Kay: A Novelist’s Job

A novelist's work can be very frustrating.

A novelist’s work can be very frustrating.

I’m an editor by trade, and recently a small publishing company hired me to do what we’d call in the business “a development edit” of a paranormal romance. (Not one of the Ladies’ books, I rush to add.) A development edit points out flaws in the characterization, plotting, pacing, or other essential elements of the story, without getting into grammar and typos.

Everything in this book was off—pacing, character development, conflict—and telling an author that she’s missed the boat is a hard and sorrowful task. I know that keeping all those ponies in harness and working together is complicated and difficult. It’s the same problem I’m having right now with my own WIP. But this is the novelist’s job.

Chuck Wendig  wrote a post called “A Smattering Of Stupid Writer Tricks,” which  reminds writers of what they need to do every day. A warning: I’ve taken liberties.

1) To improve pacing

Follow tension with calm. Take the story from high intensity (action, drama) to low intensity (dialogue, character development). Watch movies to see how this works. As you approach the end, the slower periods should get shorter and less frequent, and the action patches should get faster and sharper.

Chart your story. Use graphs. Give a number (1-100) to a particular aspect of the story (tension, drama, character development, pacing, physical/social/emotional elements). Use spreadsheets to create the graphs. What does the chart look like? Fix what looks flat.

Assess your work. At the end of the day, ask yourself: Was I bored today by the work? If so: why? Then fix it.

Differentiate writer’s block from writer’s error. If you get stuck, skip the section you’re working on and begin somewhere else. You don’t have to work in order. However, writer’s block might mean that something is wrong in the story.

Edit ruthlessly. Cut the first chapter of your book, the first paragraph of a chapter, or the first sentence of a paragraph. Tighten everywhere. Tell as little story as possible to get the point across and ensure that readers feel something about it and think about it after they’re done.

2) To improve conflict

Determine the stakes. Make the stakes appropriate for the conflict. Not everything has to result in the destruction of the galaxy, but the stakes have to be important to that character at that time.

Challenge yourself and your characters. Ask yourself: Why do I care? What about this engages me? Why will it engage others?

Focus on essential actions. Think about your book (or chapter or scene) like this: something happens, things worsen, then get complicated, something twists, and maybe the something gets fixed.

Find the kernel. What is this story about? Answer that question with one sentence only. Not, “what’s the plot,” but what are you trying to say with this story? Write your answer on a Post-It note and stick it on your monitor. Look at it daily as you write.

Try something new. Sometimes your story has to turn sharply in another direction. Blindside the characters, yourself, and your readers.

3) To improve character development

Start when your character’s life changes. Why does this story happen right now? What matters about this moment in time that the story has to play out this way?

Assign your character desires and needs. Something or someone stands in her way. Your character is tested on how far she’ll go (and what she’ll do) to accomplish her goals.

Give your character agency. To engage with readers, your characters should do things, not react to things.

In a discovery draft, it’s probably not critical to keep track of all these pieces. At that stage, you just want to get words on the page and figure out what your story is. You can tighten and refine later, in revision. Unfortunately for my author, she thought she had a finished, polished draft. My own ponies are wandering all over the pasture, and I’ll review these questions today when I sit down again to work on my story.

What about you? How is your WIP going? And can you keep all your ponies in harness while you’re working?

 

10 thoughts on “Kay: A Novelist’s Job

  1. Great reminders Kay. Not only are my own ponies not in harness, I think I have a couple of goats and a yak in the mix. However, as the note on my monitor reminds me, “practice makes progress.” So I’m continuing to practice at this novelist thing and hoping to continue making progress.

    • Ha! I can already tell I should have dialed back on that ponies metaphor. But you are so right—practice makes progress. Good job at keeping everything reined in. 🙂

      • (-: You know what? The pony metaphor is perfect. It’s light and cute and playful (ponies!) on the surface, but as everyone who has met a horse knows, there’s an inner demon inside each creature that often intensely dislikes mere mortals. The love/hate is working for me right now (-:.

  2. I have decided to basically redo Three Proposals. I just started a class called Story Structure Safari (I know, I already mentioned it a couple comments ago), but it’s really helping me see what I’m missing, and it’s helping me come up with great ideas to up the tension (frex, Cressingham, Susannah’s uncle, is now Nate’s mentor and will kill one of Nate’s team mates not a year earlier, but during my story, putting Nate’s other team members and himself at risk. Nate will have to reconcile the fact that his mentor is possibly a traitor, then search out evidence against him).

    I guess the best way to frame it is that I’m starting over. Keeping the characters, keeping the very basic idea of the story, but I’m willing to toss what I have (talk about killing your darlings) in order to make this story pop.

    My goal is to get the whole thing finished by….well, I’m not going to commit to anything on e-paper, but needless to say, there’s a BIG CONTEST I want to enter at the end of the year.

    • I was just recently reminded that Nora Roberts never gave up on a story, that she “didn’t let the book win.” I think the same thing could be said for you with the Three Proposals. You’ve spent a lot of time on this one, and I’m so glad if you’ve found the way to make the story work for you. It’s so thrilling when it all comes together!

  3. LOL, I have an invisible pony! But he is slowly starting to shape up. I’m having a little — no, make that a big problem making my story fit into the One Protagonist, One Antagonist model. What I have is shaping up to be several parties who are betraying each other. Needless to say, it’s not a romance. I think it might be a caper. And it’s all actually backstory to a different WIP, and I’ve decided that I need to be “efficient” and wring a short story or novella out of this grand backstory. This “efficiency” has stalled me for about three weeks (nope, I see it’s the seventh; must be four weeks or more).

    Maybe I need a “practice makes progress” banner for my computer, too.

    Hint number one helps a lot, though. I need permission to introduce “calm” into my story. (Not boring, just calm.) Sometimes I get too caught up in the rules and the harnesses wind up tripping me.

    (-: I have no idea what the kernel of the story is, but I’m not too concerned about that until after I’ve written the first draft. I like not knowing a lot of stuff before I write; it makes the writing process more interesting.

    But some stupid stuff must be known, at some level or the other, and that’s what I’m waiting on right now.

    • It’s the waiting that gets a person down. Well, on an up note, you’re still in discovery mode, so you don’t really have to worry too much about rules at this point, right? You can apply those when you’re at the end—when you’ve discovered the kernel and see Where Everything’s Headed. Good luck! I love a caper story; send me something!

  4. I thought I had my ponies in harness, but yesterday they flatly refused to run. I spent a whole day scolding and cajoling and distracting and walking away for a while – none of it helped. This morning I discover they’ve kicked over the traces and headed off into the wild blue yonder, so thank you for these useful and timely suggestions, especially the one about the period of calm – for the writer as well as the manuscript 😉 .

    At least I’m still in the discovery stage, and I’m horribly aware there are already Many Things that must be fixed when I have a full draft to play with. I’m thinking maybe I’ll follow my darlings on their frolics for a little while and round them up later.

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