Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A reader recently asked about a book she was co-writing with a friend—
We cannot seem to make it sound like a real published novel.
It might just be because it is on the screen. Will it help if it is printed?
Also, we need to make it longer. Any ideas other than
being more descriptive?
There are many, many reasons a work in progress doesn’t sound like a published novel. There are even more if the manuscript is a first effort, the first work of long fiction a writer has tried. While I don’t know if the WIP in question is a first novel, I’m going to answer that question as if it were. But before that, let’s look at the easier questions.
Will it help if it is printed?
The short answer is probably. We’re still used to reading from paper, and a story may well have a different feel if it’s read away from a computer or other electronic device. I always suggest that writers proof their manuscripts from hard copy, if only to find errors. A story read from a different medium and in a different location from where it was written looks different. And problems sometimes leap from the page.
Any ideas [about making it longer] other than being more descriptive?
Unless a novel truly lacks description, adding description wouldn’t be my suggestion for lengthening it. A novel that’s too short probably lacks action events and contains too little plot.
It’s likely to be too short because while the writer probably included a solid opening and a good ending, it’s likely that there’s not enough story to fill the middle chapters.
Story openings, endings, and the climax often come easily to writers, even if the writers eventually change one or more of them. But they are the exciting moments of a story and therefore are the scenes we focus on when we get an idea for a story.
Yet openings, endings, and a key dramatic scene are only parts of a story. Besides just being there, on the page, they need to be connected by other story elements. They need to be built up to. They need to be foreshadowed.
In addition to these key plot moments, characters need to be introduced and those characters need to reveal themselves over time, over the length of the story.
Characters need to grow over time.
Description—whether we’re talking setting description or description of characters—is only a small part of a story. That is, small in terms of page space, not importance. While description is necessary for many reasons, padding a short story to lengthen it will not likely create a better story. Exceptions if description is completely lacking, of course. But description cannot make up for a sparse plot or insufficient action scenes.
A short novel may lack depth, so character development may be necessary. This may entail showing characters involved in endeavors other than those that lead directly to the story’s climax. While all story events should be related to the main and/or secondary plot, that relationship may not seem obvious until the later chapters of the novel. So a character may seem to be on a different track until a moment of revelation when readers discover he’s been on a course parallel to the main plot all along.
Making a novel longer, then, likely requires more plot points and maybe additional scenes to show character growth. Items to consider include—
A longer buildup to events
Twists and turns so characters don’t arrive at the high and low points too soon
More major events
A subplot featuring secondary characters that eventually dovetails with the main plot
Real-time dialogue rather than reports of what was said
Yet, rather than trying to make a novel longer, a writer might have to rethink the entire novel. If there’s not enough plot to fill a novel, maybe the work would be better as a short story or novella. Maybe the writer should begin again, with a story that includes more events.
Not every idea that sounds like it would make a good novel is destined to become a novel of 90,000 words. Sometimes a good idea isn’t sufficient for a full-length novel. Sometimes there is simply nowhere for the idea to grow, nothing more to be said.
That possibility should be explored. And then a writer can begin a new story, one with more possibilities.
How to Make a Story Sound Like a Published Novel
As I said at the top of the article, there are many reasons a manuscript might not sound like a published novel.
One reason may be that it’s only a first draft. Unless you are a genius writer with every writing skill hard-wired into you, your first drafts will never read like published works.
Published books have been reworked multiple times. The final product is not a first draft; it may be draft number ten. That means scenes have been rewritten, moved, abandoned, rewritten again, and abandoned again.
And remember that cleaning up the grammar, spelling, and punctuation of a first draft does not produce a second draft—it just creates a cleaner first draft. So be prepared to dig in and rewrite whole scenes. Be prepared to make major changes. Be prepared for draft five to read nothing like the first draft.
When scenes and chapters are rewritten and new text is added while other text is cut out, then we’re talking rewriting. And every novel manuscript needs rewriting. There’s simply no way to include every element in the right measure and in the right order and with the right words in a first draft. It’s difficult to cover every issue competently in a second or third draft.
The first reason a WIP or a writer’s first effort doesn’t sound like a published novel? It’s a first or second draft that needs much more work.
A second reason may be that it hasn’t been edited, or at least critiqued by someone other than the writer.
We all miss errors and weaknesses in our own writing. No matter how good you are, this is true. A writer isn’t a master at every writing skill and therefore needs someone else—maybe several other people—to help find problem areas. An editor is helpful in this endeavor since he or she can often offer suggestions to strengthen problem areas, but even beta readers with no editing experience can provide help, at least to point out sections in the text where they had problems following the plot or making sense of a character’s motivation. You want beta readers—not readers who buy your books—to be the ones to say, “That doesn’t sound like Max” or “That doesn’t seem like something Joey would do.”
