Friday, 19 December 2008

Five Ways To Ruin A Good Manuscript

As I’ve said before, I work with a lot of developing authors and I see a lot of the same problems re-occurring, problems I grappled with myself when I first started out trying to become a writer. So I thought I’d mention five of the most common, along with some possible solutions.

I’m doing so in the hope that someone reading this might find it helpful but if these are problems you don't recognise, or if the solutions strike you as untenable, then don’t give them a second thought. And, please bear in mind that I’m describing extremes. All these behaviours can be perfectly acceptable when used appropriately and there are any number of examples from great literature to show this.

Ignoring the inner lives of the central characters
Some authors forget to shed light on the internal world of their characters. They concentrate so much on what the characters do, that they neglect to tell the reader about their thoughts, dreams, hopes, and fears. One possible solution to this might be to try showing your character remembering a key incident that had particular significance for his or her view of himself, or the rest of the world.

Telling the reader directly about the characters’ faults and virtues
It’s always so much better to allow readers to draw their own conclusions about characters than to spell it out for them. If you find yourself wanting to tell the reader what to think, try shifting some of those judgements to other characters. Show them reacting to your protagonist, in dialogue or in behaviour, rather than using the authorial voice to make your point.

Ladling out description of character in indigestible lumps
Some authors seem to think it’s necessary to introduce a character by providing a lengthy pen portrait. This can work, of course, but it’s very easy to over-do it. It’s often better to release the information slowly, like paying out rope, thereby giving the reader an incentive to keep turning the pages. One possible solution is to make it a rule to deal with physical description the first time you introduce a character but to allow personal history to bleed out slowly during the remainder of the narrative

Changing voice when dealing with backstory.
This is usually caused by the need to condense material when filling the reader in about what has happened in the past; there is so much information to convey to the reader, that you end up sounding like you’re writing an entry for Wikipedia. Of course, it helps if you don't construct plots that require vast amounts of backstory. If that’s unavoidable, try using dialogue rather than narrative to gradually reveal your characters' pasts. Remember, the reader doesn’t have to find out everything at once. A little bit of puzzlement can often keep him or her reading.

Losing track of the voice with which you started the novel.
I think every writer must be familiar with this. You start out with one kind of novel and end up with a different one entirely. It’s not surprising. Novels are such enormous endeavours, after all. It helps to keep reading back over your work. Remember, no voice is ever really natural – we change the way we speak all the time depending on who we’re speaking to (friends, parents, children, people in authority, people we dislike). So all voice is a kind of acting. It’s just a matter of getting back into role.

These points may all seem very obvious to you. If so, then pat yourself on the back because, I promise you, a huge number of the manuscripts I see from aspiring authors show one or all of these tendencies to a greater or lesser extent.

1 comment:

Paul Lamb said...

Thank you for these insights. I like to think that I am past this stage in my humble efforts, but it is always good to have a refresher.