So You're Writing a Novel: Advice From An Editor

So... you're writing your first novel.

The setting is perfect! You've cleaned out the old magazines and laundry from the office you never use (except to print boarding passes), and you've decided to just do it. You're going to write a novel, damn it!

In my opinion everyone should write a book in their lifetime. Everyone has a story inside of them just waiting to get out. That being said, I want to help you out with some tricks I've learned. Keep in mind, I'm a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Fiction Writing program (class of 2012) and certain rules apply to certain genres, however, I want to share with you some foolproof tricks I've learned as an editor.

Avoid approximate language:

E.g., There were about 24 people there... maybe... 

Unless you're intentionally writing from the vantage point of an unreliable narrator, approximate language is a big no-no. Rule? You can use approximate language one to two times in a story, if it fits, but anytime more than that conveys to the reader that you really don't know what the hell is going on, especially if you use it profusely.

Never use crutch words or redundant language: 

I.e., She lifted her hat to me. Again, I was annoyed by this gesture... 

Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes a story more mundane than the use of crutch words. They are the words we rely on when we're nervous. These kind of words create a horrible pattern, and the more an author relies on them, the more they'll back themselves into a corner. We all use different crutch words, but one word that I've noticed coming up a lot with different clients is the redundant use of "again" where it shouldn't be used. Any energy or life that was in the story gets shot in the face by redundant language and crutch words. Use clear and definite language! Cut out extraneous words.

Keep the storyline simple: 

I know in Anna Karenina Tolstoy had 17 characters, but here's the thing: there were only 2 main storylines (Anna and Levin) and Tolstoy wove them together beautifully! It is true, you can have as many characters as you want, but here's the thing to keep in mind:  your reader will get up because of some physiological need and the next time they sit down to read the story, inevitably their memory will lapse (unless your target audience are elephants, which I highly doubt because elephants are illiterate). That's not to say there aren't certain ways to do it, and this rule can be and has been challenged. However, the trick is to not follow all 17 of the characters' lives at once, but to focus on a few (the general rule is five).

Be specific and engaging: 

Hemingway and Steinbeck were always at odds with each other, however, both men were two different faces of the same coin: they were specific in their stories. While Steinbeck used florid language, Hemingway was succinct and simple. Both men did it right! There are different degrees of specificity (Virginia Woolf vs. Philip Roth vs. Michael Chabon, etc.) but the key thing is, is to figure out which way works best for you and don't skimp on the detail. It's always best to dive all the way in a description and then let the Gordon Lishes and the Max Perkins of the world clean up the excess details. Trust me, it's the way to go!

Know and commit to whatever POV (point of view) you're using: 

If you're writing in 3rd person, stay in third-person. Yes, this can be challenged as long as you cite it with a preface or in the sleeve of the book, however if you're doing it unintentionally it is a BIG mistake and makes you look sloppy.

Expand your vocabulary with synonyms: 

You don't have to use fancy "$10.00 words" like Hemingway called them, but there are words out there that aren't too high-falutin' that add a certain depth and charisma to prose and can help you avoid redundancy.

Write from the heart:

Nothing is worse than writing something because you feel you have to or you think it'll sell. Sit down and write something because you love it and you need to. Never force yourself to write anything! It comes off as false and wooden. I have a Quaker way of looking at things: I never write unless the spirit moves me. That being said, if your novel doesn't sing to you and you want to write: write love letters, write a sardonic essay, write a rap, write a poem... write in whatever medium you want but never force anything if it doesn't sing to you.

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