Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
In fiction, there is no one correct way to write a sentence.
There’s the way that fits a character, a plot thread, a genre. There’s a way that fits the sentence that came before and the one that follows.
There’s a fit for rhythm and sound and impact. For emotion.
There’s a way to write a sentence that fits the tenor of the reader, of the moment, of the era.
But no way is always right all the time.
And there’s no one best way to write a novel.
A novel is not a paint-by-number canvas where you follow explicit instructions to turn out a product that looks a bit like what you’d been promised.
Writing a novel takes skill and finesse, knowledge of the rules and experience with artistry.
There is no one way to do it right. To do it well. To create something worth reading.
You already know this, I’m sure. So why am I reminding writers and editors of what we already know? For simply that reason: to remind us.
Just recently I shared with a couple of writers that when I make editing suggestions, I’m not including every possible option. There may be quite a number of options that would work.
There are multiple ways to convey a point, advance a scene, reveal a character, or turn up the conflict. Even given the fairly narrow parameters of a scene, there are dozens of words that could replace any other single word in a way that would send the scene into a new direction, if that is the intent, or that would deepen the already established feel, the emotion or tone, of the scene, if that is the intent.
When you write and rewrite and edit, keep in mind that you’re not restricted to one or two choices. Yes, you’ll want to write in a way that brings cohesion. But you don’t want to write in a way that limits your characters or your story, that restricts your expression.
Think you can only end your scene with your main character facing a bottle all alone on the day he buried his best friend? What would happen if Jake, your protagonist, heard a knock on his door and the visitor, instead of going away as Jake bellowed for him to do, walked into Jake’s home carrying his own bottle?
What if that visitor was Jake’s ex-wife? His best friend’s widow? The best friend’s twin brother? The man who killed his best friend? His best friend’s ghost?
His best friend himself?
There’s always a different way to do anything, to do everything, when we write. And I’m referring to both big-picture elements such as plot events and characterization as well as the fine details such as word choice and punctuation.
A story can take a turn in the writing or the editing that in the finished story seems inevitable. Without hesitation. Perfect. As if that passage had written itself, it was so right for the story and the scene and the chapter where it was placed.
The technical elements—word choice and grammar and syntax—can also work this same magic. And it’s not just one perfect word that will create a strong story moment.
In a character description, the choice of one word could drive a scene in one direction while another word led in a different direction. Or, the choice from among half a dozen words might prove equally effective.
That is, sometimes you might want to sweat over a word or phrase and other times discover that many phrases could accomplish the same result and that instead of sweating the choice, you need only pick one.
I am not saying that just any word or phrase or sentence construction will work.
I am saying there is no one right way that works in every situation and that there are multiple options that may be equally valid.
Once you start trying options, gain experience with finishing novel-length manuscripts, you’ll be able to gauge where a scene will be headed if you use certain types of words or phrasings or constructions. As a painter knows the results of combining colors on certain bases using different media and brushes, so the writer knows the results of word combinations and syntax and knows how to manipulate the writing elements for best effect.
With practice, you’ll know what you can do, what happens when you make one choice rather than another, and that there are even more options that you could explore.
There’s no one way, no always right way, to write an entertaining novel. If there were, novel writing would be write-by-numbers. Every story would have the same feel. Not the same plot, of course, but the same rhythms and tone. The same balance of elements. The same . . . problems. Ultimately, the same flat expression. Because that’s what the reader would feel. A sameness that makes even perfection flat.
For editors, this is a reminder to offer options to the writer. Give them an idea of the results when different options are tried. Let them know they aren’t restricted to either this or that, A or B. That instead they may have a choice among A and B and Y and Z. Maybe even A plus C plus Y or Z.
For writers, this is a reminder that the first choice of words, word combinations, sentence construction, or plot threads may not be the best for the story you intend to write.
Phrasings and plot events written in an early draft may not be the best for the story that you ultimately do write.
That is, you don’t need to keep what you wrote in an early draft just because it’s already written. You have options. You can change your mind and your story.
Not having only one correct way to write any part of a story—from single word to sentence to event to dialogue to chapter—means you can change anything.
Free yourself from the fear of making changes. Know there are options.
Don’t rely only on rules; rely on heart as well. Put both skill and artistry to work. Know what the tried and true can do, but be bold and try something fresh.
Use what you know works and look for other options that work just as well and better.
Don’t limit yourself or your stories and characters. Explore your options.
Try a new way to phrase the common.
Paint your characters with fresh colors.
Write bold stories.