We get word-blind. Over the course of a couple of drafts, the word blindness can get worse. You're clinging to your darlings, but the story's changed, and they're possibly no longer on point. (Our enforced reading break in between drafts, and the astringent Editing course are the citrus you need in your writing diet, but even so, it takes a lot of bad parenting to know how to treat your beloved manuscript roughly for its own good.)
WhenI read a writer's work, I evaluate it very simply. Here's how:
1. There is nothing wrong with it. It looks clean and good. There are no typos, and the grammar is right. (Don't ever hit send to anyone before using Grammarly.) It's not backstory-heavy. It's not blighted with how he or she 'feels'. ( Ideally none of these 'she-feels a trembling-anticipation-in-the-pit-of-her-stomach wretched things are in it at all. But if you must, because you're not good with words, then no more than three times max please in the first chapter.) Each paragraph leads to the next and inevitably so.
2. It feels real. The characters are reasonably credible, feel true to life, and are not complete arseholes from the get-go. The setting feels real too. But there are things out of place - wrong if you like - and that's how you make the rest feel even more real. Those objects - or visuals - are your way of making the reader pay attention. If you're one of my writers, you'll know the value of 'dissonant' or impertinent detail. It doesn't have to be clever, it has to stand out. I often cite the yellow washing up gloves in the opening of Normal People by Sally Rooney as a good example of this. Using this technique assists the enfolding and immersive quality of the prose. Readers are inside it! They're living it!
3. There is a sense of urgency. There is an enticing, alluring sense of foreboding, that something is wrong or going wrong, that something is about to change. In other words, the reader is needed here. The reader must attend and play their part!
Quite simply, that's pretty much it. Those three things. Tick, tick, tick-tock.
Don't let your long words get in the way of the story - the urgency. Swap long for short (Anglo-Saxon) and keep it active not passive. Remember my reader mathematics rule from previous blogs? You give the 1 + 1 but let the reader do the addition. Leave space for the reader to enter in and perform the calculation which confirms to the reader that he or she is very smart, and clearly needed here or who knows what's going to happen.
It's a surprise to me how few writers understand the value of punctuation. It's not about being 'old school' it's about using all the tools we have to communicate. I lean on my punctuation marks for effect. They're there for where words fail.
A great tool is the space-return. When you want to signal to your reader - go figure, you do the maths, or think about that, pal, you hit the space return to give them the nod to do so.
Always end a sentence with your strongest suit. If you are listing a few items to make your point, make the last one sly and heavy like a rum punch.
Then having given them space to think about how sly and heavy that was, you continue.
No need for everyone to complete their spoken sentences.
"I want to tell you," she began.
Move on. (Now you've got a cliffhanger.)
Here's the writer's antidote to backstory:
Ok, so you just have to slide some in. Yes, you can get away with it - if you don't complete it. Leave the reader hanging. "Then, after all of that and another three fabulous years in Southampton to boot, something trivial happened which changed her whole attitude to gerkhins." NOW STEP AWAY FROM THAT BACKSTORY. Leave it; just leave it. Tell us later. If you don't conclude your piece backstory, you're still writing actively and leaving breadcrumbs of story for the reader. (What changed her attitude to gherkins?) Weave backstory through your tale.
These are commercial tools, and if you're writing literary fiction, you need them more than most. Give us punctuation, and please God I beg you, give us space.
Here endeth the lemon.
I'm keeping it short and yellow and sour, so you focus and apply the three points above as you scrutinise that first chapter and score yourself out of ten on each before you share it with anyone ever again. My A* grade writers who've taken our course and are getting ready to be pitched to our literary agents, will score no less than a ten from me on each one.
Finally, here's what I do. I make the font size nice and big to fit ten words per line like in the real books. Then I scroll through my manuscript with a really good book in my left hand, and I look from one to the other and I say - is it anywhere close? If it's not, why not? I want it to be better. (That's why when it comes to novels, I've got a lot of preserved lemons in my pantry. They disappoint me, but I'll pickle them one of these days.)
For now, let's focus on you and making some sparkling lemonade. At The Novelry we mean business, and my aim is to get you published and make you famous. The step-change - the leap - between drafts of my writers' books makes my heart race.
In the next blog, I'm going to share with you how Orwell raised his game to create prose 'like a window pane'. It took him a while.
But then again, it takes quite a few years to learn how to write like a child. We're all getting there. The only ones who won't make it are the grown-ups who like their work an awful lot.
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