An editor can help a writer cut out what doesn’t belong in a story. Writers, especially first-time writers, are often attached to every word, insisting that not even a single one can be changed. On the other hand, professional writers and editors realize that cutting or changing words often strengthens the impact of a scene, and they have no trouble changing words or changing or cutting whole scenes.
My suggestion? Have someone—another writer or an editor—read and/or edit the manuscript. Maybe simply offer a critique. And then be prepared to listen to and consider what this someone has to say. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you should agree to listen and consider the comments and suggestions. This is one of the hardest activities for a writer working with his first or second manuscript—no one wants to be told his prized work isn’t perfect. But every writer should want to make his story the best it can be. And readers who can point out problems—without having to worry that they’re hurting a writer’s feelings—are a treasure that writers can’t do without.
As usual, I’ve written a long article, and I still haven’t included all the reasons a manuscript doesn’t sound like a published novel. I’ll put other possible reasons in list form. These may not be the only reasons an unpublished story doesn’t read like a published one, but they point out areas a writer will want to look at when faced with the same question. Other than the first three*, these aren’t arranged in any rank or order. The first three are possibilities you may want to look at first if your own story seems far from a published novel. They are common problems, especially for first novels.
Any one of these issues or a combination of them could produce a story that doesn’t sound like a published novel. See if any contribute to problems you’re having with a WIP.
*Report vs. Scenes. If reports—long stretches of exposition or summary—take the place of action that occurs in real time, a manuscript won’t read like a finished novel.
Long paragraphs or pages of reports on what happened, with the narrator filling in the reader, make a piece of fiction sound less like a novel and more like a recitation of facts. Be sure that your manuscript contains scenes that happen in real time and in the presence of your readers. Readers should be able to see and hear events as they play out in the story’s setting. There should be more scenes than there are sections of narrative summary.
*Not Enough Plot. If the plot is thin, your WIP definitely won’t read like a novel.
Novels are layered, with events happening on a variety of levels for different purposes and involving different people. Make sure you have enough plot events—both major and minor—plot events that change the direction of the story, and events that evoke different emotions.
Keep in mind that plot events must lead to other events. And they need to be causally related, not independent actions.
*Genre Needs. If genre conventions and reader expectations are absent, a manuscript won’t sound or feel like other stories in the genre. Be sure to include elements of the genre. That means a murder in the early pages for a mystery, hero and heroine meeting early in the story for a romance, and realistic world-building for sci-fi.
Dialogue. Dialogue that sounds like conversation rather than dialogue, which should contain only the good stuff, is a problem for a novel. All dialogue should have a point. It should advance the plot, raise the conflict level, or reveal character. Or it should do a combination of these tasks. It should also elicit emotion from the reader and reveal subtext.
Dialogue shouldn’t be a space filler or a time waster. Make every word count.
Back Story. A story with too much back story on the page, especially at the beginning or at crucial moments, still needs work. Readers want to read about the present moments in the characters’ lives, not about the past.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t include back story or that it’s not necessary, only that you should be discriminating about what to use and when.
It’s vital for a writer to know back story in order to write believable characters, but most of that info won’t be conveyed directly to the reader. Back story is often a tool for the writer and shouldn’t appear on the page in its raw form. Work the details of back story into a scene rather than dropping it in whole as a list or as an info dump.
Refrain from putting a character sketch in your story—there’s seldom a need to provide every detail about a character. Keep that info to yourself and use it to create situations that bring out your characters’ strengths and weaknesses.
Explanations. Too many explanations for why a character does what he does takes the drama out of a story. Explain only when necessary, when readers need a little help.
But assume your readers are smart. They know genre conventions. They’ve read many novels. Assume they can catch on to almost anything you put in front of them.
They don’t need to hear your “voice” talking to them as they’re running from a murderer or trying to save the world alongside the characters.
Allow readers to stay lost in the fiction.
Author Preaching and Intrusion. Related to the last item is this one: don’t force yourself into your story world. That means the reader shouldn’t be treated to you preaching, teaching, or explaining. Readers shouldn’t hear or see you at all. If you’re promoting a theory or point of view, hide it within a character. Otherwise, readers will see your hand and will be sucked right out of the fictional world and returned to the real world.
Too Much Description. Whether it’s details about a story’s setting or description of a character, too much description can have readers skipping sections of a story. If your descriptions sound like pamphlets for cruises or exotic getaways, or you’ve included a character’s curriculum vitae, you’ve included too much.
Use only enough description to allow readers to frame in the characters and the setting. Don’t think you have to describe every character down to the color of their toenails and their favorite foods. Include description that’s necessary to fill in some blanks, but let the readers use their own imaginations for details that don’t influence the plot or other characters.
