A friend of mine–a while ago–asked me for writing advice. She’d fiddled with writing, but had never done anything serious. She wasn’t quite in the mood for full writer throttle, so I wanted to do something fun for her. This is what I came up with–and we all know it’s scratching the surface.
I. Thou shalt not start “At the Beginning.” Okay, a little play on words, but it’s true. A novel starts with a hook. Not with back story. Back story is for flashbacks, here and there, later in the plot. The hook is what pulls readers into the story–the event that plunges the character into the event that turns his life upside down, topsy turvy. It introduces the book’s big question and why the protagonist has to take it on. If he doesn’t, he’ll never restore order to his life. If he does, he’ll be a changed person. His choice. And usually, he avoids dealing with it as long as he can—or until the first fourth of the book is written. The hook pulls the reader in and the first fourth of the book provides the set-up for the story. (Les Edgerton has a great book on the topic: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/index.html)
II. Thou shalt plot Thy book with no holes or soggy middles. Okay, this admittedly, takes some skill and balance. You don’t want your plot to move too fast or too slow. It’s all about conflict. Plot is the result of cause and effect. The protagonist wants this…. needs that….and decides this idea will solve his problem…. Except it doesn’t. No, whatever he tries, makes it worse. For a novel, I’ve never been able to come up with enough to fill the vast, yawning middle of a book without subplots. Every plot is character driven. So are subplots. If you come up with strong, main characters whose goals/problems mirror the protagonist’s, you can weave in and out of the different scenes like a juggler who keeps all of his balls in the air. Victory Crayne says, “Conflict is ‘The mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims.’ It is the unsolved problems that form the chain of promises that keeps the reader interested.’–Ben Bova. Les Edgerton, by the way, has a great blog post on plotting, too: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/12/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none.html And: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/04/outlining.html. Actually, his entire blog is worth reading.
III. Thy pacing shall keep readers turning the pages. Every scene in every novel has to have tension and purpose. If a scene doesn’t advance the story in some way, it shouldn’t be there. Something has to be at stake in EVERY scene. And repetition–of any kind–KILLS tension.
IV. Thy writing shall have emotional impact. If the protagonist doesn’t react–reel with horror, laugh with joy, worry and pace with frustration–neither will the reader. The reader lives these events through the characters. He wants to EXPERIENCE these events through the characters. The writer can use internal dialogue or visceral responses to react, but the reader wants to feel what the character feels. And actions sometimes speak louder than words. No one wants to read about a protagonist who only reacts. We want the protagonist to dig into the problem, make plans, suffer when they fail, and pick himself up and try again. The reader wants a happy ending to be earned, not given to the protagonist. Or, if the protagonist tries and fails, we want to suffer the pain of defeat along with him.
V. Thou shalt create interesting, memorable characters. Readers want their characters to feel real–like living, breathing people. They want to know what the character wants and why. What will he do to get it? He has to have a name that fits his age and personality. He has to have Goal, Motivation, Conflict. If different characters have different goals and motivations, that creates conflict. Every novel needs different type of characters: the protagonist, maybe a mentor, a romantic interest, a friend or reflector, a villain and hopefully an antagonist–different from a villain, but someone who keeps getting in the protagonist’s way, and maybe an opponent, someone who’s competing with the protagonist. Dialogue, dress, and actions have to be consistent with who the character is. The characters drive the story. I’m plot oriented, but no writer can make a character walk through a story and do what he’s supposed to for the plot without making the character a cardboard stick figure who’s not interesting.
VI. Thou shalt use dialogue to advance the plot, not to fill space. Dialogue can reveal character, create tension, and foreshadow coming events. Be careful of tags. “He said,” “she said,” are fine, but action tags work even better. Fancy tags are rarely needed–“he proclaimed,” “he insisted.” Dialogue should fit each character, and it should “feel” real. It’s not real–not even close–but it can FEEL real if the writer avoids flowery dialogue. People sometimes use broken sentences. They usually don’t go on and on. When they do, that says something about a character. Les Edgerton has a blog post on dialogue, too, that’s pretty dang good: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2013/04/guest-post-at-kristen-lambs-blog-on.html
VII. Thou shalt choose Thy setting well. Settings are the backdrops for stories. Some stories work better in big cities and some work better in small towns or in seclusion. The setting needs to fit the tone of the story. If a small town is hiding a serial killer, the town may appear innocent and inviting, but the writer gives clues that evil lurks under its surface. Settings need to fleshed out. They’re the foundation that helps hold the story together. It’s the world the reader’s going to live in from page one to the the last word of the novel. The reader needs to see the setting, to smell its scents, to know its people.
VIII. Choose Thy POV carefully. The character whom the reader follows should be the one who has the most at stake in the scene or story. First person POV is more immediate. Everything’s filtered through that character’s eyes and mind. Third person limited creates more distance, but with internal dialogue can share insights, too, and the writer doesn’t have to try to avoid the word “I.” Multiple POV can create more tension, because the protagonist doesn’t always know what other characters are doing.
IX. Thy voice and tone shalt suit Thy story. Voice is a nebulous thing that’s individual to each author. It reflects our attitudes and our take on the world. But tone should be individual to each story. Tone sets the mood. If the story is humorous, every single word the author chooses should be light or lend itself to funny. If the story’s dark, every word choice should be forbidding or brooding. For a scary setting, the author wouldn’t describe a forest with birds chirping and squirrels scampering. Instead, the trees’ branches should look like gnarled fingers, twisting to ensnare someone or to snag them. It’s all about word choice.
X. Thou shalt dedicate Thyself to good, strong writing. A writer has to master the basics. Sentence lengths should vary. Word choice should be specific, not generic. He should use active verbs, not passive. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, opting for strong verbs and nouns instead. Spelling and grammar should be right. Wording should be original and unique.
We all know that keeping every commandment is hard. So is good writing. And I’ve probably left out a point or two, but this is a start. The fun’s in the striving. Enjoy!