Tuesday 22 March 2011


Of course, writing novels isn't about (and mustn't feel like) ticking boxes. However, when it comes to teaching writers how to write better or how to write a novel that a publisher will want, it's less helpful to say, "Write better, engagingly, tightly, originally, dynamically, wonderfully," and more helpful to say, "OK, now that you've got your idea/outline/first draft, please make sure it has these ingredients." Or even better, "Collect your ingredients before you start cooking the book."

So I have some lists for you. Several. I should perhaps make a list of them.

I have my own Checklist for Publication in Write to be Published. Mine is quite general because I'd spent the previous almost-200 pages explaining the details of what publishers want! But here's my list:

What publishers want:
  • A great idea, a hook which can be powerfully pitched in one or two sentences.
  • A voice which engages the reader, is consistent and either feels wonderfully fresh, or is perfect for its genre.
  • A book they can’t put down – “unputdownable” is a cliché but we all want it.
  • Something which booksellers will find easy to sell, because of the clear hook or because it sits nicely in its pigeon-hole.
  • A manuscript which displays great competence in all the elements that I've been talking about (ie in the previous almost-200 pages...).
  • A manuscript which is not too far from being ready for publication.
  • A writer who seems professional, sane and clued-up.
  • A fascinating personal story or platform is an advantage but will not over-ride the quality of the book. Unless you are a plastic celebrity, in which case all bets are off.

Interestingly, my one-to-one sessions for the York Festival of Writing this coming weekend ask me to pose three questions:
  • Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?
  • Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent's interest?
  • Does your opening chapter compel further reading?
(And then I have to give recommendations for the way forward.)

Bear in mind that those questions are to be answered only from reading the pitch and Chapter One. When considering your whole manuscript, I'd add two more questions:
  • What is at stake for the character and why should we care about it?
  • How are the goals and obstacles structured so as to keep as reading - ideally reading faster and faster?
Then there's this wonderful checklist of Seventeen Questions to Ask Your Novel, from Emma Darwin. 

Bearing all this in mind, during my What's Wrong With Your Manuscript? workshop in Edinburgh TODAY (hooray!), I'll be picking out aspects of both Emma's and my lists and focusing on them in detail, under the overall structure of those three York Festival questions and my extra two.

Lots of ingredients go to make up those questions, though - sub-questions. The ones I will focus on in the workshop are those which, in my experience, almost all unpublished writers forget. They are crucial because if they are not tackled properly you may have a story but you will not have one worth reading. Or publishing.

Since only twelve people in the whole world can come to my workshop tomorrow, I thought I'd give the rest of you a potted version of what we'll look at. Free! (But you don't get chocolate, wine, food and a glorious goody bag. Sorry.)

The questions all really boil down to three: a) what are the goals and obstacles? b) why should we care whether the character achieves / overcomes them. I blogged about this the other day and I'll be using the points made there, as well as referring to some of the questions on Emma Darwin's list. And c) how good are you at choosing the right words? In other words, how good a writer are you?

Perhaps the most common reason for rejection, apart from an inability to write, is this: the writer has over-estimated completely how much the reader cares about this story. You must make the reader care because otherwise that reader will go and do one of the very many other much more fun things than reading your story.

And if that reader is an agent...

So, here's my list of topics the workshop will cover and which you can use to examine your own MS:

  • Elevator pitch design - no wild, vague statements; no exaggerated description of brilliance; states core conflict
  • Defines genre
  • Has fellow pigeons
Goals and obstacles
  • What is the big conflict or problem posed at the start? Is it strong enough?
  • Do we care about the MC - why?
  • What does MC need? How difficult will it be to achieve? What will happen if she fails?
  • What obstacles get in the way?
  • How are obstacles structured to create increasing tension?
Story shape - does it work to create tension?
  • Likeability.
  • Development.
  • Consistency and believability.
  • Point of view - whose? 
  • Appropriate age for reader.
Pace - how to control
  • Who is telling the story and why? Where and when are they telling it?
  • Whose characters' minds are they in?
  • Of central premise
  • Of characters' motivation
  • Voice slippages
  • (What is it?)
  • Whose voice?
  • Mixed or single?
  • Defined and controlled?

