by Collaborative Editor Susan DeFreitas
Writing a novel is a long process, and one that many people never finish. But say you have, finally—and instead of celebrating, you feel something more like a sense of dread.
Why? Because you know something’s wrong with it. You just don’t know what.
While there is no substitute for working one-on-one with an editor on your writing project, I’d like share a few basic troubleshooting tips that will address the most common causes of Systemic Novel Dysfunction (yes, I did just make that term up), based on the issues I’ve seen over and over again in my work with Indigo.
Perhaps you felt an urgency to get your story moving quickly, and so you did. But it’s so quick that your reader is left wondering who these people are, what is happening, or (this is a big one) why they should care. This is sort of the equivalent of trying to get your reader to eat too much too fast without giving her a chance to really digest the information.
The best way to address this issue is usually to either slow down, start earlier, or both.
By slowing down, I mean easing into your story at a pace that allows your reader to build up an appetite (hooks, teasers, and mysteries are good for this) and really chew on the information that will be important for her to understand as the story unfolds.
By starting earlier, I mean going with an opening scene that falls earlier in your story’s overall timeline, which will give you a chance to turn your essential backstory into a kind of appetizer before plunging into heartier fare.
2. Identity Issues, Part One
Maybe your novel reads like a literary novel but takes a fabulist turn on page 140. Maybe it starts off as a western or crime drama and then later involves Egyptology or aliens. Or maybe it just features a single, game-changing character who’s utterly amazing—but doesn’t arrive on the page until late in the game.
In books as in life, things really do happen in a set, linear sequence. But different readers like different things, and in general, you want to attract the readers who like the sort of thing that your story is. Which is a good reason to get that thing on the page as early as possible.
Often, in order to do that, you’ll need to work in a prologue or some tricky folding of time. Because sometimes the order the story actually occurs in is not, in fact, the way you want to tell it—especially when the natural order of time keeps the really cool stuff from happening until the novel is halfway over.
3. Identity Issues, Part Two
Does your novel set off at a brisk pace but then get lost in the woods somewhere?
Perhaps you got bogged down in the swamps of historical research. Maybe you’ve succumbed to the will o’ the wisp of a subplot or two; maybe another character’s POV seemed really important to include, and somewhere along the line, it became more interesting to you than the protagonist’s, so you wandered off to follow it. A novel’s big, right? Surely there’s room for all that.
It’s true that the novel can be an expansive form. But the sense that there’s room for absolutely everything is, to my mind, no more than a lovely illusion. What there’s room for in the novel is anything and everything that genuinely matters to your protagonist and clearly impacts his character arc.
If you’ve got a sense that your novel starts off on firm footing but then veers off course, ask yourself: do the events of the plot clearly impact my protagonist’s character arc? And, by extension: is it clear, throughout the novel, whose story I’m telling?
4. Poor Planning
Got a theme, running joke, bit of backstory, relationship, or development that’s supposed to be important? If it’s not worked into your tale well before it’s supposed to be important, your reader is likely to be unhappy.
Remember Chekov’s observation that if a gun appears in the first act, it should fire by the third? This is the reverse, and I believe it holds equally true: if you’re going to have a gun fire in the third act, it shouldn’t appear directly before it’s fired (nor should your protagonist be revealed, in this scene, as a remarkable marksman, when we’ve only known her up till now as a convenience store clerk).
Here’s one way to think about this: on the backpacking trip that is your novel, you want to make sure you pack the right things. Otherwise, you’ll reach the portion of the hike that requires crampons and find yourself sliding every which way. (Sadly, in backpacking trips as in life, technical climbing gear does not magically materialize when you need it.)
5. False Ending
Maybe what you have is the ending of another story. Maybe the ending is why you wrote the story in the first place. Maybe it’s the ending that you came up with because you had no idea what the ending was supposed to be. Regardless (sadly!), it’s not the right ending for this story.
Here are a few useful ways to interrogate the ending of your novel if it feels like it’s not quite working:
- What are the most compelling elements of the narrative? Does the ending adequately address them?
- What’s the takeaway? (How have the events of this story changed the protagonist? What does your protagonist make of this?)
- What is your story all about, really? (Community? The Northwest? The illusions we convince ourselves of in order to hold on to love?) How can you encapsulate that in a final image/scene/thought?
There is, of course, no universal formula for writing a successful novel—and no substitute for an editor who will happily climb down in the trenches with you. But if you’re investigating the cause of illness in your novel, consider this your broad-spectrum antibiotic as you go forth and revise.