How (Not) to Write a Novel – Guest Post by Editor Christie Stratos

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christie-stratos-authorUber fantastic editor Christie Stratos has been gracious enough to guest blog for me today! She did the proofreading for my novel It Ain’t Easy Being Jazzy and was an absolute delight to work with. You can catch up with Christie here:

I’m sure Christie has seen a lot of no-no’s from authors so here are a few tips from her about how not to write a novel. I hope you enjoy!

How (Not) to Write Novel

There are tips upon checklists upon paragraphs of advice on how to write a novel. But how shouldn’t you write a novel? While it’s great to take whatever pearls of wisdom you can from seasoned experts and bloggers, it’s equally important to consider the things you shouldn’t do. Ever.

Don’t Take the Easy Way Out

Of course authors should never leave their readers hanging and should always tie up loose ends. One expert at that is JK Rowling in the Harry Potter series. At the end of every Harry Potter book, Rowling ties up loose ends you didn’t even remember existed. But beyond that, what about loose ends in the middle of the book? More and more, there are authors who get their characters into tricky situations, leave off right before the consequence is shown or the conflict occurs, and pick up afterwards, barely touching on what happened in that exciting scene the reader was waiting for. And they never go back to explain what happened. Not only is this a cheap way to get out of resolving a difficult situation for your characters and providing a scene that satisfies your reader, but it weakens both the story and the reader’s belief in you as an author. Don’t fall prey to this mistake – even if it takes several attempts and rewrites, write the scene.

Stop Following the Trend

Did you ever notice that the vast majority of historical fiction novels that take place in medieval times have a female main character who reads more books than society says is normal and always is more intelligent than expected for her sex? I don’t know about you, but it’s getting tedious and predictable. Once something has been done so often, it becomes cliché. Why write something thousands of others have written? Can you imagine how many readers you could attract with a premise or character who doesn’t follow the norm? Stop copying, start creating.

Cut the Extras

See how I did that? I didn’t name this section “Cut the Extra Words Out Of Your Novel”. Not only is that duller, but it’s longer and has unnecessary words. Your novel should be like the title of this section. Every word should count and every paragraph should move the story forward or develop the character. If it doesn’t, it’s unnecessary, and your reader will find unnecessary bits tedious. Cut every section, paragraph, sentence, and superfluous word. And don’t look back.

What’s the Point?

If you have to answer this question in more than one sentence about any given plotline or character, it’s not clear enough in your mind and, therefore, won’t be clear to your readers. Either something is not explained well in the plot or the character is superfluous. For the former problem, consider the following questions about your story: what are you as a writer trying to accomplish? What is going to happen to the main character? What mechanics could be missing in your story to help achieve your goals as a writer and sharpen the plotline so that the point of the story is clear? For the latter problem, sometimes adding in a subplot and referencing it relatively frequently can help add purpose to a character.



36 thoughts on “How (Not) to Write a Novel – Guest Post by Editor Christie Stratos

  1. I couldn’t agree more with these tips! I read a book that skipped the whole climax and gave a summary of what happened instead, and it irritated me as a reader. Writers should always write the climax they are leading up to! I never follow trends when I’m writing. I like to think outside the box and write stories that are different because they make bigger impressions. And cutting out the extra “fluff ” is an important step in editing. I’ve been looking over one of my MS that I wrote a long time ago and I am cutting out sentences here and there, even paragraphs, because I realized those sentences are more like my writer babblings. And cutting makes a MS so much tighter.

    Thank you for the awesome article, ladies!
    Chrys Fey recently posted..The Heart of Seras: Journey to Seras by Joe Evener / Book BlastMy Profile

    • Thanks, Chris! I am always surprised at the number of writers who skip over crucial scenes and simply summarize them later. I feel I’ve been gypped when this happens, and I don’t read anything else by the author – sometimes I don’t even finish the book! It’s wonderful that you’ve gone back to an old manuscript to tighten it up. I work with a lot of authors who were so excited to publish their first book that they didn’t check for unnecessary bits in their descriptions and storylines, plus consistency and character development issues. They often publish a new version years later, and it’s better to republish a book that is now ten times better than to just leave it with its original flaws.

