Monday, August 29, 2011

How do you know if your novel sucks? (Advice for aspiring writers: Part 2)

I promised to divulge all of my writing/querying secrets, and I am starting today. This advice post got SUPER long, so I’ve broken it down into writing advice, query letter writing advice, and querying advice. Today is the writing post. Tomorrow will be the querying letter post, Wednesday will be the querying post and, if you want to enter to win one of four first chapter and query critiques, the contest entry will be at the bottom of Wednesday’s post. :p

But…writing. Thursday I gave you my basic advice on how to know if you should even be writing at all. Today, I’ll fill you in on some of the things that helped me.

Coming up with the killer idea.
I stand in awe of writers who can outline. I can’t. I’ve tried and it’s a totally wasted effort, because once I start writing, my characters take the story where it needs to go, whether I like it or not. And it’s NEVER where I thought it was going. So, I won’t talk about outlining. But I will talk about the idea, because that’s important.

You have an idea. It might have come from the lyrics of a song, or from watching someone at the grocery store, or from a sign on the front of a building. Wherever it came from, it’s a totally AMAZING idea. What you need to ask yourself is, did the idea evolve organically, or was it something you came up with because you think it’s something agents/publishers want to see? Two things here.
1)      If you’re writing to a current trend, you need to remember the books you see selling like hotcakes were acquired by their editors two years ago. Meaning, the book you’re writing now is, in a perfect world, two to three years from shelves. The trend will have passed and, very likely, editors aren’t going to be acquiring that type of book anymore. The caveat to that (always) is that if you can give that old trope a new twist, and it’s extremely well written, there’ll always be a market for it. Which segues into my next point.
2)      It is easy to spot the story that’s authentic. If the story is coming from your heart and your soul, it will show in the writing. If it’s the story you were meant to tell, it will flow. If you’re forcing it, it won’t. Write for yourself, not for agents or editors. Don’t worry about what’s out there and what’s selling. Set the next trend.

So, you’re writing the book you were meant to write; setting the next trend. Now you need someone (or someones) to read your awesomeness.
It’s tempting to tell no one you’re writing if you’re a newbie (which is what I did) but the truth is, you need readers. If you don’t want your family/friend to know you’re writing, that’s actually okay, because they’d be about the worst readers you could find anyway. They’re not objective. What you need is:
1)      Someone who enjoys reading in the genre you’ve written, but who has no emotional attachment to you and will therefore be brutally honest (in a supportive way) about your writing.
2)      Someone who can see the overall issues and not just pick at the minutia. (ie: rewriting sentences) You want a critique, not a line edit.
There are numerous online groups and resources available these days. If you don’t have any other avenue to cultivate writing friends, use them. The one that comes to mind is where there are chat boards for writers. The thing about critiquing is that we as writers know what it is we’re trying to get across on the page. It makes perfect sense to us as we’re writing it. But the actual words that we’ve written may or may not be getting it across the way we think they are. You need someone objective to tell you the big things, like where your plot falls apart, or that your eighteen year old comes off as thirty, as well as the little things, like everyone in your book is blond/blue, or your dog barks too much.

If it’s your first novel, write it, then rewrite it.
We’ve all heard the stories of authors selling their very first novel for big bucks and going on to fame and fortune. They are the vast minority. Most authors will tell you they have one or ten practice or “trunk” novels. That’s not to say that your first novel doesn’t have a kickass plot and complex characters, but the chances that you totally nailed the writing the first time out are not good. So, if you love your characters and your plot:
1)      Write the novel then close the file. Sit on it for a week or three while you read a whole bunch of other people’s novels, then start over without opening the original file. Or…better yet.
2)      Write something totally different (not a sequel) then come back and write novel one again.
The more you practice, the better you get. #trufax

Revise the crap out of it.
1)      Enlist your critique partner/group to help you see where things need to be fleshed out, where the characters need to be developed, where the transitions need to be smoothed out. Make their changes (if they ring true to you) and send it back for another round or two.
2)      Read it out loud to yourself. This is a great way to catch all the wording/phrasing issues that you automatically smooth over in your head.
3)      If it helps to see a hard copy, print it out and mark the spots you needed to read twice, or anywhere that didn’t flow the way you hoped it would.

I told you this post was getting long, and that’s just writing! Tune in tomorrow for query writing advice. I’m still deciding if I’ll post my actual query letter. I had a fairly high request rate (12 of 20) so I want to, but it’s full of Personal Demons spoilers, so…


  1. Thanks, reiterates some of the same advice our group has heard from other terrific writers. We can never hear it enough times. Each time and each teller is just enough different that it really helps but at the same time it also helps cement the thought.

  2. Thanks Lisa and I would love to see your query letter!!

  3. Oh, beta readers are the first step to clearing out the jagged edges of a hopeful masterpiece. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.

  4. Thanks so much for doing this! I always admire authors who take the time to remember those who haven't made it yet.

    Post your query...please! Lol...

  5. thank you so much! I really needed to see a post like this. Really helps me. :)

    *~` `~*

  6. This is really helpful. Thank you!