“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway
Sometimes potentially great novels are rejected by agents because the writer takes too long to start their story. They begin their novel before the action — they waste time meandering around aimlessly, filling in pointless background information and building characters with no conflict or forward momentum, letting the plot slowly simmer under the surface. Then, by the time the plot does kick off, the agent has already tossed their manuscript to the side. Or deleted it from their email.
Either way: your time is up.
“Most of my work consisted of crossing out. Crossing out [is] the secret of all good writing.” — Mark Haddon
To many beginning writers, this slow approach to a novel makes sense: you gradually build the backdrop and the characters, then once that’s done, once your audience has connected with your people, you plunge them into chaos somehow. You set a bomb in the middle of the lives you’ve perfectly detailed, and watch as it all falls apart. Some writers assume — incorrectly — that they need to make the audience care about their characters first before introducing conflict and/or an inciting incident. But the opposite is true.
If you merely paint a picture of a few characters, most readers, whether they engage with the characters or not, will be asking one question: Why do I care?
It’s definitely important to build characters and also illustrate the relationships between them, but all of that can be filtered into the plot as you go along. You can fit plenty of information during slower moments in your book (usually after something big has happened; the aftermath of an explosion is rarely another explosion), or even in the midst of the action. Tie together character with plot. Let your characters’ actions change the plot but also reveal their personality at the same time.
Imagine telling your friend a story about someone you know. This person jumped in front of a train. That’s the story you want to tell. Do you first spend an hour telling them about your friend’s love of Shakespeare, or his collection of Russian Dolls, or his pet goldfish? No. You get to the point. And then AFTER you tell them he jumped in front of a train, your friend is interested. Why did he do that? Was he depressed? Is he crazy? What kind of person does something like that? Now they’re hooked. They’re curious. Now you can tell them the boring shit. Well, he never seemed depressed, but he did spend a lot of time with his collection of Russian Dolls. It’s all about context and timing. Give them the reason to care first, and THEN fill in the rest.
But don’t mistake me. I’m not saying everything needs to be as dramatic as a gunshot, or a suicide, or a murder. It can be subtle, but it needs to be important. Instead of writing four pages with your main character sat in a chair thinking about his life, have him in an active scene where he’s doing something. It could be anything, but it needs to be purposeful and should be connected, at least tenuously, to the plot or to his character. Preferably, it will link in to both.
If your character has a fear of dogs, perhaps, and that plays into the story later on, show us in a meaningful and interesting way. Don’t just tell us John doesn’t like dogs and then explain an incident from his childhood. Have him in a scene where he flinches from a little girl’s puppy, or a harmless golden retriever, and then fill in the background information, weaving it into the scene as it happens. Maybe he walks a longer route to work because there’s a dog on his road. And because of this he’s always late to work. Maybe his wife brings home a dog and he freaks out. Whatever. Just make the scene active. But again, don’t get caught up in having a scene there for the sake of it. Is there a reason we need to know he’s scared of dogs?
If it’s interesting and you can weave it in with your main storyline, then keep it. If it’s short and adds a little spice to his character, then keep it. If it’s funny and builds upon your character or plot, then again, keep it. But if it’s there just for the sake of it, cut it out.
“Give me good writing, and I’ll play it all day.” — Jeff Daniels
Now, look at the beginning section of your novel — how much of it is necessary? If you have a bunch of inactive scenes there just to show the different sides of your main cast, then you should take the relevant information and scatter it throughout the book. Mix it with the plot. Get to the point where you know the novel is gaining momentum and weave it in there. Start your story with the bang that kills everyone and step back again. Reverse, rewind, sidestep it.
