I run the Bang2write script consultancy, so read lots of spec novels every year as writers get them ready to either self publish, or show agents and publishers. The two elements that cause the most issues then in these novels are description and character. This is no surprise, since these are probably the most important elements of a novel, as readers perhaps notice them “most”.
So here is a rundown of the issues I frequently see with description and character and how I tackled them myself in writing THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY:
1) Grammar, punctuation, spelling. No one minds the odd typo or mistake; this will happen no matter how careful you are. However, consistent and flagrant errors are sure to sink any manuscript with an agent, publisher or reader. Be sure to check your work and employ beta readers before you send it to anyone. First impressions count!
2) First/Third Person. Writing directly from your protagonist’s POV “I …” or *about* him/her “S/he …” has to be a considered decision, usually based on what has “gone before” in the genre you’re tackling. YA generally writes in the first person, so I did the same. If you’re going against what is “expected”, have a good reason for doing so. Are you differentiating? Or are you just afraid of the work? Be honest with yourself.
3) Consistency of tense. I’ve written about this on this website before, but it bears repeating: try and be consistent, whatever tense you use – and NEVER use the dreaded mixed tense in error, such as “she is sat” or “I was stood”. Unlike screenwriting which favours the present simple (the /s/ formation, ie. Lucy write/s/ ), there is no “preferred” tense for novels. I wrote LIZZIE’S STORY in English, in the past – but Christiane Steen, the editor at Rowholt, translated it in the present. She asked my permission first and made the good point that it would add to the urgency of Lizzie’s situation.
4) Hit the ground running … However, just like screenwriting, novels require action. If you follow book editors and agents on Twitter, you will notice they frequently complain about “nothing happening” on the first page and beyond. Instead, the writer will describe every little thing in “setting up” the novel and its characters, so the action doesn’t start for a really long time, sometimes as long as twenty pages or even more. Start with an EVENT. Plunge us into the action. My novel starts with Lizzie’s positive pregnancy test stick: pregnancy is the issue of the novel, so that is where it should start. So where does yours start? Think action, event, consequences – not flowery description about what everything looks like. Don’t make the reader wait!
5) … But don’t rush, either. The average feature-length screenplay has approximately 20K words in, so a YA novel is over twice as long; an adult novel is perhaps three times as long as feature screenplay. You have lots more “story space” to fill. So hit the ground running, but don’t go mad either. Like anything writing-related, it is about balance. Bring your reader on board, involve him/her *in* the story. I did thisby using the pregnancy stick opener as a prologue, with the various scenarios of what *could* happen next as individual chapters. I rounded off Lizzie’s decision – which one did she choose? – as the epilogue, so I could keep the reader guessing until the very end.
Moving on from Description then, to:
Whilst character is important for all formats, arguably it is not *always* the first consideration for screenwriting, since it has other things it can employ to “distract” viewers, such as spectacle, rapid-fire dialogue sequences for style or intricate “blink and you’ll miss it” plot manoeuvres.
TV and film is principally about image – “what you see is what you get” – so your interpretation of that image may depend on your own experiences or thoughts. In contrast, novel writing is generally about getting “inside characters’ heads”: it is a psychological medium and one where writers can explore characters’ motivations, experiences and thoughts in minute detail, in a way that is just not economical on screen.
I read a lot of novels for my Bang2writers. The biggest issue I see in spec novels relating to characters is the notion of “Witnessing Versus Experiencing”. Screenwriters can be particularly guilty of this when attempting novels for the first time (I know I was when I first tried), but other writers frequently fall into this trap. This problem usually ties in with description issues, particularly number 4) on this list: writers are writing too much detail of WHAT is happening, when they should be concentrating on the character’s reaction *to* said happening. The difference is subtle.
But how to avoid characters “witnessing” events and “experiencing” them instead?
i) Thoughts and feelings. Unlike the screenplay which places the physical at its heart, novels are all about the psychological, which means the novelist must employ “thoughts and feelings” in relation to all events in their novel. It is no accident many English Literature exam questions ask students to comment on themes and events in a work, with reference to “thoughts and feelings”. So every time something happens in your novel, think, “What does my character THINK of that? How does s/he FEEL about it?” In my novel, Lizzie has lots of thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a parent; a student; a daughter; a sister; a best friend; a wife/girlfriend and a young person – and her various dealings with other people in the novel reflect these thoughts and feelings.
ii) Goals. Like screenplays, novel protagonists usually have a goal in novels, even if it’s only that they must “realise” something and/or change their thinking. So each chapter of your novel must take your protagonist towards that end point and reaffirm why it comes to that conclusion. This allows you to crack open your character’s thoughts, including resistance to that end point. In her story in THE DECISION, Lizzie has lots of different problems in making her decision on whether to keep the baby or not, but the theme is not only “prochoice”, but “family and what it means” – hence her thoughts and feelings on the aforementioned roles.
iii) “Here & Now” vs “Before”. Lots of spec novels take events out of the “here and now” too much, which impacts on characterisation because events feel too “backward looking”. Readers want to know what is happening NOW and why characters are doing and behaving the way they are “in the present”. Events that have happened in the past have value, but never at the expense of what is happening in the present (whatever “the present” means). Lizzie draws on a number of experiences, thoughts, feelings and even prejudices in making her decision, but crucially does not spend all her time on her bed thinking.
iv) Timeframe. This is another element novels can take from screenplay writing. If your narrative involves a quest or decision, then setting a deadline or making the timeframe overt can really help in cracking open characters’ motivations and thoughts, especially if a deadline (of any kind) looms, but it doesn’t have to: simply the more time you have, the more things can happen, which in turn creates more intricate thoughts/feelings. Each chapter takes us from Lizzie discovering her pregnancy, through to what she does next: this ranges from a single day through to as much as two years.
v) Cheat! As I’ve said before, this story is not an autobiography. But of course, some of my experiences, thoughts and feelings are Lizzie’s too (though probably not the ones you expect). Similarly, like all people, I have spent a lifetime with others – and I’ve used the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people who have divulged these to me. However, as I’ve fashioned the characters and the plot, these used thoughts and feelings have become the characters’ own in a variety of different ways. So yes, it is possible for those who know me to “pick out” which elements are “real”, though there is nothing there exactly as it happened in “real life”.
Summing up, in writing your own novel, I recommend:
• Thinking about your own motivations for writing the story – if you don’t know why you want to write it, the reader won’t know why s/he should read it.
• Write a pitch. Identify your target audience and what your story’s strengths and weaknesses are. Know your characters and where the story is going. This will help you stay on track and/or sell the idea “off the page” to agents and publishers.
• Pay particular attention to description & characters. Don’t overwrite your description; remember to include events and action. But just as importantly, remember to have characters experiencing those events, not just witnessing them.
IN THIS SERIES:
My #YA novel, THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY is available in both English and German. Find them on My Amazon Author Page. Find links, humour, information and services for teenagers listed at The Decision Book Series or follow the character Lizzie on Twitter.
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