Description can be vivid and memorable, but it shouldn’t overwhelm. Think light touch with description.
Play-by-Play. If you’ve written a play-by-play of common actions, you’ve included too much and the story won’t sound like a novel.
There’s no need to include every step a character takes between picking up his keys at his house to arriving at his ex-wife’s office. Readers don’t need to watch him going out the door, locking it, opening his garage door, backing his car out, stopping at every light, finding a parking place, entering the office building, getting into the elevator, getting off the elevator, sharing small talk with the receptionist, and then finally storming into his ex-wife’s office.
Cut to the chase; this is the time for summary. Assume that readers understand how common actions, such as driving, work and skip the common actions.
Give the reader the good stuff. Omit everything else.
Too Few/Too Many Characters. Too many characters dropped into a story, especially at the beginning, or too few spread over the length of the story may indicate that the story still needs work.
Use only as many characters as are needed to tell this one story. But don’t skimp. If you need to add another antagonist, do it. Fascinating and involving stories need fascinating characters. Provide enough without giving readers too many to keep track of.
Similar Characters. Do away with characters too similar to one another. Roll them into one if their actions aren’t different enough or if readers won’t be able to tell them apart because there’s nothing notable about them.
Repetition. Too much unintended repetition can make a story less inviting for the reader. Be careful not to repeat words, thoughts, or events.
As I said, readers are smart and they catch on. There’s no need to inundate them with the same information, even if it’s packaged in a different way.
Theme. If a theme is too blatant, as if you’re beating a point into the heads of your readers, a story may sound more like a treatise than a novel. Don’t go heavy-handed with a theme; readers will pick up on theme quickly. They won’t need a lot of references to it.
Obvious Clues. Treat your readers with respect by not being overly obvious with clues, red herrings, foreshadowing, and hints. Almost every writing element can use a light touch.
Character Motivation. Insufficient reasons for characters to make a stand or get involved (or not get involved) may make your story suffer in a comparison with published novels.
Published novels provide clear motivation for character actions. Make sure you’ve included logical motivation for your major characters. But don’t only tell why a character behaves as she does—show her motivation in action. Let it be clear the type of person she is by what she does.
And make sure the characters are consistent.
Characters can grow, but one character shouldn’t be Jekyll in one scene and Hyde in the next. Unless, of course, he is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of character.
Give characters sufficient reasons to do what they do.
Insufficient Reactions. Characters should respond to the actions and dialogue of others. If you’ve included too few reactions, especially of major characters or characters who should have a response, your story will feel off in some way. It will feel off because it is off.
The whole purpose of including story events is so that characters can respond, which leads to more events and then more responses—this is the plot in motion, rolling along and gaining momentum. But you’ve got to include character responses to events and to the actions of others. Think reaction for every action. Think reactions that build over time. Think of reactions that eventually explode.
Reactions to Fit the Action. Reactions should build over the course of the story, but they should fit; not too tepid, not too overwhelming.
Boring Characters. A story that doesn’t read like a novel may have too many characters the readers don’t care about. Or maybe the main character is a dud.
Bold and unique characters stand out—don’t hold back with your characters. Create someone unusual, someone necessary to accomplish what you’ve asked him or her to do in your story world. Someone memorable. Someone who does what the rest of us only dream of doing.
No Conflict. A story without conflict isn’t a novel. It may be a synopsis, but it’s not a novel.
Novels need conflict, conflict of every kind and every level involving every character.
If you don’t know how to write conflict in fiction, start researching. You won’t be able to write an engrossing novel without it.
Touching Reader Emotions. Your WIP may be flat, never eliciting reader emotion of any kind. To reach your readers, you’ve got to move them emotionally. This may mean making them laugh or cry or shiver with fright. You may have them grinding their teeth in anger. Whatever the emotion, a novel needs to produce it in the reader. And it needs to include different types in different amounts as the story progresses.
Related to emotion, readers should feel tension from the conflict between characters. And readers should often be on edge, unsure about what’s coming next. This is true for every story, not only suspense novels.
If your story or individual scenes don’t move your readers, try working on ways to evoke emotions from them.
Subtlety. I touched on this one in another of the topics, but remember subtlety as you write. Hint rather than going in heavy-handed. Make the reader work a bit to pull meaning from a line of dialogue or a scene. Make readers have to pay attention. (But don’t be too cryptic. Again, a light touch is best.)
Grammar and Punctuation. Poor grammar and punctuation will make any story look amateurish. Bone up on the rules and put them to work for you. A writer can’t get away with saying, “I forgot all those rules.” At least not for long. Not forever. It’s a writer’s job to learn how to use his tools and to learn what can be done with those tools. Grammar rules are basic writing tools.
Sentence Construction. This one goes back to the basics of writing: use variety in sentence and paragraph construction.
