manuscript, self publishing, Self-publishing, Writing Tips

The Basics of a Bad Novel : Writing

Part III – Writing

10 problems in Writing Fiction

This is the conclusion of our discussion on FRUSTRATING NOVELS, novels that could have been good but missed the mark. In the previous posts, we have drilled down problems of plotting and mercilessly evaluated the role and necessity of characters.

Let’s now turn our attention to the final big contributor to writing a bad novel, the Writing itself.

 

Just to be clear, by flawed writing I do not mean elements of style and prose or the mechanics of grammar. I am not comparing one piece of writing with another, not lamenting wrong word usage, not talking about making sentences better, paragraphs tighter, or any such thing. I am referring to writing that is fundamentally wrong, writing that is neither ideally structured nor clearly purposeful.

The common problems are many but we will restrict ourselves to look at the 10 most dominant flaws

 

  1. Unnecessary descriptions

Books aren’t visual like movies and hence descriptions are very important, but the length and placement of this description is the key to good reading. Too much description or description in the middle of action takes away from the flow of the story.

A lot of writers depend on lengthy descriptions to amp up the word count because they feel their novel isn’t thick enough. I am yet to come across a buyer who picks up a book tries to figure out its weight and says, “Aah, heavy; must be good!”

If your book is too short you can explore characters or make sub-plots meatier. You could even introduce a few characters or sub-plots, tying them intrinsically to the story of course, but you cannot pad up your book with excess description.

Other writers aren’t chasing word count they are merely obsessed about descriptions. Everything has to be described and detailed; they would describe a chess board, one square at a time if they could. Readers pick up on these obsessed writers and in most cases, skip descriptions the moment they come to it.

Describing easily identifiable things is another problem. Some writers will describe Times Square or the London Bridge as if they were places in Middle Earth and no one’s heard of or seen them. This serves no purpose but to irritate the hell out of your reader. Even if your reader hasn’t heard of or seen Times Square, there is no reason to tell him about it unless something significant is going to happen there and an understanding of the environment is necessary.

 

  1. Description of attire

Description of each and every character and their clothes every time they enter a scene is also unnecessary; if done should be minimal.

Alice entered the office and set down her favourite umbrella, the one with the brown and yellow polka dots. Then she proceeded to take off her overcoat revealing a purple top paired with white trousers. The white trousers had been washed too many times as they were fading into a cream colored shabbiness. The purple top however was new, probably picked out of an end-of-season sale at one of the big fashion houses. It looked smart and fitted her form well.

80 words, but to what end?

Now imagine Alice enters 10 times in the course of the book and in each entry you describe her clothes, purse or some such thing in great detail. Now imagine doing that for all of the 10-12 characters you have and their various entries. There you go, your book is straight up by 10,000 words.

40 unnecessary pages!

 

 

  1. Weather reports

This covers more than just weather reports. Every chapter begins with an introduction to the setting: the location, the weather, the sounds, the smells.

You can rest assured that you have lost your reader, he has either finally abandoned your book or has jumped right into the third paragraph (Oh, I hope you have finished with it by the third paragraph!)

If you want to paint a picture of how cold London gets in November, you can keep adding a line here, a line there to remind the reader of the environment. You can however, do it only so many times.

Also weather and environmental descriptions need not be direct and boring.

He bobbed up and down on his toes to keep himself warm [A visual]

The icy cold wind attacked his exposed neck and he shivered from head to toe. It was cold. [A description]

 

 

  1. Let’s shake hands

Some authors describe mundane activities with the greatest of detail.

He approached the reception.

The receptionist looked up from her crossword

“Good morning, I am Clive Roberts.”

“Good morning Mr. Roberts. What can I do for you?”

I am here to see Miss David”

“Let me check?”

She calls up a number.

He taps on the desk while admiring the lobby [insert lengthy description of swanky lobby].

She tells the person on the other end about Mr. Roberts.

She nods to something.

She asks Mr. Roberts to follow her.

She escorts him to a [insert lengthy description] meeting room.

After some time Miss David enters.

He holds out his hand.

She takes his outstretched hand and shakes it in a warm yet professional manner.

And then the meeting starts.

Yay! What fun!

 

Get to the point. Get to the point where the action starts.

 

  1. Did I tell you about…?

Repeating information is another tool that authors use to sometimes to remind readers, sometimes to just give a character something to say, and sometimes to just fill some pages.

A tells B about C.

B tells D what A told him about C.

And the chain continues.

Some authors think repeating info is about reminding the reader. It works to an extent, and is also allowed to an extent, but it’s a tightrope walk. If you keep repeating information you encourage the reader to jump a few paragraphs here and there. The reader knows that you’ll remind him if he’s missed something important.

