5 Ways Not to Write a Novel

Think you're done revising? No, you're not.

Posted Feb 27, 2010

Writing a novel? There's first-draft flow, and there's editing flow. And then there comes a time when you think you might be done, yet the manuscript is still not quite "there." To sell your work to an agent, and then to a publisher, and finally to a great many readers, put thoughts of flow aside now, and consider the following advice. Each of the guides mentioned is worthy of your careful attention.

1. Don't describe your characters in generic terms, such as "Danielle was a woman of medium height with brown hair and brown eyes." [Better: Be specific, or, if your character is truly generic, mention that she hates the way people are always mistaking her for someone else. See many more such tips in How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (Collins, 2008).]

2. Don't construct a majority of your sentences the same way, such as: "He shaved, and then he wiped off the shaving cream," "She walked to the corner, and she looked both ways," or "We opened the door, and we found the mail on the porch." [Better: Vary your sentence types. See examples in Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, by Elizabeth Lyon (Perigee, 2008).]

3. Don't be clumsy in your use of foreshadowing and anticipation. [Better: Make sure that all events are convincing and forceful due to the way prior events are described. Learn more from Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers, by David Madden (Plume, 1988), which I happened upon in a thrift store and found thought-provoking and invaluable during my own revisions.]

4. Avoid flabby phrases such as the following: the difficult task, both share, blend together, on account of, considering the fact that, report back. [See The Dictionary of Concise Writing: 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases, by Robert Harwell Fishke (Marion Street Press, 2nd edition, 2006).]

5. Don't write scenes in which "it's all good." [Better: Add some tension, impending tension, or trouble to every page. See Flogging the Quill: Crafting a Novel that Sells, by Ray Rhamey, in which the examples are clear and frequent, and you won't read pages of theory before being shown what is meant by creating tension.]

* Did you miss my post about the sometimes unpolished writing of Stephen King?

* Or the one about best writers' resolutions?  Or my collection of bad writing advice?

* For more examples of inadequately revised writing, see this amusing article about Dan Brown's "20 Worst Sentences."

Copyright (c) Susan K. Perry