    • Thanks, Dawn! It’s always a good idea to have a basic checklist next to you when you do various rounds of editing on your work. It’s way too hard to remember every single thing you’d like to edit for, especially as you come across new things you’d like to check or exclude. Compiling these kinds of ideas as you find them means you have to try to remember fewer things to check for off the top of your head, which also means you’ll have better editing rounds and a cleaner final MS.

  2. This is such great advice. I often find I have to step back from my writing and try to take a clinical look (not always easy!) at lengthier sections to see how to tighten things up. It helps a lot to have someone I know and trust read it over too, because they can see things more objectively. Christie, do you think it’s better to have an individual, knowledgeable writer I trust help with this or collect opinions from members of a writing group? Sometimes too many opinions can be overwhelming, but other times multiple viewpoints can be advantageous in other ways. What do you think?
    Daisy recently posted..Timewarp Tuesday: Daisy the Havachon, Then and NowMy Profile

    • Good question, Daisy! Lots of writers automatically turn to free beta readers for opinions and critiques of their books. While this can be helpful, many of them are not experienced editors, and they can sometimes make suggestions that don’t really work with your writing style or the overall concept of your writing, especially if you write anything experimental. You have to be able to take their comments seriously, but also keep in mind that they do not necessarily understand your genre or the publishing industry.

      If you ask a writing group to read your work, you have a similar issue. While they are more likely to give useful feedback since they are probably already familiar with your work, they still may not know the genre you write very well, nor what publishers are looking for.

      The best way to use multiple comments from beta readers and writing groups is to look for recurring comments. A recurring comment is something you should definitely pay attention to since other readers would probably feel the same way. For example, if five out of six beta readers say that one passage in your book is confusing, it probably is. However, if five out of six beta readers say they don’t like that a character dies because it’s a main character, first of all, Game of Thrones is successful because of its willingness to kill anyone off and keep things unexpected. Second of all, there would have to be extremely viable reasons behind disliking the character’s death to make you change it.

      An individual, knowledgeable writer will most likely be able to give you advice and critique based on your book’s genre. They may also understand the publishing standards of that genre better, so you may be able to get some good feedback in that vain. However, the downside is that if you aren’t sure you agree that a section of your book is confusing, you’ll want more opinions than just the one writer.

      To sum it up: I think multiple beta readers or members of a writing group are more valuable because you can see which comments are consistent and which are more a matter of personal opinion. If you follow that up with an editor, which gives you the knowledge of your genre and the publishing industry, you’ve got a knockout solution.

  3. Another important fact about not writing for the current trend is that when a book is picked up by a major publisher it will not hit the shelves for a year or two, by then such trend could be dead, so you could be wasting your time, unless you are going the self pub route.

    • I could not agree more, Frank. Writing according to your own standards and finding a niche to differentiate you within a genre are two of the most important strategies for marketing and selling your book, without or without a traditional publisher. As you say, trends come and go by the time your book is published, but your individual voice can never be passé.

  4. Pingback: How (Not) to Write a Novel | Proof Positive

  5. “Cut the Extras” is my weakness as well. And guess who’ll take care of it next month? The one and only Christie Stratos! I’m really excited about that. I’ve already dedicated a full self-editing round to slimming my contemporary romance down, but I’m done. I need professional help for it to look even better. (Hopefully) I am a lot better at tying loose ends and giving closures. As for the “What’s the Point” question, thankfully romance has a stock answer: HEA (Happily Ever After). Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but it saves the author from a lot of difficult questions about the ending. Thanks for a very enlightening post!

  6. The first one really caught my attention. Don’t take the easy way out. I’ve noticed this myself as an avid reader. It’s terrible to read something, to invest time and interest in a story, reach a critical point and then the resolution doesn’t really exist. I’m working on my first novel, so this is especially important to me.

