull chapter needs to go away or to be seen from a truly new perspective.
Flashbacks. I’m coming to believe that these are more often than not the result of author confusion. I know there will be many good exceptions to this, but the Utterly Meaningful Italicized Flashback and/or Dream Sequence not only throws the reader off track, but also hints at author ego trip and popping the bubble of “willing suspension of disbelief.” The reader is abruptly confronted with “author technique” when he or she would really rather be getting on with the story. Keep the story in the present, and move chronologically straight through. It doesn’t really matter if the scope of a novel is a day or twenty years, if the chronology is sound, the story is sound. You can also mess up the chronology just because you decide you want to include something before you forget it, and the passage never gets rewritten–and so someone walks into a room, begins talking to someone, then thinks about what the two of them said last Wednesday and the Thursday before that at such length about that nobody is clear about who is speaking when.
Point of view. If chapters or scenes change the point of view, fine, but keep the main chronology going through all of this. The big switches back and forth between seemingly disparate characters, milieus, and second stories are jarring and annoy the ideal reader.
Italicization is a spice, not a nutrient. Again I’ve been guilty of this. Too much is off-putting. Especially whole chapters in italics, straining to give those flashbacks or dream sequences some extra believability. I use italics for character thoughts, but I’ve overdone that at times as well. In fact, in some novels I wanted to use italicized thinking to help pare down long introspective narrative sections, but found myself mechanically alternating narrative with italicized thinking. There was no real energy in it, and I should have cut down those sections drastically or deleted them.
“As if reading his mind.” This is a minor peeve but I’ve seen it used so often even by talented authors–and again, I’ve done it myself–that I want to mention it here. Al and Fred are talking about football, and one of them, Fred, starts thinking (often at exposition-trying length) about a 57 Thunderbird he used to own. The narrative proceeds thusly:
As if reading Fred’s mind, Al asked: “Whatever happened to that 57 Thunderbird you used to have?”
The coincidence of them both thinking the same unrelated thing at the same time strains credulity. Either just have Fred think about the Thunderbird with no comment from Al or have Fred or Al bring it up on his own and have the two pull out all that out in conversation. This “as if reading his mind” stuff is strictly rough draft plot blocking-out, experimentation that somehow never got cut in succeeding drafts. It’s just plain lazy to leave it in.
Ha ha. This was a personal bad habit. I THINK I picked this up from Dostoyevsky (in translation, of course!), but that’s no excuse. I thought it was comical to have characters, usually my neurotic villains, literally say “Ha ha,” “Haw!” and “Har!” But this practice is not only irritating but, I finally saw, unnecessary.
When you’re channeling effectively, writing well, these lessons are almost effortless. When you’re attached to “the way it was,” you’re on a wrong path and pursuing illicit energies. You fool yourself into thinking that you’re being true to the above tenets, but in reality you’re more or less missing them all. Sometimes you force yourself to fake your way through some of these tenets, but the resulting effect is still dull. I’m still not sure why I clung to many of these for so long, but as I said at the beginning, it’s a relief to finally start getting clear about them.
copyright 2012 by Michael D. Smith