Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft. I take comfort in this because it means I can improve with practice. Which is just as well. Like so many other writers, I have an excruciatingly bad first manuscript locked away where nobody will ever see it.
Every so often I drag the manuscript out into the daylight to see if it’s as ghastly as I remember. Cringeworthy doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s atrocious. Appalling. Abysmally awful. And each time I look at it, it’s worse than I thought.
It’s not that the writing’s getting more dreadful as time goes by. I don’t have a mystical manuscript equivalent of Dorian Gray’s portrait, soaking up all the crappiness of whatever I’m working on at the time. (But how cool would that be?) The reason it seems so much worse when I return to it every couple of years is that I’m a better writer now than I was back then. I’m living proof that study and practice can make you suck less.
Here are some of the things that stand out when I read that manuscript today. Six lessons I’ve learned the hard way.
1. Start each scene as late as possible
This may seem like an obvious one. But when I started writing fiction I often began chapters at the start of the day, and ended when my main character went to bed. No wonder an 80,000 word story blew out to 140,000 words.
Take it from me, folks, nobody wants to know what your character had for breakfast. Skip straight to the action.
Each scene in your story should have a purpose. Once you know your scene goal, start writing as close as possible to the point where the scene reaches its goal. You have to keep your story humming along.
2. Simplify your dialogue tags
I’ve addressed the perils of ornate dialogue attributions before. Many editors will go crazy with the red pen if your character mumbles, mutters, or mentions instead of just saying things. Whether you agree with this editorial fashion or not, the weight of opinion falls in favour of using the almost-invisible said.
And if your dialogue makes sense without attribution tags, leave them out. Not all of them. But most. Use the occasional snippet of action to indicate who’s speaking. You’d be surprised how few attribution tags you need if the flow of your dialogue is clear.
3. Don’t refer to people by their name in dialogue
I want you to think back to a conversation you had that lasted more than a couple of minutes. Now try to remember how many times you called the person you were speaking to by name. My guess is once, twice at most. If you’re close with your conversation partner you may not use names at all.
Don’t believe me? Next time you speak to somebody, try using their name every other sentence. It will feel weird, and they may begin to look at you as though you need a bit of a lie down. In natural conversation we hardly ever address people by their names. If your characters are huge name-droppers, you should think about trimming your dialogue.
4. Do refer to people by their name outside of dialogue
For some reason, don’t ask me why, when I was writing my first manuscript I felt awkward using a character’s name more than once or twice in a scene. But a simple he or she doesn’t always cut it, and if you have more than one character of the same gender it can get downright confusing. So I came up with all kinds of descriptions to let the reader know who was doing what. “The lanky Frenchman turned to his tall, blond friend.”
Why, past me? Why?
It’s almost never a good idea to do this. Pierre turned to Sven works so much better. Just using the names would have been a million times less awkward than the contortions I went through to come up with descriptions for my characters.
5. Mix action with description
Gone are the days when you could set the scene by opening with a paragraph or three of description before your characters, you know, do something . You shouldn’t spend half a page painting word pictures of crimson berries shedding drops of morning dew like tears, or gnarled walnuts scattered on the ground beneath the tree’s creaking boughs. Unless someone’s about to get poisoned by the berries, or choke to death on a walnut, nobody cares.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have description in your prose. Readers need enough detail to picture the scene for themselves. But the proper place for description is mingled with action in the scene. For example, it’s fine to describe the walnut tree as your hero hauls himself into its branches to escape the slavering jaws of a crazed corgi.
Try to select a few vivid details, preferably things that will set mood or tone as well as describe the location, and mention them as your characters interact with the scenery. You may dream of readers who hang on your every succulent word, but this is a chimera. Unless you’re a world-builder like George R.R. Martin, lengthy slabs of exposition aren’t going to fly. (And seriously, George, show some restraint.)
6. Give your characters something to lose
I’ve left this one for last because it’s a biggie. It’s often hard to recognise in your own writing, and it can be difficult to correct. But it will kill your story stone dead if you get it wrong.
Your character needs two things for the plot to progress: something to gain, and something at stake.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” While it might be okay for a walk-on to be looking for the water cooler, your protagonist should be looking for something more important. The launch keys to a stolen nuclear suitcase bomb, for instance. Or the identity of her real father. And there should be dire consequences if she fails.
In my first manuscript I had beta readers asking why my hero wouldn’t just walk away instead of facing a probable shellacking at the hands of the villain. My protagonist had only the flimsiest reason for going forward, and no personal stake in the outcome. That, my friends, is where your reader puts the book down and never gets around to picking it back up.
My problem was that I knew what I wanted to happen, but had no good reason why. Hello, major structural edit.
Your characters need to want something badly enough to endure all the torments you put them through. And for your readers to truly root for them, the stakes need to be high. We have to want to see your hero succeed because we understand the price of failure.
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So there you have it. My terrible first manuscript has taught me a lot. How about you? Do you have a manuscript gathering dust in a drawer somewhere? What lessons do you think it holds?