Improving Your Novel

There are lots of ways to share a book and, in doing so, improve as a writer. Not all those ways are created equal, and some work better than others.

I’m pretty sure there are various websites that basically serve as online writing workshops, and I’m nearly certain that part of Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade has some of that functionality, wherein writers post chapters and stories and the best rise to the top. I’ve participated in both writing groups and online writing workshops in the past, and they all share one thing in common: all are best with a smaller amount of material, and honestly most effective for short stories.

I say this because getting critique on a novel one chapter at a time is not optimal if you want to figure out how to improve the novel. What you’ll end up doing is improving discrete sections of the novel while the entirety of the story itself might remain unimproved, and that’s problematic. It’s nearly impossible to determine how to improve a novel by looking at a single chapter, just like it’s probably impossible to figure out how to improve a movie by looking at one particular scene.

Beta readers–a small group of half a dozen or so readers you know closely and respect as readers and writers (and people)–are probably the best way to start, so long as you ensure that they can provide constructive criticism, where “constructive” means “suggestions and feedback on how to improve what is there,” moreso than “pointing out with detail (and some glee) what doesn’t work.” Which I mention because a lot of people seem to take pride in thrashing other people’s writing with the note that they’re “Just trying to be honest!” which is fine and all, but I find doesn’t tend to help. The best feedback I’ve ever gotten has rarely been “Look, this doesn’t work,” so much as “I’m not sure about this scene, and I’m wondering if maybe your playing up the tension between the two characters would improve the dynamic.”

See the difference?

I’m not sure you can get effective, useful feedback/criticism on a novel from someone who doesn’t have experience with the story. You can get sentence-level tips, certainly—that phrasing is off, or whathaveyou—but story and content feedback might require more knowledge of and familiarity with the overall plot of the story.

And that’s not even to mention structure, which I think is where most novels falter. One of the single greatest decisions I ever made as a novelist was taking Syd Field’s screenwriting course, and each of my novels (so far) uses a three-act structure, with plot points and pacing accordingly. The third act is notoriously difficult to pull, which is why I think so many endings leave readers dissatisfied (which, I think, is a commonality of books with negative reviews. Leave readers dissatisfied and that’s all they’ll remember after they close your book).

How do you improve on a book you’ve finished?

Hopefully, you revise. You might have to start over again and rewrite it. Solutions for flaws in the story might not be patchable nor work until you begin all over again.

And if it’s worse than that?

Hey, that’s when you move on to a new one. Sometimes there’s just something about a story that just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s just that it’s not actually yours to tell. Maybe, honestly, you’re not good enough to tell it yet, or you don’t know enough about the genre it’s in.

There are lots of reasons. Some are difficult to face, for various reasons. I’ve got some experience with that second reason; I wasn’t a good enough writer to tackle The Prodigal Hour until I went to USC.

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Should you publish your book when it’s finished, hoping for feedback?

Hey, can’t answer that question. Not sure anyone can. When it comes to writing and quality and craft, there’s very little in the way of objective measurement or standards one can use to measure. In other words, there’s really no way to look at a novel and say it’s objectively “good,” to some degree. Often, what we think of as “good,” like Shakespeare or The Great Gatsby, is really just what a bunch of people have agreed is “good” mainly by virtue of their having liked it, or needing to keep their jobs.

But maybe if you publish something you believe in and find that it doesn’t connect with readers, you’ll discover something about your own abilities and your own stories you might not have seen before. How might that help? By preparing you to write something better the next time out, or even giving you the ability to see a way to fix a flaw you couldn’t even see–much less fix–before.

(And remember here that Fitzgerald himself once said that the definition of a novel is “A long work of fiction with flaws.”)

Will that help? Who knows? But I know that even when I read the worst books, I tend to see there’s some way to improve what’s there.

Consider Twilight, for example, which so many readers love, and which obviously must have something working, right? It’s flawed, but I’m not sure one could fix those flaws if one didn’t get feedback on the work.

If Twilight had been my novel, as it stands, I would have taken it completely apart and rewritten it with the intention of strengthening Bella’s character (which is, to me, the fatal flaw of the story). She’s weak and passive and seems to hate herself (in a way that’s worse than mere insecurity), basing her evaluation of her self on her attraction to creepy unattainable abusive boyfriend guy.

If it had been my novel, I’d have gone back to basics. Bella lives in a shite town, and she just wants to get out of it. How does one get out of a shite town? By doing well enough in school to want to go to a good college elsewhere. Which means that when she meets brooding Edward Cullen, she sees him as 1) pretty 2) vapid and 3) a distraction. She doesn’t want to be with him, and when she gets paired with him as a lab partner, she resents him and her teacher because the boy is dumb as a box of rocks and used to floating by on his looks and popularity.

She has to, however, because the teacher won’t pair her up otherwise.

That would have been where I’d started, but I think it’s the biggest and most sweeping change that might have actually improved what could have been a legitimately epic and enthralling story.

On the other hand, doing so would have changed the story such that a lot of readers never would have gotten the book they love. They’d have gotten a different one, and who knows if they’d have loved it so much?

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I wish some agent or editor had advised Meyer as above. Maybe she could have put that aside to concentrate instead on a werewolf novel, and then returned again, years down the line, to the novel that’s now made her famous. Maybe her career would have been different, and the novel would have been better?

Who knows?

But if agents had said no and she’d published it anyway, maybe enough readers would have still found it and loved it to propel her forward. And even if not, nothing saying she couldn’t, later, revisit her first novel, rewrite it with new material for a new audience. She could have made the first version free so people could have seen how far the story had come since the first time around.

Point is, there’s really no telling, and let’s be honest: agents and editors lately seem to be less about “gatekeeping” than about connections and networking, anyway. Given that, it’s certainly easier to reach a wider audience with the support of some corporation or other, whether independent or conglomerated, but I’m not sure that lack of support should stop one, because there are readers willing to support what they love, and they might well love your book.

But you’ll never know if they never see it.


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