Like I said, it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic as a murder or explosion. It can be anything: the spark of a possible love interest, the falling out of a family, whatever. As long as it’s filled with conflict, you’re on the right track. What you shouldn’t do is spend 50 pages showing us how much this family loves each other, and then rip them apart. Most readers, unless you give them a reason to care, won’t stick around to read about your family’s happiness for that long. There needs to be conflict and drama, an issue to solve. If you need to show how much the family loves each other so the bombshell 50 pages in has an impact, then you need to do it in an interesting way. Maybe someone’s trying to destroy the family business. So you show the family working together, as a unit, trying to stop this from happening. That way you have an objective — STOP THESE PEOPLE FROM DESTROYING US — but also can show your loving, bonded family. And then, on page 50, when you rip it all apart, it makes an impact. Most beginning writers tend to just have the characters hanging out, being loving and caring and doing boring shit, hoping that people will connect with their mundane, run of the mill family.
Go over your novel now and read the first three chapters.
They’re your most important if you want to sell your book.
“Suspense arises naturally from good writing — it’s not a spice to be added separately.” — Leigh Michaels
I’ve heard stories of writers sending out a novel to an agent or editor, along with a note that says something like: It starts off pretty slow, but give it a chance. It gets good after that. Or it may say: Stick with it through the first couple chapters. Everything pops off in the third chapter and it’s non-stop from there on out. I promise. Which means one thing: the writer knows there’s a problem with their manuscript, but they can’t be bothered (or don’t know how) to fix the issue. They think they can placate the reader with a pre-warning.
I can’t imagine why someone would send a manuscript to an agent with an apology at the beginning of their cover letter. It belies common sense. No agent will take your warning on board. She’ll probably just delete your work without giving it a chance. Either that, or skim through the first few pages, realise nothing’s happening (as you already knew, hence the warning), and then delete it.
Your job is to entertain the reader. Not bore him for fifty pages, then entertain him. You have a chance, and it’s the first page, followed by the second page, and you’re only as good as the last page. Imagine it like a first date. You’re there to create a good impression. You can’t spit in your date’s face and then expect a second date by telling her you’re actually a nice guy on the inside. And the same goes for your novel. You can’t rely on a masochistic agent wading through your boring pages of swamp water to reach the riveting parts. You also can’t send the middle section of your novel because you think that’s the most interesting section. Make every section interesting.
I understand, though. I used to have the same issue.
I’d tell people that my novel was great —
Once they got past all the parts that weren’t.
“Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.” — John Travolta
Check the first one hundred pages of your book. Is it solid? Or weak?Does it move forward? Or is it static? Do you build character at the same time as advancing the plot? Or is everything too nice and relaxed and free of any conflict?
Make sure your first third is fast-moving. That’s what hooks people in. Again, that doesn’t mean a murder on every page, or a sex scene, or action. But something needs to be happening. Plot needs to be growing, characters moving (metaphorically or literally), and the audience need to know this is heading somewhere important. Give your character an objective to complete, even if it’s something simple like Get the attention of a girl he likes.
Go over it now. Break your story down page by page if you have to. Label every scene with its purpose (introducing character, plot point, etc.) and see how many you repeat. If you have four scenes that are there simply to let us know someone is a horrible person, choose the most powerful one and cut the others. You don’t need to drum it into our heads.
What’s the objective of your character? Why are these people sat around a table talking? If there’s no relevance — if you’re just trying to show us their personalities, then change it. Give the scene a purpose. Your main guy wants something, and the other two don’t want to give it to him. Now you can show their personalities whilst also having some conflict and reason behind the scene. And the scene ends when your character gets what he wants, or, more likely, doesn’t get it, and has to find another way to acquire the information or item he needs.
Look for the slow parts and infuse them with something: conflict, drama, intensity, intelligence, comedy. Make everything ten times smarter and better than it is.
If you feel that nagging at the back of your mind, that knocking which says something isn’t quite right, don’t brush it aside and downplay it. Whether it’s only one page or a major plot slice, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Take it out, redo it, rewrite it, restructure it. Laziness will not get you a career quicker. Only hard work and a good product will get you what you want.
Failing all that, your book may be good — but it’ll be returned with a note that says: Although we enjoyed your writing, we’re sorry to inform you that it wasn’t quite good enough . . .
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