Light from Darkness

I recently shared my second (unpublished) novel with author Jeffrey James Higgins (http://jeffreyjameshiggins.com) for him to critique. He provided incredibly valuable feedback that I have been using to improve my writing. I’m indebted to him for his thoughful analysis and have taken the liberty of including some of his more general suggestions below.

Structure

  1. Structure can vary a bit, but people comprehend and enjoy stories the most when the fit classic structures. I recommend reading The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, and Story, by  Robert McKee.  Every genre also has certain reader expectations and requirements. I also recommend reading Save the Cat Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody. She outlines the fifteen beats that have to be in every story, where they need to be, and the differences in each genre.  
  2. Avoid too many POV characters in the book. I would pick two or three, tops. You can have more, but it dilutes your character development.
  3. Use only one point of view in every scene. Don’t head hop within the scene.
  4. Avoid an omniscient POV, which is not used much in contemporary novels. It kills the tension. Stay inside the POV character and only show what they see, feel, hear, or think.
  5. Thrillers and mysteries work best in truncated time frames.
  6. Filter in background, no more than one paragraph at a time, and don’t put any of it in the first five pages.
  7. Flashbacks and background kill pacing. It’s better to deliver the information through action and dialogue, but if you do need flashbacks or expository background, limit it to one or two paragraphs.
  8. Start the novel in action. The inciting incident or catalyst usually comes about ten percent of the way into the story, but the first scene needs to show action, create questions in the reader’s mind, and hook them into the novel.
  9. You need to have conflict in every scene. Someone wants something and something else prevents them from getting it.
  10. Eliminate scenes which don’t move your plot forward or develop character.
  11. Start scenes in the middle of action. For example, a police interview at the station should begin with the interview underway, not all the set up leading to it.
  12. Don’t include the minutia of every movement or action. Only give the reader what they need, and not everything a character does. Jump to important moments.
  13. Don’t use mundane scenes as a device to feed the reader backstory.
  14. Once in those critical scenes, cut the excess dialogue and actions which the reader doesn’t need to know.

Character

  1. Plots are important, but character makes novels. Every POV character needs to have an arc. I recommend reading “Writing the Breakout Novel,” by Donald Maass. He does a good job of explaining the complexity and importance of character.
  2. Your POV characters need to have some character flaw they need to fix. They don’t have to know it themselves and other characters can express it for them. This is the theme of your book. Their need is satisfied by the end. Donald Maass explains this well.
  3. POV characters also have wants, which are different from their needs. Jessica Brody explains this better than anyone. For example, solving crimes is what your protagonist wants, but what is the underlying psychological need it serves? Quitting her job and moving to the island may show she is finally taking charge of her life, but if that is her need, it needs to be more evident early.
  4. All of your POV character’s wants and needs should come early and the conflict preventing them from getting it should be evident.
  5. You have many characters, good for complexity, but it may be bordering on too many. A reader has to keep them all separate. Distinctive voices and appearance will help.

Craft

  1. We all make the same craft mistakes and they are easily fixable. Agents and editors usually read less than five pages before rejecting a manuscript. I’ve heard many say they see the craft problems in the first few paragraphs then spot check the rest before rejecting.  I recommend reading The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. He does a good job of pointing out common errors.
  2. The first sentence needs to grab the reader. It is the most important line of the entire book. It should be memorable, clever, make the reader want to understand what is happening. ThrillerFest even has a contest for the best first lines.
  3.  Every chapter and every scene should open with a hook, which pulls the reader into the action.
  4. Every chapter and scene should end with a cliffhanger, or by putting a question into the reader’s mind. Makes the reader want to continue to solve the unanswered question. A good trick is to end scenes before the action finishes.
  5. Try to avoid adverbs.
  6. Limit your use of adjectives.
  7. If you’re using italics as internal monologue, write it in first-person, present tense as if it was dialogue.
  8. When you’re using third person limited (close third person), the reader knows they are in your characters head, so you can skip much of the italicized thoughts and just say what your character’s thinking.
  9. Limit the length of the internal thoughts, especially those in italics.
  10. Avoid filter words that create space between the character, like felt, saw, heard. Just use the action. The reader knows the POV character is experiencing it.
  11. Use active instead of passive. Replace “to be” verbs with stronger verbs. Get rid of was, were, etc.
  12. Limit “ing” words.
  13. Watch word repetition. Try not to repeat words or phrases on the same page.
  14. Do a word frequency search and eliminate words you use to often throughout the manuscript. We all overuse some words.
  15. Avoid using phrases like “started to,” continued to,” “began to.” Just write the action.
  16. Try to avoid telling the readers what’s happening and show them instead.
  17. Be succinct. Rewrite to make scenes shorter, which will help with pacing.
  18. Some of the dialogue feels wooden and unrealistic. There is too much use of dialogue as a vehicle for dumping info.
  19. In dialogue, cut unnecessary words and responses, like “okay” and “oh, thanks.”
  20. In dialogue, have character fail to answer questions.
  21. In dialogue, have characters cut each other off.
  22. Try reading your dialogue out loud to improve the cadence.
  23. Don’t use characters’ names in dialogue. They know who they are speaking with, and only do it for emphasis, like a mother scolding a child.
  24. Eliminate the repetitive dialogue. The reader has already heard it, so don’t repeat it again. Just say, “She related what X told her.,” or “She briefed him on the conversation.”
  25. Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know.
  26. Lose the niceties in your dialogue and cut right to the important conversation.
  27. Cut phrases like the “she knew,” “she thought,” and “she wondered.” They put distance between the reader and the character. Readers already know who is speaking.
  28. Spell out numbers from one to one hundred.
  29. Always use either the first or last names of suspects. Don’t alternate between the two. It confuses the reader and doubles the names they have to track.

Formatting

  1. Manuscript needs to be formatted to industry standards before submitting to agents or publishers. Most agents have interns screen the slush pile and are told to discard anything that doesn’t adhere to the standard or to the specific agent’s submission requirements.
  2. Readers need white space on the page. Long blocks of text are unwelcoming and make it hard to follow. Shorten your paragraphs and insert dialogue or even one sentence paragraphs to break up the page. This is especially important at the beginning.
  3. Your paragraphs and sentences should have varied lengths. Avoid patterns.
  4. Start new paragraphs when new characters or speak when other characters do something.
  5. Start chapters one-third of the way down the page, which is seven returns when double-spaced.
  6. The Chicago Manual of Style is the standard for novels.

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