Today, one of the writing feeds I scan on occasion posted a list entitled “10 Vital Novel Writing Tips.” I read it through once, and thought, “okay, simplistic but whatever,” but then I began to think about the tips given and how very boring reading would be if every novelist thought this way. Here is their list – my comments follow:
I’d like to take each one of these points and “dissect” them a bit. Please feel free to add your own comments about any of the points made that you like, or that you don’t like.
1. While agents and editors may need to strictly categorize your novel, this assumes that all novelists are traditionally published. Many authors choose not to go through a publishing company because their book may fall outside of their guidelines. That said, it is a good idea to keep from flying so far outside the realm of category that you can’t define your genre with a few keywords; even independent publishing platforms like Amazon want authors to categorize their books.
2. Suggesting that today’s novels are more like movies than ever isn’t all that complimentary. I’ve read a few books that I could tell from the start were written with the idea that they would be adapted to film. To be frank, they stank as books, and didn’t smell much better if one or two were adapted for the big screen. Books aren’t movies. If you want to write a movie script, then write a movie script. For the few formulaic books that get adapted to movies, there are thousands – hundreds of thousands – that don’t. Many readers are not looking for a movie or they’d be watching a movie instead of reading. Unless you have been approached by a movie producer and asked to write a novel to adapt to the screen, don’t write it like a master movie script.
3. This tip states that your story’s lead should be sympathetic – all virtuous, likeable and full of character. This point alone is the most ludicrous tip of all. Creating a completly sympathetic character – one with no flaws – is a good way to create a boring, flat character in a strictly formulaic book. Everyone has flaws. Even Superman has his kryptonite, and Batman is a moody depressive. Your character mustn’t always be relatable. I’ve read gripping books where lead characters were sociopaths, had mental illnesses, or were unlikeable individuals. Give your leads variety – if your story requires a non-sympathetic lead, go for it.
4. This one isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s good advice. Sometimes, we think our antagonists/opposition characters must be portrayed as evil super-villians, but often the opposition might be the protagonist’s well-meaning family member or friend. In the novel I’m currently writing, one of the sympathetic characters becomes a “turncoat,” and one of the antagonists may just seek a type of redemption from her former behavior.
5. “Targeting the right wordlength” for your manuscript might have been considered back in the old days of publishing (and still has its merits when you’re differentiating between a short story, a novella, and a novel), but manuscripts in all genres are now of such varying lengths that if a publishing house requires particular wordcounts, they’ve fallen behind the times. For example, once upon a time, manuscripts written with the young adult market in mind were somewhat shorter in length (an average of about 50,000 words per book). The assumption was that teens and young adults had shorter attention spans and would never get through anything longer. That assumption turned out to be completely erroneous. Back when I was a teen, I found that my favorite books were of epic lengths (Hello, Lord of The Rings trilogy). Today, books like The Hunger Games trilogy and the Harry Potter series have completely turned those arbitrary word-length numbers on their heads. How long should your manuscript be? It should be long enough to tell the story. Never cut what you feel needs to stay, and never add filler to reach some imaginary perfect word count.
6. Subplots can be good things in some novels, but you don’t always need them. ‘Nuff said.
7. Where does this come from? Readers love surprises? Readers love surprises and twists if they’re integral to the story, say in an Agatha Christie mystery. Unnecessary surprises can be so jarring or out-of-place that they take the reader out of the flow of the story. Recently, I read a story that had so many “out of the blue” surprises, I became annoyed with them because they had no need to be there and didn’t drive the story anywhere. Rather than surprises, perhaps writers need to recognize when the story needs a twist or a subplot, or even an adventure. Most of us know, after all, that pages and pages of exposition or description can become boring. As long as your ebb and flow moves the story forward in an interesting way, it’s all good. If you do have surprises, though, you don’t need to have one every 1/4 of the book.
8. Resolve your story ending in whatever order you feel is best for the manuscript. Sometimes it’s nice to have the bigger resolution first, followed by smaller resolutions. Have you ever read a book that you felt ended too abruptly after the climax? Conversely, I’ve read stories that tried far too hard to tie every loose end into a neat little bow. Again, this is about how your story is best served. This is why I find beta readers so important when I’m wrapping up a novel. They can provide reader feedback on their satisfaction (or lack thereof) with your ending.
9.Uhhhhh – every section must have a designated section character? And what is “viewpoint writing” – are we talking first person, third person, omniescient? This is weird. Yes, your book needs to be one viewpoint (or several). Successful books have been written with multiple perspectives or one, present tense or past, first person or third. One book that comes to mind immediately as breaking this “rule of designated section characters” is Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway. The novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness sort of style, and perspectives jump so quickly from one character to another that it is often difficult to figure out whose thought process we’re seeing at any given time. And yet the book is a fascinating read and is taught in English Literature classes everywhere.
10. Okay, this one I can get behind. Yes, show the action of your story, don’t summarize it. Try to avoid passive voice. Show, don’t tell.
**All of this is simply to say, if you want a formulaic book, fine, follow a formula. If you want a cookie-cutter story that’s been told 5,000 times (think Harlequin Romances of the 80s) and you are successful as a result, more power to you. But don’t take those “vital” tips as vital if you don’t want flat milktoast characters or formulaic stories.
Recently, in a New York TImes opinion piece, writer David Brooks argued that literature and the humanities had lost its way in that, rather than focusing on the inward person, to “cultivate the human core, that part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul…” (whatever that means), it has begun to focus more on the outward. Instead of focus on “truth, beauty, goodness,” he argues, now the focus has turned to political and social topics regarding class, race, and gender. I read his article and found myself wondering why he cannot see that these inward and outward focuses can be combined, and have been for centuries.
One of my own focuses, as I have navigated the waters of returning to graduate school (English Literature with a bit of Psychology thrown in), is how authors have portrayed women…in particular, the “rhetoric of disempowerment,” as my classical literature professor/mentor has put it. For example, from further back than Shakespeare, I can follow a trail of how the humanities and literature have portrayed the disempowerment of women, especially that of women’s inability to speak for themselves –how they have been silenced politically and socially. Frances Burney, a predecessor and an inspiration for the literature of Jane Austen, peppered her literary form with both subtle and overt commentary about how all of the female protagonists in her novels were silenced, ignored, and controlled by patriarchal society.
More recently, William Faulkner wrote what are considered great works of American literature that focused heavily on an “enlightened” Southern White Male’s views on racism and social class. I’m not a huge fan of 1,800-word sentences, but I have to admit that his works certainly focused on both the inward world of the “soul” and the outward world of race and social justice. Toni Morrison, one of the great literary novelists of our time, weaves those things together beautifully. Her often brutal (but honest) portrayals of black lives from slavery and beyond have heavily impacted both the literary community and activists for social justice.
Why must it be one or the other? Do authors sacrifice the world of introspective thought and “feeding the soul” when they incorporate the issues of social class, race, or gender?
My husband and I have made a deal to encourage one another to write in our blogs, at least once a week. I’m heading back into my last year of graduate school, but damn it all, I need to write my own stuff, too. So I’m getting back in the saddle again. Write on, fellow writer types, and don’t let all the bits and pieces of your life stop you. 🙂