Monday, June 4, 2007

8-Point Checklist For Successful Fiction

June 4, 2007
Before you start writing and definitely before you send your manuscript off to an agent or editor, think about the following eight elements of your work.

1. Is your main character proactive?
It's okay if your main character is a victim at the beginning of the novel, but they need to actually be doing something to solve their problem(s) by the end. And by the same token, the solution should come about as a result of their actions. The days of damsels in distress being rescued by the hero are over. Damsels rescue themselves. They might be hanging off a cliff by their fingernails or tied to the train tracks, but they'd damn well better be the primary reason they escape. That said, if you foreshadow a rescue properly, it's okay to have help. As those great sages, John, Paul, George and Ringo once said, we all can use a little help from our friends.

2. Are you using good verbs?
Verbs do all the heavy-lifting in our writing. Kill your adverbs and use good verbs. Your main character doesn't go get his mail. He plucks it from the mailbox, retrieves it from the post office, etc. Your car doesn't come to a stop. It rolls to a stop, lurches to a halt, or glides to rest. (And as for adverbs, your car doesn't need to roll smoothly to a stop if it can glide, does it?) You can solve at least half of your writing problems by replacing weak verbs with strong, active verbs.

3. Are you trying to entertain?
Shakespeare wanted to fill up his theater. Nobody at the Globe was saying, "Ooh, let's go catch Bill's play with all that beautiful language and the deep themes about action and inaction." Nope, they were saying, "Hey, I hear there's a great play with lots of swordfights, ghosts, murder, intrigue, sex and romance. It's called 'Hamlet.' Let's check it out." Entertain first. All that theme, message, blah, blah, blah comes second.

4. Is the length right?
If it's a first novel and it's 200,000 words in length, it's too damned long. Each category of fiction novel has an expected length. Romances tend to run short. Mysteries tend to run in the 70-90,000 word range. Thrillers overlap from the 85,000-120,000 length. There are a lot of factors here, but most beginning writers don't think too much about the fact that longer books cost your publisher more to produce. They're thinking about that when you send them a 150,000 word mystery; they're also thinking, nobody will buy it, it's too long.

5. Is there a market?
Okay, you want to be an artist and not worry about the market. I'm happy for you. Go away. You don't need to read anything about writing because you're probably going to self-publish and hand-sell books out of the trunk of your car. Original is good. Too original means the publisher's never seen it before and will probably say, 'hell, it's interesting, but who will buy it?' There are exceptions. And trends. Currently, there's a market for mixed-genre novels, those werewolf-time travel-romance novels. Go figure.

6. Did you start in the right place?
We're a short attention span group of readers. Did you start your novel in the right place? Lawrence Block often said you should flip your first and second chapters. What he meant is, if your first chapter is backstory and the action starts in the second chapter, start with the action--or in the middle of the action (in media res is the technical term) and fill in the backstory later. Many, many unpublished novelists start at the wrong place. Take a hard, cold look at your beginning and see if you've started at the right place.

7. Does your ending satisfy?
Are all the threads tied up? Does the reader come away feeling... something? Anything? Mickey Spillane once stated that the last chapter sold the next book. Believe it.

8. Is there conflict?
This is right up there with the right verbs. There are basically two types of conflict: internal and external. External are all the things that happen to your main character. That could be the murder they're trying to solve, the bad guy they're trying to stop, whatever it is that keeps the main characters from falling in love, etc. Internal conflict is whatever fears and/or problems your character must overcome to attain their goals. Ideally you have both. You can get away with just external in some sorts of fiction, but it's better if your character has to overcome something internal. I interviewed Michael Connelly (hear the name drop?) a couple years ago and I commented that one of the things I found most interesting about his main character, Harry Bosch, was he brought his own conflict with him just by the way he interacted with people. Michael said, "Have baggage, will travel. Yeah, Harry does bring his conflict with him, doesn't he?"

If you ever, ever hear an agent or publisher say, "Lacks tension," what they're probably referring to is lack of conflict (or in some cases, your verbs aren't active enough).

I hope these are helpful.

Mark Terry


Aimless Writer said...

This is a keeper!

Mark Terry said...

Glad it's useful.

differentflags said...

I really enjoyed your advice. Eugenia Renskoff

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