Thursday, 21 October 2010

4 Questions You Should Ask About Your Novel

I'm not sure 'should' is the right word there. It's more like '5 Questions That I Think Would Really Help If You Asked Them About Your Novel', only as a title I don't think that packs quite as much punch!

I've spent a large part of the last three years at Lancaster University, studying English Lit and creative writing. I graduated this past July and while I don't think people need to study writing to be good writers, I know it helped me. Mostly because it taught me to be disciplined and it taught me to question my own work critically. I think being able to critique your own work is an invaluable skill. It's the thing that makes editing work a thousand times better.

While editing WOVEN - formerly called ECHOES - I found myself asking questions about the story that really helped me make it sparkle. I think overthinking a story while writing early drafts is one of the worst things you can do, because it makes you second guess everything. But as an editing tool, it's one of the best things I've ever done. Not 'overthinking', as such, but questioning.

So here are four questions I think it's useful to ask about your book.

Does it make sense?

Most obvious thing in the world, right? But it's amazing how easily you lose sight of this question. For me, it was often a case of 'ooh, it would be awesome if I could get Echo and Sean to do this, think of the possibilities' while forgetting that the 'this' in question might not necessarily make sense to the story.

From my own experience and from what I've been told by other readers, a whole lot of people throw books down in disgust halfway through because the plot's stopped making simple sense. I personally have flung many a hardback against a wall and then rued my impulsive act because hardbacks are expensive. Alas.

Let's take a classic example. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, a key moment in the story involves the first appearance of Three Witches, who prophesy that Macbeth will be King. This prompts him to plot with his wife and ultimately kill the King in order to fulfill the prophecy.

In short-

THREE WITCHES: Macbeth, old bean, you're gonna be King soon. You feelin' us?

MACBETH: Dude, no way. Must totally tell the Mrs.

LADY MACBETH: But Darling. Cupcake. Princeling. Don't you see? We must kill the King so that you can have the throne! 

MACBETH: Ya think? Oh. Okay.

Now let's imagine for a minute that the Witches never turned up. Let's pretend the story had no supernatural element to it whatsoever. Would it still make sense? Sure, it would make sense in terms of one man killing his King for the throne. But would the story still make sense if it was told the same way? Nope. Because where's the catalyst? When we see Macbeth, he's loyal to the King. If he suddenly turned around and thought 'hmm, I fancy killing the bloke', thousands of readers would grimace and toss the play down. 

The catalyst was absolutely key to the plot. It's the thing that makes the story make sense. So when you're editing your story, stop every now and then, step back, and ask yourself if it makes sense to you. As a reader, as an objective outsider, is this a logical step?

Do they feel like real people to me?

Characters can be anything in the world. They can be horrible people. They can be evil. They can be innocent and sweet. They can be the kind of person you'd fall in love with. Characters can be anything - as long as they feel real to the reader. When you're writing them for the first time, you're the writer. Of course they feel real to you. But when you're editing, you're a reader. That's when you need to sit back and wonder if they do feel like real people. Are they so over the top that it's ludicrous? Are they too perfect? Are they one-dimensional?

There are probably hundreds of great ways to figure out whether your characters ring true to you. Getting a fresh perspective from someone else is one of the best ways to do this, I think, because let's face it, you love these people. You've written about them. They're real to you, of course they are. But you might be missing something important.

This happened to me with WOVEN. When reading a round of edits, my agent emailed me to say she thought my antagonists, Adrian and Matthew, sounded too alike. They're old friends, about the same age, so it's only natural they share characteristics in their speech. But there's a line and I was over it. 

If you strip away dialogue tags entirely, and look at the words by themselves, can you tell which character is speaking them? If the words sound like something more than one or two characters would (and do) say, then their speech patterns need work.

Think of people you know. Your family. Or friends. If you heard them speaking through a door, their voices muffled, wouldn't you still know who was saying what because they each have distinctive speech patterns? Vocabulary others might not use? Slang? Intonation? These little things are what make characters feel real, as I learned when my agent told me she needed Adrian's speech to be more distinct from Matthew's.

What am I trying to achieve with this?

This is a question you should never ask when writing a first draft. Trust me, you drive yourself up the wall. When I fell into the trap of doing this, I spent a week huddled my chair, nibbling my fingers and muttering to myself. Really. Change the scene and I would have fit nicely into a home for the mentally deranged.

The first time I asked this question while editing, however, was when I put together my final-year portfolio at university this past March. As the bulk of my year's work was WOVEN, I put together bits and pieces from the novel. Part of the portfolio's work involved critiquing your pieces, explaining what you wanted to achieve and why you think the scene/moment works.

This is what I did and it was amazing. When you ask yourself what you're trying to achieve, you understand the story on a whole new level. If you find yourself without an answer, you know that that scene or moment can be cut, it's unnecessary. Everything has to achieve something in a good story. Whether to develop character, or show a plot twist, or foreshadow something important, a scene must work towards an end. Trust me, this question is like the Holy Grail of questions. I wanted to prostate myself on the floor and sing in tearful relief.

(Okay, I didn't actually. I was just happy in a quiet restrained way. No need to give people any more excuses to cart me off to the asylum.)

Does it sound good?

This is the easiest question to answer, but it might involve the most work if the answer is 'no'. Ultimately, when you're writing a novel, you're telling a story. And the story has to sound good. Clunky writing offends the eye (and ear). Repetition is painful. Too many adverbs are unwieldy, too few make it too spare. Read your story out loud. Do the words sound good to you? Do they flow right? Do they soar or do they fall with an unpleasant clang?

Writing doesn't have to be beautiful and poetic to sound good. Spare, crisp writing can sound good too. It depends on the kind of story you're telling, on the voice of your narrator (whether in first or third or second). In the end, it's not about changing your voice or style. It's just about pruning, and trimming, and embellishing what's already there, to make it sound good to your readers. My guess is they'll love you for it!

And there we have it. Four Big Scary Questions. Ha! No, they're not that big or scary at all. In fact, if you guys are anything like me, you've probably asked yourself these questions without realizing it already. Asking myself questions while editing my work has helped me no end, so I hope it works for you too.

Do you have other questions you find helpful? Any editing tricks that never fail you?


  1. Excellent points! I'm like you - I have to do a brain-dump, puke draft before asking too many questions or I'll freeze up. If something exciting occurs to me, I might go back and add it or change right away. But these kinds of questions you bring up are for the revising stage. At least for me. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Excellent points, nothing to add of any consequence other than to say that I never tire of reading what you write. xxx

  3. These are so great and I can't wait to ask myself these while I am editing. I also ask myself questions about each page and these other ones: are there things happening on each page so that a reader cannot skip one? does every chapter establish multiple purposes? is each character's motivations clear?
    Thanks so much!

  4. Making each scene count is something I'll really work on as I write my next book. Or as I edit - there's some fluff there at the moment.

  5. I did the "plot makes no sense" thing several times when I was writing--it's really hard to make the bigger picture match the smaller picture when you're writing it out for the first time.

  6. Good questions, thanks for sharing!

    Just thought you would like to know, I've picked your blog for my Friday Follower feature this week. Hope that explains the influx of new followers. :)

  7. Hi, Sangu! I love your haircut! You look so cute! Great post! I noticed quite a common theme of the late--editing and processes. Thank you for sharing yours!

    Btw, how's your house doing? <3