Some things are hard to spot.

Spelling mistakes are the obvious ones, and dodgy punctuation comes a close second. I’ve run into so many books that made me wonder if the author had ever heard of a spell checker.

Some problems are a little more subtle because they’re caused by familiarity, not laziness. You’ve been working the same scene for several weeks and you’re telling yourself that it’s better for it.

But is it really, or do you want it to be because you’ve put so much work into it? Worse, are you focussing on the fine detail because, deep down, you know that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the piece as a whole?

The key to fixing this is dispassion, and that only comes with distance. Once you suspect that you’re falling into this trap then it’s time to take a break from the piece. And I do mean a complete break: don’t even look at it, perhaps for a few weeks, perhaps a month or two. In the meantime – and I know I keep saying this – but for the love of God get someone else to read it: not family, not friends.

And while you’re on a break from one piece, you can work on another. This is very important: don’t stop writing. The aim here is to gain fresh perspective, not to give yourself a writing holiday (because there’s no such thing).

When you return to your novel, it’ll be like reading a book written by someone else. You’ll be less emotionally attached to it and so will be in a better frame of mind to save it.

Why I never explain myself in workshops.

Have I mentioned this before? Probably, but  I think it’s worth nudging it again.
There is a strange habit I see in workshops that I’ve never really understood. Someone is having their pride and joy critiqued by the group. It all begins well enough; the readers are providing meaningful, insightful commentary, and the writer is scribbling notes and nodding a lot. 
All good.
Then someone says something about the piece that goes something like this:

But why would she do that? That’s completely out of character.


I’m not sure if that really adds anything to the piece.

or the ever popular:

Naah. I just don’t get it.

I had this just the other week. I nodded, asked a few questions, made a few notes and waited for the next comment. The rest of the group looked at each other then looked at me.

“Aren’t you going to explain what you meant?”

And I said, “Nope.”

Here’s the thing: if the group didn’t get it then there’s a fair to middling chance that others won’t get it either, and you won’t be there to explain the nuances of your chapter to everyone who bought the book. All you need to do is ask the kind people in your workshop what didn’t work for them and why. You should never have to explain what you meant. It’s pointless.

Are you plot-driven or character-driven?

I’m reading a very good book called Wool by a chap called Hugh Howey.  Wool is a Dystopian thriller set at some unspecified distant future, and follows the lives of a community living inside an subterranean silo years after some so-far unspecified apocolyptic event.  I’ll get around to doing a review on it when I’m done, but I thought it was worth mentioning because it is the first book I’ve picked up based on a less-than-positive review from Publisher’s Weekly:

Wool’s success as a self-published e-book is not surprising given its one-two punch of post-apocalyptic wasteland and futuristic dystopia, but Howey’s immaturity as a writer, especially the bland characters and conflict reminiscent of B-movies, overshadows his intriguing world.

A bit harsh. Anyway, when I read this I thought: ‘Great! I’m in the mood for a plot-driven action fest’, so I was a little surprised when Wool turned out to be a well-paced, well-thought-out, atmospheric thriller with great characterisation and an excellent, flowing turn of prose.
Is it a literary work? No, but then I don’t think it was meant to be.  
A good book has to be driven by characters and plot. The level to which you expose your reader the reader to both depends on the kind of novel you’re aiming for: a pacey thriller, or a deeply meaningful work of art. But at some level you will definitely need both. 
If you decide to spend your whole novel traipsing around the inner world of your characters’ dreams then I will probably think, ‘Well, they’re lovely people but why do I care what they think?’
If you spend your whole novel in a ditch firing laser guns at a superior enemy then I will probably think, ‘Well there’s a lot going on, but why do I care that Captain Duke Steele of the Galactic Rangers now has a hole in his head?’
The trick is balance, and I reckon Howey balanced Wool extremely well.

Or at least, he has so far . . . 🙂

Incidentally, Howey runs some useful hints for self-publishers, so if you want advice on gettting your novel formatted for print or electronic distribution then it’s worth stopping by.

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