There are many ways to arrange words into a sentence, so try several of them with most of your sentences. Change patterns and rhythms. Change formats. Don’t allow every sentence to sound or look the same, with the noun first and the verb following.
Write a long sentence followed by two short ones, a paragraph a page long followed by a single-word paragraph.
Try a different word, a different verb form, a different noun.
Word Choice. Word choices can direct a story, and changing the words can redirect it. If your manuscript doesn’t sound right, try new words. Go for a different feel or flavor. Change the common to the unusual.
Think unique. Think about word choices that only these characters in this setting under these particular circumstances would use.
Word choice can make your story; spend quality time choosing the perfect words.
And be sure to pick words that reflect your characters’ education, background, culture, and emotions. When a character finally explodes, even his word choices should reflect his agitation.
Maintaining Point of View. Many first manuscripts have mixed-up points of view, with POVs that change from scene to scene or even paragraph to paragraph. Changing POV is okay, as long as a writer understands what she’s doing and understands how each POV works. Accidentally changing POV due to lack of knowledge about the different points of view is entirely different. Even changing viewpoint characters willy-nilly can cause major problems in a manuscript.
Make sure you’ve chosen the best POV and best viewpoint character(s) for your story and then be careful to maintain the POV you chose.
Keep in mind that you can always rewrite using a different POV or viewpoint character. Doing so may be the salvation of your story.
Tone and Mood. When the mood of scenes doesn’t match either the emotions of the characters or the story events, that can cause a story to feel or sound off.
A scene’s mood should reflect what’s happening and a character’s reaction to those events. Make sure that the mood you create with your words and sentence rhythms matches the characters and the story events.
Wrong Opening. A story that starts in the wrong place has a lot to overcome. Make sure that your story has a strong beginning, one that pulls readers in and tempts them to read on.
Genre should be clear in the opening pages. And genre-related elements should pull in readers that love a particular genre.
An event that catches the reader’s attention while also making characters react is a stronger opening than one that takes three chapters to get to the point.
A flashback is usually not the best choice for an opening scene. Telling about your protagonist’s school days or youth is usually not the best choice either.
Capture the reader’s attention in your opening pages. A tried and true starting place is the moment just before the main character’s life is blown apart by unexpected or unpreventable changes.
Chapter-ending Hooks. Your story may lack chapter-ending hooks, which is another reason it may not sound like a novel. If you end chapters without giving readers something to anticipate—something to look forward to or fear or worry about—you’re not taking advantage of reader curiosity. It’s likely that you’re not keeping the reader hooked.
End each chapter in a way that will have readers turning the page to read “just one more chapter.”
I’ve included quite a few possible reasons that a manuscript might not sound like a published novel. If any of these issues are unfamiliar to you, I suggest you start studying. Each of these areas (as well as others) should be addressed as you work through your manuscript.
But keep in mind that a first manuscript might never sound like a published book. You may have to treat your first effort as practice, a project never to be published. The first few novel manuscripts of nearly every writer will end up as practice projects.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Most writers don’t sell their first stories. Not their second or third either. Writers often don’t have the skills to weave together all the many fiction and story elements in a way that pleases a reader, not when writing that first novel manuscript. Once a writer realizes this, some of the pressure is off. And that’s a good thing. A great thing. The writer can then begin a second and third manuscript armed with the skills and knowledge he gained while working through the first story.
Give your first story your all, even if you acknowledge that it will be your weakest story—if you don’t give it everything in you, everything you know to do, you’ll be wasting your time. But don’t expect to publish it. And don’t expect it to sound like a published book. You’re comparing the fifth or eighth or tenth effort of a published author—a professionally edited book, at that—with the first or second effort of an unpublished writer, one who’s never been through the editing and rewriting process with an editor or publishing house. That’s not comparing apples to apples. That’s not even comparing one fruit to another fruit.
By the time a book is out in public, the writer has probably written five or six drafts of that one story. And that’s after writing five or six drafts of three or four or five other manuscripts, stories that never sold. That’s a lot of writing and rewriting. And the writing of those stories probably also involved a lot of studying, a lot of dialogue with a critique group or critique partner, and a lot of input from an editor.
A published novel sounds and feels different from a first draft or from the work of a beginning writer because it isn’t the same animal at all. Even the first and second drafts of professional novelists won’t be the same quality as published books because they’re not at the same stage of production.
A story requires a lot of time and work to become a polished novel. That’s both the short and the long answer.
A lot of effort goes into a published book; don’t be discouraged if your current project doesn’t measure up. Just keep working the craft and delving into your imagination. This is one activity where study and practice, practice, practice will produce positive results.
No, your hard work maybe not result in a publishing contract, at least not right away, but it will help create a better writer. And that’s a goal worth working toward.