Let’s face it, writing fiction is a daunting undertaking. It’s heartening that so many people want to write novels, and we want to help you before you get too far along, by identifying some of the most common areas for improvement we see in submissions as well as in published works.
First, a lesson from the Japanese. This may be the most important word to keep in mind when working on your novel and living your life:
Kaizen (改善), is the Japanese word for “continuous improvement.” In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to assembly-line workers.
So when you find yourself tearing your hair out working on a first draft, or tearing your remaining hair out when revising, keep this important concept in mind. Everything, including your novel, can be improved.
Here are Ten Areas for Improvement:
- Strive to be Original. The vast majority of submissions we receive are poor imitations of work already done very well by popular writers. Much of this imitation is subconscious, so pay careful attention to your premise when first setting out. Has it been done before? If so, then why bother?
- Find Your Own Voice. Related to the above, try and write in a tone and attitude that is uniquely you. Much of the writing we read has no distinctive voice at all, but is just words strung together on the page lacking flavor. Like a bad soft-serve ice cream cone. Insipid. It might take you much of your life to find your voice. It will take plenty of practice runs with much work tossed in the trash before you finally start getting the hang of it. Listen to this voice as you walk around town. Finding it is a bit like hitting a baseball: you cannot try too hard or you’ll miss. It’s a delicate mix of passive and active living and effort, paying close attention to your subconscious mind.
- Be Fearless. You must be confident enough in the mysteries of the creative process to not judge yourself as you write. Just start writing and go with the flow. Even though you cannot see over the next hill, you need to at least get to that hill, which means moving forward. Kurt Vonnegut described it as driving in the fog. What are you afraid of, anyway? If you don’t make the drive, someone else will. So go for it. Life is short. We’re all going to be dead soon enough. Let yourself go and become the characters on the page. It’s fun and rewarding, despite all the difficult work.
- Read Great Works. The books you read while writing will influence you. So try and read great literature or non-fiction you admire, and study all the problems of fiction: what point of view (or points) is the story told in? How does the author handle time? What do the characters smell, hear, think, taste? How you tell your story is as important as the story itself. Maybe you have noticed this at the movies. The filmmaker and camera have a unique way of telling the story. Maybe we go into the future, then back into the past. Maybe a different character tells the story in each chapter, so the story itself becomes murky, conflicted, fascinating. How is Thomas Hardy telling his story as you read along? Virginia Wolfe? Jane Smiley?
- Write an Original Metaphor on Page One. You’d be amazed how many submissions do not have a single striking metaphor anywhere within them. Yes, there are hackneyed ones, the ones stuck in your brain because they’ve been drilled in so many times over your lifetime you don’t even think about them as you put words on the page. Metaphors allow us to better see inside our characters. A favorite example we cite is the recovering alcoholic, just out of rehab, who drives to the ocean. “The sea looked like a giant Tom Collins.” This is great because it helps us understand how difficult it is for the character to just gaze at the ocean without thinking about the allure of a cocktail. Hit us over the head with an original metaphor on your first page.
- Create Your Own Analogies for the Writing Process. This is how you think about and approach your writing. For instance, some writers consider their initial draft to be more of a sketch than a watercolor. But one needs a great sketch to create an even greater watercolor, with all the details filled in as you circle back over and over again, adding texture, detail, and depth. Another analogy is . . .
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