  7. All good stuff, but “Cut the Extras” is easily my favorite. ^_^ I have a huge tendency to overwrite, so I’ve learned to see when I’m saying too much and grown used to chopping it out. (For example, that sentence was originally twice its length and overly verbose.) It’s amazing how much better a sentence, paragraph, or entire story can get by taking stuff out.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..Insecurity, not AnonymousMy Profile

    • Recognizing where your writing needs the most work is invaluable. If you already know that you have a tendency towards being verbose, then you can work on that while editing. You may even want to dedicate one round of your own editing simply to checking for places you can tighten up your sentences/paragraphs/story. If you let your editor know about something like that, they should pay special attention and really keep an eagle eye out for it. With two sets of eyes checking for one specific thing, you are twice as likely to succeed.

  8. Great advice here. I’ve definitely learned to pay more attention to detail over the years, and I am still learning. Detail is key so we must always remember to put ourselves in the reader’s situation in order to leave no stone unturned. It’s never good to leave questions unanswered when it’s obvious that something has been resolved. Mystery is great, but not when it leaves people super confused. As far as cutting out all of the fluff, I’m constantly editing and re-editing to make sure there is no excess baggage in my final drafts. When I published my 1st work under a pen name, I literally cut out about 500 extra words which is A LOT for a picture book. But by the time my final draft was completed, I realized it definitely needed to be cut down.
    Great post, Quanie!

    • Gina, cutting out 500 words from a picture book sounds like you really made it nice and lean. Good instincts! It’s always hard to cut things back from a writer’s perspective, but like you say, the key is to look at it from the reader’s perspective. Your entire book can change when you look at it differently.

      Quanie, it’s so hard to cut full chapters and major sections out of a book because that’s the writer’s blood, sweat, and tears. But it takes real strength to think more about your reader than your own feelings. Great job. Can’t wait to proofread your upcoming novel!

  9. Good tips! When I was writing a monthly column in our local paper I had a limited number of words to work with. My first draft was always almost twice that length. I would panic, thinking I could never cut it that much without losing a lot of meat. But then it became a mission: How to cut without losing substance. And it was actually fun. In the end the essay was always much improved–tighter, cleaner, more powerful.

    I sometimes think I need to do that to my chapters–impose a word limit 1/3 smaller than it is to see if that clipped version turns out more powerful.

    • What a great way to think of it, Deborah! Having a word limit for editing is a wonderful idea. One thing many writers don’t think of is keeping an extra Word document (or several) with all the parts they choose to eliminate. You don’t have to just delete that seemingly superfluous section and lose it completely. You can save it in a separate document just in case you find use for it later. It can even spur a different piece of writing sometimes.

      Cutting without losing substance is extremely important, but it doesn’t have to cause such a feeling of loss and uncertainty. I agree with Quanie – it’s a great question with many solutions that are not always obvious but always worth it.

    • Thanks, Faith! Yes, it’s so painful to cut parts you put a lot of work into. Having an editor is definitely important if only to have someone reading your work from not only a critical reader’s perspective but from a publishing company perspective. This can be hard for the writer herself to do. Quanie’s suggestion is right on – putting some time (an absolute minimum of one month) between you and your piece will give you a fresh, new perspective, which is invaluable.

  10. Awesome tips…especially the first one. It’s frustrating as a reader to read a book and there are issues that are unresolved because we want closure even if it’s not always good….Even if it is part of a series, all the loops should be closed.
    Dahlia Savage recently posted..#ImOutHere!My Profile

      • Yes! I read a story just like that. There was a major (HUGE, EPIC, KEY) situation in the book and when it was over, it wasn’t even addressed! I was literally turning the pages and shaking the book wondering “where is the rest of this flipping story?!?” *kicks book out of said window and walks away frustrated*
        Dahlia Savage recently posted..#ImOutHere!My Profile

    • Thanks, Dahlia! I agree that not closing all the loops is not only frustrating for the reader, but it can ruin the whole rest of the book. “I can’t believe she didn’t say what happened! I was dying to know!” is a death toll for your book unless it’s an intentional cliffhanger. Otherwise readers begin not to trust you for fear of disappointment and “wasted time” reading a book that doesn’t satisfy. Editors can catch that kind of flaw and help the writer fix it.

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