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Novel Writing Isn’t Paint by Numbers

February 5, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 5, 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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8 Responses to “Novel Writing Isn’t Paint by Numbers”

  1. Thank you for your timely reminder. :) Your sentence ‘A sameness that makes even perfection flat.’ brought your message home to me. It reminded me of that proverb ‘A cat with mittens catches no prey’, in other words, playing it safe can mean mediocre. Looking at other options can keep writing fresh.

  2. And mediocre just doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to capture the reader’s attention. Good points, Justin. Everyone needs a reminder that there’s another way.

  3. Emily says:

    Great post. : )

    I’ve been lucky to work with an agent and editor who let me find my way in my story. They may let me know something seems off, or needs to be deepened, and give general examples to illustrate their point.

    However, even if a writer doesn’t use the exact ideas suggested, as long as the writer can solve the problem in a satisfying way, that’s what matters.

    Sometimes I use their ideas, because they’re brilliant; other times, I can riff off their ideas and come up with something of my own that works on multiple levels, besides supplying a satisfying fix for the issue at hand.

    And about writing fearlessly, I so agree. I know I have something, writing-wise, when the story makes me cry, or strikes fear into my heart that I actually “went there”.

    Emily Murdoch, Author: The Patron Saint Of Beans
    Available from St. Martin’s Griffin, early 2013.

  4. Emily, it sounds as if you’ve got great working relationships with your agent and editor. What you’ve said here is almost exactly what I tell writers—use a suggestion if it works or, if it gives you a new idea, run with that idea, see where it takes you. Sometimes all it takes is a word or an attitude, maybe a tone, to set the story in a new direction or solve a problem.

    Keep writing boldly—I’m sure that’s one of the reasons you’ll have a book out at this time next year.

  5. Emily says:

    Aww, thanks Beth! And rights just sold in Germany and the Netherlands. Just over the moon. : )

    I love writing boldly. : )

    Emily Murdoch, Author: The Patron Saint Of Beans
    Available from St. Martin’s Griffin, early 2013.

  6. Emily, congratulations again! That’s awesome news.

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  1. […] Novel Writing Isn’t Paint by Numbers, by Beth Hill – “In fiction, there is no one correct way to write a sentence.” […]

  2. […] Editor Beth Hill says, 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. […]