 

  1. The round table

This is the worst of all. It doesn’t necessarily use a round table but a bunch of characters essentially get together and recap information. In Chapter 1, A learns something and then in chapter 2, B learns something and so on. In chapter 6 A to E come together and recap all that they have learnt. Now they are all on the same page. You forget the reader was always on the same page, he knew all about this even when you didn’t recap it for him.

A more atrocious form of this is character exposition through discussions. People sit around (happens a lot in YA novels) and keep discussing other people. Six girls meet at a McDonald’s and discuss Andy and his friend Jake and that girl Sheena who’s always looking at Andy and then there’s Miranda who is always being stalked by Jake.

This fun round table assumes that the information shared is going to tell the readers more about the six girls and Andy and party. It’s a boring dump of information that stops the plot. It’s like a tea break in your story.

 

  1. The Wire-frame writing

A wire-frame acts as a placeholder and many writers who get a little too caught up with what’s-hot-now tend to use it liberally. Insert romantic scene here, insert car chase there, is how the plot is written. A lot of elements are put in because they need to be there. Or so the writer thinks.

While certain genres do have reasonable expectations like some cat-and-mouse in a thriller, some lovemaking in a romance, these motifs are part of the larger plot. They don’t add together to make up the plot. Having such a formulaic and free plot often leads to episodic writing. The individual pieces are often written separately and then inserted into the story.

Your novel reads like a newspaper, a lot of good writing, a lot of variety, but nothing binds it. Correcting this is easier said than done.

 

  1. The Full Precis

On the other extreme end of padded writing is the precis. This is basically plot points based writing: first this happens then this happens.

There are two types of precis that crop up every so often. The first one is the full precis: the entire novel has been more or less written as a narrative summary with maybe 8 to 10 scenes fleshed out.

The events do not happen or unfold for the reader. Then a few important scenes are suddenly happening in real time, unfolding before the reader’s eyes.

This kind of summarizing happens when the writer jots down plot points and then elaborates them one at a time, often forgetting that the elaboration should be in scenes and not merely a more detailed narration. Reading your novel has suddenly become a boring task, like listening to a basketball game commentary on the radio. It’s just not the real thing!

Fortunately, this can be easily overcome by changing the summarized parts of the novel to scenes and events.  Unfortunately, it is very laborious and often leads to a complete change in the story.

I am not suggesting your entire novel be written in scenes. There is a place for summarizing in fiction and it is a tool that should be used, only not as often as you use the scene. How to make seamless scenes is a topic that calls for an elaborate discussion for some other day.

 

  1. The Partial Precis

This narrative summarizing doesn’t pervade the whole book but a few important scenes and plot points are summarized.  This happens because the author doesn’t like writing particular scenes and rushes through them.

Mystery and thriller writers often find it difficult to handle scenes of courtship or romance and rush through them, while many romance writers tend to jump over scenes of actual fighting and give a quick summary instead.

If a scene is important then it has to be shown and detailed. If it is an unimportant scene it needs to be summarized and done away with. Consider the example in “Let’s shake hands” above, the entire scene at the lobby has to be summarized in two or three sentences, no detailing needed. The meeting is the important scene and it should be shown, in detail.

If you don’t know how to write a terrifying scene, learn it. You cannot deprive your reader of critical scenes for want of your own skills. A romance writer will rarely write a suspense scene like a thriller writer and a thriller writer will rarely match up to a romance writer in writing a courtship scene, but an OK scene is better than a fantastic summary.

Summarizing important scenes is like a roller coaster ride where you keep your eyes shut the whole time, the net result is that you know you have been on the roller coaster but you haven’t really experienced it. That’s exactly what the reader feels.

 

  1. Filler Scenes that look like filler scenes

Your novel will have filler scenes.

Gasp!

Yeah it will, and it must. Filler scenes are basically scenes of low intensity or low tension after scenes of high tension and they serve an important function: pacing.

You cannot have a lot of back-to-back high-tension or high-stakes scenes because they prevent your reader from absorbing the full impact of the high-tension scenes. Have you noticed how some readers get up for a glass of water or a short break once they finish a high-intensity scene, that’s because they want to savor it, they want to let it sink in.

If you don’t provide that break, they will find it for themselves.

A common ailment in FRUSTRATING NOVELS is that the Writer is often bored by these pacing scenes and is longing to jump to the next juicy turn in the plot. In jumping to the ‘next big event’ the writer does a shabby job of the pacing scene. This shoddy work on the pacing scene makes it clear to the reader that the scene is not important and your pacing scene (often called the sequel) is reduced to being a mere filler. And any self-respecting reader will jump over a filler scene the moment he figures it out.

You just killed the pace of your story.