LANGUAGE - this will form the second half of the evening and we will look at these common faults:
  • Telling too much instead of showing more.
  • "Over-writing" - trying too hard to sound like a writer. This involves:
  1. Pointless similes.
  2. Too many adjectives, especially in the adj+noun pattern.
  3. Ditto with adverbs.
  4. Overdoing the action / loud verbs - too much skipping, hurling, striding, retorting, speed-walking.
  • Tautology.
  • Not thinking about precise meaning and therefore being either unclear or not saying what you intend.
  • Wrong order of action within a sentence.
  • Unnecessary details which disrupt flow, meaning and action.
  • Clunky sentences which need re-ordering.
  • Clichés.
  • Poor dialogue - and dialogue tags.
  • Monotonous sentence structure.
Right, that's enough checklists now and if "what's wrong with your manuscript" isn't somewhere on one of those lists, I'll eat my hat. Or something.

Think of us all workshopping hard this evening, won't you? I'll raise a glass to you.


catdownunder said...

The first time I wrote something I just sat down and wrote it. I worried about all those things afterwards - if I worried about them at all. I have gone on the same way ever since - it is not a tidy arrangement of cat hairs but, if I ask the questions afterwards, I seem to come up with acceptable answers. I am not sure it should work like this.
I wonder if real writers are terribly well organised? :-)

M Louise Kelly said...

I'm one of the lucky dozen who'll be getting to answer back on all of this tonight and I'm REALLY looking forward to it (and not just because of the chocolate).

See you there!

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the link, Nicola!

Cat, I'd suggest that it's just as useful - and suits many writers better - to use questions like these AFTER you've written the novel, or half-way through when it's run into the sand and you don't know quite why, and certainly don't know how to get out of it.

Yes, you do have to face the possibility that you'll have to backtrack, but if you're that kind of writer you're that kind of writer.

Whirlochre said...

This is all good stuff — and yet, faintly disheartening as I run my eyes over my latest batch of edits.

Like Emma, I think there has to be a certain stance taken to tickable boxes of wisdom in order that they may help us.

Trying to hold all wealths of good advice in one's head all at the same time is apt to foster paralysis. On the flip side, ignorance of any technique or good practice is a recipe for oodles of drivel.

The best anyone can do, I suspect, is to consume as much useful information as possible with a view to letting it go a little when pen touches paper.

As you say, it's not a case of ticking boxes but of proceeding alert to boxes in need of ticks.

Maybe these tickable boxes are best treated like trunks of restrained gimps. We know the gimps are inside because we put them there and we know they could be sprung at any moment but if we release them all at once we'll never get anything done.

Dan Holloway said...

I spent the first half of this thinking "yes, yes, but what does that actually *mean*, concretely?" and then I realise that in the second bit, the language bullet points, you tell us. Marvellous. There are so many articles about whcih tell us the former, but unless they include the detail of the latter they're useless. Thank heavens for soeone who actually does the detail

Scooter Carlyle said...

Your post sums up what I need to watch for while doing my revisions. It's timely for me. Thanks.

Sarah Allen said...

Fabulous check list! Good to keep these things in mind so you at least know the rules of the market.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Shauna said...

Nicola thanks for another great post.
I start with an idea that bubbles along in my head for a long time before I start putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard).
I then roughly plan my outline and characters. So in this phase I'm covering your initial core questions.
Once I start writing then everything else goes out the window. For me those points you cover under Language come with editing my first draft. All I want to do initially is to get my story down as fast as possible (a relative term!)
Cat, like Emma I believe this works either first up, or later when you're editing. My first drafts are awful, but without that base there would never be a finished ms to work with. The real beauty shines through with the editing.

Anonymous said...

In my editing role (non-fiction) I come across these three of your points so often: wrong order in sentence, clunky sentences, monotonous sentence structure. If we get rid of these in editing of our fiction we'll be well on the way!
I would so have liked to come to your workshop tonight (and help carry your crabbit bags down the street?!) but it falls on a long long hard day at school and I couldn't have driven up. Hope it goes well. Great, helpful post.

HelenO said...

The two biggies for me from this list are:
'Do we care about the MC? Why?'
'Credibility of central premise / of characters' motivation'
- because here I stumble into the issue of objectivity. When I'm reading someone else's work, problems with empathy and credibility stand out a mile; in my own writing spotting exactly what's wrong (and especially, seeing how to fix it) can leave me flummoxed. Putting the ms in a drawer for a good few months, and having brutally honest beta readers, are probably the answers ... but I do often wish I could read my own work as if I'd never seen it before. I suspect that would be something of an eye-opener.
Thanks to Nicola (and Emma) for brilliant lists - they've gone straight into my 'editing' file.

Anonymous said...

A really useful (and generous) checklist.