If there’s one question I dread, when people hear that I’m a) an author or b) a fiction editor, it’s “Can you read my/my sister’s/my cousin’s novel?” This is happening with greater regularity, the longer I’m in the industry. And, more often than not, it’s very difficult for me to be diplomatic when faced with utter dreck. Because, believe me, the majority of the people whose manuscripts I see are nowhere near ready for publication. Sometimes it’s very difficult to control a fit of sporking.
So, you’ve watched Twilight and now you’re going to write a killer vampire novel. You’ve never hefted a pen or tapped at a keyboard since high school or college but you’ve got this story. You’ve just got to write it. You’re going to be the next (insert name of she whose name we will not mention) and you’re going to score a six-digit deal with a big publisher.
Wrong. (Insert sound of editor’s head smacking her desk.)
Most writers whose novels land on my “please will you read this” pile happen when said individual, carried away by their own enthusiasm, whacks out those words with little thought about plot or characterisation. The resultant mess would achieve instant rejection from any slush reader, editor or agent who’d be offered the manuscript. And people wonder why they can’t get published. Then they usually run off to lulu.com or waste money on some sort of self-publishing deal. This is one of the reasons why that sector of the industry gets such a bad reputation when it comes to the quality of some of the titles unleashed upon unsuspecting readers.
Before you utterly ruin all chances for your novel making it to print or ebook format with a realy publisher, here are a few tips to help you get started.
Mary Sues or Marty Stus: Do yourself a favour. Google is your friend. Go find out exactly what a Mary Sue is. Then make sure your main character isn’t one. Only George RR Martin can get away with platinum hair and violet eyes. Previously unpublished writers get snickered at behind their backs by editors who’ve Seen Everything (capitalisation intended). When you create your character, do not make them all-powerful. Give them flaws. Don’t let them succeed the first time. Keep them real.
Where are you going with this? Some authors do, and some don’t know where the story is headed, but I generally advise writers to plot their novel before they start putting down the words. I’ve found the Snowflake Method to be very useful. You needn’t follow it slavishly, but it will be a good start. In fact, if you type “how to plot a novel” into Google’s search field, you’ll come up with dozens of good references online.
I’ll say it again: Google is your friend.
Another good friend is the absolutewrite.com forums page. I suggest spending at least a month participating there before you even begin plotting your novel. Talk to other writers. Learn from other people’s mistakes, but remember that every published author’s story will differ from another’s. Then, I’d also suggest joining an online critique group. The one that I’ve found to be the most useful is The Critters Workshop (www.critique.org). The only way you’re going to learn about the dos and don’ts of writing is if you see what sort of mistakes other writers make.
Another rule I keep yelling is: show don’t tell. Make your readers see, taste, touch, feel and hear your world. Don’t just tell them there’s a house on the hill. Show us that the house needs a coat of paint, its roof has caved in and the ivy is choking the windows. That’s already saying a lot more about that house than: “The broken-down house stood on the hill”.
Writing a good novel is not something you can learn to do at university. A good tertiary education in English literature is no guarantee that you’ll be able to sell your first novel, although you will (it can be hoped) walk away with better grammar skills than your average Joe. Learning to write a good novel requires years of practising your craft. You’ll also need a thick skin, because you’re going to need constructive criticism in order to improve your stories.
Trust me. No author is so good and perfect that they can do without a good editor.
Nope. Not even Stephen King.