 

These 10 flaws are extremely common and most are easy to avoid. These aren’t small mistakes, these are flaws that will take over your writing and destroy your book. Search them out and remove them.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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manuscript, self publishing, Self-publishing, Writing Tips

The Basics of a Bad Novel : Plot

The Basics of a Bad Novel

 

Part II – Plot

In our discussion on FRUSTRATING NOVELS, we have taken a long and hard look at characters (Click HERE). We have identified one big contributor to writing a bad novel, it’s time to look at the next one:  Plot.

I am not talking about small problems in plot points that even the most seasoned of writers face from time to time. J K Rowling admits to plotting issues in The Goblet of Fire, this despite having plotted the entire 7 books before she started.  Plotting issues are fine, but when plots and sub-plots are fundamentally flawed, little can be done to save the book. It is important to keep checking every now and again to see if your book has unwittingly wandered into the murky waters of flawed plots.

Let me clarify, by flawed plots I do not mean plots that don’t have logic or are unrealistic or unbelievable. I am talking about  plots that are plain wrong in structure and approach. These errors in plotting can be extremely difficult to rectify once your novel has started. Unfortunately, most of these plotting errors stem from a wrong understanding of important writing advice offered in writing courses.

I am breaking it down to 4 major flaws, the first of which is about the three wrong plot structures and the other 3 talk about generic plot issues

  1. The Main Plot Structure

If your main plot structure or the main action is marred by some flaws, it is almost impossible to correct that.  There are 3 types of plots that spell disaster.

A. The TRUST ME plot

This is the literary equivalent of walking into a room with no lights.  The author tells you to trust him and see where the story leads. It is often supported by good writing and just about intriguing enough to keep you hooked, but nothing makes sense. The author promises you with a “just a little further” or an “almost there.” Somewhere around page 75, some connection appears. A small thread of reason and logic finally appears to bind everything together. While it might sound like you are a master writer who wove magic and suddenly made things fit together, it isn’t really exciting for the reader. Most readers who have abandoned your book before page 50 will probably tell a dozen others that they couldn’t figure out what it was about. And NO, that’s not high praise.

The TRUST ME plot stems from the misinterpretation of a very important piece of writing advice: Your plot must not be obvious.

The above piece of plotting wisdom means that the action happening in the open should not have obvious reasons alone. There has to be hidden agendas and not-so-obvious things happening just under the skin of the story. While the focus of The Goblet of Fire was the tournament, there was something else of an agenda going on just a little away from our eyes.

In Mario Puzo’s timeless classic, The Godfather, when Carlo beats up Connie yet again, we feel he is just being the abusive husband he is, but there is more to the act.

It’s fantastic plotting. Unfortunately, all stories cannot have that. Fortunately, all stories don’t need to.

Your plot must not be obvious, but it doesn’t need to be a jigsaw puzzle.

 

B. The ROAD TRIP plot

There is no way I can call this plot anything but plain laziness. And, I have seen far too many manuscripts that have this plot.

A ROAD TRIP plot is just that, a road trip. It is not literally a road trip (sometimes it is), it is a journey. This journey redefines characters and gives them a better idea of who they are. The reader gets to share in on the character’s journey of self-realization.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The writer is basically too lazy to come up with a story. A simple plot that has a goal at its end is good enough, but that would be too much work now, wouldn’t it.

There are many novels that have a ROAD TRIP plot and have succeeded. Don’t be misled into thinking you can get away with it. It requires phenomenal writing and tight editing to keep readers turning the pages.

It is the misinterpretation, and I believe, a deliberate misinterpretation of a fantastic piece of writing advice: The journey of a character is the story.

It is. A characters journey is in many ways the most important part of the plot, but it is not the plot.

Harry Potter is a clever and resourceful boy who is intelligent and quick to pick up new skills. He is very brave and has great integrity. He values his friendships and has equally devoted friends. Even in the face of great personal tragedy he does not take to the path of wrongdoing and is righteous till the very end.

Remove Voldemort and the above would have been the plot of the Harry Potter series, all 7 of them put together. No one wants to know about a character’s development in isolation. In the absence of a plot, character development and arc means very little.

 

C. The BEEN THERE plot

This is the mother of all obvious plots. The back cover of these books often have the words, “As time races” or “Will they be able to stop it in time” or “As the clock ticks away,  XYZ must make choices that will put his life in grave danger.”

Yup, BEEN THERE!

While it is not really bad structure, it will take a really good writer to pull off an obvious plot like that. These plots are so repetitive and predictable that readers have little to care about. “A nuclear device is stolen and has to be retrieved before it falls into the wrong hands, will ABC manage to do it?” – are you seriously telling me you would have written the book if the Hero (ABC) doesn’t manage to save the world by the end of the novel? Of course he will save the world, and then head over to the bar across the street to share a drink with James Bond and Superman.

It is the misinterpretation of another important piece of writing advice: The stakes must be high and there must be urgency.

Yes, your plot needs urgency. Yes, the stakes need to be high. However, high stakes and urgency are not all about saving the world from a ticking bomb.

To be fair, this often appears in romance novels too. Will X be able to win over Y before Y marries Z.

Again, examples of successful and brilliant novels that have used these plots abound, you need to be able to pull it off. Having an obvious point puts that much more pressure on your characters and your writing.

 

  1. Perspective

 

Perspective is just another fancy way of saying viewpoint or point of view. I deliberately named this as perspective and not POV to avoid any confusion with the structural elements of a point of view and how they apply to a scene or an entire novel.

Looking at plot from a POV perspective is important. It is important that you ask and know : Whose story is it?

A plot obviously involves more than one character, and the story appears differently to different characters, but there has to be a central character whose story we are telling.

 

Consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

 

The first part (Batman Begins) is told from the perspective of Bruce Wayne. It is Bruce Wayne’s story. How Bruce Wayne loses his parents, gets disillusioned with the law and order system, goes off in search of something and returns as Batman to finally save the city that had taken everything away from him is the story.

It is Bruce Wayne’s story.

There are other characters, strong ones too, but it is not Falcone’s story or the Scarecrow’s story, it’s not Rachel’s story or Gordon’s story. It is Bruce Wayne’s story.

Each of the characters have an arc, each of them develop over the time and space of the story, but it is not their story. It is Bruce Wayne’s story.

Having told Bruce Wayne’s story in the first part, the second part (The Dark Knight) very astutely ignores Bruce Wayne. Once your main lead has done something (save Gotham) it is boring to talk about how he does it again. What we get is the Joker’s story of how he gets Batman out in the open and tries to win the fight for the soul of Gotham. Batman is a reactive character here, he is trying to catch the Joker, but the story belongs to the Joker. It’s the Joker’s story of how he gets the mob on his side and wages war against Gordon and Batman. The Joker does not win in the end, but it is still the Joker’s story.

 

Whose story are you telling?

A novel must have only one main plot and it can only be from one person’s perspective.

 

  1. Sub-plots for the heck of it

 

We spoke of how supporting characters must support the story and not the protagonist . Well, the easiest way for them to do that would be via a solid sub-plot that connects to the main story. Unfortunately, The over-importance attached to characters has killed the plot. Readers however, care for the story first and characters later.

 

Imagine I tell you a story about my mischievous 1 year old son who puts things into the pockets of my overcoat. It’s maybe worth a smile but nothing earth-shattering. The tired co-worker in the hope that I will stop telling obvious stories, says, “Kids do that, you know.” It’s a useless sub-plot to add more depth to the character that is my son.

 

Now if I were to tell you: I was held up by a mugger on my way to work. As I put my hand in my coat inside pocket to take out my wallet, what should I find there? A deodorant can my little one must have put in. I sprayed the mugger in the eyes and ran. The bastard will smell of lilies all day.

Now the sub-plot makes sense, because it’s a connected sub-plot. No matter how important your son is to you, his character arc is not important to the reader unless it connects to the main events.

 

To put it in the simplest of terms: create a sub plot that (at some point, preferably at the end) connects to the story and then assign a supporting character to it. Don’t create a sub-plot around a character.

 

  1. Flashbacks

A flashback is basically a scene interjection that works only marginally well in movies. In books, it works even less.

A flashback is an interruption in the flow, and any interruption will obviously diffuse the tension. What a writer needs to be aware of is the level of tension before the flashback starts and he has to somehow use the flashback to increase it. If there is no tension in the scene and you interject a flat flashback then you are basically talking about two back to back flat (no tension) scenes. On the other hand, if your scene has tension and is followed by a flat flashback then you just wasted a good scene.

 

Golden rule: A flashback inherently reduces tension, so it must contain action, information that increases tension.

 

Unfortunately writers use flashbacks for the worst of reasons. When things get too intense they use it to insert some calm back story or some useless information.  It is the misinterpretation of another important piece of writing advice: The story must flow in highs and lows, crests and troughs.

 

The advice means you cannot have consequent low tension scenes but you can have consequent high tension scenes. However, there is no novel that has only high tension scenes throughout, so clubbing many high tension scenes together could end in a sudden clump of low tension scenes and that’s death for a story.

 

Ever notice how some mystery novels fall flat after the murderer is identified, it is scene after scene of tying up loose ends. That’s scene after scene of low tension, you can’t wait to close the book shut.

Use a flashback if you must, use it to talk about things that have happened earlier and couldn’t be woven into the narrative flow in any other way. As far as maintaining the highs and lows and crests and troughs, there are better things than flashbacks to do that.

 

Plots are the lifeblood of stories, but they must be inconspicuous. A reader should revel in the flow of the plot but not be aware of the presence of a plot. The more attention you give to your plots the less it will come to your reader’s attention.

 

 

HAPPY WRITING!

 

 

 

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